ACHIEVEMENT (Social Science)

The modern scientific study of achievement began with Henry Murray’s seminal study of basic human needs, Explorations in Personality (1938). His definition of achievement, influential in all subsequent work on the subject, was "To accomplish something difficult. To master, manipulate or organize physical objects, human beings, or ideas. To do this as rapidly and as independently as possible. To overcome obstacles and attain a high standard. To excel one’s self. To rival and surpass others. To increase self-regard by the successful exercise of talent" (Murray 1938, p. 164). His definition of achievement motivation was "To make intense, prolonged and repeated efforts to accomplish something difficult. To work with singleness of purpose towards a high and distant goal. To have the determination to win. To try to do everything well. To be stimulated to excel by the presence of others, to enjoy competition. To exert will power; to overcome boredom and fatigue" (Murray 1938, p. 164).


Murray developed a list of twenty human needs. Of these, the Need for Achievement has been the most extensively studied (along with the Need for Affiliation and the Need for Power). Murray also created the most extensively used measure of achievement motivation, the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). This test asks people to tell stories about each of several pictures of people in a variety of situations. Evaluators then code the stories for the presence of achievement themes. It is an indirect, or implicit, measure of interest in achievement, as opposed to an explicit measure in which people are asked to answer questions that probe for achievement motivation (as in the Achievement Motivation Inventory, an explicit adaptation of the TAT). The primary use for these measures is to discover how individuals differ in their degree of interest in achievement and, by implication, the strength of their achievement motivation.

David McClelland, using a refined version of the TAT, showed that child rearing practices have a relation to subsequent strength of achievement motivation, both at the level of the individual parent-child relationship (e.g., the extent of early independence training) and at the level of a society’s dominant culture of achievement. McClelland’s wide-ranging work at the level of culture-related differences between countries (in such things as the Protestant work ethic and the amount of achievement imagery in children’s texts or in the works of prominent writers) to indices of economic activity. This work demonstrated a clear and consistent relation between achievement imagery and economic development among and within nations and across a span of time from ancient Greek civilization to the mid-twentieth century, with increased levels of achievement themes preceding increases in economic productivity. Murray’s theory specified that the surrounding cultural context regarding achievement influenced the way that parents reared their children, which in turn created stable achievement motivation in those children as adults, eventually resulting in overall increases in the society’s economic output.

John Atkinson and his colleagues developed an influential expectancy X value theory of achievement motivation. The tendency to strive for success is, in this formulation, a multiplicative combination of the motivation to succeed, the value placed on success, and the likelihood of success. One of the primary findings using this analysis is that when given a choice among tasks varying in difficulty (probability of success), individuals will prefer tasks of intermediate difficulty, particularly if they are high in achievement motivation. The most likely reason for this preference is that tasks of intermediate complexity are the best diagnostic tasks in that they give the most information about the meaning of success or failure for one’s current level of proficiency. Another implication of this formulation is that when either the probability of success, or the value of success, is extremely low, little motivation to achieve will be generated.


A more cognitive approach to achievement motivation emphasizes how individuals understand and explain successes and failures. Bernard Weiner proposed that explanations for performances vary in two dimensions. Explanations may be either internal (something about the performer) or external (something about the performance situation), and they also vary in whether the cause is stable (likely to be the same in the future) or unstable (likely to be different in the future). An explanation for a particular performance might be internal and stable (ability), internal and unstable (effort:), external and stable (task difficulty), or external and unstable (luck). These explanations for performance affect both how individuals feel after success and failure, and how willing they are to persist in the face of an initial failure.

Initial differences in the kinds of explanations people are likely to use also have been shown to underlie the likelihood of persisting or quitting in the face of initial failure. A mastery orientation entails a focus on acquiring competence at the task, on the feeling of making progress and getting better. In the face of initial failure, a mastery orientation leads to attributions to effort, and supports task persistence. In contrast, with a performance orientation the goal is to show how good one is at the task. When a person takes this orientation, initial failure is likely to be interpreted as a sign of low ability and to lead to decreased task persistence.


The expectations of others can strongly affect achievement. Stereotypes about how well or poorly a member of a particular group is likely to perform can strongly affect the actual achievement of members of the stereotyped group. Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson introduced the concept of stereotype threat. This research demonstrates that when negative performance stereotypes are present, actual performance suffers. For example, women who are quite good at math show poorer math performance in situations in which the stereotype that women are not as good at math as men is salient, showing that the stereotype itself leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Steele and Aronson’s initial work showed that when stereotype about intelligence is made salient for African Americans in an SAT-like task, performance suffers. Underlying this process of stereotype threat is the fear that performing consistently with the stereotype will serve to confirm it in the minds of others. Worrying about this result unfortunately creates enough anxiety to interfere with performance and paradoxically results in the very behavior about which one is worried.

Achievement and achievement motivation are essential aspects of human nature, and are influenced by learning, by expectations of the value and probability of success, by one’s own explanations for task performance, and by the beliefs and expectations of others.

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