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What Is Cognitive Motivation?

Daniel Liden
Updated May 21, 2024
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Motivation can be defined as a state or process in the mind that stimulates, promotes, and controls action toward a goal. Cognition is the means by which the mind obtains knowledge, and relates to thought processes and perception. In psychology, cognitive motivation is a theory that seeks to explain human behavior in terms of the examination and consideration of received information, as opposed to an inbuilt set of instructions that govern responses to different situations. It refers to the nature of the logic behind a motivation that leads to action. For instance, in new students, some will use learning as motivation for their first day at work while others will look forward to forming new social groups. In other words, a human action results from a process of thought, rather than an automated response based on preprogrammed rules. It means that for most voluntary action, a person's thought process will always take first priority. For example, high school students are capable of making judgement calls despite their young age.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Psychologists and behavioral scientists generally recognize two forms of motivation, although this is not universally accepted. Intrinsic motivation refers to tasks that are rewarding in and of themselves, such as the pleasure of solving a puzzle, learning, or playing a game. High school students don't necessarily look at classes as rewarding, so it's up to the teacher to create an environment where kids will be intrinsically motivated to attend and participate. In these cases, the motivating factor is internal. Extrinsic motivation involves engaging in a task because of external factors, such as working for money and food, or taking actions to avoid harm. In high school, extrinsic motivation can be graduation or being able to find a good school or find a summer job to get a new car. As long as both the motivation and the goals are both good, it's always helpful to offer support whenever possible. Theories of motivation attempt to explain how behavior directed by these factors comes about.

Need-based motivation theories would state that a person chooses the job that best allows him to provide for his needs, which usually involves making money to obtain food and shelter, and to provide for children. Cognitive motivation theories explain why people sometimes choose jobs that they like more even though they pay less and provide less. Same goes for people who don't need prestigious scholarships from a financial viewpoint, but will still take them for the purpose of having it show in their credentials. There is an intrinsic motivation factor that drives people to do things just for the enjoyment it provides them, even if that means sacrificing their needs to some degree.

Cognitive motivation is based on two primary things: information available and past experience. A person will think about a situation based on what sensory input is available, and he will also refer to his past and try to relate previous experiences to the situation at hand. Motivation theories are used in education, sports, in the workplace, and in helping people overcome health problems such as poor diet, overeating, and alcohol or drug abuse. Under the broad heading of cognitive motivation, behavioral scientists have developed a number of theories about why people take the actions they do that are not mutually exclusive.

Social Cognitive Theory

According to this theory, behavior is strongly influenced by observing others. People learn by considering the actions of other people and whether these actions resulted in success or failure, reward or punishment, and so on. It is not always necessary to interact with others to be influenced by them; experiments have shown that television, video, and other media can have an important effect on behavior and motivation. There is more to it than simply copying someone else's behavior: the observer thinks about what he sees and draws conclusions from it. This kind of learning is often quicker, and may be safer, than a trial and error approach.


This approach is based on intrinsic motivation and states that individuals are motivated by inbuilt psychological needs, three of which have been identified. Competence is the need to achieve a successful outcome to a task through one’s own efforts; autonomy is the need to be in control of, or at least to significantly influence, events in one’s life; and relatedness is the desire to be connected to others through social interaction. Studies have found that the introduction of extrinsic factors, such as financial rewards, tend to undermine intrinsic motivation. People engaged in a task that satisfies the need for autonomy, for example, may tend to focus more on the reward and to find the task itself less satisfying.


Attribution theory deals with peoples’ perceptions of the reasons for their successes and failures. There are three main elements, based on whether individuals attribute successes and failures to internal or external factors, to stable or unstable factors, or to controllable or uncontrollable factors. People in general tend to regard their successes as due to internal factors, such as talent and hard work, and their failures to external factors, such as bad luck or the actions of others. Some gender differences are also apparent: men tend to regard ability as the main factor in success and laziness as the reason for failure; women tend to attribute success to hard work and failure to inability. Studies have shown that people are less likely to change their behavior when they regard failure as due to factors that are both stable and beyond their control.


This theory states that a person is motivated to pursue a goal by a combination of her expectation of success and her estimation of its value. The value is determined in terms of the cost of pursuing the goal and the possible reward for achieving it. When both expectation and value are viewed as high, an individual will be highly motivated and will display effort and determination. When both are low, motivation is low and the person will not pursue the goal, or will do so only half-heartedly.

Competing Theories

Cognitive motivation is just one of several explanations of why people and animals do what they do. Most theorists who do not support this idea believe that motivation is need-based or drive reducing. Need-based motivation assumes that peoples’ actions are based on their needs, like for food, water, or reproduction. Drive-reducing theories are based on the idea that animals, including humans, have powerful drives for food, sex, and other goals, and that they are motivated to take action only to reduce these drives. This is the same logic used when using food motivation in training service animals. Cognition may have a place in these theories, but it is not thought of as the basis of motivation and behavior.

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Daniel Liden
By Daniel Liden , Former Writer
Daniel Liden, a talented writer with a passion for cutting-edge topics and data analysis, brings a unique perspective to his work. With a diverse academic background, he crafts compelling content on complex subjects, showcasing his ability to effectively communicate intricate ideas. He is skilled at understanding and connecting with target audiences, making him a valuable contributor.

Discussion Comments

By anon271720 — On May 28, 2012

Cool article and cool site, I have been researching the subject and this was helpful, thanks for the writeup. -- Eric

By comfyshoes — On Nov 23, 2010

Cafe41-Social motivation can also influence a child to seek a certain line of work if most of the family friends work in that field.

For example, a child that is exposed to a series of doctors through friendships or relatives might be more attracted to that profession because it is viewed so favorably by the family and it is so prevalent in the child’s experiences.

Sometimes the cognitive factors that may attract a child to his profession might be the noble nature of saving someone’s life or the extrinsic value of becoming wealthy.

The cognitive factors for attraction to this profession will be based on what the focus of the profession is.

If the majority of the group focuses on their salaries then the motivation might be limited to just the earning potential which may or may not influence the child to seek this career choice. If the motivation expressed by the group is deeper as in the ability to truly help others than the motivation process theories suggest that this is a noble profession that is worth pursuing.

By cafe41 — On Nov 23, 2010

Sunny27-I think that human behavior regarding motivation can be explained with the level of drive which includes social motivation.

A professor in the Yale School of Management put together a theory that he referred to as the “Expectancy theory”.

He adds that this theory determines when a person will exercise self control in order to pursue a goal.

For example, if a person is hungry they will work harder in order to be able to eat.

Some people might consider a social cognitive approach to motivation and personality.

In this case, the person might be driven to succeed in order to live in the most upscale neighborhood and adjust their circle of friends.

Here the motivation is the money and the social status that is attached to that money.

By Sunny27 — On Nov 23, 2010

Human behavior motivation is really what drives a person to such action. Many psychologists feel that a person that engages in certain activity does so because there is a payoff of some sort.

This is especially interesting aspect of cognitive factors when the subject engages in what is considered negative behavior such as overeating, excessive spending and drinking.

Here the social motivation might encourage the subject to seek a more appropriate method of medicating themselves with these addictions.

People with addictive personality need cognitive reinforcement to see the error in their ways. They continue the destructive behavior because it soothes them and they seek pleasure from the activity, however, this activity also brings about an endless cycle of despair because it brings about larger problems and highlights that the original problem was not addressed.

This maladaptive behavior can lead to a large crisis in the person’s life.

Daniel Liden

Daniel Liden

Former Writer

Daniel Liden, a talented writer with a passion for cutting-edge topics and data analysis, brings a unique perspective to...
Learn more
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