Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Motivational intensity theory

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Motivational Intensity Theory:
What is motivational intensity theory and how can it be applied?

Overview[edit | edit source]

It is a hot day and you haven't had water for hours. You come to the realisation of how thirsty you are. There is an unusually large staircase with a glass of cool water on top. You are confident that if you climb the stairs your need for water will be satisfied. Would your motivation for the water change if the climb expanded from 10 steps to 100? From 100 to a 1000? Would you climb the stairs without knowing how long your journey would be?

Motivational intensity theory expanded on the [what?] literature to try to understand how task difficulty will affect motivation (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. An image of a staircase.

Why bother?

An understanding of motivation intensity theory provides you with knowledge that you can apply to begin increasing your effort in the pursuit of important goals. This chapter discusses the context in which the theory originated, it's[grammar?] components & predictions, and most importantly, how you can apply it to improve your motivation towards tasks and challenges.

Focus questions
  1. What is motivational intensity theory?
  2. What is the historical context that led to the development of motivational intensity theory?
  3. What does motivational intensity theory propose in regards to effort towards tasks with fixed or unfixed difficulty?
  4. What are the implications that motivational intensity theory has for you?

What is motivational intensity theory?[edit | edit source]

Motivational intensity theory aims to explain the relationship between task difficulty, importance of success and effort while taking into account an energy conservation principle. It states that the intensity of motivation is the magnitude of motivation at any given point in time, and explores scientifically why people are willing to do what they do and to what extent people try harder for harder tasks (Brehm & Self, 1989; Richter, 2013; Richter, Gendolla & Wright, 2016; Silvia, McCord & Gendolla, 2010; Wright, 2008).

Development of motivational intensity theory[edit | edit source]

Motivational intensity theory incorporates [missing something?] from other theories in its historical context; two of which will be discussed.

Theory of achievement motivation[edit | edit source]

The first is Atkinson's theory of achievement motivation. This theory used a formula to predict motivation; proposing that motivation is the product of expectancy of success AND value of reward. It attempts to distinguish between those motivated to achieve and those motivated to avoid failure. Those willing to achieve; according to Atkinson, should aim to complete tasks that are of a moderate chance of successful completion with moderate or high reward. Those motivated to avoid failure will either choose an easy task; so they can avoid failing, or an extremely difficult task, so they can externalise the cause of not being successful (Atkinson, 1957).

Attributional theory of performance[edit | edit source]

Kukla (1972),[grammar?] developed a similar model named attributional theory of performance. It too proposed that motivation was the product if expectancy of success and value of reward; but unlike Atkinson, Kukla did not believe there would be a difference in behaviour between those motivated to achieve and those motivated to avoid failure.

Motivational intensity theory's additional proposal[edit | edit source]

Motivational intensity theory made an important contribution that neither of the previously mentioned included; the distinction to what would be coined potential motivation and motivation intensity. Brehm & Self (1989), included analysis of task difficulty; based on the energy conservation principle; to refine predictions of motivation.

Table 1.
Comparison of Atkinson's and Kukla's theories.

Theory of Achievement Motivation Attributional Theory of Performance
Uses expectancy of success and value of reward to calculate motivation. Uses expectancy of success and value of reward to calculate motivation.
Predicts that people motivated to achieve will prefer tasks of moderate difficult. Predicts that people motivated to achieve will prefer tasks of moderate difficulty.
Predicts that people motivated to avoid failure will prefer an easy or difficult task. Predicts that people motivated to avoid failure will behave in the same way as those motivated to achieve.

Test your Knowledge

Quiz question 1 & 2[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. The motivation to hunt is established by the need for hunger to be satiated, the reward value of the animal, a perceived chance of success and the reward being greater than the task is difficult.

1 Which one of the following is NOT a similarity of Atkinson's and Kukla's models?

Those motivated to achieve and those motivated to avoid failure will perform the same no matter the perceived chance of success.
Both use a formula to predict motivation.
Both include perceived chance of success and value of reward.
None of these answers are correct, as they use the same formula to predict motivation in different circumstances.

2 What components were introduced with motivational intensity theory? There may be more than one correct answer

Task difficulty.
Magnitude of arousal.
Intensity of arousal.

