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My friend has asked me for help. While still in school and attending classes, she no longer feels motivated to do well in school. Because we are close, and I am taking a Psychology course, she has come to me to try and find a way to get back to the high achievement mode she was in just last year. Not being trained in any way to help her with any psychological problems, I tell her that I just covered motivation in class and maybe some of that information would be helpful to her. We agree to work on this problem together as best as we can.

The text does a wonderful job of explaining each theory of motivation and what it covers. However, it gives equal or greater coverage to why each theory does not work. This makes it difficult to get a feel for how to help my friend. By talking good about each theory and at the same time saying it’s insufficient and won’t provide accurate forecasts of behavior, I’m not confident that any one of these theories will help. Instead I will focus on three separate aspects and hope that the combination of these views will bring out the strengths of each position and compensate for each of their weaknesses.

Our first discussion with focus on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as discussed on pages 170-171 in our text “Understanding Psychology” by Duarte and Ettinger. Abraham Maslow determined that there is a hierarchy in which we evaluate the importance of our needs. Many times I have heard of the discussion about the difference between a need and a want, but I’ve never really evaluated the actual importance of each need. I always made the distinction that a need is something that is necessary to continue living while wants are just the desires we have to make the life better. In my evaluation of needs v. wants, I focused on the basics of life: food, water, shelter. I figured things like love, emotional attachments, feeling good about oneself were all just wants and desires – not necessary components of life. Maslow had a different opinion on this matter. He included all of those things in his hierarchy. According to Maslow there are five levels in his hierarchy: Physiological Needs, Safety Needs, Love and Belongingness, Esteem Needs and finally Self-Actualization.

Physiological needs include the basics I described as my needs: food, water, sleep. This is the lowest level and is how we are brought into the world. Safety needs include both physical and psychological needs, which means that shelter is not enough. We need to have the comfort in our mind that we are safe within our shelter. At Love and Belongingness we try to satisfy a need to love others as well as being loved by others. This is typically satisfied through relationships with family and friends. Esteem needs are rooted in the need to excel and to be recognized for our achievements. At the highest level, Self-actualization is the ability for a person to know him or herself and find a way to get the most out of everything they are and they do.

Maslow’s doctrine stated specifically that an organism must first satisfy the basic needs before it would be able to reach for the next level in the hierarchy. For me, it’s easier to think of Maslow’s hierarchy as a ladder. You have to reach one rung in the ladder before you can climb up to the next rung. For example, if you haven’t satisfied your need for food and water you will not be able to satisfy your need for safety. A person’s focus will be on their lowest unsatisfied rung of the ladder. If I’ve satisfied physiological needs and safety needs, I won’t be able to skip love and belongingness to get to esteem. This is where I turn my attention back to my friend. Esteem is where Maslow states a person is looking to excel and be recognized for those achievements. Since my friend is unable or unwilling to excel, it would make sense that she hasn’t been able to reach this rung on the ladder. More to the point, she may have slipped a level in the past year and I decide to talk to her about changes in her personal and family life.

While researching Maslow, I found a research paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation A. H. Maslow (1943)” by Christopher Green. In it he states that,

“Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability and adequacy of being useful and necessary in the world. But thwarting of these needs produces feelings of inferiority, of weakness and of helplessness. These feelings in turn give rise to either basic discouragement or else compensatory or neurotic trends.”

My friend is having trouble feeling motivated to excel. It would seem that the root of the problem could be found in this level of Maslow’s hierarchy. Through discussions we talk and find that indeed she and her long time boyfriend broke up but that was several months ago and she has been able to move on since then. She has been having some troubles with her family but no more than normal. She has been spending more time alone at home than normal.

Based on this conversation it seemed evident to me that her relationships were not as strong today as they had been even last year. I was able to tell her that we hadn’t spent as much time together in the past six months as we had in the past. I make the suggestion to her that we spend more time together and that she tries to become more socially engaged with our friends and her family. The feeling of love and belonging may spur her on to want to find more success. She agrees and believes that we are done with the discussion.

Unfortunately there are some drawbacks to Maslow’s theories. One of the major drawbacks is that there is really no evidence and no way to prove that an organism really does try and satisfy his hierarchy in the order he has laid out. It is also difficult to prove that all organisms see those five hierarchies as the only needs to be met. It can also be difficult to evaluate whether each organism shares the same views of what each level includes or means. Self-actualization is a very vague concept and difficult to evaluate for example. So as I tell my friend, we need to keep digging.

Achievement Motivation is the motivation a person has when they deeply desire to excel at something. On page 172 of our text, it notes that:

“The concept of achievement motivations was first defined in 1938 by Henry Murray as the need to “. . . accomplish something difficult. To overcome obstacles and attain a high standard. To rival and surpass others. To increase self regard by the successful exercise of talent.”

That deep down desire to not just do well, but to excel in a task is what Achievement Motivation is about. My friend has always been highly motivated to do well, and I think this is why she came to me for help. As we continued to talk we both commented on how out of character this situation really is for her. I told her about a motivation principle called the Need for Achievement, which is a measure of how a person is motivated to accomplish difficult goals, attain higher standards and surpass the achievements of others. While I didn’t have a Thematic Apperception Test to evaluate her Need for Achievement, we both agreed that it would have normally ranked fairly high even if it didn’t rank high today.

