Achievement motivation refers to the desire to excel, especially in competition with others. People who are high in need for achievement have an intense desire for significant accomplishments. In virtually all aspects of their lives, they are ambitious, energetic, and persistent. So, where does achievement motivation come from?
Characteristics of High Achievement Motivation
According to the work by David McClelland, starting in the 1940s, people who are high on achievement motivation tend to show six distinct characteristics. The first is a preference for moderately difficult tasks.
People high in achievement motivation want to be challenged, so they avoid tasks that are too easy since they offer little challenge or satisfaction. And yet, they also don’t want to waste time on tasks they can’t successfully accomplish, so they avoid extremely difficult tasks, too.
The second characteristic they have is competitiveness. They like tasks and pursue careers that offer an opportunity to compete with others. Thus, simply put, they like to compete. Thirdly, they exhibit a preference for clear goals and feedback on their progress. They like to work on tasks in which they have a clear outcome to work towards and can get feedback from qualified people on their performance. They actually prefer to receive criticism from someone who is harsh, but competent, than from someone who is friendlier but less competent.
Delayed Gratification and Persistence
Ability to self-regulate and take personal responsibility is the fourth characteristic. People who are high in achievement motivation are good at delaying immediate gratification and instead focus on longer-term goals. They also like having control over the tasks they work on, so they can feel a sense of personal satisfaction when they do a good job.
Mental toughness and persistence comes next. They keep working, even when they meet obstacles. They have an ability to stay focused on a task and persist even when things aren’t going well.
Lastly, people high in achievement motivation are more accomplished. As a result of all these characteristics, people who are high in need for achievement generally do perform at a higher level. They tend to get higher grades in school and achieve at higher levels in their careers.
Genes and Educational Attainment
A study published in 2016, by researchers at the Duke University School of Medicine, explored the source of this intense drive for achievement and where it comes from. The study evaluated people’s genomes using so-called ‘polygenic scoring’ and found a clear link between genes and educational attainment.
They found that people with the same type of polygenic score also have more successful careers, and earn more money, even if born into families that are relatively poor. These findings suggest that achievement may be, at least partially, a reflection of our biology.
Needless to say, however, our desire for achievement is also shaped by our environment. Children who are high in achievement motivation often have parents who encourage independence and self-reliance and provide rewards for successful performance. Parents may reward mastering skills, such as brushing teeth or tying shoes, and children, therefore, learn that accomplishing new things leads to positive outcomes—in this case, praise and attention.
Research on birth order suggests another environmental influence. First-born and only children tend to be higher on achievement motivation than later-born children. They also tend to achieve at higher levels—to get into prestigious colleges, become Rhodes scholars, to be chosen as astronauts. How does something as basic as birth order create such differences? The answer lies in the fact that it’s pretty likely that parents simply pay more attention to their first-borns. This, in turn, leads to greater reinforcement of their accomplishments.
Then again, one must keep in mind that first-borns may also pay a price for their high achievement. They tend to lack social skills and be less popular. So, basically, they are more likely to be valedictorian than prom king or queen.
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The Gender Difference
Additional evidence, for the influence of environment, comes from research showing that men tend to be higher in competitiveness and achievement motivation than women. Historically, many psychologists, including Sigmund Freud, posited that these differences mirrored biological differences between men and women; basically, that men are innately predisposed to achieve, whereas women are more naturally inclined to nurture.
First published in 1946, this similar explanation is endorsed by Dr. Benjamin Spock, in his best-selling parenting guide: “When women are encouraged to be competitive, too many of them become disagreeable.”
Thanks to a variety of research demonstrating the power of modelling and observational learning, we now understand that these gender differences in achievement motivation are largely, or perhaps even entirely, a result of social learning.
Men and boys are often praised for their high achievement, whereas women and girls may learn there can be negative consequences, even a social backlash, for seeming too smart or too focused on career advancement.
Likeability and Competence Inversely Related
This is especially true if women violate stereotyped expectations about how they are supposed to behave as friendly, nice, warm, and nurturing. Moreover, stereotyped perceptions of likeability and competence for men often go hand in hand. For women, perceptions of likeability and competence can be inversely related.
So, are women innately less motivated toward achievement than men? Well, what’s clear is that social learning can push girls and women toward being less ambitious, or at least toward hiding such a focus, due to ongoing potential social costs of appearing to deliberately pursue ambitious goals.
And yet, the most important finding about the influence of social learning on achievement motivation is that the same process can work in both directions. It, therefore, has the potential to help reduce gender differences in achievement by highlighting and celebrating women who achieve tremendous success, whether in business, research, education, or politics.
Common Questions about the Features of High Achievement Motivation
People high in achievement motivation want to be challenged, so they avoid tasks that are too easy since they offer little challenge or satisfaction.
Research on birth order suggests environmental influence. First-born and only children tend to be higher on achievement motivation than later-born children.
Stereotyped perceptions of likeability and competence for men often go hand in hand. For women, perceptions of likeability and competence can be inversely related.