Motives and goals

From: Eugene Matusov (
Date: Sun Feb 01 2004 - 13:14:54 PST

Dear Phil, Mike, and everybody-

Goal without a motive and motive without a goal: can it be? Are these
notions redundant?

I'm preparing to teach a grad seminar on motivation so this discussion is
very "handy" for me. I wonder if there is overuse of such terms as "motive"
in some conceptual frameworks and underuse in some others. For example,
behaviorism, a dynamic system approach (Thelen, Fogel), and, probably,
connectionism (please correct me if I'm wrong) would try to avoid use of the
notion of "motive" as the driving/explanatory force of human behavior. In
contrast, attribution theories, some information processing approaches,
Freudian psychoanalysis, Leotnev's activity theory, and so on make motive
and motivation as their main conceptual focus.

I personally feel uncomfortable with both tendencies: approaches that deny
motive and motivation are losing agency while approaches that embrace motive
and motivation are too individualistic (even including Leontev's one)
treating an individual as a container possessing motives and motivations. In
this regard, I've found gestalt-psychology an interesting way to find a
"third way". Specifically, I find useful gestalt-psychology notion of
psychological field and its notion of mediation (arguably, it was gestalt
psychologists who introduced this notion of "mediation" and "mediated
action" into psychology and not Vygotsky who referred to gestalt
psychologists on this issue). Gestalt psychologists talked about "tensions
in psychological fields" blurring the boundary between a person and
environment (Gibson's notion of affordances grew out of that). These
tensions are not motives because they do not belong fully to the individual
and are not controlled by the individual. Zegarnik's studies of unfulfilled
actions under guidance of Kurt Lewin investigated these "tensions in
psychological fields". The second idea comes from gestalt psychologist
Kohler who, in his famous studies of caged apes, defined intellect as
mediated action. Putting these two ideas together, it is possible to define
"motive" as mediated conflicting tensions in psychological fields (it is
interesting to note that criminal law has known about this definition for
long time distinguishing "manslaughter" from "premeditated murder").

Now, let me give examples so you can visualize what I'm talking about.
1) Non-mediated tension in psychological field (no motive) (all examples I
stole from other colleagues)
 I demonstrate this example in my classes. While discussing some topics, I
come close to a student (my "victim") and put a pen in his/her close
proximity. The student predictably takes the pen as if I was offering it to
him/her even though there is not any context suggesting or making sense me
offering the pen. What was interesting that my students often report a
struggle with themselves not to take the pen even after I explained what the
demonstration was about. Gestalt psychologists would explain this phenomenon
by reference to tensions in psychological field (i.e., charged with positive
psychological valency). Gibson would probably explain it by reference to
affordances. This is not a goal-directed action. There is not a goal - not
any ideal reality constructed by the participant that mediates the action of
taking the pen.

2) Mediated tension in psychological field (with a motive).
I repeat the demonstration AFTER I explained the students what the
demonstration was about. The students now know that I tried to manipulate
them by poking the pen into their proximity. Many of my students choose to
resist their impulse to take the pen (sometimes I can see their hand
reaching the pen that suddenly stopped and pulled back by the students).
This shows that the students are involved in two, not one as it was
previously, tensions: 1) to be guided by the pen's positive psychological
valency (or "offering" affordance) and 2) to be guided by my explanation of
the demonstration and the students' desire not to be manipulated - pens'
negative psychological valency (or "resisting manipulation" affordance).
(Please notice sociocultural and historical nature of these tensions and
affordances!) These two conflicting tensions are resolved with a new
mediated action: the student pulls back his/her hand, laughs and tells me,
"You are not going to get me this time!" I'd argue through this mediated
action is when the motive is born. Motive is a mediation of two conflicting

Again, criminal law has known that for long time because to be liable in
criminal justice one has to be guided by two conflicting tensions: 1)
knowing right from wrong and 2) involving in something harmful to others. To
be responsible for a crime *with a motive* (e.g., "premeditated murder" vs.
"manslaughter"), one also has to mediate this tension (there should be
evidence of such mediation).

