Chapter 1 Motivation in second language learning – Theories of motivation

1.2. Theories of motivation

One of the most influential theories in the area of motivation is the humanistic theory given by Abraham Maslow. Maslow (1954: 15-17) presented a hierarchy of human needs based on two groups: deficiency needs and growth needs. In the group of the deficiency needs, each lower need must be satisfied before moving on to the next (higher) level. Each deficiency, if detected in the future, will be removed by the individual. The first four levels are: physiological needs, like hunger, thirst, bodily comforts, etc., safety, belongingness and love needs, like being accepted by others and esteem needs, like being competent and gaining approval and recognition.

The highest position in the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is occupied by the concept of self-actualization, which is the constant striving to develop one’s talents, abilities and to realize one’s potential. According to Maslow, an individual is ready to act upon the self-actualization needs if the deficiency needs are met. Self-actualized people are characterized by the following features: they are problem-focused, they possess the appreciation of life and a concern about personal growth.

Maslow later distinguished the growth need from self-actualization and categorised it into cognitive grovth: to know, to understand, and explore; aesthetic grovth: symmetry, order, and beauty; self-actualization: to find selffulfillment and realize one’s potential; and self-transcendence: to connect to something beyond the ego or to help others find self-fulfillment and realize their potential (Maslow and Lowery, 1998: 73-75). According to Richard Bootzin (Bootzin 1986: 319) Maslow believed that if one becomes more self-actualized and self-transcendent, one becomes wiser and fluid in interacting with the environment in a wide variety of situations.

Another theory is the behavioural theory of motivation. Theoretical approaches in behavioural learning theory claim that our behaviour is determined by motivation. Classical Conditioning states that biological responses to associated stimuli energize and direct behaviour (Huitt and Hummel, 1997: 14). Classical Conditioning was first described (1927) by Ivan Pavlov, who placed hungry dogs on a stand and delivered food powder (the unconditioned stimulus) following a tone (the conditioned stimulus) presentation. At the beginning, he observed that only the food presentation elicited salivation (the unconditioned response). After repeating the tone-food (conditioned stimulus – unconditioned stimulus) pairings a number of times, he observed that the dogs began to salivate (the conditioned response) before the food was delivered. At this point one should also mention instrumental/operant conditioning first described (1953) by Skinner. This theory states that the primary factor in building motivation is consequence, reinforcers are incentives to increase behaviour and punishers are disincentives that result in a decrease in behaviour.

The cognitive approach includes three theories of motivation. They are: attribution theory, expectancy theory and dissonance theory which are explained below. The first cognitive approach consists in attribution theory. Bernard Weiner (1974: 185) explains that in this theory every individual tries to explain the success or failure of oneself and others by offering certain attributions. These attributions are either internal and under control or external and out of control. A second cognitive approach consists in expectancy theory by Victor Vroom (1964: 61) who proposes the following formula “motivation = expectancy (perceived probability of success) multiplied by instrumentality (connection of success and reward) multiplied by valance (value of obtaining goal).” As one can notice, this formula states that these three factors are multiplied by each other and a low value in one or the lack of one will result in a low value of motivation.

Therefore, for the motivation to occur all of these factors must be present in order. For example, if a learner doesn’t believe he or she can be successful in a task, then the expectancy is lowered and the learner is less motivated toward completing the task and there is even a risk he or she will abandon the task. The third cognitive approach consists in cognitive dissonance theory. This theory developed by Leon Festinger (1957: 32) states that when there is a discrepancy between two beliefs, two actions, or between a belief and an action, we will act to resolve the conflict and discrepancies. The theory of cognitive dissonance explains that people have a motivational drive to reduce this dissonance. According to this theory, if we can create the appropriate amount of disequilibrium, this will in turn lead to the individual changing his or her behaviour, which in turn will lead to a change in thought patterns, which in turn causes more change in behaviour.

Another theory is achievement motivation theory. In this theory Andrew Elliot (2005: 115) differentiates three types of goals: mastery goals (also called learning goals) which focus on gaining competence or mastering a new set of knowledge or skills, performance/normative goals (also called ego-involvement goals) which focus on achieving normative-based standards, doing better than others, or doing well without a lot of effort, and finally social goals which focus on relationships among people. One aspect of this theory is that individuals are motivated to either achieve success (more often associated with mastery goals) or avoid failure (more often associated with performance goals). In the second language learning context it means that the learner is more likely to select easy or difficult tasks, either to achieve a success or have a good excuse for his or her failure.

Albert Bandura (1986: 414) describes still another motivation theory: social cognition theory. There are two concepts in this theory: self-efficacy (described also as judging one’s own ability and competence) which highlights the belief that a particular action is possible and that the individual can accomplish it, and self-regulation which highlights the choice of goals and the development of a plan to attain those goals, the commitment to implement that plan, the actual implementation of the plan, and subsequent actions of reflection and modification or redirection.

There are many other theories of motivation, like psychoanalytic theories or transpersonal theories, and one can notice that motivation has been studied from many different perspectives. However, there is a categorization that can be done to distinguish different types of motivation theories. First of all, some motivation theories try to explain what motivates individuals to behave as they do. These theories focus on motivators and they are considered content theories. Secondly, some of the theories are interested in explaining how motivation works. These theories are interested in finding the specific processes that explain how motivation works and they are regarded as process theories.