Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Personality and achievement motivation

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Personality and achievement motivation:
How does personality affect the motivation to achieve?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Cathy Freeman after winning a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics.

Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, and Cathy Freeman, are all considered successful people who have had many achievements. Albert Einstein was a successful and well respected theoretical physicist who is world renowned for his general theory of relativity. Walt Disney was the creator of a animation and film empire which continues to be influential in society. Cathy Freeman was the first aboriginal Australian to win at a commonwealth games and went on to later win a gold medal at the 2000 Olympic games (see Figure 1).   

What personality characteristics led these people to accomplish these achievements? Did their personality traits predispose them to have a high achievement motivation?         

There is a general consensus among current [what?] literature that conscientiousness is the personality trait most associated with a strong motivation to achieve. There are conflicting findings in the literature about how well the other big five personality traits predict this behaviour (Poropat, 2009). Perceived control and the desire for control have also been found to predict this behaviour.   

The aim of this chapter is to better understand how an individual’s personality affects their motivation to achieve. Psychological theories of achievement motivation and personality will be used to develop this understanding. How personality affects achievement motivation in general and in sports will be briefly discussed. Then, the impact of personality on academic achievement motivation will be focused on. This will be narrowed down to how the big five personality traits, perceived control, and the desire for control predict academic achievement motivation.

Focus questions:

  1. What big five personality traits aid achievement motivation?
  2. Does personality affect the motivation to achieve?
Case study:

Sally and John have taken a personality test to measure their big five personality traits. Sally scored high in conscientiousness and John scored high in extraversion. Who do you think will have higher achievement motivation? The answer is Sally. Read on to find out why.

Quick facts
  • Conscientiousness= most consistently important personality trait for achievement motivation.
  • Main theories for academic achievement motivation= the big five, perceived control, and desire for control.
  • To improve achievement motivation= structured learning environment, self-discipline, educational curiosity, identify those who are at risk of failing, developing the specific domains of conscientiousness, and praising efforts.

Personality[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Diagram of the big five personality traits.

There are three personality characteristics that can affect an individual’s achievement motivation. The first of which is the five-factor model of personality traits put forward by Costa and McCrae (1992)[grammar?]. This model is commonly known as the big five personality traits and is measured on a scale from high to low on each dimension (Komarraju, Karau, Schmeck, & Avdic, 2011). This data can be collected via a self-report style or by a report from parents/ friends. This measure of personality has had criticisms relating to the labeling of the factors and is not always accepted as a measure of personality. However, there has been wide consensus that it is a robust and valid measurement (Komarraju et al., 2011; Smrtnik-Vitulić & Zupančič, 2011). Judge and Ilies (2002) state it is the most universally accepted model of personality. Therefore, the big five model is a respectable personality theory to use.

There are five factors of this personality measure as seen in Figure 2. These factors are conscientiousness, neuroticism, extraversion, openness (openness to experience), and agreeableness (Komarraju et al., 2011). The dimension of conscientiousness refers to being organised, systematic, achievement orientated, and disciplined. Neuroticism refers to one's impulse control, anxiety, moodiness, and the degree of emotional stability. Extraversion is one’s outgoingness, positive emotionality, sociability, and assertiveness. Openness refers to one’s intellectual curiosity, imagination, subjectively perceived intelligence, and a preference for variety. Lastly, agreeableness is regarding helpfulness, kindness, amiability, and cooperation with others (Komarraju et al., 2011; Smrtnik-Vitulić & Zupančič, 2011). These personality traits have been used in a range of studies to assess individuals' achievement motivations as seen in a meta analysis by Judge and Ilies (2002).

Additionally, a second personality predictor of achievement motivation is perceived control. This was defined by Stupnisky, Perry, Hall, and Guay (2012) as the belief in one’s own ability to control their environment. Perry, Hladkyj, Pekrun, Clifton, and Chipperfield (2005) described perceived control as one’s perception of being in or out of control. An individual’s perceived level of control has been seen to be a predictor of achievement.

A third personality characteristic is the desire for control proposed by Burger (1992). A desire for control reflects the level of control an individual prefers to have. People with a high desire for control are responsible, make their own decisions, and enjoy being in control. The opposite is said of those who are low in the desire for control (Burger, 1992).

Here are two links to quick versions of personality tests to measure the big five personality traits. Have a look at where you sit with the big five traits discussed in this chapter (Note: These are not full versions of this personality test).

Achievement motivation[edit | edit source]

There are three main theories of achievement motivation, these are: goal theory, expectancy value theory, and the need for achievement (nAch)(Steinmayr & Spinath, 2009).

