Theories of Unconscious Motivation

Motivation is the desire to achieve a goal, psychological motivation can be defined as the process which initiates, guides, and maintains goal adjusted behaviour (). There are four basic principles of motivation according to (). The first is that our motives are obtained through learning, motives can change, motives come from within and without (e.g. motives for hunger come from within and motives for desire are from without). Lastly, different behaviours can come from the same motive (e.g a child may require attention for she behaves badly). Motives are categorized as physiological, social, and those in between.

Unconscious motivations are a great deal more complicated to justify. According to various researchers, a large amount of our human behaviour is stimulated by unconscious motives. Sigmund Freud believed that the majority of all human behaviour is a result of their desires, impulses, and memories; that had been repressed into an unconscious state (Francher, 1973). According to Maslow, the average person is more often unconscious than conscious. He believed unconscious motives take central roles in determining the way in which people behave (Archard, 1984). Some theorists are dismayed at the notion of an unconscious and believe that our motives are purely conscious and that we are fully adept in controlling them ().

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To understand unconscious motivations we must first consider the unconscious.

Sigmund Freud considered dreams to be an important tool in his therapy. Freudian psychoanalysis emphasizes dream interpretation as a method to uncover the repressed information in the unconscious mind. Freud believed that dreams were wish fulfilling, meaning that in our dreams we act out unconscious desires. Freud’s dream analysis emphasized two levels of dream content; manifest content which is the literal content of our dreams. For example if you dreamed about running down the street naked, the manifest content is your nudity, the street, you running, any people you see, and so on. The second and most important to Freud was the latent content, which is the unconscious meaning of the manifest content. Freud considered that even during sleep, our ego protected us from the material in the unconscious mind (thus the term protected sleep) by presenting these repressed desires in the form of symbols, running naked down the street would represent a symbol in this type of analysis.

In more detail, the manifest content is the description of the dream as recalled by the dreamer. However, Freud felt that this was not a true portrayal of the unconscious mind, as the dreamer unconsciously censors some of the true meaning of the dream or uses symbols to represent key elements as to avoid becoming too disturbed by their recollection of the dream. He felt that skilled interpretation was often necessary to get to the real meaning of a dream. Therefore the task of the analysis was used to identify what Freud referred to as the latent content of dreams. He suggested that much of the unconscious content of dreams was sexual in nature. He suggested that most symbols in dreams have a personal meaning for the dreamer and identified many commonly occurring dream symbols. For example he suggested that snakes or knives represented the penis; a ladder or staircase, sexual intercourse; baldness or tooth extraction, castration fears. Freud used dream analysis as a way to explore his patient’s unconscious conflicts.

Freud believed that different styles of thinking were associated with different levels of consciousness. Dreams for example, represented what he called primary process thinking. This was essentially irrational mental activity. Dreams demonstrate this activity by the way in which events are often oblivious to the categories of time and space and extreme contradiction. The logically impossible becomes possible in our dreams. Primary process thinking differs from conscious thinking in two ways. First, it is under the influence of the pleasure principle rather than the reality principle, and therefore, will choose objects according to what it thinks will give the most pleasure without regard to the availability or appropriateness of these objects in reality. The infantile mind, the primitive mid, and the existence of dreams are all aspects of the primary processes. The pleasure principle is the urge to have our desires met. This is not an active urge to seek pleasure, but rather an instinct or impulse to avoid displeasure, distress, or pain. It is about preserving a balance within.


Secondary process thinking is under the surveillance of the reality principles. Their aim is also to produce pleasure, or more commonly, reduce displeasure. The secondary processes are governed by reason and follow the pattern of logical thinking, they recognise temporal and spatial relationships and represent the function of the ego. Secondary process thinking is characteristic of conscious and preconscious thought. Freud suggests, that the pleasure principle is a primitive, innate instinct that drivers our behaviour while the reality principle is learnt as we develop.

For Freud dreams were wish fulfilling, he proposed complex dreams (the kind most people have once they are past early childhood) are produced when an event during the day, typically an insignificant event, has a likeness to a childhood memory and is connected to a dangerous, previously repressed wish. During the day an individual can keep this wish from consciousness, but when they relax at night, the wish can make its way into experience if it has been adequately concealed. He adds that it is the function of ‘dream work’ that protects the sleeper from waking by transforming the wish through condensation displacement, dramatization, and symbolization into a fantasy that both expresses and satisfies the wish. However, it is disguised in such a way that it does not offend the ego’s censors and wake the sleeper.

Freud and his theories

Freud was not the first to recognize unconscious processes; he was, in many aspects the end of the line of a long tradition of German philosophy that focused on “the unconscious”. Yet he was the first and only theorist to base an entire approach to personality on the notion that much of what people consciously think and feel and most of their conscious choices are determined outside awareness (Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory). He was also the first to try to explore the nature of unconscious processes systematically.

