Cognitive Motivation Theories


Focusing on higher-order processes to make sense of why people do what they do

Principal Metaphors

Owing the range of foci and interpretations covered by this array of theories, a single cluster of associations cannot be specified. That said, most perspectives on “motivation” assume or assert some sort of goal– and so a large portion of Cognitive Motivation Theories align with the Attainment Metaphor:
  • Knowledge is … a goal
  • Knowing is … goal-attaining action
  • Learner is … seeker, striver (individual)
  • Learning is … journeying, arriving at, reaching, progressing, accomplishing, achieving
  • Teaching is … leading, guiding, directing, facilitating




Cognitive Motivation Theories are Motivation Theories that focus on the thought-mediated actions. Examples (in chronological order) include:
  • Cognitive Dissonance Theory (Leon Festinger, 1950s) – focused on the mental discomfort one feels when one’s beliefs, ideas, or values are inconsistent or contradictory
  • Expectancy Theory (Victor Vroom, 1960s) ­– a three-factor theory (expectancy, instrumentality, valence) to explain how people choose from available options
  • Expectancy–Value Theory (John William Atkinson, 1950s) – the hypothesis that the two most important influences in one’s choices around achievement are one’s expectation of success and the value one places on that success
  • Equity Theory (J. Stacy Adams, 1960s) – a theory of motivation based on perceptions of equity between one’s ratio of inputs–outputs to an other’s ratio of inputs–outputs
  • Goal-Setting Theory (Edwin Locke, 1960s) – a theory that weighs the importance of goal-setting and commitment for motivation
  • Theory of Reasoned Action (Martin Fishbein, Icek Ajzen, 1960s) – a theory of human action the focuses on the relationship between pre-existing attitudes and behavioral intentions
  • Two-Factor Theory (Frederick Herzberg, 1960s) – a model that makes sense of role satisfaction by distinguishing between motivating factors (e.g., achievement, recognition, advancement) and hygiene factors (e.g., compensation, context, security)
  • Metacognition (very broad author base, 1970s) - attends to individuals’ abilities both to self-monitor and self-regulate
  • Cognitive Evaluation Theory (Edward L. Deci, Richard Ryan, 1980s) – looks at how social and environmental factors enable or constrain intrinsic motivations (e.g., feedback on work, contextual support, teacher warmth)
  • Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihályi, 1980s) – focused on deep, yet effortless immersion in tasks; characterized by intense concentration on an achievable goal
  • Theory of Planned Behavior (Icek Ajzen, 1980s) – based on the Theory of Reasoned Action, this theory interprets one’s actions by looking across attitude, subjective norms, intentions, and perceived behavioral control
  • Intrinsically Motivating Instruction (Thomas W. Malone, 1980s) – advice on computer-based learning environments to provide users with choices on challenge, curiosity, and fantasy
  • Mindset (Carol Dweck, 1990s) – focused on the relationship between one’s sense of agency and one’s learning engagements
  • Positive Psychology (Martin Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Christopher Peterson, Barbara Fredrickson, 1990s) - the scientific study of “the good life” – phrased variously as “flourishing,” “happiness,” and so on
  • Self-Efficacy (Alfred Bandura, 1990s) – focused on one’s belief in one’s capacities to meet challenges and reach goals
  • Intelligence Compensation Theory (P. Wood, P. Englert, 2000s) – a goal-oriented theory asserting that less intelligent persons compensate by working harder, more methodically, and more conscientiously
  • Temporal Motivation Theory (Piers Steel, Cornelius J. König, 2000s) – a theory that uses “time” as a critical motivational factor to integrate other motivational theories


An obvious first criticism of all Motivation Theories is that they are overwhelmingly focused on individuals, with little attention paid to systems of activity. Educationally speaking, it’s especially difficult to know what to do with Cognitive Motivation Theories, given the vast array of factors and recommendations identified.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Some Cognitive Motivation Theories can be classified as theories of learning. Departing from most theories of learning, they focus more on the why’s than the how’s.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Most Cognitive Motivation Theories are concerned more with influencing learning than understanding learning, and so a majority are properly described as theories of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

As might be expected with the stunning range of foci and interpretations, Cognitive Motivation Theories span the full gamut of Folk Theories through rigorously scientific theories.


  • Cognitive Dissonance Theory
  • Cognitive Evaluation Theory
  • Equity Theory
  • Expectancy Theory
  • Expectancy–Value Theory
  • Flow
  • Goal-Setting Theory
  • Intelligence Compensation Theory
  • Intrinsically Motivating Instruction
  • Metacognition
  • Mindset
  • Positive Psychology
  • Self-Efficacy
  • Temporal Motivation Theory
  • Theory of Planned Behavior
  • Theory of Reasoned Action
  • Two-Factor Theory

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Cognitive Motivation Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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