Figure 3. Diagram of the components of goal theory.

Goal theory is divided into learning goals (acquiring competence) and performance goals (showing competence). The last goal is further subdivided into performance-approach (wishing to show competence) and performance-avoidance (wishing not to show incompetence). As demonstrated in Figure 3.

The Expectancy value theory states the expectancy for future success is grouped with the value of the task to produce an individual’s achievement motivation (Steinmayr & Spinath, 2009). The expectancy for success can be developed by one’s own self efficacy. The values of a task are developed by the intrinsic worth and the importance placed on the task.

Furthermore, the nAch was originally developed by Murray (1938). The trait for a nAch involves competing against one’s self, obtaining a high standard, and overcoming obstacles. According to Ziegler, Schmukle, Egloff, and Bühner (2010) the nAch was further developed by McClelland, Atkinson, Clark, and Lowell (1953). This development included the components of hope for success and fear of failure. For a description of these components see Table 1. The struggle between these two components is said to create an individual's achievement motivation.

Table 1

The Two Components of the nAch Theory; Hope for Success and Fear of Failure.

Components Description
Hope for success Is the belief to succeed and is generally associated with positive emotions (Steinmayr & Spinath, 2009).
Fear of failure Is the fear of not succeeding and is generally associated with negative emotions (Steinmayr & Spinath, 2009).

Quiz 1- Test your knowledge[edit | edit source]

1 What are the big five personality factors?

Conscientiousness, desire for control, extraversion, openness, and agreeableness.
Conscientiousness, neuroticism, extraversion, openness, and agreeableness.
Perceived control, neuroticism, extraversion, openness, and desire for control.

2 Which theory states “the expectancy for future success is grouped with the value of the task to produce an individual’s achievement motivation” according to Steinmayr and Spinath (2009)?

The need for achievement.
Goal theory.
Expectancy value theory.

How personality affects achievement motivation[edit | edit source]

Personality can affect an individual’s achievement motivation both positively and negatively. These affects can occur in general everyday achievement, in sporting achievements, and in academia within the schooling years.

Achievement in general[edit | edit source]

A meta-analysis conducted by Judge and Ilies (2002) examined the affect of personality on general achievement. It was concluded that the big five personality factors of conscientiousness and neuroticism were the strongest predictors.

Desire for control is also seen to predict individual’s motivation for achievement for challenging tasks in general, as demonstrated by Burger (1985). In this study, Burger (1985) examined achievement against the desire for control. It was concluded that participants with a high desire for control had higher levels of general achievement. Being high in this variable also suggested a person would persist longer at tasks and demonstrate a high level of motivation to achieve. However, a large amount of research on this variable has been on its ability to predict academic achievement and not its ability to predict achievement in other areas.

Achievement in sports[edit | edit source]

Personality can affect the motivation to achieve in sports. A study by Ramos-Villagrasa, Garcia-Izquierdo, and Navarro (2013) examined the affect of the big five personality traits on the effectiveness of male and female basketball players. It was concluded that conscientiousness was the best big five predictor of achievement in basketball games. Openness was the second largest personality factor that lead to better achievement in this sport (Ramos-Villagrasa et al., 2013). This study was conducted with semi-professional basketball players. The results might have been different if amateur or professional players were examined.

High scores on conscientiousness and openness where also identified as important factors in sporting achievement from a literature review by Saale-Prasad (2013). Additionally, it was concluded that high on extraversion and low on agreeableness were also factors in practicing successful athletic achievement motivation.

Achievement in academia[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Graduating from University is an example of an academic achievement.

Personality factors are good predictors of academic achievement motivation (such as graduating University. See Figure 4). Additionally, there is extensive literature on these effects, which is why it will now be focused on.

How the big five affects academic achievement motivation[edit | edit source]

A study by Komarraju et al. (2011) found three of the big five factors of neuroticism, conscientiousness, and agreeableness to be significant predictors of academic achievement. Neuroticism was negatively correlated with academic achievement meaning that scoring low in this factor was desirable. However, conscientiousness was found to be the largest predictor of this behaviour. These results demonstrate that those students who are (as previously mentioned) organised, systematic, achievement orientated, and disciplined are more likely to maximise their learning potential. These results can help teachers and students to produce an effective learning environment by promoting conscientiousness (Komarraju et al., 2011). 

