Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Mastery motivation

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Mastery motivation:
What drives the pursuit of mastery?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Most of us desire to achieve excellence in some aspect of our lives. Whether it be attaining mastery over an instrument, sport, work pursuit or artistic endeavor we all dream of acquiring the highest levels of competence. Individuals who acquire a level of excellence in their area of expertise, such as the renaissance artist Michelangelo (Figure 1), appear to be superhuman or predisposed for greatness. Masters are often put on a pedestal and labelled geniuses, which only exacerbates the illusory divide between their capabilities and our own. An example of this occurrence is Albert Einstein, the theoretical physicist responsible for the theory of general relativity, whose name has now become synonymous with genius. However, the hard work that he underwent to solve his equations is often overlooked. Einstein was known to fixate and improve upon his theories over many years. Therefore, this book chapter will focus on enlightening readers on the motivational drive of mastery in order to remove any negative preconceptions about this concept. This chapter will also discuss how the drive for mastery may be harnessed by any individual who adapts their situation optimally. The latest advancements in psychological science and theory will be addressed to enhance motivational and emotional understanding, in order to improve the reader’s mastery oriented self-development pursuits.

Learning objectives
  1. Define mastery motivation.
  2. Recognize the factors influencing the pursuit of mastery.
  3. Explore the current psychological research and theories about mastery and its development.
  4. Understand how individuals can optimally manifest mastery motivation.

What is Mastery Motivation?[edit | edit source]

Most of the contemporary work in mastery motivation refers to the classic work by Robert White (1959), as he pioneered earlier studies on the concept of competence. White suggested that drive reduction theory couldn’t explain some of the behaviors that were observable in an apparently satiated state – in the absence of a drive.

Mastery motivation is often defined as the drive to achieve and improve upon one’s skills until a standard of excellence is achieved through repetition and practice, despite the absence of physical rewards. In fact, it is interesting to note that mastery of the environment appears to be a reward in itself (Busch-Rossnagel, 2005). Psychologists argue that mastery orientation is highly adaptive, and therefore carries the most positive qualities. Such qualities include seeking out challenges, perseverance, and a desire to continue learning (Lubinski & Persson Benbow, 2000). The striving for mastery is related to achievement motivation, and both are good predictors of success[factual?]. Mastery motivation is often referred to through other terms, such as effectance motivation, curiosity, competence motivation, intrinsic motivation and achievement motivation. Although each term represents a different theoretical approach[grammar?].

Mastery in Early Childhood[edit | edit source]

In children, mastery motivation is the innate drive that leads them to explore and master their surrounding environment. Research has shown that mastery motivation in early childhood is indicative of later cognitive abilities (Dichter-Blancher, Busch-Rossnagel, & Knauf-Jensen, 1997). It was found that infant’s[grammar?] mastery behaviour[explain?] is a more efficacious predictor of later development than their competence with either toys or various developmental tests (Messer et al., 1986). Research analyses has shown that gifted children have significantly higher academic intrinsic motivation across all subject areas, and this results in a mastery drive (Gottfried & Gottfried, 1996). It is suggested that children who become intellectually gifted enjoy the process of learning to a far greater extent which is a prerequisite for mastery, and the intrinsic motivation is especially important for both the potentiation of giftedness and mastery orientation (Gottfried, Fleming, & Gottfried, 2001).

Mastery in the Workforce[edit | edit source]

The traditional carrots-and-sticks model of extrinsic rewards and punishment simply doesn’t work (Vansteenkiste et al., 2005). The use of rewards may encourage employees to take more risks, however it won’t result in the long-term persistence required to be mastery motivated (McClelland, Koestner, & Weinberger, 1989). Instead, it is important for employers to focus on enhancing employee’s sense of autonomy and competence.

Cognitive evaluation theory suggests that external events such as rewards, surveillance, deadlines, and evaluations can diminish an individual’s sense of autonomy, which will in turn prompt a change in perceived locus of causality from internal to external, and this result will have negative implications for potential mastery (Gagné, & Deci, 2005).

People need to feel the satisfaction of improving at something that is important to them, in order to continue working in an optimal manner. It’s why learning a new language or instrument can be frustrating to begin with, and a person’s interest may decrease, or perhaps they may give up[grammar?]. However, once a sense of progress is achieved whether within our work life or our capabilities, we experience an increased inner drive and striving for mastery[factual?]. Employers must give employees space and ensure that the task difficulties assigned to them fit their capabilities. This allows for individuals in the workforce to feel the sense of autonomy and competence necessary to continually improve upon their abilities on the path to mastery[grammar?].

