Motivation and emotion/Textbook/Motivation/Unconscious motivation

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Unconscious motivation

Overview[edit | edit source]

This chapter will discuss the theories, concepts, and ideas behind unconscious motivation. Firstly it gives a short description of human motivation after which it will then consider the idea behind unconscious motivation. The second part of this chapter will briefly outline the history behind the unconscious motivation concept, after which it will then examine Freud’s psychodynamic perspective, including his theory on dreams and dream analysis. From there this chapter will discuss post Freudian Evolution and consider Carl Jung's theories of the unconscious. The final section of this chapter focuses on additional theories in motivation and unconsciousness

Hidden and unknown desires (What is Unconscious motivation)[edit | edit source]

3D Image of the Brain (mind??)

Motivation is the desire to achieve a goal, it can be defined as the process which initiates, guides, and maintains goal adjusted behaviour (Ouellette, 1998). Motivation is not just be self- proclaimed goals but also included specific needs such as eating, drinking, and sleep (Ouellette, 1998). According to Ouellette, (1998) there are four basic principles of motivation.

  • our motives are obtained through learning
  • motives can change
  • motives come from within and without (e.g. motives for hunger come from within and motives such as desire are from without)
  • different behaviours can come from the same motive (e.g a child may require attention from her parents so she behaves badly in order to gain their affection). Motives are generally categorized as physiological, social, and all those in between (Ouellette, 1998).

To understand unconscious motivations we must first consider the workings of the unconscious mind. Some researchers today would characterize the brain as a computer, programmed by something that isn't connected to itself, but rather a part of its self, refered to as the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind is not physical, therefore, it can not been seen nor measured scientifically (Archard, 1984). The questions than is, are humans ruled by this non physical unconscious mind? According to Archard, (1984) they are not. He considered that human behaviour is simply stimulus response mechanisms. Therefore, the mind is a mechanism and individuals can be programmed (Archard, 1984). According to Bargh, Gollwitzer, Lee- Chai, Barndollar, & Trotschel, (2001) individuals are motivated to make choices based only on their conscious thoughts. According to, Archard, (1984) & Freud, (1961/2004) a large amount of human behaviour is stimulated by unconscious motives (e.g. Sigmund Freud believed that the majority of all human behaviour is a result of their desires, impulses, and memories that had been repressed into an unconscious state). According to Maslow, the average person is more often unconscious than conscious. He believed unconscious motives take central roles in determining the way in which people behave (Archard, 1984).

It is very difficult to defined unconscious motivation but in essence it is that of which we are unaware. It is the unconscious desires, instincts, and needs of humans. Some researchers believe that our unconscious motivaties only get acted on when we are stressed and anxious (Archard, 1984; Freud, 1961/2004; Reason, 2000;). While other researchers believe we have total control over them (Weston, 1999).

The history behind the unconscious motivation concept[edit | edit source]

The German philosopher Ernst Platner introduced the term ‘unconscious’ around the 18th century, however the significance of what we now call unconscious processes were recognized by many earlier influential thinkers such as Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Da Vinci, Paracelcus, Dante, and St Thomas Aquinas (Archard, 1984: Jacobs, 2003). It may well be that the first written reference to the likelihood of unconscious psychological processes were made by the Greek philosopher Plotinus in the third century AD, who remarked that “the absence of a conscious perception is proof of the absence of mental activity” (Koestler, 1964, p. 148).

The notion of an unconscious has been the source of much controversy for more than a century. Two main opposing views, have taken on various developments over the years and challenged each other down till today. During much of the later half of the 19th century, in clear contradiction to the exploratory position taken by the above philosophers (in favour of an unconscious mind), William James, mocked the notion of an unconscious, marshalling many arguments against it (Freud,1961/2004). The second view was Freud's theory of unconscious motivation. Not long after the turn of the century, behaviourism took the position not only against an unconscious, but also against consciousness (Weston, 1999). During this time Freud’s psychoanalytical prospective remained an advocate and defender of the unconscious mind.

