What Is the Interactionist Theory of Motivation?

Tom Pennington/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Interactionist theory deals with social interaction, particularly how the actions of one person can affect the way another person acts. It also acknowledges that each interaction is unique and any interpretation depends on the point of view of the people involved.

Motivation refers to the reasons behind people's behaviour. The interactionist theory of motivation tries to resolve issues between behaviour prompted by individual motivation and behaviour linked to social interaction.

Initial theory

The American sociologist W I Thomas (1863 - 1947) was one of the first people to study the interactionist theory of motivation. He initially proposed that sex and food were key motivating factors for women and men. He then moved on to consider social causes of behaviour and came to the conclusion that certain situations are particularly significant. By this Thomas meant that social situations involving change and disorganisation could motivate the personalities of adults.


Self-concept provides a cognitive foundation for the interactionist theory of motivation. The term cognitive in this context is the method the brain uses to make sense of information. Self-concept refers to a person's beliefs about his or her characteristics and who or what the notion of "self" means. Three psychological elements exist within the idea of self-concept and ach is related to the other two. The elements are striving, feeling and cognition.

Social interaction

Social interaction has a direct influence on self-concept and the interactionist theory of motivation. People hold beliefs about what others think of them; they form these beliefs when they engage in social interaction. Subsequent social interactions lead to experiences that cause adjustments to these beliefs. Throughout this process, the beliefs affect self-concept, which in turn affects motivation. Furthermore, as beliefs change so motivations change, enabling social interaction to develop self-concept.

Practical uses

The practical uses of the interactionist theory of motivation clarify its purpose. The theory helps to establish why certain people take part in antisocial behaviour. It also sheds light on the way a person's position in society affects deviant behaviour. In sport psychology, the theory examines the motivation of those engaged in physical activities. It explores differences in the way individuals behave towards sport, and considers the influence of social and environmental issues on the motivation of sportsmen and women.