Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Unconscious motivation

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Unconscious motivation:
What role does the unconscious play in motivation?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Case study

Casey has been working at a chemist for two years. She has two main supervisors, Ted and Joan. Casey's colleagues have noted that she always gets more done when she works with Joan. Geoff, who does the casual rostering, puts Casey and Joan together on purpose, calling them the dream team as they often get the most done. When Joan is unwell and Ted fills in, Casey typically gets less done despite having the same workload. When asked why, she replies "I don't know! I just tend to be more motivated some days than others."

Casey has a very strict mother who she works very hard to impress. Casey's mother and Joan share many similarities in terms of appearance and demeanour. It appears that Casey's unconscious desire to impress her mother has coupled with her association of Joan with her mother. As a result, her motivation at work fluctuates. Until it was pointed out, Casey had no idea that there was even a difference in the amount of work she was getting done.

Everything we do is governed by a thought, feeling or action. Those [missing something?] that we are aware of all happen within our conscious minds. But some decisions we make seem to happen automatically, or without us even thinking about it.

Unconscious motivators are internal forces that, although we are not aware of, drive our thoughts, feelings and actions. Negative emotions, including anger, guilt, pity, humiliation and others can encourage or discourage the individual from performing certain tasks (Goldyne, 2006). This can be as a result of similarities between past and present situations or emotional states, when the individual is provoked, or simply because of specific situations (Goldyne, 2006). It is analysed most intensely in the psychoanalytic school of thought, where it is defined as the wishes, aims, drives and impulses that the self is not aware of (American Psychological Association, 2020). This process is called unconscious motivation, and is widely accepted in the field of psychology.

Focus questions
  • What is unconscious motivation?
  • What are the predominant theories of unconscious motivation?
  • How are they considered in present-day psychology?
  • How does unconscious motivation influence thoughts, feelings, and behaviour?

Freudian theories[edit | edit source]

Pictured is Sigmund Freud, the founder of the psychoanalytic school of psychology
Figure 1: Sigmund Freud, the founder of Psychoanalytic psychology

Sigmund Freud was one of the earliest and most influential psychologists to date (Jay, 2020). He thought of the mind as a combination of interacting systems as opposed to a single process (Watson, 2014). Freud founded the psychoanalytical school of thought and his ideas, while heavily criticised, still shape psychological theories today (Jay, 2020). Freud is credited with popularising the idea that the unconscious mind plays a significant role in motivation and had multiple theories on the subject (Macintyre, 2004). While aspects of his theories have been widely dismissed, other elements have formed the basis for in-depth analysis into the role of the unconscious mind (Zepf, 2013).

Topographical model of consciousness[edit | edit source]

Freud's theories arose out of his research into how best to treat sufferers of what was deemed “hysteria” at the time (Watson, 2014). Patients described both knowing and not knowing things they were thinking and feeling, and feeling incredible distress and confusion (Watson, 2014). Freud’s solution was his topographic model of the mind (Watson, 2014).

Freud divided consciousness into three parts: the conscious, unconscious and pre-conscious mind. The conscious mind was the thoughts, feelings and emotions that the individual was aware of, and was considered marginal (Watson, 2014). The pre-conscious mind held thoughts that could be brought into conscious awareness, for example, a password when prompted to unlock a phone. These are concepts backed by research and predominant models of memory retrieval (De Sousa, 2011).

Freud focussed predominantly on the unconscious mind in his work (Watson, 2014). He saw unconscious processes as making up the majority of the mind, and central to the organism (Watson, 2014). It was thought that the contents of the unconscious mind were repressed as they would be too anxiety-provoking or not socially acceptable to the conscious mind. It was here that Freud theorised that unconscious motivators arose, believing them to be just as significant in terms of motivation as he did unconscious processes were to the mind.

Structural model of consciousness[edit | edit source]

Freud later produced a second model of consciousness. It is with the idea of the unconscious mind that we see how psychoanalytical psychology interacts with Freud's concept of the ego, superego and id. Like the topographic model, Freud continued with his model of the mind as a combination of the three parts (Watson, 2014).

Figure 2. Freud's structural model of consciousness, including levels of consciousness, and the role of the id, ego and superego.

