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Congruence of implicit and explicit motives

Dr. Simon Moss


Many scholars have proposed that individuals are more inclined to experience wellbeing, manifested as composure, enthusiasm, and stability, if their unconscious or implicit motives align with their conscious or explicit goals. These researchers all assume that two distinct, but interrelated, systems underpin motivation: implicit motives and explicit goals (McClelland, 1985). In addition, these researchers presuppose that discrepancies between implicit motives and explicit goals can compromise wellbeing, at least in some contexts (Langens, 2007).

Definition of implicit motives

Implicit motives are relatively stable, unconscious needs (McClelland, 1980), representing affective preferences that evolve gradually through learning and experience (McClelland, 1985). These motives energize individuals when they engage in corresponding courses of action. Individuals who experience an implicit motive to form close relationships, for example, feel energized when they interact socially. Individuals who experience an implicit motive to achieve difficult goals feel energized when assigned challenging tasks.

These motives also orient the attention of individuals, ultimately directing and shaping their behavior. Individuals who experience an implicit motive to form close relationships might be more inclined to direct their attention towards opportunities for social interaction. Individuals who experience an implicit motive to achieve difficult goals are more likely to notice words that are synonymous with achievement.

The process of engaging in tasks that correspond to these motives is inherently rewarding. Individuals, therefore, can experience pleasant emotions even if they do not necessarily fulfill explicit goals.

Definition of explicit goals

Explicit goals, in contrast, are conscious and not always as enduring as implicit motives. These goals are shaped by social norms, tangible rewards, and the beliefs of individuals about themselves (McClelland, 1985). Explicit goals affect conscious attitudes, choices, and decisions, but do not energize individuals. In contrast to implicit motives, individuals do not experience inherent pleasure and reward when they pursue explicit goals. Pleasure and reward is derived only from reaching these goals.

Congruence between implicit motives and explicit goals

Implicit motives and explicit goals are adaptive in different circumstances and, therefore, will not always align. Sometimes, for example, explicit goals must override implicit motives (see McClelland, Koestner, & Weinberger, 1989). Nevertheless, chronic discrepancy between implicit motives and explicit goals is assumed to compromise wellbeing. The precise mechanisms that underpin the drawbacks of congruence have not been established definitively. Brunstein, Schultheiss, and Grassmann (1998), for example, argue that implicit motives determine which activities are experienced as rewarding and satisfying. Goals that do not align with implicit motives, therefore, cannot bestow feelings of reward or satisfaction. This proposal is referred to as the goal-achievement-motive-satisfaction hypothesis.

Volitional limitations

Baumann, Kaschel, and Kuhl (2005) introduced an alternative explanation, derived from personality system interaction theory. Implicit motives, they argue, afford the motivation and energy that is needed to fulfill explicit goals. Explicit goals that do not align with implicit motives, therefore, are not imbued with these motivational resources. Instead, individuals need to invest effort to pursue these goals, and the formation of these intentions depletes a limited supply of resources, ultimately provoking frustration and mental exhaustion. Keht (2004) also refers to the depleted resources that coincide with incongruence.

This perspective implies that self control could, potentially, offset the difficulties that accrue when implicit and explicit motives diverge. That is, if individuals can readily control their behavior, they might be able to pursue their explicit motives with dedication and persistence, despite conflicting implicit motives. They might not, therefore, need their implicit motives to match these explicit motives to maintain effort and progress.

Langan-Fox, Sankey, and Canty (2009), arguably, confirmed this hypothesis. As their results showed, if participants reported self direction--endorsing items such as "Most people seem more resourceful than I am" (reverse scored)--incongruence between implicit and explicit motives did not typically compromise life satisfaction or mood.

In addition, factors that tend to alleviate anxiety, such as self disclosure and locus of control, also mitigated the adverse effects of this incongruence. From the perspective of personality system interaction theory, when anxiety diminishes, the enduring goals and values of individuals are evoked. Conceivably, individuals might be able to activate the values that align with their explicit motives--which facilitates their dedication and persistence.

Empirical evidence

Brunstein, Schultheiss, and Grassmann (1998) provided some compelling evidence that congruence between implicit motives and explicit goals enhances wellbeing. In their study, to characterize implicit motives, participants were asked to write imaginative stories in response to six pictures: a man sitting in an office, two female scientists working in a laboratory, two trapeze artists, and so forth. They were permitted five minutes to write each story. Two judges rated the extent to which individuals referred to motives that relates to agency and control, such as competition, accomplishment, failure, power, and status. In addition, these judges rates the extent to which individuals referred to motives of communion, including allusions to intimacy, separation, rejection, and nurturance, using the coding scheme developed by Winter (1991).

In addition, to characterize explicit goals, participants were instructed to list four personal goals--objectives, plans, or projects they intend to pursue. They were asked to specify one goal for each of four domains: achievement, and power, which both relate to agency, as well as intimacy and affiliation, which both relate to communion. Participants then rated the level of progress on each of these four goals as well as rated their own wellbeing over 6 days.

Brunstein et al. (1998) revealed that progress on the various goals sometimes, but did not always, coincide with wellbeing. For example, progress on agency goals enhanced wellbeing only if participants implicitly referred to these motives when they constructed the stories. That is, explicit goals, when fulfilled, promote wellbeing and mood only if these objectives or plans coincided with implicit motives.