Closer to our time, the debate is studied at a more empirical level, with the introduction of subliminal methods (Weston, 1999). However, many cognitive psychologists have drawn the line against accepting a dynamic unconscious, involving, affecting, and motivation humans (Bargh & Trotschel, 2001; Weston, 1999). In modern day cognitive psychology, researchers have endeavoured to strip the notion of the unconscious from its Freudian traditions. Today cognitive researcher use alternative terms such as, "implicit" and "explicit" to explain the inner and outer workings of human behaviour (Weston, 1999). Cognitive research methods of unconscious processes are based on fewer theoretical assumptions and are more empirically driven, they also emphasize the extent to which cognitive processes occur outside of awareness (Weston, 1999).

Sigmund Freud's theories of the unconscious[edit | edit source]

The mirror to unconscious desires, wishes, and thoughts

Freud's theory of the unconscious is immensely complex. The information that follows is a severely condensed account of his work. It focuses on those parts of his theory that are related to the unconscious mind and unconscious motivations, purely for the benefit of these chapters.

Freud believed that the psyche had unconscious ways of interacting with the world that were totally different from those of consciousness (Francher, 1973). Like consciousness, the unconscious had desires, intentions, aims, wishes, and thoughts, but rather than operating in an open and logical manner, they were purely instinctual (Francher, 1973). The unconscious was many things to Freud; a realm of repressed wishes, the carrier and generator of childish fantasies, and especially sexual fantasies. But first and foremost, it was the cauldron of the instincts, the driving forces for all human activity and behaviour (Fancher, 1973).

Freud believed that there were different levels for unconsciousness and consciousness. First he believed in the level of conscious thought, (i.e.) the material that we are actively aware of at any given time (Francher, 1973). Secondly, he believed in the pre-conscious mind. This consisted of thoughts that were unconscious at any one moment, but could be easily recalled into consciousness if we so needed them (Eder, 2009). For example, the pin code for our ATM cards. The final level was the unconscious mind. For Freud, this consisted of thoughts, memories, urges, feelings, and fantasies that we were unaware of because they were actively kept in the unconscious due to their unacceptable nature (Freud, 1961/2004). Freud argued that people repressed issues and obsessions such as sexual urges, aggression, and memories that produced anxiety, into their unconscious. He saw repression as an active continuous process (Freud, 1961/2004).

Although Freud described three levels of thought, he did not give a clear cut separation between conscious, preconscious, and unconscious thought; rather, he suggested different levels within each (Eder, 2009). For example, a person’s repressed material may weaken at times, so that previously unconscious material becomes conscious (Eder, 2009). He believed that this unconscious material was in a modified form. For example: symptoms of psychological disturbance or illness, the emergence of unfamiliar impulses under the influence of drugs, or as dreams (Eder, 2009), (for more information on dreams please see heading, Freud and Dream Analysis). It is important to note that there has been no scientific evidence, even now, that confirms or that denies Freud's notions of the unconscious, preconscious, or conscious mind. Freud's theoies are based on work with his own patients and not from empirical evidence. Within his work he addresses a wide range of phenomena. However, he often revisited his ideas, which makes his work extremely difficult to follow.

Freud's defence mechanisms

For more information on Freud's theories of the unconscious please click this link

Freud and dream analysis[edit | edit source]

The notion of a unconscious mind was essential to Sigmund Freud's theories and assisted him in finding meaning within dreams. For Freud, the fact that people dream at all was taken as an example of the activity in the unconscious mind (Freud, 1961/2004). Noting the content of dreams gave Freud clues about how processes in the unconscious mind operated, as well as methods to uncover the repressed information from within it (Freud, 1961/2004; Eder, 2009). He believed that dreams were wish fulfilling, meaning that in our dreams we act out unconscious desires (Eder, 2009). Freud’s dream analysis emphasized two levels of dream content. First the manifest content which is the description of the dream as recalled by the dreamer (Eder, 2009). For example if you dreamed about coming to school naked, the manifest content is your nudity, the school, the other people around you, and so on. The second was the latent content, which is the unconscious meaning of the manifest (literal) content (Eder, 2009). Freud considered that even during sleep, our egos protected us from the material in our unconscious minds by presenting our repressed desires in the forms of symbols. Therefore, coming to school naked would represent a symbol for some kind of repressesd matter (Eder, 2009).

