What Is Atkinson’s Achievement and Motivation Theory?

The achievement motivation theory of John Atkinson and David McClelland is one of the most highly cited theories of motivation in contemporary psychology. This theory was proposed as the result of their research that focused on motivators for cognitive processes, like the expected or perceived value of the results of an action. The achievement motivation theory was published in 1953.

The achievement motivation theory supports the idea that actions are driven by the motivation to meet or exceed a certain standard of excellence perceived by the individual or society as a whole, when considered from a macro perspective. The need to achieve or meet a certain standard of excellence is thought to have derived from the first years of a child’s life as the result of the way parents expect or reward independent action in their children. Thus, achievement motivation as a personality characteristic is not necessarily the same in each person.

For children who were greatly rewarded for independence, achievement motivation factors more highly in their cognitive processes, while children who were neglected do not have a history of feeling pride in meeting a certain standard of excellence. Atkinson and McClelland believed that when children are properly motivated, the emotional arousal that occurs within the unconscious becomes stronger when a child is challenged with the possibly of success.