What does motivational intensity theory propose?[edit | edit source]

Motivational intensity theory aims to differentiate between the effort one is willing to put forth and the effort one actually puts forth based on task characteristics. This has applications for all kinds of motivations and behaviours, and will allow for more accurate prediction of human performance (Brehm & Self, 1989).

Components of motivational intensity theory[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Potential motivation[edit | edit source]

Potential motivation is the total amount of effort someone is willing to put forward to accomplish a goal or complete a task. This can also be distinguished as willingness and actual action, which although will sometimes match, often will not. If little effort is required to satisfy a drive, then a person will not use a large amount. (Brehm & Self, 1989; Wright, 2008). For example; a parent may be willing to sustain serious injury to protect their children from harm. Parents are therefore potentially motivated to sustain injury.

Intensity of motivation[edit | edit source]

Intensity of motivation is the actual motivation an individual puts forwards to achieve their target. People tend not to invest effort that fails to yield a benefit. The intensity of motivation is guided by the difficulty of the task, as long as it doesn't reach beyond the upper limit set by potential motivation. This is because effort is guided by the energy conservation principle (Brehm & Self, 1989; Richter, 2013; Wright, 2008; see also 'Contradictions to theory predictions'). Continuing with the parent example; a parent catches their child before they fall with minimal strain to their body, despite their being the potential motivation for them to seriously injure themselves. The minimal strain in this example; is the intensity of motivation.

Contradictions to theory predictions

Research conducted by Stanek & Richter (2016), provides evidence that contradicts predictions of motivational intensity theory. According to the theory, effort should only be exerted to the extent that it will be rewarded. If a task is impossible, then people will quickly refrain from putting in effort. As predicted, and as consistent with the theory; they demonstrated that as task difficulty increases so does effort. However, inconsistent with the theory, is that participants would use greater-than-necessary force for possible tasks, and would repeatedly invest effort for impossible tasks - contradictory to the 'energy conservation principle' that is outlined in the theory.

What affects the amount of effort an individual puts forth?[edit | edit source]

Motivational intensity theory predicts differing investment of effort, depending on the difficulty of the task and the reward of successful completion. See Table 2.

Table 2.

Overview of Motivational Intensity Theory Prediction of Effort for Different Levels of Difficulty and Reward (Wright, 2008).

Low Difficulty High Difficulty Impossible Difficulty
Low Reward Task will be completed; with a low amount of vigor. Example; opening a bottle and having a small drink. Task will not be completed, as the effort it higher than the reward received. Example; working long hours for reduced pay. No attempt will be made, as is no chance of completion. Example; jumping 100 metres high for brief praise.
High Reward Task will be completed, but only with the effort required. Example; microwaving a meal after days of not eating. Task will be completed, and a high level of effort will be exerted. Example; working long hours with an increased pay rate. (Also see, Figure 2). Despite the high reward, no attempt will be made as the task has been attributed as impossible. Example; jumping 100 metres high for $1 million.

For tasks with a clear difficulty[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. The increased difficulty of the task is associated with increased cardiovascular response.

A common thread between the theories previously discussed and others is that they aim to understand effort in relationship to importance of the goal (Wright, 2008). For example; people who are thirsty will exert more effort for a drink of water. Brehm's theory makes the important distinction between potential motivation and motivation intensity. The amount of effort someone is willing to exert and the amount of effort someone actually puts forth (Richter, 2013; Wright, 2008). For example a person goes days without eating, and is willing to spend $1000 on food (potential motivation), but they still only pay $5 (motivation intensity).

For tasks with an unclear difficulty[edit | edit source]

As people aim to assess whether to exert effort, they will respond differently depending on whether the task difficulty is fixed or unfixed. When unfixed, such as in a ‘try your best task’, people will dedicate the amount of resources that are justified based on the tasks importance; or put another way, individuals will accomplish the highest performance that is worthwhile (Richter, 2013; Richter et al., 2016). Using a workforce ranking system as an example; people may be motivated only to be in the top 50% of the workforce as this guarantees job security, but are not willing to exert the effort to achieve top 10% for the added benefit of prestige.

Is any of this actually true?

