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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in psychology, factors that prompt the activity of a person or for which an activity is performed. In contemporary psychology the term “motives” is applied to the most varied phenomena and states that induce activity in a subject. Needs and instincts, drives and emotions, and attitudes and ideals are classified as motives.

Most of the works on motives have been written by proponents of behaviorism and depth psychology. Behaviorists usually define motives as any stimuli, external or internal (“motivational variables”), that are capable of inducing or activating behavior. In depth psychology man’s biological instincts and affinities are considered principal motives. Under the influence of social conditions, they are partially suppressed and emerge in indirect, symbolic forms (Freudian psychoanalysis). A great contribution to the development of the theory of motives has been made by the elaboration of ideas about the subjective-objective character of motives (the German-American psychologist K. Lewin’s concept of the “motivating force” of things), about the autonomy of human motives from primary biological needs (G. Allport, USA), and about the “ideational,” conscious character of motives that express man’s system of life values (J. Nuttin, France).

In Soviet psychology the problem of motives is approached as part of the study of the structure of human activity and consciousness, which are social and historical in character. Consequently, a motive is defined as that which, in the reality reflected by man, prompts and directs human activity. Needs not only determine motives but are changed and enriched as the range of objects and means that satisfy them changes and becomes broader. They are concretized and “objectified” in motives.

The role of motives in the transformation of human needs is even more vividly manifested when one considers motives that have no analogues in animals and that arise only in human society. The idea of the objective and social character of motives contradicts theories that consider human motives to be dependent on “deep-seated” instinctive tendencies, as well as theories that ascribe motivational force to subjective emotional experiences. Emotions do not determine the range of motives in man. On the contrary, the development of motives for human activity enriches and redirects human emotions and feelings.

The primary motive is the material object that answers the simplest material need. Subsequently, ideal objects in the form of certain motivating ideas or conscious goals (“goal motives”) also become motives. Human activity is usually prompted by several motives, one of which is the principal or leading one. The remaining ones are subordinate, sometimes functioning only as supplementary stimuli (the motive of work as such, and its material incentives, for example). Leading motives are distinguished by the fact that, in addition to impelling and directing activity, they impart to activity and to its objects and conditions a subjective, personal meaning. For instance, labor has a different meaning for the worker in a communist society than it does under capitalist production, which forces the worker to labor only for wages.

Motives may be related to each other and to external circumstances in various ways. They may reinforce or attenuate each other, they may be mutually contradictory, or they may contradict the objective possibilities for realizing an action. For this reason, motivation—the process by which a person is induced to perform an action or deed—is often a complex act that requires analysis and evaluation of alternatives, making a choice, and arriving at decisions. Psychologically, the process is all the more complicated because the real motives are seldom perceived by the subject during the preparation and performance of an action. Often, they are revealed only after an action is completed. It is necessary to differentiate motives from rationalizations—that is, utterances that justify a particular action by indicating the objective and subjective circumstances that prompted it. Rationalizations may not coincide with the real motives for a deed and may even consciously conceal them.

The development of motives is manifested not only in their enrichment but also in the establishment of a definite hierarchy of motives—that is, in the definition of the central life motives of the personality. When a hierarchy has taken shape, motives that answer primary needs are subordinated to higher social and spiritual motives, so that under certain conditions a person is capable of sacrificing material goods and even life itself in the name of ideal aspirations.

The study of motivation is the central problem of the psychology of the personality and its historical and ontogenetic development.


Iakobson, P. M. Psikhologicheskie problemy motivatsii povedeniia cheloveka. Moscow, 1969.
Leont’ev, A. N. Potrebnosti, motivy i emotsii. Moscow, 1971.
Freud, S. Po tu storonu printsipa udovol’stviia, Moscow, 1925. (Translated from German.)
Lewin, K. A Dynamic Theory of Personality. New York-London, 1935.
Hall, J. Psychology of Motivation. Chicago, 1961.
Allport, G. Pattern and Growth in Personality. New York, 1961.
Nuttin, J. “Motivation et fonctions cognitives dans le comportement humain.” In Sympozium XVIII Mezhdunarodnogo psikhologicheskogo kongressa, fasc. 13. Moscow, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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