Following some more research, I looked at some job related texts in how people are motivated to succeed in the corporate world. As college is the location where we are prepared to excel in the working environment, this seemed like a logical place to look for more information on how to fix a motivational problem. My research brought me to the Accelteam, a company focused on helping with employee motivation. They had an article discussing David McClelland, who is one of the major theorists in the area of Achievement Motivation. In the article they state that:

“A desire by people with a high need for achievement to seek situations in which they get concrete feedback on how well they are doing is closely related to this concern for personal accomplishment. Consequently, achievement-motivated people are often found in sales jobs or as owners and managers of their own businesses. In addition to concrete feedback, the nature of the feedback is important to achievement-motivated people. They respond favorably to information about their work. They are not interested in comments about their personal characteristics, such as how cooperative or helpful they are. Affiliation-motivated people might want social or attitudinal feedback. Achievement-motivated people might want job-relevant feedback. They want to know the score.”

This information led me to talk to her about her class schedule. We discussed her current professors and the format of each class. My intention was to see if maybe she was not connecting very well with the instructors. If the instructors were not giving her appropriate feedback, it is possible that she could lose interest in her Need for Achievement and withdraw. It’s also possible that if the class is typically lecture oriented rather than task oriented she may not be getting routine feedback that could also cause her to become withdrawn. As we discussed these possibilities it became apparent that one of her classes was online and there was very little interaction between her and the professor. She wasn’t being given clear expectations or feedback, and it was certainly one of her least favorite classes this semester. However, all of her other classes were typical in class instruction and she felt like she was getting feedback, she just didn’t feel the urge to excel in those classes any more.
I suggested to my friend that she either drop the online class or open a dialogue with the instructor and try to get more information about his expectations. As we talked I explained that it could be that one class that was not feeding her Need for Achievement could be putting her in the frame of mind that all of her classes were not meeting that goal. By taking the initiative to find out more information about that class, or cutting it out of her schedule, we would be removing one of the causes for her lack of motivation.

Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks to this conclusion is that Achievement Motivation is typically a learned behavior in childhood. Children that are asked to be independent and provided with reasonable rewards for meeting goals tend to develop a strong Achievement Motivation. While we think that this is the case for my friend, it is very difficult to influence or change this behavior in adulthood.

Finally we discussed Cognitive Expectancies. In this model, a person is motivated to action based on the expected result of the action being favorable. For example, my son will clean his room after school each day because he knows that if his room his clean before dinner he is allowed a desert treat after dinner. However, if he were to clean his room and the desert was not offered, he may change his behavior. Our text talks about Tolman and Rotter as the authorities on this motivational theory. They broke up the expectation into two parts: the expectation that the behavior will produce a desired result and the relative value of that result. As I read this, it made me think of Pavlov’s experiments with the animals and treats – conditioning something into a desired action through rewards.

One of the biggest pillars of this theory revolves around the word Expectancies. What we expect to happen drives what we are willing to do to reach that goal. An excerpt from a lecture through Salisbury University talks about Expectancies:

“Expectancies: behavior outcome expectancies: if I do this, then I can expect that; expectancies will be based on past experiences with similar situations; sometimes specific information is available that can create or change expectancies. If one’s can’t change expectancies when given new specific information, then Mischel considered the person maladaptive. The maladaptive individual is acting in accord with expectancies that do not represent the actual behavior-outcome rules in that particular situation. A second kind of expectancy relates to our confidence in our ability to perform competently, called self-efficacy. Our perceived self-efficacy is related to our capacity to do what needs to be done. A third kind of expectancy relates to the stimulus-outcome association: if this happens, I can expect this to follow.”

What struck me about this definition was the comment about Self-Efficacy. Our text talks about it while defining personality types. But it was certainly something that seemed to fit my current situation. I talked to my friend about her expectations in each class. She said that her expectations had been extremely high for the past several semesters. As the classes have progressed she was finding it harder and harder to reach her goals of straight A’s in each of her classes. She was starting to think that she was unable to reach those goals. We talked about how she perceived herself and her abilities as they related to school. She had lost her confidence that working hard and studying would translate into the grades she expected. We talked about other hobbies she enjoys and her part time job. I tried to see if she still believed that hard work in those areas would result in positive outcomes. She wasn’t sure that she had that confidence anymore. I suggested that she put some focus there and see if doing well in some of the things she enjoyed would help give her confidence in her schoolwork.

Through these discussions we were able to narrow in on some of the reasons she was lacking motivation to do well in school. When we were done with our talks, I sat down with her and helped her to write out an action plan:

First – she is going to discuss options with the instructor of her online class. If they can’t figure out how to get some clear feedback and expectations worked in to the course, then she was going to drop the course and focus on the other classes that fit in better with her Need for Achievement.

Second – she is going to make an effort to become more sociable with her friends and family. Spending time with them and fostering those relationships will help her to rebuild her foundation so that she can address the esteem level of Maslow’s hierarchy.

Third – she is going to invest more time and effort in her hobbies to gain some success and with that increase her confidence. With some work, she may see that confidence spill over into her schoolwork again.

It was very difficult to figure out what could motivate a person and then see if the lack of those motivations would be present in a person. Understanding how these motivational factors work has helped me to understand how I’m motivated. I’m hoping that going forward, I’ll be able to stay focused and maintain confidence in what I do because I understand why I act the way I do.