In more detail, Freud felt that the manifest content was not a true portrayal of the unconscious mind. He believed that the dreamer unconsciously censors the information or uses symbols to represent key elements to avoid becoming too disturbed by the dream (Eder, 2009; Freud, 1961/2004). He felt that skilled interpretation was often necessary to get to the real meaning of a dream. Therefore, the task of analysis was used to identify the latent content of dreams (Freud, 1961/2004). He suggested that much of the unconscious content in dreams were sexual in nature (Freud,1961/2004). And that most symbols of dreams had a personal meaning for the dreamer and even identified many commonly occurring dream symbols. For example he suggested that snakes or knives represented the penis; a ladder or staircase, sexual intercourse; baldness or tooth extraction, castration fears (Freud, 1961/2004).

Freud believed that different styles of thinking were associated with different levels of consciousness (Francher, 1973). Dreams for example, represented what he refferred to as primary process thinking (Freud, 1961/ 2004). For Freud, dreams demonstrate the activity by the way in which events are often oblivious to the categories of time and space or extreme contradiction (Jacobs, 2003). Primary process thinking differs from conscious thinking in two ways. First, it is under the influence of the pleasure principle rather than the reality principle, and therefore, will choose objects according to what it thinks will give the most pleasure without regard to the availability or appropriateness of these objects in reality (Jacobs, 2003). The infantile mind, the primitive mid, and the existence of dreams are all aspects of the primary processes (Jacobs, 2003). The pleasure principle is the urge to have our desires met. This is not an active urge to seek pleasure, but rather an instinct or impulse to avoid displeasure, distress, or pain (Eder, 2009). It is about preserving a balance within.

Secondary process thinking is under the surveillance of the reality principles (Francher, 1973). Their aim is also to produce pleasure, or more commonly, reduce displeasure (Francher, 1973). The secondary processes are governed by reason and follow the pattern of logical thinking, they recognise temporal and spatial relationships and represent the function of the ego (Francher, 1973). Secondary process thinking is characteristic of conscious and preconscious thought. Freud (1961,2004) suggests, that the pleasure principle is a primitive, innate instinct that drives our behaviour while the reality principle is learnt as we develop.

For Freud dreams were wish fulfilling, he proposed that complex dreams are produced when an event during the day, typically an insignificant event, has a likeness to a childhood memory and is connected to a dangerous, previously repressed wish (Freud, 1961/2004). During the day an individual can keep this wish from consciousness, but when they relax at night, the wish can make its way into experience but only if it has been adequately concealed (Freud, 1961/2004). He adds that it is the function of ‘dream work’ that protects the sleeper from waking by transforming the wish through condensation displacement, dramatization, and symbolization into a fantasy that both expresses and satisfies the wish (Freud, 1961.2004). However, it is disguised in such a way that it does not offend the ego and wake the sleeper.

Is there empirical validity for Freud’s dynamic unconscious[edit | edit source]

Research has examined subliminal perception in an attempt to provide evidence of a dynamic unconscious. Subliminal perception is thought to occur when a person receives stimuli without being consciously aware of it (Henk, Ruud, & Hans, 2008). Researchers use subliminal stimuli in a bid to show its affects on participants' behaviour, thus demonstrating the existence of unconscious motivational effects on behaviour. Henk & Hans, (2008) showed that participants expended more effort on a hand grip test when they had been subliminally primed than when they had not. They believed this demonstrate that mental processes in preparing and motivating behaviour happen outside a person's awareness (Henk & Hans, 2008).

Erdelyi, (1984) used subliminal words to measure participants' anxiety levels. When participants were given emotionally threatening words their anxiety levels intensified. However, when participants were shown non threatening words, anxiety levels stayed neutral. Erdelyi, (1984) suggests this may validate the notion that subliminal stimuli influence unconscious behaviour. (Erdelyi, 1984). To Reason, (2000) the unconscious is more about automatic mental processes rather than a dynamic unconscious.

Evidence of dream content

Current research by Solms, (2000) on the neuropsychology of dreaming, demonstrates that may be an activation of desires and emotional mechanisms in the brain that initiate dreaming. He found that the manifest content of dreams were projected onto perceptual areas in the brain. He believed this to be evidence for Freud’s dream theory (Solms, 2000).

Post- Freudian Evolution of the Psychodynamic Approach[edit | edit source]

Group photo 1909 in front of Clark University. Front row: Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Jung; back row: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi.