Gendolla, Richter, & Silvia (2008), conducted two experiments to validate the growing literature on motivational intensity theory using cardiovascular measures;[grammar?] specifically investigating the different predictions for tasks with fixed and unfixed difficulty (or try your best tasks). Using motivational intensity theory we would predict an increasing cardiovascular response for fixed tasks when their is increased difficulty but not beyond a person's ability. For unfixed difficulty, we would expect that the cardiovascular response is directly attributable to how important the individual attributes the task to be. Their findings were confirmed providing evidence for the application of motivational intensity theory. The more difficult the task the larger the cardiovascular response (see Figure 3). When participants were asked to try their best, the higher the self-focus, the higher the importance of the task, and therefore the larger the cardiovascular response.

Test your knowledge

Quiz questions 3 & 4[edit | edit source]

1 Someone is asked to move stacks of furniture, which they are fully capable of doing; but only receive a small reward. What does Motivational Intensity Theory suggest would be the actions of the individual?

They would complete the task as they perceive a high chance of success.
Despite the perceived chance of success, they would not complete the task, as the reward does not justify the task.
They would complete the task and not accept the reward, as it was small anyway.
None of these answers are correct..

2 Which of the following correctly describes "Motivational intensity"?

The amount of effort someone actually exerts to achieve a goal.
The amount of effort someone would be willing to put forward.
The physical strain of certain tasks.
The mental strain of certain tasks.

Applications of motivational intensity theory[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Reducing task difficulty by improving mood[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Mindfulness meditation.

Mood has an impact on the appraisal of success, and as such has a place within motivational intensity theory. When mood is low, the perceived difficulty of the task is increased, and as such, may reach a threshold of the reward not balancing with the perceived effort. The reverse of this appears true as well, as when mood is high, a task is less likely to be perceived as unachievable, and actual motivation is increased (Richter, & Gendolla, 2009). Importantly, it appears that this is also associated with increased performance. Sankar et al. (2017), demonstrated that performance in a verbal working memory task increased after completing antidepressant therapy. There are a variety of ways in which positive mood can be increased. Nelis et al. (2012), discussed that positive imagery can increase positive affect; Hogan et al. (2015), provided evidence that exercise can be used to increase positive mood, and Malinowski & Lim (2015), suggest that mindfulness will increase positive affect related to work engagement.

Increasing importance of task by increasing self-focused attention[edit | edit source]

As mentioned previously, effort mobilisation is costly, which is why Brehm hypothesised that effort exertion will be related to task difficulty. Importance of the task will determine potential motivation, and difficulty of the task will determine actual motivation. One way, that 'task importance' has been studied is by measuring people's self-focus, which is associated with increased effort expenditure (Silvia, McCord, & Gendolla, 2010), as relevance of the task will increase self-focus, thus increasing potential motivation (Gendolla, Richter & Silvia, 2008). When task importance is high, or when self-focused attention is high, potential effort is also increased (Silvia, McCord, & Gendolla, 2010; Silvia et al., 2011).  An application of these findings may be relating it to goal setting, specifically, increasing subjective task importance, via self-focused attention, to increase the exertion of effort. There are a variety of documented ways to do this, including video-taping yourself (Silvia et al., 2011), a writing task in which you describe ways that you are different to others (Silvia & Eichstaedt, 2004), or borrowing from clinical psychology - mindfulness practice, which is hypothesised to encourage a flexible form of self-focused attention (Baer, 2009).  Of course, the mobilisation of increased effort is only useful if this is accompanied with increased performance, which the literature does seem to indicate. For example; Kusurkar et al. (2013), described that study effort was one of the variables that affected academic performance; and Pierro, Kruglanski & Higgins (2006), demonstrated that increased effort was associated with improved workplace performance.

Test your knowledge

Quiz questions 5 & 6[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Taking a break and going for a walk.

1 Which of the following has been associated with task importance?

Relative health of the individual.
Task related anxiety.
Self-focused attention.
None of these answers are correct.

2 Which of the following could be expected to increase self-focused attention? There may be more than one correct answer

Writing a letter about how you and your siblings are different.
Obsessing over how difficult a task is.
Spending 10 seconds observing breath at traffic lights.
Visualising successfully completing the task and how it will be rewarded.