An earlier correlational study by mostly the same authors, Komarraju, Karau, and Schmeck (2009) concluded the same three factors as the previous study. These factors predicted a large amount of variance in academic scores. Similarly to the previous study in a mediation analysis, conscientiousness was found to be a partial predictor between grade point average (GPA) and intrinsic motivation. This means the participants who were high in conscientiousness had high academic achievement and intrinsic motivation. Interestingly, this factor was negatively correlated with amotivation. Thus, participants with high scores on this factor are less likely to be disengaged or apathetic (Komarraju et al., 2009). However, this study used the participant’s self-estimates of their own GPA and thus relied on self-report measures. This could be overcome by accessing school records for exact GPAs.

This finding was also demonstrated in a study by Richardson and Abraham (2009). It was concluded that conscientiousness was significant and had a positive correlation to academic achievement. The other big five traits were not found to be significant factors.

The finding that the personality trait of conscientiousness is the strongest predictor of academic achievement was also supported by Smrtnik-Vitulić and Zupančič (2011). This study tested these affects on high school-aged students longitudinally over a two-year period. Even over this period of time this factor is still a strong predictor. Smrtnik-Vitulić and Zupančič (2011) discuss that the factor of openness is commonly found to correlate with academic achievement. However, intelligence can come across as a factor within openness and therefore this could be considered an invalid predictor of how personality affects this behaviour. Additionally, the only other personality trait that was statistically significant was extraversion. A low score in extraversion was significantly correlated with academic achievement. The results suggest this is possibly due to these students spending more time studying and less time socialising (Smrtnik-Vitulić & Zupančič, 2011). However, this study was conducted in Slovenia and therefore the results may have been different to those studies conducted in other countries.  

A large amount of research in this field has used correlational studies. The cause of academic achievement motivation cannot be determined by a correlational study; therefore, an experiment needs to be conducted to determine causality. Freund and Holling (2011) did just that. In the experiment all participants completed the NEO-Five-Factor-Inventory questionnaire to measure the big five personality traits. They were then instructed to complete a matrices test. The matrices were used to test academic achievement in a laboratory setting. The results concluded that openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism were the statistically significant predictors of successfully completing the matrices. Openness and neuroticism were both found as the strongest predictors and therefore, conscientiousness was not found to be the strongest predictor as commonly found in the literature (Freund & Holling, 2011). Interestingly, agreeableness was not a significant factor in this study. The participants in this study were externally motivated to participate as they were undergraduate University students obtaining course credit for participation.

Overall, a meta-analysis by Poropat (2009) provided a comprehensive final view on this subject. The significant factors were found to be agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. The factor that was the most highly associated with academic achievement motivation was conscientiousness with a medium effect size (d= 0.46).

Nevertheless, O’Connor and Paunonen (2007) discuss that although this theory of personality can predict an individual’s academic achievement, it should not be the sole predictor. To obtain a comprehensive view of one’s personality, more than just one model or test needs to be used.

  • Real life example: Barack Obama is the current president of the United States of America. Obama has had many achievements in his life including graduating from Harvard law school. Consequently, he scored high in the trait of conscientiousness (Winter, 2011).
Gender differences[edit | edit source]

Spinath, Harald Freudenthaler, and Neubauer (2010) examined the gender differences within the big five personality factors that predict academic achievement. It was found that conscientiousness and extraversion were significant factors for females but not for males. A high extraversion score was found to be negatively correlated with academic performance in males. Conscientiousness was found to be an especially good predictor of achievement in mathematics for both genders (Spinath et al., 2010). This study demonstrates that personality has an affect on academic achievement. Beyond that it shows there are gender differences in which personality traits are important for this achievement.

How the big five traits hinder academic achievement motivation[edit | edit source]

A high score in extraversion was found to be negatively correlated with academic performance in males (Spinath et al., 2010). This means a high score in this factor was related to low academic achievement. It was found that this was possibly due to the males that were high in extraversion were more likely to act out in a classroom setting.

Additionally, it was found by Komarraju et al. (2011) that a high score in neuroticism can hinder academic achievement. The reason for this suggested was that those high in this trait tend to worry to excess and therefore are more likely to disengage from the learning. This finding was also shared by O’Connor and Paunonen (2007). They concluded that the more neurotic students did not do as well academically as the less neurotic students in their study. 

How perceived control affects academic achievement motivation[edit | edit source]

Perceived control can predict individual's academic achievement. In a study by Stupnisky et al. (2012) the participants who had a high-perceived control over their academic studies where found to have higher grades. This perceived control was measured by the scale proposed by Perry, Hladkyj, Pekrun, and Pelletier (2001). The items included questions regarding how much the participant felt they had control over their academic performance. However, the participants for this study were all University students and therefore the sample was not representative of all people affected by academic achievement (Stupnisky et al., 2012). Overall, this study demonstrated that perceived control is an important predictor for academic achievement among University age students.  