The superego is the moral voice in Freud's model, concerned about what is socially correct [grammar?] known as the censor in earlier works (Frank, 1999). Its role was to motivate the individual towards the "higher functions of man" through feelings of obligation and shame when moral expectations were not met (Frank, 1999). Four main factors make up the moral compass of the superego: the evolutionary history of humans, family values, specific paternal values and cultural expectations (Frank, 1999). As the [what?] diagram suggests roughly equal parts of the superego exist in the conscious and unconscious mind, meaning the social and cultural desires influence unconscious processes as well.

The ego, operating mostly in conscious thought, must balance the desires of the id and superego while serving the organisms[grammar?] best interests (Burton, 2015 p.423). Although the ego is the control centre for the brain, it cannot produce its own thoughts and could be overridden by strong desires in the id or superego (Watson, 2014). The ego received minimal information about what desires were arising in the id, meaning that for the most part, the conscious mind stayed in the dark about what the true desires of the individual were (Watson, 2014). Much of the ego also operates in the unconscious mind. This struggle between selfish and social desires therefore exists outside of awareness as well.

The id makes up the majority of the mind and is characterised as illogical and wishful and is mindless to consequences. It is made up of multiple internal instincts through connection with multiple organs within the body (Watson, 2014). The id's desires were thought to act on both conscious and unconscious mental processes and carried significant weight. Freud saw it as central to the human mind, once even calling it the core of our being (Freud, 1938, p.196). No part of the id perceived the outside world, nor could it reason (Watson, 2014). It was for this reasons that Freud also saw it as the internal, truest representation of the self (Freud, 1938, p.196).

As the [what?] image suggests, most motivation occurred in the unconscious mind (Watson, 2014). This means that all id desires happen outside of awareness, but so do the most influences from the ego and superego. This is what separates the topographic and structural models: moral and personal desires can conflict outside of awareness, as does the constant battle with the repressed desires of the id.

Despite the overall lack of factual basis to Freud’s theories, the concept that much of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions are unconscious has an enormous amount of backing by science (Westen, 1999). Psychologists today widely agree that both conscious and unconscious motivators guide our behaviour (Burton, 2015 p.181). Recent studies have affirmed that the struggle between conscious and unconscious processes in decision-making, adding weight to Freudian theories (Tauber, 2013)[grammar?]. Children, from the age of about ten, have been shown to become aware of unconscious processes, through the tendency to deny the presence of distressing realities (Westen, 1999). There is a strong push for a fresh look at Freudian ideas, with many considering it to rightfully still hold weight in present day thinking (De Sousa, 2011). It would appear that some of Freud's ideas are not so out there as is generally thought.

Defence mechanisms[edit | edit source]

Freud also offered examples of how the id gets its way through acting in conscious processes. He proposed that the mind utilises a variety of different strategies to allow the compromise between the id, ego and superego (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017). They usually involve concealing from the conscious mind the real motivators behind the actions, as they form in the id, and are likely selfish and anxiety-provoking, or would lower self-esteem (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017). Defence mechanisms also protect the inflated, preferred views of the self within conscious awareness from harsher realities (Baumeister & Summer, 2002). Therefore they need to occur in the unconscious mind (Baumeister & Summer, 2002). Freud identified nine defence mechanisms, outlined below:

Table 1.

Freudian defence mechanisms

Name Description
Repression Pushing harmful thoughts from awareness.
Denial Refusal to realise external realities.
Projection Attributing one's unconscious feelings onto another.
Reaction formation When an individual fails to recognise their own undesirable impulses, and instead overcompensates with the opposite behaviour.
Rationalisation Where a person justifies their actions in an apparently logical way to avoid undesirable feelings that would otherwise accompany their actions.
Displacement Directing negative emotions away from the source and onto another target.
Sublimation Channelling unacceptable impulses into socially desirable activities.
Regression Reverting to an earlier stage of human development, typically during a time of intense stress or hardship.
Passive aggression Indirect expression of anger towards others.

Case study: Denial

Peter is in his eighties and still living in his own home. Recently his mobility has been significantly declining, making it harder to maintain the house and look after himself. Peter's daughter, Tessa, has been trying to get him some at home care, but Peter refuses, asserting that he is perfectly capable. His house is always dirty and he goes days without checking the mail or answering the phone, finding it too hard to walk that far or fast. When Tessa mentions this in their arguments, he responds with statements like "I just forgot to get the mail," or "I just missed the phone one time, I normally get it." When asked about the state of the house, he just says he has been too busy or unmotivated. He avoids these conversations by meeting his daughter at her house, and gets angry or leaves the room when the topic comes up. Tessa knows Peter is clinging to his independence, but is seriously worried for his well-being.

