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Two Errors When Using Motivation to Explain Human Behavior

Cognition restricts the effect of motivation on goal achievement.

Key points

  • An action can be linked to multiple motivations subjectively experienced, expressed, and strongly influenced by self-interest and desires.
  • Individuals often cite self-serving or irrelevant motivations as the explanation and rationalization for criminal or deviant acts.
  • A person’s limited cognitive spectrum of reality restricts the effect of motivation on goal achievement.

Motivation generally refers to driving forces within individuals that arouse, maintain, and direct human actions toward engagement and disengagement (Heckhausen & Heckhausen, 2008). It is frequently viewed as a convenient psychological variable in self-help books, literature, and conversations to explain why some actions (particularly criminal or deviant) occur and how the lack of certain motivations is responsible for failing to achieve socially desirable results.

However, it is a mistake to believe that only a particular motivation of an actor or perpetrator is causally related to his/her specific actions in human interactions for two reasons. First, a specific action can be linked to multiple and often seemingly opposite motivations, all of which are subjectively experienced, expressed, and strongly influenced by self-serving interests and desires (e.g., internal justification and external impression management). Multiple activities can also manifest a particular motivation. In addition, as one of the psychological mechanisms shaping individuals’ decision-making and various intentional actions, the operation of motivation depends upon and is restricted by one’s cognitive understanding of evolving reality.

Using motivation as a causal explanation for behavior has at least two problems.

First, self-serving or irrelevant motivations are often cited as the explanation and rationalization for criminal or deviant acts, despite no objective cause-and-effect relation between the two.

For example, as reported in Los Angeles Times in the summer of 2022, two pistol-armed strangers robbed a $60,000 Rolex watch from a man and woman loading groceries into their car. According to the California Penal Code, this offense matches the definition of robbery: “taking “personal property in possession of another, from his person or immediate presence, and against his will, accomplished by means of force or fear.”

The criminal intent or motive to take another’s property by force or fear is the only required motivation to establish the perpetrator’s guilt for the crime. The criminal intent was implied in the action, regardless of whether the offenders denied it or provided excuses.

Nevertheless, a published opinion claimed that the offenders intended to use the mugged $60,000 watch to buy a house they could not afford. This argument is quite misleading. This motivation to buy a house, if present, was neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for the robbery. Numerous prosocial activities and jobs can earn them more money.

This type of justification is a part of defense mechanisms or motivations some offenders, and delinquents use to rationalize or justify wrongdoings or violence (e.g., Sun, 1993). If the motivations presented by offenders could explain criminal or deviant behavior, all criminology and criminal psychology research would have become unnecessary.

Second, the effect of motivation on goal achievement is restricted by the person’s limited cognitive spectrum of reality.

Let’s look at two examples:

1. Many individuals made their New Year’s resolutions at the beginning of this year related to their unfulfilled needs in areas such as interpersonal relationships, health, family, career, education, finance, or other domains. However, at least some people have repeated the same resolutions many times in previous years and apparently have never achieved their goals.

2. At a therapeutic facility for correctional clients with mental disorders, almost 99 percent of them suffered interpersonal posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from being victims of sexual, physical, and/or emotional abuse and other mental or physical violence in interpersonal settings. They showed some typical symptoms of PTSD, such as self-blame, depression, intense fear, helplessness, re-experiencing the trauma, and flashbacks. However, as this author observed, most of their thoughts were directed toward discovering higher cognitive rules that could explain or make sense of past experiences rather than focusing on negative self-concepts.

Although the thoughts could be labeled as negative, they were by no means unwanted. This is because their intention or motivation involved the attempt to learn and extract some general and objective rules from the experienced traumas so that they could apply the rules to guide current and future interactions.

Their motivation did not generate the intended outcomes with repeated efforts because identifying the higher rules regulating human behavior was beyond their levels of cognitive capacity and comprehension (Sun, 2014)

Motivations, willpower, or correct desires are insufficient for realizing individuals’ goals and meeting their needs because all intentional actions operate on perceived reality. Individuals make false judgments, miscommunications, and maladaptive decision-making and actions. They also experience obstacles, frustrations, and invalidations in fulfilling their needs for interpersonal harmony, mental peace, and balanced interactions with environments, because of a mismatch between the mind and reality for them, which can be simply described as regarding one’s false or limited cognition of reality as being true or complete (Sun, 2019).

Using motivation or willpower cannot elevate individuals’ comprehension of human reality because obtaining higher levels of cognition about the rules governing the interactions among complicated physical, social, cultural, interpersonal, and mental worlds entails constant and onerous learning processes in interacting with the evolving reality.


Heckhausen, J., & Heckhausen, H. (Eds.). (2008). Motivation and Action (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511499821

Sun, K. (2019). Daoist unity of opposites characterizes cognition and its interactions with reality. In Y. Lee & L. Holt (Eds.), Dao and Daoist ideas for scientists, humanists and practitioners (pp. 129-152). Hauppauge, New York: Nova Scientific Publishing Company.

Sun, K. (2014). Treating depression and PTSD behind bars: An interaction schemas approach. In Raymond Chip Tafrate and Damon Mitchell (Eds), Forensic CBT: A handbook for clinical practice (pp.456-470). Wiley-Blackwell.

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