An earlier study by Perry et al. (2005) found similar results. Perceived control in relation to academic achievement was also found to be a positive predictor. This means the participants who had a high-perceived control achieved higher academic grades.  

A longitudinal study by Hong, Ho, and You (2011) examined if perceived control changes over four years of high school. It was concluded that perceived control remains generally stable over this period of time. These results were found consistent across the four ethnic groups studied. These groups were Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian, and African American. Hong et al. (2011) stated no study had examined the longitudinal effects of perceived control on this behaviour or examined these effects across different ethic groups. A limitation of this study is its internal reliability. The Cronbach’s alpha (used to measure reliability) is often accepted as reliable when it is .80 or above. However, in this study it was between .65 and .76 thus there was a possible reliability issue.

Furthermore, perceived control predicts academic achievement due to students having to take responsibility for their education (Stupnisky et al., 2007). Weiner’s attribution theory of motivation and emotion can also help to explain these effects (Weiner, 1985). This theory states that people with high-perceived control attribute failure to controllable causes. For example when high perceived control people fail they are likely to think it was because they did not try hard enough. As opposed to people low in this trait would attribute failure to external causes. For example they would be likely to think that failure was caused by the examiner making the test too hard (Weiner, 1985). As a student, being high in perceived control can lead to increased responsibility of their own education and a strong motivation to study to achieve academically. This can promote good academic achievement (Stupnisky et al., 2007).

How desire for control affects academic achievement motivation[edit | edit source]

The personality variable of the desire for control was proposed by Jerry M. Burger. A 1992 study was a subsequent study by Burger differing from his 1985 study previously mentioned. It examined the affect of the desire for control on academic achievement. It was concluded that people high in the desire for control tend to exert extra effort in challenging situations such as academic tasks. People who have a high desire for control achieve greater than those low on this variable (Burger, 1992). Thus, being high in the desire for control can lead to greater academic achievement motivation. However, there has not been much research on this variable in recent years and therefore, this theory might not still be relevant.

Answer to the focus questions (in the overview)

A1) Conscientiousness was the main personality trait found to positively affect achievement motivation. The other big five traits that also aid achievement motivation are openness, agreeableness, and low in neuroticism. A2) Yes, it has been found that the big five personalty traits, perceived control, and the desire for control are associated with achievement motivation. This association has been found in general achievement, in sporting achievement, and most evidently in academic achievement.

Quiz 2- Test your knowledge[edit | edit source]

1 A high score in which big five factor was found to be negatively correlated with academic performance in males?


2 What type of study is commonly conducted in this field of research?

Naturalistic observation.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The aim of this chapter was to provide a better understanding of how personality affects the motivation to achieve. Briefly it was discussed how personality affects achievement motivation in general and in sports. After this how personality affects academic achievement motivation was analysed.

In conclusion, personality affects the motivation to achieve via the different personality traits predicting achievement motivation. Overall, it was found that the big five personality trait of conscientiousness was the most consistently found significant predictor of this behaviour. 

Freund and Holling (2011) discuss the problems with using self-report measures as it has been found that most measures of achievement motivation can be faked. Future research could propose additional measures to test this behaviour other than self-report measures such as questionnaires. Caspi, Roberts, and Shiner (2005) suggested this could be achieved by using archival data. Further research could be conducted regarding the gender differences, as the study by Spinath et al. (2010) was one of very few recent studies on this topic. Similarly, more studies could be conducted on how personality affects achievement motivation in sports, as there was not a lot of literature in this field.    

Take home messages[edit | edit source]

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1) The main personality traits that can help achievement motivation include:

  • Conscientiousness
  • Openness
  • Agreeableness
  • (Low) Neuroticism
  • Perceived control
  • Desire for control

2) The traits that can hinder achievement motivation include:

  • Extraversion (in males)
  • (High) Neuroticism

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How can teachers, parents, coaches, and ourselves improve achievement motivation?

  1. As conscientiousness was found to be the main overall predictor of academic achievement motivation, Komarraju et al. (2009) suggested some practical examples of how to improve conscientiousness. These examples include creating a structured learning environment, promoting self-discipline, and promoting educational curiosity within a classroom environment. Smrtnik-Vitulić and Zupančič (2011) also suggested it would be beneficial in developing the specific domains of the trait conscientiousness. For example this could be achieved by focusing on developing one's own organisational skills, being systematic, focusing on achievement, and being disciplined.
  2. The knowledge of which personality traits foster academic achievement motivation can also help identify those students who could be at risk of failing (Poropat, 2009). These students would be those low in conscientiousness, openness, agreeableness, perceived control, and desire for control. Additionally, those high in neuroticism and extraversion.
  3. Additionally, perceived control was also found to predict academic achievement. Therefore, Hong et al. (2011) suggested that teachers could praise the efforts of the students to help them feel more in control.
  4. O’Connor and Paunonen (2007) Stated that by knowing the connection that personality has with achievement motivation it can help foster achievement. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a person’s personality in terms of the traits that predict achievement motivation can aid this.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Burger, J. M. (1985). Desire for control and achievement-related behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 1520-1533. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.48.6.1520