The use of these defence mechanisms is cross-cultural, and their existence is widely supported by research, however perceptions as to their primary function have evolved over time (Baumeister & Summer, 2002). Experts now largely agree that the function of defence mechanisms is to protect the self-esteem of the individual (Baumeister & Summer, 2002). While most defence mechanisms are still relevant today, some studies suggest others can be largely discarded (Baumeister & Summer, 2002).

Interpreting the unconscious mind[edit | edit source]

Freud had several ideas as to how to gain access to the unconscious mind. Introspection was an early Freudian method of revealing the contents of the unconscious mind (Lo Dico, 2018). It was an umbrella term describing various methods aimed at revealing the inner workings of unique and ongoing mental processes (Lo Dico, 2018). Freud favoured free association techniques, where the patient was invited to say whatever came to their mind when prompted in certain ways (Macmillan, 2001). One example of this is word association tests, where the patient would respond to a word prompt with whatever they first thought, providing vital insight (Macmillan, 2001). The majority of these techniques have been largely abandonned[spelling?] due to a lack of research, but remain influential in the foundation of the field (Lo Dico, 2018; Zeph, 2013).

Dream analysis was another favoured method (Michael, 2008). Freud believed that dreams gave insight into the unconscious, and that mental illness could be treated through their interpretation (Jenkins, 2017, p.24). Multiple schools of thought in psychology now accept the link between thoughts and feelings, conscious or unconscious, and dreams (Burton, 2015 p.193). Freud is credited with popularising this idea, but his methods were also heavily criticised for their lack of scientific basis (Jenkins, 2017, p.56).

Hypnosis was another way to bypass external influences and get to the truer self (Burton, 2015, p.193). There is more evidence to support hypnosis than others Freud used, but ethical concerns have been raised alongside the lack of scientific backing (Burton, 2015 p.197)

Motivational drives[edit | edit source]

But what motivates the id, ego and superego? Early in his work, Freud thought that much of motivation stemmed from two drives - Eros, the pleasure-driven life drive, and Thanatos, the aggressive, destructive death drive (Georgescu, 2011; Kli, 2018). He saw these as interconnected systems unable to escape each other, with all life aiming toward death, and death playing a crucial role in life (Georgescu, 2011). Freud theorised that these drives made up conscious and unconscious urges alike. While this theory has been abandonned[spelling?] largely even by Freud himself, it was influential in early explanations of competing and unconscious drives (Fong, 2016).

Freud moved more towards a more biologically model later in his work[grammar?]. A physician by trade, be believed that all drives were created by deficit (Reeve, 2018, p.28). Unattended urges had detrimental outcomes hence, for example, the individual experiences physiological anxiety (hunger) as a reminder of the bodily need (Reeve, 2018, p.28). This model did not just apply to biological needs; unconscious processes in the mind could alert the conscious mind through this system, influencing the thoughts and behaviour of the individual.

His [who?] model had four main parts; the source, impetus (intensity), object (solution) and the aim (or result). For example, if the body needed food, the source of the drive would be hunger, the impetus would relate to how urgent the hunger was, the object would be food, and the aim would be the quieting of the drive as the body is satisfied (Reeve, 2018, p.29).

There is scientific backing to support his [who?] drive theories. Hormones in the body act on specific parts of the brain to motivate and subdue the individual similarly to the way Freud described (Kirsch, 2019). Freud even noted the presence of hormones in his theories, describing them as an imperative motor factor (Kirsch, 2019). Freud's drive theory is similar to biological models still prominent in academia today, including Hull's drive-reduction theory (Burton, 2015 p. 369).

Biological theories add the previously lacking scientific basis, and explain both conscious and unconscious drives as the product of bodily urges (Burton, 2015 p.369). They also introduce secondary drives, those arising from external stimuli and occurring as a result of learning (Burton, 2015 p. 369). However, they still fail to explain motivation that occurs without biological stimuli (Burton, 2015 p. 369). These strengths and weaknesses gave rise to the influence of priming and conditioning and their effects on motivation.

Priming and conditioning[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Classical conditioning[edit | edit source]

A depiction of Pavlov's dogs study, complete with a harness for the dogs, tubes to measure the amount of saliva produced, and a window for the dogs to see the food through
Figure 3. The setup for Pavlov's dogs experiment. The tubes were to measure salivation.

Classical conditioning is a process by which a behaviour or emotion is paired with either a positive or negative stimulus (Rehman, 2020). This process is incredibly effective in increasing or decreasing target behaviours or encouraging the individual to feel certain ways about certain stimuli.

A famous example of Classical conditioning is Pavlov's dogs. Ivan Pavlov created strong associations through frequently presenting a neutral stimulus, or one usually eliciting no response, with food, a stimulus producing an unconditioned response from the dogs. Through pairing the sound of buzzer, bell and various other stimuli with the positive stimulus of food, he conditioned the dogs to salivate at the presence of various stimuli (Black, 2003). This process was automatic and happened outside of conscious processes (Rehman, 2020). In real-world applications, this change in attitudes towards stimuli can manipulate the behaviours of the individual (Rehman, 2020).

Case study: Little Albert

A well-known example of classical conditioning is that of little Albert. Watson and Raynor (2000) took a nine-month old child, and using classical conditioning methods, paired a white rat with a frighteningly loud noise. The infant subsequently displayed intense fear reactions to the white rat and similar stimuli, including a white rabbit, a fur coat, cotton wool and even Watson's white hair (Watson & Rayner, 2000). Just as this negative associations could be imposed, they could also be alleviated by presenting the formerly neutral stimulus without the presence of the unconditioned stimulus over time (Watson & Rayner, 2000). However, this study also proved that conditioned responses could randomly reoccur long after the extinction of associations, in a process called spontaneous recovery (Watson & Rayner, 2000). Watson and Rayner's study is also an example of fear conditioning (2000). It aligns with propositions that fear is a strong unconscious motivator found predominantly in the psychoanalytical school of thought (Weston, 1999).

Conditioning explains how external stimuli can influence unconscious motivators, offering an explanation for learned associations that Freud did not.

Goal priming[edit | edit source]

Goal priming occurs when the individual is unconsciously encouraged to perform a certain way (Bargh, 2020). Individuals undergoing priming need not be unaware of the process constituting the priming, simply of the desired outcome (Bargh, 2020). Studies typically involved priming the individual with wording closely related to a certain goal in a first experiment, and then asking the participant to take place in a second, seemingly unrelated study to assess whether they unconsciously pursued that goal (Bargh, 2020). The theory behind goal priming is that if an individual can be unconsciously made to see a stimuli as a goal, the outcome is more appealing to them until it is completed (Ferguson, 2008).

Overwhelmingly, the research showed that individuals can be unconsciously led to perform in a certain way through goal priming methods (Bargh, 2020). Individuals have demonstrated dedication to their primed task, resuming tasks after an interruption, which is a key element of motivation (Ferguson, 2008). Laboratory results were equally or more effective in real-life settings (Bargh, 2020).

In the brain, goal processes are similar regardless of whether conscious or unconscious, which contradicts Freud's structural model of the mind (Bargh, 2020). One major problem with goal priming research is that there is always the risk of patients becoming aware of the true intentions of the researchers, and their data becoming obsolete (Ferguson, 2008). It is also much newer than some motivational theories, limiting the research available (Bargh, 2020). Nevertheless, this field adds crucial insight as to when and how unconscious motivators act upon individuals.

[for example?]

Nuvola apps korganizer.svg
Topic review:

1 Which of the following is NOT a Freudian defence mechanism?


2 What are unconscious thoughts according to Freud?

Thoughts we are aware of
Thoughts occurring below the threshold of consciousness
Thoughts that can be brought into conscious awareness when needed

3 What was the stimulus Little Albert was conditioned to fear?

Santa Claus
Watson's white hair
A white rabbit
A loud bang
A rat

4 Unconscious motivation is widely accepted by psychologists?


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Unconscious motivation is when internal or external forces guide thoughts, decisions and actions outside of the conscious awareness of the individual (Goldyne, 2006). This can arise out of unconscious associations with personal history, provocation or simply the situation at hand (Goldyne, 2006).

Freud is by far the most influential researcher, dedicated to the ideas of unconscious motivation and constant inner turmoil (American Psychological Association, 2020). His models of consciousness, especially the structural model, explain his view on how much of our mind we were aware of at any one time, and how unconscious motivators can act on our behaviour without the conscious mind knowing. Freud's outline of defence mechanisms provides relatable examples of how unconscious processes influence thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Despite being heavily critiqued for the lack of scientific basis to his theories, subsequent studies have backed many of his ideas and Freudian models of consciousness remain highly influential today.