It has been very well documented that during Freud’s life time, several important figures in psychoanalysis who had been Freud’s students or close colleagues, were involved in disputes and consequently left his association for psychoanalysis. The most well know of these figures was Carl Jung, who was regarded as Freud’s chosen director to take over leadership of the psychoanalytic movement (Mitchell & Black 1995). The principles for their disagreements were centred on the nature of motivation (Mitchell & Black 1995).

Other well-known analysts who broke off from Freud included Ferenczi, Reich, Rank, and the popular Adler (Mitchell & Black 1995). These disagreements represented basic problems within the theoretical aspects of the psychodynamic approach. Three underlying questions were debated by Freud and his colleagues; what happens in the early years of life to produce later problems, what should therapist do to make psychoanalytic therapy better, and lastly how do unconscious processes and mechanisms operate (Mitchell & Black 1995). While Freud was still alive he dominated psychoanalysis, and those that disagreed with him were forced to set up separate institutes. After Freud’s death, it became possible to reopen the debate and many new concepts, theories, and approaches were reconsidered. These included:

  • Adler - developed a theory called individual psychology. He suggested that all humans suffer both psychological and social inferiority feelings, beginning at birth and continuing throughout childhood (Mitchell & Black 1995). To compensate for this, humans strive for superiority. If an individual is unable to do this they may end up with either an inferiority complex or a superiority complex (Mitchell & Black 1995). Unlike Freud's theories the neurotic personality is associated with the development of these inferiority or superiority complexes (Mitchell & Black 1995). Adler also modified Freud's treatment approaches to better suit the clients.

  • Jung - developed a model of the personality he called the psyche. It was a complex structure of opposing forces/ principles, which created the life- process energy that motives behaviour (Jung, 1964). Jung argued that behaviour was motivated by our future goals as well as by our past experiences (Jung, 1964). According to Jung, (1964) mental illness was caused by an imbalance in the psyche. To treat this he used word association, painting, and dream analysis to explore the patient’s unconscious. Jung believed in a collective unconscious (that lies deep within the psyche) and a personal unconscious (that is next to the ego) and contains all our personal experiences that have been blocked from awareness because they are unacceptable in nature. This part of his theory is simular to Freud’s theories of repression (Jung, 1964)

More Theories on Motivation and the Unconscious Mind[edit | edit source]

An interpretation of Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow – Abraham Maslow described humans as having innate tendances towards healthy growth and development that he labelled instinctoid tendencies (Maslow, 1968). He believed these instinctoid tendencies were weak and easily over come by negative environmental influences. Maslow’s interests were in trying to understand what motivates us to go about our daily lives, and what makes us make the choices that we do (Maslow, 1968). From his observations, he described two distinct systems. The first were deficiency motives, which are basic needs that people are driven to fulfil (e.g. hunger, thirst, and the needs to be safe and loved) (Maslow, 1968). The second type of needs were growth motives, sometimes called 'being motives' or 'B-motives'. Maslow suggested that these were unique to each individual and gained intensity as they were being met. He believed these needs were about developing an individual’s potential (Maslow, 1968). There are two distinct differences between these concepts; deficiency motives are seen to ensure our survival, while growth needs represent a higher level of functioning that can result in a person becoming happier, healthier, and more fulfilled (Maslow, 1968).

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow believed that needs were important for human survival and therefore he developed the notorious Hierarchy of Needs. This hierarchy consisted of five basic needs.

  • physiological needs – these include hunger, thirst, sleep, oxygen, sex, and the elimination of bodily waste. Once the physiological needs are satisfied we move on to the next step in the hierarchy (Malsow, 1968).
  • Safety Needs - these are the need for security, safety, and the need for law-abiding communities and a sense of order. Maslow alleged that the safety needs can clearly be observed in infants and young children when they are upset or scared. He also believed that if an infant does not get their security needs meet, that this will impact on the child’s development (Maslow, 1968).
  • Belongingness and Love Needs - Once our physiological and safety needs are meet, Maslow suggests that we long for belongingness and love (Maslow, 1968). Within the hierarchy Maslow defined two different types of love: D-love and B-love. D-love is the love we seek to meet the emptiness inside ourselves. Once our basic need for D-love has been meet than we move on to B-love, which is, the need for love and belongingness ??from?? ourselves (Maslow, 1968). (B here stands for “Being” , D for “Deficiency”)
  • The Esteem Needs- Esteem needs are the last of the basic needs and are divided into two types of needs. The first is based on our need to see ourselves as competent, achieving individuals. The second is the need for esteem based on the evaluation of others. This is the need for respect and admiration from other people around us (Maslow, 1968).
  • The Need for Self-Actualisation - The highest level of needs is for self-actualisation. Maslow believes once an individual's basic motivation needs are met then they start to focus on what they want from life. He suggests the needs of self-actualisers are qualitatively different; he describes them as metaneeds (Maslow, 1968). Metaneeds are, being concerned with higher aesthetic and moral values such as beauty, truth, justice, and ethics. Maslow also states, that not many individuals will achieve self-actualisation but many will strive to do so (Maslow, 1968).

