Motivation and Culture

Studies of motivation try to explain the initiation, persistence, and intensity of behavior (Geen 1995; see also MOTIVATION). Culture, learned schemas shared by some people due to common, humanly mediated experiences, as well as the practices and objects creating and created by these schemas, plays a large role in nearly all human behavior. Even such biologically adaptive motivations as hunger and sex instigate somewhat different behaviors in different societies, depending on learned schemas for desirable objects, appropriate and effective ways to obtain these, and skills for doing so (Mook 1987).

The motivational effects of culturally variable beliefs can be illustrated by considering causal attribution processes. Weiner (1991) argues that we are unlikely to persist at a voluntary behavior if we have failed in the past and we attribute that failure to an unchanging and uncontrollable aspect of ourselves or the situation. Some studies show that people in Japan tend to attribute poor academic performance to insufficient effort, while people in the United States give greater weight than do their Japanese counterparts to lack of ability (Markus and Kitayama 1991; Weiner 1991). Given these assumptions, U.S. schoolchildren who receive poor grades should thereafter put less effort into their schoolwork, while Japanese schoolchildren who receive poor grades should increase their effort.

Is there a fixed, limited number of universal basic motives, which vary cross-culturally only in their strength? Or is cross-cultural variation qualitative as well as quantitative, making it impossible to delimit universally applicable basic motives? McClelland (1985; Weinberger and McClelland 1990) has argued for the first position. He has found cross-societal as well as intrasocietal differences in the average levels of such basic motives as achievement and affiliation, and he posits that human as well as other animal behavior is motivated by a limited set of stable, "implicit motives" such as these, which draw on the "natural incentive" of neurohormone release. Cantor and her colleagues (1986), by contrast, focus on idiosyncratically variable self-concepts. These are conscious, change over time, and include a variety of understandings and images, positive and negative roles and behaviors in the past and present as well as various future "possible selves," namely, "those selves that individuals could become, would like to become, or are afraid of becoming" (p. 99). They illustrate the possible variability among such self-conceptions with the example of students preparing for a final examination. One, fearing exposure as a fraud, parties the night before the exam so that no one will attribute her failure to lack of ability. Another, having a feared "careless failure" possible self, studies very hard. The enormous variability among such self- conceptions, even within a single society, suggests the potential for limitless cross-cultural variation. Markus and Kitayama (1991), on the other hand, while continuing to link motivation to self-conceptions, posit a general distinction between societies with conceptions of self as independent of others and societies with conceptions of self as interdependent with others (see also Miller 1997). D'Andrade (1992) likewise advocates the infinite variability position. Discussing the potential for a wide variety of schemas (not just self or conscious schemas) to function as goals, he offers as a classic example from the ethnographic literature the intensity of most Nuers's interest in cattle (Evans-Pritchard 1947).

McClelland proposes (Weinberger and McClelland 1990) that the differences between his approach and that of Cantor et al. (1986) can be resolved by treating them as describing two sorts of motivation. He provides evidence that the implicit motives he discusses are derived largely from preverbal "affective experiences" (such as early parent-child interaction in feeding, elimination control, and so on) and explain behavior over the long term and in less structured situations. In contrast, the explicit self-conceptions discussed by Cantor et al. are acquired with the mediation of language and explain choices in structured tasks, especially ones that make self-conceptions salient.

This categorization of kinds of motivation could be expanded. Neither McClelland's nor Cantor et al.'s model accounts for the sort of behavior that is enacted because it is typical in one's social group, making other behaviors less available for consideration, likely to provoke disapproval, or inconvenient. Examples are body language, table manners and food choices, house design, mode of dress, occupations, and forms of worship. When action follows the patterns learned from repeated observation of the typical behavior of other people like oneself, as well as social facilitation of certain ways of acting over others, it could be said to draw on routine motivation (Strauss and Quinn 1997). In many cases, routine motivation is acquired nonverbally, is internalized as implicit schemas, and is not strongly affectively charged or linked to self-conceptions. Particularly important routine motivations (e.g., schemas for being a good parent or reliable breadwinner), however, may be internalized with an explicit verbal component and linked to emotions (e.g., fear or pride) and self-conceptions, depending on how they were learned.

The different forms of motivation, and various ways in which these are learned, highlight the fact that a culture is not a single thing. In particular, cultures cannot be thought of as master programmers loading up instructions that determine people's behavior. In every society various, not always consistent, values are proclaimed explicitly. Some of these values are the basis for motivations that socializers try to teach children, others are ignored, remaining "cultural clichés" (Spiro 1987; see also Strauss 1992; and Strauss and Quinn 1997). Finally, in addition to motivations that are deliberately instilled, there are needs and expectations derived from preverbal parent-child interactions (McClelland 1985, Weinberger and McClelland 1990, see also Paul 1990), as well as ongoing observations of the normal way of acting in one's social group.

See also

-- Claudia Strauss


Cantor, N., H. Markus, P. Niedenthal, and P. Nurius. (1986). On motivation and the self-concept. In R. M. Sorrentino and E. T. Higgins, Eds., Handbook of Motivation and Cognition: Foundations of Social Behavior. New York: Guilford Press, pp. 96-121.

D'Andrade, R. G. (1992). Schemas and motivation. In R. G. D'Andrade and C. Strauss, Eds., Human Motives and Cultural Models. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 23-44.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1947). The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Geen, R. G. (1995). Human Motivation: A Social Psychological Approach. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Markus, H. R., and S. Kitayama. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review 98:224-253.

McClelland, D. C. (1985). Human Motivation. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.

Miller, J. (1997). Cultural conceptions of duty: Implications for motivation and morality. In D. Munro, J. E. Schumaker, and S. C. Carr, Eds., Motivation and Culture. New York: Routledge, pp. 178-192.

Mook, D. G. (1987). Motivation: The Organization of Action. New York: Norton.

Paul, R. (1990). What does anybody want? Desire, purpose, and the acting subject in the study of culture. Cultural Anthropology 5:431-451.

Spiro, M. E. (1987). Collective representations and mental representations in religious symbol systems. In B. Kilborne and L. L. Langness, Eds., Culture and Human Nature: Theoretical Papers of Melford E. Spiro. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 161-184.

Strauss, C. (1992). What makes Tony run? Schemas as motives reconsidered. In R. G. D'Andrade and C. Strauss, Eds., Human Motives and Cultural Models. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 197-224.

Strauss, C., and N. Quinn. (1997). A Cognitive Theory of Cultural Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weinberger, J., and D. C. McClelland. (1990). Cognitive versus traditional motivational models: Irreconcilable or complementary? In E. T. Higgins and R. M. Sorrentino, Eds., Handbook of Motivation and Cognition. Vol. 2, Foundations of Social Behavior. New York: Guilford Press, pp. 562-597.

Weiner, B. (1991). On perceiving the other as responsible. In R. A. Dienstbier, Ed., Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1990. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, pp. 165-198.

Further Readings

Holland, D., and N. Quinn. (1987). Cultural Models in Language and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.