Figure 6. Hand grip task.

Does increasing self-focus really make a difference?

Alberts, Martijn & de Vries (2010) investigated whether increasing self-awareness can overcome ego-deflation; or deflation of self-control. This ties into motivational intensity theory, in that previous research had suggested that participants were more willing to complete a task that had benefits to themselves or others, despite initial ego-deflation. They hypothesised that increasing one's self-focussed attention would be able to circumvent the effects of ego deflation. Consistent with their hypothesis, they found that individuals who were made to be more self-aware performed better in a hand-grip task (see Figure 6), than those who had their ego-deflated without increasing self-awareness.

Mindfulness practice

Mindfulness is the flexible control of awareness to internal and external circumstances - and has been shown to benefit psychological well-being as well as cognitive functioning (Walter & Dubois, 2016). An example of a mindfulness exercise that can be easily practised is called 'Body Scan'. Which involves bringing attention to the body, starting with the breath, and then noticing different sensations in different parts of your body (Akerman, 2019; see also Figure 4).

Case study of applications

You're avoiding a project - you've been feeling deflated and overwhelmed. Let's see how some of the previous concepts could be applied to assist in a situation like this.

Increasing positive affect will be a good place to start. You go for a walk at a moderate pace (see Figure 5), mindfully paying attention to what you can feel, what you can see and what you can hear. Before once again sitting down to start the project, you visualise successful completion of the task, how good it will feel to get the recognition.

Another way to increase effort is to increase perceived importance- so next let's move to self-focused attention. You complete a short-writing exercise that focuses on how your traits make your a better fit to complete the task over others. You spend 10 minutes doing a mindful body scan. You're mood and sense of importance of task has improved. According to motivational intensity theory - you will experience an increased amount of effort towards the project.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Figure 7. Accomplishing a task (the race) by using the appropriate effort.

Motivational intensity theory highlights the important distinction between potential motivation; the maximum amount of effort a person will exert, and intensity of motivation; the amount of effort someone will actually put forward because of task demands (Brehm & Self, 1989; Wright, 2008). Atkinson's (1957) theory of achievement motivation and Kukla's (1972) attributional theory of performance provide examples into the context of motivation theories, in that they focused on expectancy of success and the value of the reward. What Brehm's theory importantly contributes to the explanation of motivation, is that people will only exert the effort required to achieve the outcome, or that a task of low difficulty, even if important, will still result in low effort (Brehm & Self, 1989). This hypothesis is based on the conservation principle which assumes that people will aim to save resources; and as such, the theory predicts that people will not attempt an impossible task no matter the reward (Richter, 2013; Wright, 2008). When tasks have a non-fixed difficulty (or try your best tasks), effort will directly correspond with importance of success (Gendolla, Richter & Silvia, 2008; Richter, 2013; Richter, Gendolla & Wright, 2016). Applying this knowledge, can lead to two potential strategies for increasing effort. One way is to improve mood to decrease perceived task difficulty (Richter & Gendolla, 2009). This can be achieved through positive imagery (Nelis et al., 2012), exercise (Hogan et al., 2015), & mindfulness (Malinowski & Lim, 2015). The other method is to increase self-focused attention (or self-awareness) which increases importance of the task (Gendolla, Richter & Silvia, 2008; Silvia, McCord & Gendolla, 2010). This can be accomplished by video-taping your performance (Silvia et al., 2011), writing that emphasises your distinctiveness (Silvia & Eichstaedt, 2004) and mindfulness practice (Baer, 2009). Motivational intensity theory is an intriguing theory that decades on-wards continues to be explored with exciting applications being found. Using the concepts discussed in this chapter, plus the many more that could be explored, you can begin to apply this knowledge to increase the amount of effort you put-forward and start accomplishing your goals (see Figure 7).

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Akerman, C. (2019). 22 Mindfulness Exercises, Techniques & Activities for Adults (+PDF's). [online] Available at [Accessed 19 Oct. 2019].