Now, Mike raises a good question (actually, he did not but I can do it for
him because his message prompts it) - is presence of a goal the necessary
and sufficient condition for the presence of motive? Indeed, goal is the
ideal constructed reality (ideal affordance) that mediates the action.
Goal-directed activity is always mediated and we might suspect a motive in

However, I'd not jump to a conclusion that a goal directed activity is
*always* with a motive and, thus, motivated. A goal directed activity may be
without a motive in, at least, two important ways: 1) there may not be two
conflicting tensions in a goal-directed activity and 2) there may be two (or
more) conflicting tensions but they are not mediated by the goal. For
example, today my wife and I plan to go to watch a movie. My planned movie
trip is purposeful (goal-directed as I'm arranging it with my wife) but
probably without a motive. As far as I know, I do not have competing
tensions with the regard to this trip. One may say that my motive is "to
have a good time" but although this lay use of the term "motive" is common
and thus makes sense, I do not think it is very useful. I agree with gestalt
psychologists and with their followers, ecological psychologists, that it
would be much better to call movies (as symbolic-material reality) "positive
psychological valency" or "affordance" for me than as a motive.

Now, let's complicate our example and assume that my wife and I have a
competing tension with regard to the movie trip - our family decided to save
money as much as possible to buy a house. We may still go to see a movie. In
this case, we have a goal-directed activity, two conflicting tensions, but
these conflicting tensions are NOT necessarily mediated. We are with the
goal that guides us how to solve problems of going to movie theater (e.g.,
to choose which movie to see or how to find a parking in Philadelphia - not
an easy task!) but it does not mediate the two conflicting tensions. One may
say that our visit to movie theater is impulsive (i.e., still fully guided
by a psychological field or by affordance) - without much agency emerged
from a motive. (By the way, we can "impulsively" stay home or be paralyzed
by an interpersonal conflict - it still does not produce a motive). Studies
on postponed gratifications correctly identify their focus on conflicting
tensions in psychological fields but they sometimes miss a point about
mediation of this tension - from the fact that one postpones gratification
does not mean that one has a motive (like in our movie case). Only when we
try to mediate our conflicting tensions by, for example, setting priorities,
making a rule, or flipping a coin - we will develop a motive (cf. Vygotsky's
notion of management of one's own behavior).

Further, we can ask the reverse question: Can an activity with a motive be
without a goal? I think it can. I ca offer an example from Dostoevsky's
novel "Crime and Punishment" (sorry to people who did not read it - I highly
recommend this novel). For some time, the main character Raskol'nikov had a
motive but not a goal. He developed a motive of murder to "cross the line" -
make a hideous crime - as a way to solve-mediate his moral dilemma of
finding himself capable to be a God-denying person. But, he did not have a
goal. He developed his goal later when he decided to kill the old lady, a
pawn-broker. It is interesting that Raskol'nkov was aware that he might have
never developed the goal but live the rest of his life just with a motive. A
less dramatic example of motive without a goal was my dad who decided to
quite smoking after facing with some health problems. His decision to quite
smoking mediated the conflicting tensions. It made him so happy that he
postponed developing a goal of quitting for several years until his health
problems became more acute. He was with his motive but without a goal.

What do you think?

PS I agree with Mike that the issue of multiple motives and multiple goals
is very important and not well studied...

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Mike Cole []
> Sent: Sunday, February 01, 2004 12:10 PM
> To:
> Subject: Re: imitation vodka and Whole Process learning
> this is only a partial response, phil, but it speaks to a recurrent
> issue.
> You write, in small part:
> A learner may come to a
> place for language learning with the socially-derived motive of
> improving her/his prospects of promotion in the local workplace.
> However, it may be revealed that the learner, in fact, had, or has
> developed "private motives" in the language class that reflect more
> immediate needs.
> In Leontiev's framework, aren't what you call private MOTIVES private
> GOALS? And isn't the corresponding level of analysis that of goal
> directed actions?
> The answer to this may be NO. But I routinely find myself confused about
> the issue of goal/motive action/activity. And, concurrently, believe that
> many goals may be pursued within a common activity and even, perhaps, that
> a given activity might be said to fufill multiple MOTIVES. For sure a
> given activity can fufill multiple goals.
> mike

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