Burger, J. M. (1992). Desire for control and academic performance. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 24, 147-155. doi:10.1037/h0078716

Caspi, A., Roberts, B. W., & Shiner, R. L. (2005). Personality development: Stability and change. Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 453-484. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.1

Costa P.T., & McCrae R.R. (1992). NEO PI-R: Professional Manual: Revised NEO PI-R and NEO-FFI. Florida, USA: Psychological Assessment Resources, Inc.

Freund, P. A., & Holling, H. (2011). Who wants to take an intelligence test? personality and achievement motivation in the context of ability testing. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 723-728. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.12.025

Hong, S., Ho, H., & You, S. (2011). Longitudinal effects of perceived control on academic achievement. The Journal of Educational Research, 104, 253-266. doi:10.1080/00220671003733807

Judge, T. A., & Ilies, R. (2002). Relationship of personality to performance motivation: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 797-807. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.87.4.797

Komarraju, M., Karau, S. J., Schmeck, R. R., & Avdic, A. (2011). The big five personality traits, learning styles, and academic achievement. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 472-477. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2011.04.019

Komarraju, M., Karau, S. J., & Schmeck, R. R. (2009). Role of the big five personality traits in predicting college students' academic motivation and achievement. Learning and Individual Differences, 19, 47-52. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2008.07.001

McClelland, D. C., Atkinson, J., Clark, R., & Lowell, E. (1953). The achievement motive. New York, USA: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Murray, H. A. (1938). Explorations in personality. New York: Oxford University Press.

O’Connor, M. C., & Paunonen, S. V. (2007). Big five personality predictors of post-secondary academic performance. Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 971-990. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2007.03.017

Perry, R. P., Hladkyj, S., Pekrun, R.H., Clifton, R. A., & Chipperfield, J. G. (2005). Perceived academic control and failure in college students: A three-year study of scholastic attainment. Research in Higher Education, 46, 535-569. doi:10/1007/s11162-005-3364-4

Perry, R.P. Hladkyj, S. Pekrun, R.H., & Pelletier, S.T. (2001). Academic control and action control in the achievement of college students: A longitudinal field study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 776–789. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.93.4.776

Poropat. A. E., (2009). A meta-analysis of the five-factor model of personality and academic performance. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 322–338. doi:10.1037/a0014996

Ramos-Villagrasa, P. J., Garcia-Izquierdo, A. L., & Navarro, J. (2013). Predicting the dynamic criteria of basketball players: The influence of the 'big five', job experience, and motivation. Revista De Psicología Del Trabajo y De Las Organizaciones, 29, 29-35. doi: 10.5093/tr2013a5

Richardson, M., & Abraham, C. (2009). Conscientiousness and achievement motivation predict performance. European Journal of Personality, 23, 589-605. doi:10.1002/per.732

Smrtnik-Vitulić, H., & Zupančič, M. (2011). Personality traits as a predictor of academic achievement in adolescents. Educational Studies, 37, 127-140. doi:10.1080/03055691003729062

Saale-Prasad, A. (2013). Personality traits of college athletes as predictors of athletic performance (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3579724)

Spinath, B., Harald Freudenthaler, H., & Neubauer, A. C. (2010). Domain-specific school achievement in boys and girls as predicted by intelligence, personality and motivation. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 481-486. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2009.11.028

Steinmayr, R., & Spinath, B. (2009). The importance of motivation as a predictor of school achievement. Learning and Individual Differences, 19, 80-90. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2008.05.004

Stupnisky, R. H., Perry, R. P., Hall, N. C., & Guay, F. (2012). Examining perceived control level and instability as predictors of first-year college students’ academic achievement. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 37, 81-90. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych.2012.01.001

Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92, 186–200. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.92.4.548

Winter, D. G. (2011). Philosopher-king or polarizing politician? A personality profile of barack obama. Political Psychology, 32, 1059-1081. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2011.00852.x

Ziegler, M., Schmukle, S., Egloff, B., & Bühner, M. (2010). Investigating measures of achievement motivation(s). Journal of Individual Differences, 31, 15-21. doi:10.1027/1614-0001/a000002

External links[edit | edit source]