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. Factors affecting cognitive motivation include:
  • Curiosity – Typically seen as a complement to or elaboration of Interest, Curiosity is generally interpreted in terms of urges, drives, or motivations to explore and understand – that is, to learn.
  • Disposition – one’s general attitude toward learning. Specific types of Disposition include:
    • Productive Disposition – the tendency to see value in topics and tasks
  • Expectancy – one’s expectations for the outcome of a situation. Situations associated with specific Expectancies include:
    • Threat – a situation with a low Expectancy, no matter the effort expended
    • Challenge – a situation with a reasonable Expectancy, if appropriate effort is put forward
  • Interest – the extent to which a topic or task is perceived as intriguing or enticing. Sometimes conflated with, but more often seen as an aspect of or complement to, Curiosity, Interest is generally interpreted through metaphors of “being pulled by” and “gravitating toward.” That is, Interest precedes and orients Curiosity. Major categories of Interest are:
    • Personal Interests – relatively stable preferences that are specific to the individual
    • Situational Interest – a temporary Interest triggered by a something in the environment
Examples of Cognitive Motivation Theories (in chronological order) include:
  • Individual Psychology (Adlerian Psychology) (Alfred Adler, 1910s) – countering the perspective that humans are principally driven by unconscious and irrational instincts, a theory based on the suggestion that human motivations are principally conscious and oriented toward explicit life goals and highest potentials
    • Striving for Superiority – in Individual Psychology, the suggestion that humans has an innate drive to realize their full potential
  • Cognitive Dissonance Theory (Leon Festinger, 1950s) – focused on the mental discomfort one feels when one’s beliefs, ideas, or values are inconsistent or contradictory
  • Goal-Setting Theory (Goal Theory; Locke’s Theory of Goal Setting) (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 [of Role Satisfaction] (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
  • Intrinsically Motivating Instruction (Thomas W. Malone, 1980s) – advice on computer-based learning environments to provide users with choices on challenge, curiosity, and fantasy
  • Theory of Personal Investment (Martin L. Maehr, Larry A. Braskamp, 1980s) – a theory of motivation that suggests that one’s willingness to invest in an activity can be attributed to three factors: incentives, self-perception, and options
  • 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. Associated notions include:
    • Perceived Behavioral Control – with Theory of Planned Behavior, the extent to which one believes on is in control of one’s behavior
  • Stage-Environment Fit Theory (Jacquelynne Eccles, Carol Midgley, 1980s) – a perspective converned on the relationship between student motivation/success and the support and opportunities that students experience in their institutions
  • Mindset (Carol Dweck, 1990s) – focused on the relationship between one’s sense of agency and one’s learning engagements
  • MODE Theory (Motivation and Opportunity as Determinants Theory) (Russell Fazio, 1990s) – a perspective on motivation (and influencing motivations) that involves conscious reflection on attitudes and associated behaviors. MODE Theory is concerned with and critical of automatized attitudes and actions.
  • 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 Construal Theory (Construal Level Theory) (Nira Liberman, Yaacov Tope, 2000s) ­– a model that differentiates between motivations for the near future and those for the distant future, suggesting that one relies on more concrete, low-level construals for more immediate matters and on more abstract, high-level construals for more distant matters
  • 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 influential subset of Cognitive Motivation Theories emerged in the mid-1900s, rooted in studies of employment satisfaction:
  • Instrumentality Theory (1950s) – the perspective that one’s attitudes and motivations in relation to a task or event are opportunistic – that is, indexed to one’s perceptions for bringing about desired consequences
  • Valence Theory (1950s) – the perspective that one’s attitudes and motivations in relation to a task or event are indexed to the value (“valence”) one places on an anticipated outcome
  • Expectancy Theory (Goal-Expectation Theory) (Victor Vroom, 1950s) ­– 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
  • Valence–Instrumentality–Expectancy Theory (Victor Vroom, 1960s) – a perspective on motivation developed specifically for the workplace that combines three previous theories in the suggestion that employee effort is a function of the three variables named in the title
  • Job-Characteristics Model (Richard Hackman, Greg Oldham, 1970s) – a model of employee motivation based on five “job dimensions”: task identity, task significance, skill variety, autonomy, feedback
  • Porter–Lawler Model of Motivation (Lyman Porter, Edward Lawler, 1970s) – a perspective on workplace motivation that mashes up Valence–Instrumentality–Expectancy Theory, Equity Theory, ERG Theory (under Drives, Needs, & Desires Theories), and Intrinsic Motivation Discourses


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.


  • Challenge
  • Cognitive Dissonance Theory
  • Cognitive Evaluation Theory
  • Curiosity
  • Disposition
  • Equity Theory
  • Expectancy
  • Expectancy Theory (Goal-Expectation Theory)
  • Expectancy–Value Theory
  • Flow
  • Goal-Setting Theory (Goal Theory; Locke’s Theory of Goal Setting)
  • Individual Psychology (Adlerian Psychology)
  • Instrumentality Theory
  • Intelligence Compensation Theory
  • Interest
  • Intrinsically Motivating Instruction
  • Job-Characteristics Model
  • Metacognition
  • Mindset
  • MODE Theory (Motivation and Opportunity as Determinants Theory)
  • Perceived Behavioral Control
  • Personal Interests
  • Porter–Lawler Model of Motivation
  • Positive Psychology
  • Productive Disposition
  • Self-Efficacy
  • Situational Interest
  • Stage-Environment Fit Theory
  • Striving for Superiority
  • Temporal Construal Theory (Construal Level Theory)
  • Temporal Motivation Theory
  • Theory of Personal Investment
  • Theory of Planned Behavior
  • Theory of Reasoned Action
  • Threat
  • Two-Factor Theory [of Role Satisfaction]
  • Valence Theory
  • Valence–Instrumentality–Expectancy Theory

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2024). “Cognitive Motivation Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

⇦ Back to Map
⇦ Back to List