Alberts, H. J. E. M., Martijn, C., & de Vries, N. K. (2010). Fighting Self-Control Failure: Overcoming Ego Depletion by Increasing Self-Awareness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 58-62. doi:10.1016/j/jesp.2010.08.004

Atkinson, J. W. (1957). Motivational Determinants of Risk-Taking Behaviour. Psychological Review, 64, 359-372.

Baer, R. A. (2009). Self-Focused Attention and Mechanisms of Change in Mindfulness-Based Treatment. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 38, 15-20.

Brehm, J. W., & Self, E. A. (1989). The Intensity of Motivation. Annual Review of Psychology, 40, 109-131.

Gendolla, G. H. E., Richter, M., & Silvia, P. J. (2008). Self-Focus and Task Difficulty Effects on Effort-Related Cardiovascular Reactivity. Psychphysiology, 45, 653-662. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.2008.00655.x

Hogan, C. L., Catalino, L. I., Mata, J., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2015). Beyond Emotional Benefits: Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Affect Psychosocial Resources Through Emotions. Psychology & Health, 30, 354-369.

Kukla, A. (1972). Foundations of an Attributional Theory of Performance. Psychological Review, 70, 454-470.

Kusurkar, R. A., Croiset, G., Galindo-Garre, F., & Cate, O. T. (2013). Motivational Profiles of Medical Students: Association with Study Effort, Academic Performance and Exhaustion. BMC Medical Education, 13,

Malinowski, P., & Lim, H. J. (2015). Mindfulness at Work: Positive Affect, Hope, and Optimism Mediate the Relationship Between Dispositional Mindfulness, Work Engagement, and Well-Being. Mindfulness, 6, 1250-1262. doi:10.1007/s12671-015-0388-5

Nelis, S., Vanbrabant, K., Holmes, E. A., & Raes, F. (2012). Greater Positive Affect Change After Mental Imagery than Verbal Thinking in a Student Sample. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, 3, 178-188. doi:10.5127/jep.021111

Pierro, A., Kruglanski, A. W., & Higgins, E. T. (2006). Progress Takes Work: Effects of the Locomotion Dimension on Job Involvement, Effort Investment, and Task Performance in Organisations. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36, 1723-1743.

Richter, M. (2013). A Closer Look Into the Multi-Layer Structure of Motivational Intensity Theory. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7, 1-12.

Richter, M., & Gendolla, G. H. E. (2009). Mood Impact on Cardiovascular Reactivity When Task Difficulty is Unclear. Motivation and Emotion, 33, 239-248. doi:10.1007/s11031-009-9134-4

Richter, M., Gendolla, G. H. E., & Wright, R. A. (2016). Three Decades of Research on Motivation Intensity Theory. Advances in Motivation Science, 3, 149-186.

Sankar, A., Adams, T. M., Costafreda, S. G., Marangell, L. B., & Fu, C. H. Y. (2017). Effects of Antidepressant Therapy on Neural Components of Verbal Working Memory in Depression. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 31, 1176-1183.

Silvia, P. J., & Eichstaedt, J. (2004). A Self-Novelty Manipulation of Self-Focused Attention for Internet and Laboratory Experiments. Behaviour Research Methods, Instruments & Computers, 36, 325-330.

Silvia, P. J., Jones, H. C., Kelly, C. S., & Zibaie, A. (2011). Trait Self-Focused Attention, Task Difficulty, and Effort-Related Cardiovascular Reactivity. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 79, 335-340.

Silvia, J. P., McCord D. M., & Gendolla, H. E. (2010). Self-Focussed Attention, Performance Expectancies, and the Intensity of Effort: Do People Try Harder for Harder Goals? Motivation and Emotion, 34, 363-370.

Stanek, J., & Richter, M. (2016). Evidence Against the Primacy of Energy Conservation: Exerted Force in Possible and Impossible Handgrip Tasks. Motivation Science, 2, 49-65.

Waiter, N., & Dubois. (2016). The Effects of a Brief Mindfulness Exercise on Executive Attention and Recognition Memory. Mindfulness, 7, 745-753.

Wright, R. A. (2008). Refining the Prediction of Effort: Brehm's Distinction Between Potential Motivation and Motivation Intensity. Social and Personality Psychology, 2, 682-701.

External links[edit | edit source]