Similar findings have been observed across a range of cultures. Congruence between implicit motives and explicit goals relating to affiliation correlated with life satisfaction in Cameroon, Costa Rica, and Germany (Hofer, Chasiotis, & Campos, 2006).


Langens (2007) accumulated evidence that supports the proposition that volitional limitations might underpin the drawbacks of incongruence. In particular, Langens discovered that congruence does not always affect mood or wellbeing. Congruence does not influence mood when individuals exhibit elevated levels of activity inhibition--a tendency to constrain their impulses. Langens assessed activity inhibition by counting the frequency with which participants used the term "not" while depicting stories, and this approach had been validated by McClelland (1979). Individuals who often used the term "not" were less likely to benefit from congruence between implicit motives and explicit goals. Presumably, activity inhibition suppresses the impulses that could energize the pursuit of explicit goals.

Practical implications

Awareness of implicit motives

To enhance wellbeing, individuals somehow need to cultivate congruency between implicit motives and explicit goals. Several strategies, tactics, and practices have been suggested to fulfill this objective. First, as implied by Baumann, Kaschel, and Kuhl (2005), coupled with personality system interaction theory (Kuhl, 2001), individuals should engage in more exercises that are intended to facilitate access to these implicit motives. They should engage in more creative endeavors, playfully experimenting with original and novel means to facilitate progress on relevant issues in their life, for example. They should also sit quietly for a few minutes and clench their left fist--an exercise that facilitates awareness of implicit motives and core values (Baumann, Kuhl, & Kazen, 2005) .

Alternatively, the implicit motives of individuals could be assessed by psychologists or other experienced practitioners. These individuals should be asked to construct imaginative stories about specific pictures, including the antecedents to this situation, the thoughts and feelings of characters within the stories, and the consequences. References to competition, failure, personal accomplishment, or future aspirations often reflect an implicit need for achievement (e.g., McClelland, Atkinson, Clark, & Lowell, 1953). In contrast, references to conflicts, social interactions, intimacy, and so forth represent an implicit need for affiliation (e.g., Heyns, Veroff, & Atkinson, 1958). Finally, references to status, control, and independence often reflect a need for power (Winter, 1991). Individuals should then be encouraged to pursue these motives, perhaps accepting some level of risk, rather than inhibit their impulses.

Determinants of congruence

Second, individuals should occasionally monitor their bodily states--feelings of hunger, tension, fatigue, arousal, and so forth. Research indicates that sensitivity to these body states, referred to as body self consciousness, has been shown to promote congruence (Thrash, Elliot, & Schultheiss, 2007).

Third, individuals should attempt to behave as consistently as possible. That is, they should attempt to adopt a similar demeanor and express similar values across a diverse range of contexts rather than adapt the behavior and opinions. Preference for consistency has been shown to foster congruence (Thrash, Elliot, & Schultheiss, 2007).


Baumann, N., Kaschel, R., & Kuhl, J. (2005). Affect regulation and motive-incongruent achievement orientation: Antecedents of subjective well-being and symptom formation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 781-799.

Baumann, N., Kuhl, J., & Kazen, K. (2005). Left-hemispheric activation and self-infiltration: Testing a neuropsychological model of internalization. Motivation and Emotion, 29, 135-163.

Brunstein, J. C., Schultheiss, O. C., & Grassmann, R. (1998). Personal goals and emotional well-being: The moderating role of motive dispositions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 494-508.

Hofer, J., Chasiotis, A., & Campos, D. (2006). Congruence between social values and implicit motives: effects on life satisfaction across three cultures. European Journal of Personality, 20, 305-324.

Kehr, H. M. (2004). Implicit/explicit motive discrepancies and volitional depletion among managers. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 315-327.

Kuhl, J. (2000). A functional-design approach to motivation and volition: The dynamics of personality systems interactions. In M. Boekaerts, P. R. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner (Eds.), Self-regulation: Directions and challenges for future research (pp. 111-169). New York: Academic Press.

Langan-Fox, J., Sankey, M. J., & Canty, J. M. (2009). Incongruence between implicit and self-attributed achievement motives and psychological well-being: The moderating role of self-directedness, self-disclosure and locus of control. Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 99-104.

Langens, T. A. (2007). Congruence between implicit and explicit motives and emotional wellbeing: The moderating role of activity inhibition. Motivation and Emotion, 31, 49-59.

McClelland, D. C. (1979). Inhibited power motivation and high blood pressure in men. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 88, 182-190.

McClelland, D. C. (1980). Motive dispositions: The merits of operant and respondent measures. In L. Wheeler (Ed.), Review of personality and social psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 10-41). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

McClelland, D. C. (1985). Human motivation. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.

McClelland, D. C., Atkinson, J. W., Clark, R. A., & Lowell, E. L. (1953). The achievement motive. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

McClelland, D. C., Koestner, R., & Weinberger, J. (1989). How do self-attributed and implicit motives differ? Psychological Review, 96, 690-702.

Schultheiss, O. C., & Brunstein, J. C. (1999). Goal imagery: Bridging the gap between implicit motives and explicit goals. Journal of Personality, 67, 1-38.

Thrash, T. M., Elliot, A. J., & Schultheiss, O. C. (2007). Methodological and dispositional predictors of congruence between implicit and explicit need for achievement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 961-974.

Winter, D. G. (1991). Manual for scoring motive imagery in running text (3rd ed.). Unpublished scoring manual. University of Michigan.

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Last Update: 6/29/2016