Measuring Motivation: Understanding What Makes Us… Mad, Sad & Glad


Whilst we have reached the academic maturity of meta-analyses and calls for integrated models of Motivation (more on this later), the practical application of Motivation theory is relatively infantile, compared to areas such as Personality theory. Since this was a particularly fascinating area for me, and still is – my curiosity as to why this is the case is a question to which an answer has largely evaded me.

I realise that many members who read this, will draw upon the example of Goal Setting Theory (Locke & Latham, 1990) – the proverbial crowning jewel in the Occupational Psychologists’ toolkit. This is an area of academic Motivation Theory which has certainly had a huge practical application, but it is of course only one element of a completely and irrefutably multi-faceted construct. Outside of this area, I would put forward the argument that Motivation theory has not been as successful as Personality theory in developing a robust and well understood application. Perhaps this is a dangerous parallel to draw.  These two constructs are closely and intricately intertwined – with research suggesting that motivation can mediate the relationship between traits and performance (Locke, 2001) i.e. underlying motives causing traits to manifest as behaviour (Locke & Latham, 2006). This complex interaction is one which will continue to be researched and will form the basis for our understanding of individual differences.

Perhaps the answer to the shortcomings in Motivation measurement lie in the lack of a consistent, agreed upon model of Motivation. The frankly nebulous area of Motivation theory makes it particularly difficult to gain any real ground in this regard. Imagine a world without the MBTI (I hear big fivers rejoicing!) or the Big Five. Would we have such a developed and pervasive application of Personality Psychometrics? The organisation of tools, profiles and Psychometrics around these two models is extensive, and suggests that having a fundamental model does help in focussing application. Secondly, the inherent nature of Motivation is one which is wholly introspective. Only the individual truly knows what motivates them, if at all. Even this point is contentious as research would show that what people think motivates and makes them happy, may actually not i.e. money (Haring, Stock, & Okun, 1984).  Motivation by its nature is not something which can easily be observed or measured in an objective, robust manner which both has face validity and factors for social desirability bias (ironically, this is what people in history and in the present day, have argued about measuring personality). In an era which has moved towards an increasing emphasis on behavioural 360 degree feedback and robust psychometrics, this is hard to atone for. However, not impossible, as it is clearly one which Personality theory has (somewhat successfully) overcome.

There are however very reputable and well-grounded Psychometrics out there which measure the concept of Motivation. From a simple BPS-PTC (British Psychological Society – Psychology Testing Centre) search, a number of tools surfaced. These included Hogan’s Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (MVPI; Hogan & Hogan), the Managerial and Professional Profiler (MAPP; Hunter & Roberts), the Motivation Questionnaire (MQ, by SHL; Baron, Henley, McGibbon & McCarthy) and finally the Sport Personality Questionnaire (SPQ20; Cameron). I must admit, there were far more tools that I had initially realised and many I have missed here which demonstrate that measuring Motivation is a possibility. However, there is a gaping hole in the middle of this market for a tool which takes a more holistic and integrated approach to Motivation.

I refer to the market here, with the conscious effort to place a practical spin on this piece because as mentioned, the theoretical underpinnings of Motivation theory are difficult to fault. Riding the wave of this commercialisation of Motivation has proved very successful for American Author; Daniel Pink. In his book, ‘Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us’, he attests to three core motivators – Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery. This of course will not be surprising to Motivation researchers and Occupational/Business Psychologists in general, as these three constructs are very much based on long standing core tenets of Psychological theory – either to Pink’s credit or critique, depending on your stance. When he mentions Purpose, parallels can be drawn to the critical state of Meaningfulness in Oldham and Hackman’s seminal Job Characteristic model (1976) and even more recently to research on Meaning of Work (MoW) most notably by Wrzesniewski (2012) and Rosso, Dekas & Wrzesniewski (2010). When he refers to Mastery, parallels can be drawn to Carol Dweck’s (1985) work on learning goal orientation as opposed to performance goal orientation. And finally, Autonomy again draws on the Oldham and Hackman’s work, as one of the key work characteristics which allows independence, freedom, discretion and hence intrinsic motivation. The reason why I discuss this here is to illustrate what Pink has done here.  He has taken seemingly disparate concepts and integrated them into a model of Motivation, which may well be too simplistic but the principle of what is achieved is of most importance here.

Along with Lock and Latham (2006), I would agree that this is the approach which needs to be taken in order to further our understanding of Motivation. Incorporating key evidence based (from Meta-analyses) elements of various models would allow us to build and rally a conceptualisation of Motivation and drive the field forward – akin to the role the Big Five has played in Personality. Such an integrated model could take into account and consolidate the axioms of Motivation theory such as need theories, goal-setting theory, social-cognitive theories, work design models as well as orthogonal but interlinked concepts such as personality, self-efficacy and engagement.

It’s difficult to completely express why Motivation captures my imagination, much like the difficulty I have in identifying exactly what motivates me. I know that I’m not alone in this, and perhaps this issue first came into my mind when I heard Adrian Furnham at The Psychometrics Forum last year profess that he wakes up at 4am every day to start work – but to this day, had no idea why i.e. what was driving this seemingly workaholic like motivation. Reflecting on this, I think a large part of my intrigue with this area has to do with trying to see my personal heroes’ monumental achievements through a lens of Motivation. What fundamentally drives these great people to persist, work and fight against so many barriers, difficulties and hardships? Was it a sense of morality and social justice, security or perhaps the great weight of expectation that drove Dr Martin Luther King? Is it a sense of achievement, advancement and/or purpose which continues to drive Barack Obama in his role as the first ever African American President of the USA just a half century after the civil rights movement? Is it a need for mastery, a sense of responsibility or pure commitment which drives Kobe Bryant to overcome a career ending injury during the twilight of his career to make a comeback that Sir Alex Ferguson would be proud of? All of these examples and many more continue to drive my motivation to learn about motivation. Quite ironic in fact, that whilst I was writing this piece, this became really apparent to me.

Written by Raj Chopra, TPF Committee Member – @rajchopra24

Follow The Psychometrics Forum on Twitter: @TPF_UK


Dweck, Carol S., and Ellen L. Leggett. (1988). “A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality.” Psychological review 95, 2, 256.

Hackman, J. Richard, and Greg R. Oldham. (1976):  “Motivation through the design of work: Test of a theory.” Organizational behavior and human performance 16.2, 250-279.

Haring, M. J., Stock,W. A., & Okun, M. A. (1984). A research synthesis of gender and social class as correlates of subjective well-being. Human Relations, 37, 645-657.

Locke, E. 2001. Self-set goals and self-efficacy as mediators of incentives and personality. In M. Erez, U. Kleinbeck, & H. Thierry (Eds.), Work motivation in the context of a globalizing economy: 13–26. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Locke, E., & Latham, G. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Locke, E., & Latham, G. (2006). What Should We Do About Motivation Theory? Six Recommendations For The Twenty-First Century. Academy of Management Review, Vol. 29, No. 3, 388–403.

Rosso, Brent D., Kathryn H. Dekas, and Amy Wrzesniewski. “On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review.” Research in Organizational Behavior 30 (2010): 91-127.

Wrzesniewski, A. (2012). Callings, Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Oxford University Press