Cognitive Approaches to Motivation

Research of Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) in the subjective tension systems that work toward resolution of problems in humans, along with his research done in collaboration with Edward C. Tolman (1886-1959) that emphasizes expectancies and the subjective value of the results of actions, has led to a cognitive approach to motivation. Related to this research is that of Leon Festinger (1919-1989), whose theory of cognitive dissonance stipulates that if a person's beliefs are not in harmony with one another, the person will experience a discomfort that he or she will attempt to eliminate by altering his or her beliefs.

People ultimately realize that certain specific behaviors will lead to anticipated results. Behavior, therefore, has a purpose, but the number of goals related to specific behaviors is virtually infinite. People learn to behave in ways that make it most likely to achieve expected results.

Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson demonstrated that teacher expectations have a great deal to do with the success of the students with whom they work. Their experiment, detailed fully in Pygmalion in the Classroom (1968), relates how they selected preadolescent and adolescent students randomly and then told the teachers of those students that they had devised a way of determining which students were likely to show spurts of unusual mental growth in the coming year.

Each teacher was given the names of two or three students who were identified as being on the brink of rapid intellectual development. The researchers tested the students at the end of the school year and found that those who had been designated as poised on the brink of unusual mental development tested above the norm, even though they had been selected randomly from all the students in the classes involved. In this experiment, teacher motivation to help certain students succeed appears to have been central to those students' achieving goals beyond those of other students in the class.

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