  • Drive Theory - This theory is based on the notion that humans are born with certain physiological needs. However if these needs are not being satisfied it creates a negative state in which the individual feels anxiety or tension (Zajonc, 1965). Within the Freudian psychodynamic approach drives theory referred to individual’s drives, motivations, instincts, and impulses that have clear intentions (Francher, 1973). Freud believed the psyche was torn between the Eros (which seeks wholeness through ever increasing unifications) and Thanatos (that wishes to achieve wholeness by breaking things apart until the absolutely simple is attained). Much of what happens in an individual's life, according to Freud, depends on which of these primal forces gains the upper hand (Francher, 1973).
  • Attribution Theory - An attribution is when an individual tries to make conclusions about another person’s behaviour. This theory is based on the notion that humans attribute internal and external factors which lead to increased motivation (Roesch & Amirkham, 1997). An internal attribution is any rationalization that occurs internally (or within) a person. For example, their mood, attitudes, personality, and abilities (Roesch & Amirkham, 1997). An external attribution is any explanation or rationalization that is located outside the person, such as the actions of others, social pressures, luck, or the nature of a situation (also known as situational attribution) (Roesch & Amirkham, 1997). The attributions people make are often driven by emotional and motivational drives (Roesch & Amirkham, 1997).

Test your unconscious association

References[edit | edit source]

Archard, D. (1984). Consciousness and the unconscious. Lasalle III: Open Court, 56- 278.

Bargh, J. A., Gollwitzer, P., Lee- Chai, A., Barndollar, K., & Trotschel, R. (2001). The automated will: Non-conscious activation and pursuits of behavioural goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1014- 1027.

Eder, M. D. (2009). Dream Psychology: Psychoanalysis for beginners By Sigmund Freud. Publishing 12- 92.

Erdelyi, M. H. (1984). Psychoanalysis: Freud’s Cognitive Psychology. New York: Freeman, 26-32.

Francher, R. E. (1973). Psychoanalytic psychology: The development of Freud's thought. New York: WWW Norton, 33-231.

Freud, S (1961/2004). The interpretation of dreams. Reprint by Kessinger Publishing, 113-435.

Henk, A., Ruud, C., & Hans, M. (2008). Preparing and motivating behaviour outside of awareness. Journal of Unconscious Motivation, 319, 5870-1639. Retrieved from:

Jacobs, M. (2003) Sigmund Freud. London:Sage Publications Ptd, 24-168.

Koestler, A. (1964). The act of creation. London: Pan Books, 147-148.

Maslow, A. H. (1986). Toward a psychology of being. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.

Mitchell, S. A., & Black M. J. (1995). Freud and beyond: a history of modern psychoanalytic thought. USA: Basic Books.

Ouellette, J. A. (1998). Habit and intention in everyday life: The multiple processes by which past behaviour predicts future behaviour. Psychological Bulletin, 457-481.

Reason, J. (2000). The Freudian slip revisited. The psychologist, 13, 610-611. Retrieved from:

Roesch, S. C. and Amirkham, J. H. (1997) Boundary conditions for self-serving attributions: Another look at the sports pages. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 27, 245-261

Silverman, L. H. (1976) Psychoanalytic theory: The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated. American Psychologist,31, 621-637.

Solms, M. (2000) Freudian dream theory today. The Psychologist, 13, 618-619. Retrieved From:

Sommerhoff, G. (1990). Life, the brain, and unconsciousness: New perceptions through targeted systems analysis. Elsevire Science Publishers, 9-189.

Weston, D. (1999). The scientific status of the unconscious processes: Is Freud dead. Journal of American Psychology, 47, 1061-1106. Retrieved

Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social facilitation. Science, 149, 269-274. Retrieved From: