Theories About the Need for Achievement
The desires to succeed and to excel are called achievement needs. Achievement motivation is basic to a good life. Achievers, as a whole, enjoy life and feel in control. Being motivated keeps us productive and gives us self-respect. Where and how achievement needs are learned are complex, intriguing, and important questions. David McClelland, et al. (1953) and John Atkinson (1981) have contributed greatly to this area of study. They began by developing a measure of the need to achieve. Using the TAT, a test which asks you to make up stories about pictures, they found that persons with high achievement needs can be identified by the stories they tell, namely, more stories about striving for excellence, overcoming obstacles, or accomplishing some difficult goal. Other researchers (Jackson, Ahmed, and Heapy, 1973) suggested that achievement needs are made up of several factors:
1. Wanting approval from experts
2. Wanting to make money
3. Wanting to succeed on our own
4. Wanting respect from friends
5. Wanting to compete and win
6. Wanting to work hard and excel
Thus, one high achiever might strive primarily to make money while another person, equal in overall need to achieve, would concentrate on gaining respect and status from friends, and so on, depending on our past experience.
How do we learn to have a high or low need for achievement? It comes partly from our childhood. Although the conclusions are not certain, Weiner (1980, p. 216-218) says a high achieving male tends to have rejecting parents who expect him to become independent early, make high demands on him, reward his success, and/or punish unsatisfactory behavior (which increases the fear of failure). Rather surprisingly, both loving-accepting (undemanding?) and dominant (overcontrolling?) fathers tend to have less ambitious sons. However, sons of managers and owners have much higher needs to achieve than sons of fathers with routine jobs (Byrne & Kelley, 1981).
Notice in the last paragraph I was talking only about males. What about females? The research in this area for many years found very different results with each sex, so researchers avoided achievement studies with women. More recently this has changed and serious concern has been given to the impact of socially defined sex-roles on behavior. For instance, children's books were found to describe boys as active, effective, and achieving, while girls were described as watching the boys, being a boy's helper, or just tagging along (Weitzman, Eifler, Hokada, & Ross, 1972). Furthermore, an experiment showed that sexist stories actually had immediate impact on the behavior of nursery school children. Girls were more active and persistent in their work if they had heard stories picturing girls that way (McArthur & Eisen, 1976). This is just one minor example. Our needs and goals and self-concepts come from thousands, maybe millions, of experiences. We'll study sex-roles more in chapter 9.
What are the family backgrounds of females with high needs to achieve? They tend to have nontraditional, permissive parents who reward their achievements. The mother plays a crucial role, as does the father for males. Tenth grade girls who feel most competent (this is related to high career goals but not exactly the same as high achievement needs) had mothers who placed high value on their being independent, successful, and ambitious but low value on self-control and being responsible (Baruch, 1976). More research is needed here. There seems to be a fine line between a parent being very encouraging and being overly dominant. Being over-protective is clearly harmful (see chapter 9).
In contrast with the research just cited about what an achiever's parents are actually like, achievement specialists recommend having a somewhat different kind of parent. Johnson (1984) says achievers are produced by parents who let them go on their own, let them set their own goals, and make their own mistakes. These parents encourage high but appropriate goals, respect the child's abilities, take and show great pleasure from the child's successes, and give lots of praise. They let the child try hard on their own before giving suggestions or help, but they give help before the child gives up. They don't do the task for the child nor insist that it be done "my way."
In general, educators believe that high achievers have respectful, praising, optimistic, supportive, hard working parents who are themselves learning and success oriented. These parents expect each person in the household to do their share of the chores and to follow reasonable rules. They talk with each other about their work and studies.
For your purposes, these childhood experiences or the lack of them may be of interest but they occurred in the past and, therefore, are unchangeable (although we might change our reaction to our past). What can you do now that enables us to be highly motivated? How can you be so intent on reaching a distant goal that nothing gets in the way?
To accomplish great things, we must not only act but also dream, not only plan but believe.
Atkinson (1957; 1981) suggested it is much more complicated than just a single need making us do something, although that's part of it. Borrowing a lot from learning theory, he says three factors determine behavior:
A large number of competing motives or needs are striving for expression at the same time, such as the need for achievement, the need for close relationships, the need for power, and the need to be cared for by others. Besides the conflict among many motives, the theory assumes there is a conflict between the hope of success and the fear of failure, i.e. an approach-avoidance conflict over each goal. The fear of failure can keep us from trying in school, just as the fear of rejection can keep us from getting emotionally involved with someone.
The strength of the approach and avoidance tendencies is determined by the relative strength of the needs to achieve and the needs to avoid failure (or success), plus the next two factors.
What we expect to happen if we follow a certain course of action. We observe the situation and, based on our past experience, estimate the likelihood of success and the chances of something bad happening, depending on what we do. Having some hope is necessary, but it is not a simple situation. As discussed in attribution theory later, a highly motivated achiever may utilize complex optimistic or pessimistic cognitive strategies (Cantor, 1990). For example, an optimistic, high achieving student may seek out friends who value and reinforce his/her successes in school, he/she frequently re-lives in fantasy his/her past accomplishments and dreams of the future, and he/she may relax with friends before an exam. This is called "illusory glow" optimism because such a person nurtures and protects his/her self-esteem and confidence. They expect to do very well, they work very hard, they enjoy their successes, and, if they should fail, they automatically and immediately apply an "I couldn't help it" defense of the ego (and optimistically take on the next challenge).