There are other models that have added to knowledge of unconscious motivation. Hull's drive reduction theory adds a scientific basis and clear flow chart of motivation from a biological perspective (Reeve, 2018, p.29). However, it fails to consider motivation that arises without biological cues or learning through any means other than experience (Reeve, 2018, p.29). Through classic studies by Watson, Rayner and Pavlov, Classical conditioning gives an example of how unconscious associations give rise to strong emotions and motivators (Watson & Rayner, 2000; Westen, 1999). Research surrounding goal priming demonstrates one way that unconscious motivations can arise and provides valuable insight as to its effect on behaviour, but is fiddly to test (Bargh, 2020).

It is unclear how unconscious motivation truly works. It is widely agreed that regardless of how, much thought, and therefore motivation, arises from processes that escape the conscious mind (Burton, 2015 p.181). Future directions should seek to develop better and more reliable ways to observe and study unconscious motivations, and the weight they carry in terms of predicting thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

American Psychological Association. (2020). Unconscious motivation. In American Psychological Association online dictionary. Retrieved 12 October 2020, from

Bargh, J. A. (2020). Unconscious goal pursuit in real-life organizations: Commentary on Chen, Latham, Piccolo, and Itzchakov (2020). Applied Psychology,

Baumeister, R., Dale, K., & Sommer, K. (2002). Freudian defense mechanisms and empirical findings in modern social psychology: Reaction formation, projection, displacement, undoing, isolation, sublimation, and denial. Journal of Personality, 66,(6), 1081–1124.

Black, S. (2003). Pavlov’s dogs: For whom the bell rarely tolled. Current Biology, 13(11), 426–426.

Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R. (2015). Psychology (4th ed.). John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

De Sousa, A. (2011). Freudian theory and consciousness: A conceptual analysis. Mens Sana Monogr, 9(1), 210-217.

Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2017). Defense mechanism. In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved 13 October 2020, from

Ferguson, M. (2008). On becoming ready to pursue a goal you don’t know you have: Effects of nonconscious goals on evaluative readiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1268–1294.

Frank, G. (1999). Freud’s concept of the superego: "Review and Assessment Psychoanalytic Psychology, 16(3), 448–463.

Freud, S. (1938). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE 23, 141-207.

Fong, Benjamin. (2016). Death and mastery : Psychoanalytic drive theory and the subject of late capitalism. Columbia University Press.

Georgescu, M. (2011) Freud's theory of the death drive. Review of Contemporary Philosophy, 10, 228-233.

Goldyne, A. J. (2006). Minimizing the influence of unconscious bias in evaluations: A practical guide. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, 35(1), 60–66.

Jay, M. E. (2020). Sigmund Freud. In Encyclopaedia Britannica, Retrieved 8 October 2020, from

Jenkins, W. (2017). An Analysis of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1st ed.). Macat Library.

Kirsch, M. (2019). On the abilities of unconscious freudian motivational drives to evoke conscious emotions. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

Kli, M. (2018). Eros and Thanatos: A nondualistic interpretation: The dynamic of drives in personal and civilizational development from Freud to Marcuse. Psychoanalytic Review, 105(1), 67-89. DOI: 10.1521/prev2018.105.1.67

Lo Dico, G. (2018). Freud’s psychoanalysis, contemporary cognitive/social psychology, and the case against introspection. Theory & Psychology, 28(4), 510–527.

MacIntyre, A. (2004). The unconscious : a conceptual analysis (Rev. ed.). Routledge.

MacMillan, M. (2001). The reliability and validity of Freud’s methods of free association and interpretation. Psychological Inquiry, 12(3), 167–175.

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion(7th ed). John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Rehman, I., Mahabadi, N., Sanvictores, T., & Rehman, C. I. (2020). Classical conditioning. NCBI.

Tauber, A. (2013). Freud without oedipus: The cognitive unconscious. Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, 20(3), 231–241.

Watson A. (2014). Who am I? The self/subject according to Psychoanalytic theory. SAGE Open.

Watson, J., & Rayner, R. (2000). Conditioned emotional reactions. The American Psychologist, 55(3), 313–317.

Westen, D. (1999). The scientific status of unconscious processes: Is Freud really dead? Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 47(4), 1061–1106.

Zepf, S. (2016). Psychoanalysis as a natural science: Reconsidering Freud's “scientistic self-misunderstanding”. International Forum of Psychoanalysis 25(3), 157-168.

External links[edit | edit source]