Goal Theory and Mastery[edit | edit source]

According to contemporary Goal Theory (shown in figure 2), there are two main achievement goals which consist of mastery and performance goals (Nicholls, 1990). Mastery goals involve the desire to develop one’s competence through task progress, self-improvement, and overcoming obstacles through effort and persistence (Nicholls, 1984; Dweck, 1986). Performance goals are concerned with one’s competence or ability, the desire to outperform others and the resulting perception of success with little apparent effort (Ames & Archer, 1988; Marshik, Kortenjamp, Cerbin, & Dixon, 2015; Pintrich, 2000; Ranellucci, Hall, & Goetz, 2015). When students identify performance as their significant goal, they are more likely to have a tendency to link failure to their own ability, which has a negative impact on self-regulation (Ames & Archer, 1988).

Ames and Archer (1988) identified a positive relationship between intrinsic motivation and mastery goals. It was found that students who are oriented towards mastery goals more frequently report having efficacious learning strategies, a preference for challenging tasks, and an overall optimistic attitude and belief that success is related to effort (Ames & Archer, 1988; Klose, 2008). In regards to university students, mastery goals were found to be instrumental by fostering preliminary and ongoing interest in the course (Harachiewicz, et al., 2002). For mastery motivation to be fostered, individuals must be willing to obtain the necessary skills and knowledge, in addition to having the desire and determination to invest their energy and resources to complete the goal (Marshik et al., 2015).

Mastery goals are linked to higher intrinsic interest and a higher focus on learning which results in increased curiosity, challenge, improvement of the self and enhancement of the individual’s competencies (Pintrich, 2000; Ranellucci, Hall, & Goetz, 2015). At a functional level, mastery goals are linked to more adaptive outcomes such as self-efficacy, cognitive engagement, and positive attributions and affect, whereas performance outcomes are not as adaptive (Ames, 1992; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Pintrich & Schunk, 1996). Individuals who adapt their performance goals with their learning goals are often more successful (Bandalos, Finney, & Geske, 2003). Students who set more performance goals tend to interpret outcomes as evidence of their ability or inability to complete the desired goal, whereas students who set more mastery oriented learning goals interpret their successes and failures by the effectiveness of their learning strategies (Bandalos, Finney, & Geske, 2003). The current research suggests that mastery goals invoke outcomes whereby the individual will work harder, persist longer, and ultimately perform better (intensity, latency, persistence). More importantly, individuals who adopt mastery goals are more likely to ask for information or help, which will only increase knowledge and understanding (Elliot & Church, 1997; Klose, 2008).

The idea that competence arises from challenging stimuli that individuals face is prevalent in Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Furthermore, as mastery goals promote challenge, they also sustain self-determination and autonomy; whereas performance goals lower intrinsic motivation and produce higher levels of anxiety (Deci & Ryan, 1985). As a result, empirical evidence has identified that coaches are major influences in promoting mastery motivation in athletes (Smith, Smoll, & Cumming, 2009). Regarding individual well-being, athletes higher in mastery have reported higher levels of fun (Figure 3) when compared to athletes who have coaches who promote winning or ego based activities (Smith, Smoll, & Cumming, 2009).

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation[edit | edit source]

Intrinsic motivation refers to when the motivation to engage in an activity is authentic and comes from within an individual. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation refers to when the motivation to perform an activity is acquired through a social environmental event such as feedback, rewards or incentives. For example, a child who has decided to read a book due to genuine interest is intrinsically motivated. In contrast, a child who has decided to read a book due to their parents promising a reward, such as money, is extrinsically motivated. Extrinsic motivation relates to the Hull-Spence Drive Reduction Theory of thirst, hunger, sex, and pain/anxiety avoidance. In contrast, non-survival needs comprise intrinsic motivation. Non-survival needs, which are also referred to as ego motives, include competence, autonomy, curiosity, and play (Reiss, 2012).

Intrinsic Motivation[edit | edit source]

In relation to mastery, intrinsic motivation is the most beneficial as it results in more persistence towards achieving an individual’s goals (Hardre & Reeve, 2003). The resulting effects also allow individuals to perform at higher levels whilst increasing creativity (Sheldon, Ryan, Rawsthorne & Ilardi, 1997), conceptual understanding (Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Soenens & Matos, 2005), and boosting self-esteem and psychological well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The higher an individual’s intrinsic motivation, the greater the dedication will be towards the task (Reeve, 2009). Generally, intrinsic motivation results in greater enthusiasm towards task performance and therefore the increased effort greatly enhances the chances for achievement and mastery (Lee, McInerney, Liem & Ortiga, 2010). Intrinsic motivation allows individuals to have greater understandings of their goals, why they want to achieve them, and how they plan to get there. Therefore when pursuing mastery, setting intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic goals will put a person in a good position to perform to a higher standard, whilst exhibiting healthy amounts of psychological well-being (Reeve, 2009).

Mastery goals Achievement motivation + high competence expectancies Facilitates intrinsic motivation
Cognitive Evaluation Theory[edit | edit source]

Cognitive Evaluation Theory is a sub-theory first suggested by Deci and Ryan in 1985 that was intended to complement Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The theory states that a person’s social environment is instrumental in either aiding or thwarting their intrinsic motivation. When referring to an individual’s social environment it is more specifically events such as feedback or rewards. Interestingly, tangible rewards seem to have a negative impact on the recipients perceived autonomy (Ryan & Deci, 2000). In order to be beneficial towards mastery achievement, and to increase intrinsic motivation, these environmental events must generate feelings of autonomy and competence. Such feelings would facilitate a positive belief in an individual’s own abilities, and suggest achievement was due to one’s own hard work (an internal locus of control) which is necessary for achievement and mastery motivation to occur.

Flow Theory[edit | edit source]

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first proposed Flow Theory in 1975, and the theory is sometimes referred to as “optimal experience” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). Flow Theory is now a prominent concept of intrinsic motivation in psychology (Keller & Bless, 2008). The theory proposes a mind state called ‘flow’ which involves an individual becoming completely absorbed in an activity. For example, athletes often speak of being ‘in the zone’, and entirely focused on the activity they are engaging in. This state is intrinsically motivating, and as such the interest and involvement the task creates doesn’t require any rewards or incentives. Generally, the state of ‘flow’ is attained when there is a balance between the difficulty of an activity, and an individual’s skill level. Due to this alignment of difficulty and skill level ‘flow’ is optimal for achievement mastery, as the two phenomena complement one another. When the difficulty of a task is too great, it can be anxiety provoking and discourage further practice. Alternatively, when an individual’s skill level is too great a task may produce boredom. Therefore, in order to ensure a state of ‘flow’ is achieved to enhance mastery motivation and to reduce boredom and anxiety, a balance must be achieved between skill level and task difficultly.

Extrinsic Motivation[edit | edit source]

Extrinsic motivation emerges from an outcome that is separate from the activity itself, and therefore the resulting goals emphasise an ‘if I do this, I’ll get that’ type of mentality (Reeve, 2009). Positive feedback is a form of extrinsic motivation that has been shown to have a positive effect on individual’s task performance (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999). Cognitive Evaluation Theory would argue that positive feedback allows an individual to feel more competent in their abilities. However, researchers have discovered that forms of extrinsic motivation (such as rewards) can undermine a person’s intrinsic motivation (Deci, 1971). This theory is interesting as it suggests that rewarding an individual for engaging in an activity that they already enjoy will make them want to do it less in the future, and this suggestion is counter-intuitive. However, a meta-analysis conducted by Deci, Koestner, and Ryan (1999) confirmed that this is indeed the case, and that rewards dependent upon engagement, performance and completion were harmful to intrinsic sources of motivation. As extrinsic motivation comes from environmental consequences (such as money and acclamation) rather than an individual doing an activity in order to experience the satisfaction the task itself has to offer, it’s not surprising that this can impede mastery. Similarly, findings have shown that those who are effected by extrinsic motivators are less likely to continue along the path towards achieving their goals. This is because once the reward expires there is no motivation left to continue towards mastery (Lee,, 2010).

