What is cognitive motivation?

Written by jolynne hudnell
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What is cognitive motivation?
Cognitive motivation refers to how people think before acting. (Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

Cognitive motivation theory was developed in the early 1970s. Also known as "cognitive evaluation" -- a term first used by psychology professor Edward L. Deci in his 1975 book, "Intrinsic Motivation" -- the theory is based on Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The Basics

In cognitive development theory, Piaget believed that people accommodate or assimilate to their environment to avoid dissonance, or anxiety. Applying this to cognitive motivation, people make decisions based on a perceived outcome to logically decide how they will act in any situation. Dissonance can be purposely created when trying to change negative behaviours or establish good behaviours.

The Theory

Cognitive motivation is just one theory that explains why people act the way they do. "Cognitive" refers to thought processes and "motivation" refers to the behaviour derived from those thought processes. The theory holds that cognitive motivation relies on information presently available combined with past experiences. It assumes that people behave the way they do for some type of reward or to avoid unpleasant occurrences.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

Rewards can be intrinsic or extrinsic in nature. Intrinsic rewards are internal and based on a person's beliefs or values. A person may swerve to avoid hitting an animal with a car if that person believes animals have a value equal to humans. Extrinsic, or external, motivation is based on the gaining of a tangible reward or avoidance of harm; for example, a person may get a job to earn money to pay the bills and avoid going hungry. Someone more intrinsically motivated will be turned off if behaviour only includes an external reward, while a more extrinsically motivated person isn't likely to behave a certain way just because it is the "right thing to do."

Competence Factor

One part of cognitive motivation theory suggests that people make choices based on their perception of how easily obtainable a goal is and confidence in their own abilities. If people believe they can succeed, they will be motivated or more likely willing to perform the required tasks, even if the reward is only internal. If individuals feel incompetent in a situation, or perceive that they're less likely to succeed, they may be less likely to try to reach that goal without some type of external reward.


Cognitive motivation theory can apply to any situation where a person makes a choice. This theory can define why children do well in school, why people work and the type of job they choose, and even why people choose a romantic partner. In each of these examples, there's usually some type of internal or external need fulfilled by the choice made, which is the premise of cognitive motivation.

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