On the other hand, Cantor describes the high achieving "defensive pessimist" as defending his/her self-esteem before the test, not afterwards. Such a student expects to do poorly or, at least, anticipates a variety of possible stumbling blocks. He/she works very hard, preparing especially well for the anticipated difficulties. He/she uses the high test anxiety and stress as a motivator, not as something to avoid, and then takes an "I expected it" attitude towards the rare failure that does occur (and with anxious excitement systematically attacks the next challenge). This strategy is very different from the pessimistic student who "bad mouths" him/herself after a failure: "I'm such an idiot," "I'm so lazy," etc. Such a pessimist is likely to gradually lower his/her expectations and goals, and perform more and more poorly until eventually becoming a total pessimist who has no hope, expects to fail and, therefore, doesn't try.
Both the "illusory glow" optimist and the "defensive" pessimist are challenged by hard tasks; achieving is important, gratifying, and absorbing for them; they see themselves as having considerable control over the situation and stick with the task, even though it is hard and occasionally disappointing. Compare these achievers with the underachievers described later.
The incentive we feel depends on how attractive the possible outcomes are to us personally (relative to how unattractive the possible risks are to us). Each major task, such as becoming a winning tennis player, learning to play an instrument, completing high school math through Advanced Calculus, asking a really appealing person for a date, getting a BA with honors, going to medical school, or raising two children, provides a enormous range of possible payoffs, some more appealing to us than others. The more likely we feel we are to succeed in #2, and the more appealing, important, the-right-thing-to-do, exciting, or wonderful the eventual goal, the more drive and enthusiasm we have about the activity.
How motivated we are depends on (1) the strength of fairly consistent motives or needs inside of us, (2) our expectation of what outcomes certain actions will produce, and (3) how badly at this time we want a certain payoff over all the other wants we have and over the risks we face. The needs, expectations, and incentives are mostly learned; together these factors (our motivation) largely determine what we do and how far we get in life. Although the past experiences related to these factors are unalterable, these factors that influence our lives so enormously can be changed by us. That's the beauty of being human. What does the theory about achievement needs tell us about self-help? Let's consider John, the procrastinator, again.
Parents and teachers train children to be independent and achievers (Winterbottom, 1958) and to fear failure (Teevan & McGhee, 1972). Being rewarded for striving increases our achievement motive; being punished for unsatisfactory behavior--and having our successes disregarded--leads to a fear of failure. To the extent we are self-reinforcing, we could presumably increase our achievement motivation by emphasizing our successes and simply using our failures as cues for us to try harder.
There have been several successful attempts to train people to have higher achievement needs (Burris, 1958; McClelland & Winter, 1969). People were taught to have frequent fantasies of achieving, observe models of successful people like themselves, play games or role-play situations involving taking risks and being a successful competitor. These researchers concluded that they were teaching self-confidence and that "knowledge gives confidence." You could train yourself in the same ways; schools--and this book--should increase your expectation of success by teaching you skills (chapter. 13), self-control, reasonable attitudes (chapter 14), and self-awareness (chapter 15).
A high need to achieve is correlated with higher grades (Schultz & Pomerantz, 1974); however, Raynor (1981) has shown it isn't a simple relationship. Considering getting B's or higher as important for future plans and for self-respect was related to grades in school for boys. Raynor also found that students in the high-needs-to-achieve-and-low-test-anxiety group did well on the important (to them), relevant courses but not as well on less relevant courses. Students with low-achievement-needs-and-high-test-anxiety did about the same as the above group on less relevant courses but much worse on important courses. The points seem to be: (a) your need to achieve and self-confidence won't do you much good unless you convince yourself that school is relevant to your future and your self-esteem, and (b) a fear of failure produces failure in the more important courses. The next chapter tells you how to reduce fears.
Johnson (1984) summarizes what you can do to keep on striving for your special goals: (a) break your major goals into manageable daily tasks and set aside the time, (b) take pleasure from the work and reward your progress, (c) remember your past successes and imagine how good you will feel when you accomplish your goal, (d) also imagine how bad it will feel to give up or mess up, (e) use competition, especially trying to improve on your best effort thus far, to arouse interest, and (f) seek encouragement and find "heroes" to inspire you.
Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.
One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.
Greissman (1987) interviewed over 60 highly successful people and found they had several things in common. They (a) love their work, (b) become highly competent in a specialty, (c) commit themselves to their work, giving it their time--their life, (d) meet most of their needs through their work, (e) long for recognition and self-fulfillment, (f) focus on and "flow" with their work--loosing themselves in it, and (g) quickly see and use new ideas and opportunities at work. They pay a price for success, such as few friends, little partying, little travel, and even isolation from their family, but they have few regrets. Talent matters, but devotion determines the winner most of the time. No one can tell you exactly how to become so devoted...or even if it is a good idea.