Test yourself - how well do you understand Mastery Motivation?[edit | edit source]


1 Mastery motivation is related to which personality attribute?

Extrinsic locus of control
Intrinsic locus of control

2 What type of effect do rewards have on mastery orientation?

Rewards have a diminishing effect
Rewards enhance mastery

3 Do mastery goals and performance goals share similar long-term outcomes?


4 Drive Reduction Theory can help explain mastery orientation -


5 Mastery goals are concerned with -

the desire to avoid performing more poorly than others do
the desire to develop one’s competence through task progress, self-improvement, and overcoming obstacles
one’s competence or ability, the desire to outperform others and the resulting perception of success with little apparent effort

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

In conclusion, research has shown that mastery motivation is related to intrinsic motivation, and therefore it develops from a drive within the individual. Such motivation can be acquired by anyone who develops the necessary traits (such as perseverance and an internal locus of control) within themselves. Research has shown that mastery motivation is highly adaptive, and in psychological theory it is often defined as the drive to achieve and improve upon one’s skills until a standard of excellence is achieved. Psychologists argue that mastery orientation carries an approach rather than avoidance oriented outlook, and many of the most positive qualities including seeking out challenges, perseverance, and a desire to continue learning. Although counter-intuitive, the latest research findings suggest that extrinsic environmental events may diminish the drive for mastery, as the development of mastery requires no rewards or incentives. For mastery motivation to develop optimally, an individual must have a sense of autonomy and competence, along with achievement goals and a genuine interest in the activity. Without a genuine interest in the task an individual will be unable to dedicate the amount of time it will take to achieve mastery, and they may stagnate growth due to boredom or anxiety. Hopefully readers will feel inspired by these findings, and implement them to enhance their own mastery oriented pursuits on their path towards self-actualization.

Key points
  • Mastery is primarily the result of hard work, continual learning, challenge, persistence, self-efficacy, an internal locus of control and effective goal-setting.
  • The drive for mastery is related to flow and intrinsic motivation (more specifically achievement motivation).
  • A sense of autonomy and competence are necessary prerequisites for Mastery.
  • Mastery orientation is highly adaptive.
  • External events such as rewards or incentives will only diminish the drive for Mastery.
  • Mastery of the environment is a reward in itself.

See also[edit | edit source]

Mastery and flow: What is the role of flow in motivating people to pursue excellence? (Book Chapter, 2015)

Theory of goal setting and task performance (Book Chapter, 2014)

Extrinsic motivation: What is extrinsic motivation? How can extrinsic motivation be effectively used? (Book Chapter, 2013)

Intrinsic motivation: What is intrinsic motivation and how can it be fostered? (Book Chapter, 2013)

Workplace motivation: Using Self-Determination Theory to create sustained motivation in the workplace (Book Chapter, 2013)

Achievement Motivation: What is it and how can it be fostered? (Book Chapter, 2011)

Extreme achievers: What motivates them and how can others do what they do? (Book Chapter, 2011)

Maslow's hierarchy of needs: Prioritising your needs and reaching towards self-actualisation (Book Chapter, 2011)

References[edit | edit source]

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Busch-Rossnagel, N. (2005). Mastery motivation, preschool and early childhood. In C. Fisher, & R. Lerner (Eds.), Encyclopedia of applied developmental science. (pp. 679-681). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-87589-261-2

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Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behaviour. New York: Plenum.

Dichter-Blancher, T. B., Busch-Rossnagel, N. A., & Knauf-Jensen, D. E. (1997). Mastery motivation: Appropriate tasks for toddlers, Infant Behavior and Development, 545–548, doi: 10.1016/S0163-6383(97)90043-6

Dweck, C. S. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41(10), 1040-1048.

Dweck, C., & Leggett, E. (1988). A social cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256–273

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Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

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Ranellucci, J., Hall, N. C., & Goetz, T. (2015). Achievement goals, emotions, learning and performance: A process model. Motivation Science, 1-23. doi: 10.1037/mot0000014.

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Reiss, S. (2012). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. Teaching Of Psychology, 39(2), 152-156. doi:10.1177/0098628312437704

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Smith, R. E., Smoll, F. L., & Cumming, S. P. (2009). Motivational climate and changes in young athletes' achievement goal orientations. Motivation and Emotion, 33, 173-183. doi 10.1007/211031-009-9126-4

Vansteenkiste, M., Simons, J., Lens, W., Soenens, B., & Matos, L. (2005). Examining the motivational impact of intrinsic versus extrinsic goal framing and autonomy-supportive versus internally controlling communication style on early adolescents’ academic achievement. Child Development, 76, 483-501.

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External links[edit | edit source]

Robert Greene: Achieving Mastery - Big Think

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose - Daniel Pink

The puzzle of motivation - Daniel Pink