Freud believed that the psyche had unconscious ways of interacting with the world that were totally different from those of consciousness. Like consciousness, the unconscious has desires, intentions, aims, wishes, and thoughts, but rather than functioning in a clear, open, logical manner, they are purely instinctual. The unconscious was many things for Freud; a realm of represses wishes, the carrier of childish experiences, and the generator of fantasies, especially sexual fantasies. But first and foremost, it is the cauldron of the instincts, the driving forces of all human activity and behaviour.

Freud believed that there were different levels of unconsciousness and consciousness. First was the level of conscious thought, (i.e.) the material that we are actively aware of at any given time. Secondly, he believed in the pre-conscious mind. This consisted of thoughts that were unconscious at any one moment, but which could be easily recalled into consciousness if we so needed them. For example, the pin code for our ATM cards or. The final level was the unconscious mind. To Freud, this consisted of thoughts, memories, feelings, urges, and fantasies that we were unaware of because they were actively kept in the unconscious due to their unacceptable nature. Freud argued that we repressed issues and obsessions such as; sexual urges, aggression, and memories that produced anxiety, into our unconscious minds. He saw repression as an active continuous process and described repressed material as being dynamically unconscious to reflect this sense of activity.

Although three levels of thought are described, there is no clear cut separation between conscious, preconscious, and unconscious thought; rather, Freud suggested different degrees or levels for each. For example, at times repression may weaken, so that previously unconscious material becomes conscious. This unconscious material is usually in a modified form, such as symptoms of psychological disturbance or illness, the emergence of alien impulses under the influence of drugs, and as dreams (for more information on dreams please see heading, Freud and Dream Analysis).

The history behind UM

The German philosopher Ernst Platner introduced the term ‘unconscious’ around the 18th century, but the importance of what we now call unconscious processes was recognized by many earlier influential thinkers such as Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Da Vinci, Paracelcus, Dante, and St Thomas Aquinas (Archard, 1984: Jacobs, 2003). It may well be that the first written reference to the possibility of unconscious psychological processes were made in the third century AD by the Greek philosopher Plotinus, who remarked that “the absence of a conscious perception is proof of the absence of mental activity” (Koestler, 1964, p. 148).

The notion of an unconscious has been a source of controversy for more than a century. Two opposing views, taking various forms over the years have challenged each other down to our day. During much of the later half of the 19th century, in clear contradiction to the exploratory position taken by the above philosophers in favour of an unconscious mental life, William James, (1890), scoffed at the notion of an unconscious, marshalling 10 arguments against it (Freud, 2004). The final argument was aimed at the novel idea of unconscious motivation, introduce by Freud. Not long after the turn of the century, behaviourism took the position not only against an unconscious, but also against consciousness (Weston, 1999). During this time Freud’s psychoanalytical prospective remained an advocate and defender of the concept. Of cause throughout this time the debate saw a number of influence people, with theories devoted to and against and unconscious. However to discuss and review all of them here would be near impossible.

Closer to our time, the issue has been joined at a more empirical level than in the past, with the introduction of subliminal methods (Weston, 1999). The rise of cognitive psychology has seen the gradual acceptance of the possibility of unconscious processes, and the significance of the roll it may play in perception and memory. However, cognitive psychologists have drawn the line against accepting a dynamic unconscious, involving affect, motivation, and conflict (Weston, 1999).


The Post- Freudian Evolution of the Psychodynamic approach

It is well documented that during Freud’s life time, several important figures in psychoanalysis who had been Freud’s students or close colleagues, were involved in disputes and subsequently left his association for psychoanalysis. The most well know of these figures is Carl Jung, who was regarded as Freud’s favourite and was expected to take over leadership of the psychoanalytic movement. The principles for their disagreements were centred on the nature of motivation. Jung argued that human beings have a drive towards individuation (the integration and fulfilment of self), as well as more biologically based drives associated with sexuality (). Jung also viewed the unconscious as encompassing spiritual and transcendental (meaning superior and beyond ordinary experience) areas of meaning ().

Other prominent analysts who broke off from Freud included Ferenczi, Rank, Reich, and the popular Adler. These disagreements and splits represent basic theoretical issues within the psychodynamic approach. Three underlying questions were debated by Freud and his colleges; what happens in the early years of life to produce later problems (), what should therapist do to make psychoanalytic therapy better, and lastly how do unconscious processes and mechanisms operate. While Freud was still alive he dominated psychoanalysis, and those that disagree with him were forces to set up separate institutes. After Freud’s death in1939, it became possible to reopen the debate and many new concepts, theories, and approaches were reconsidered all of which would be impossible to discuss here. However, there are six main perspectives that came from the psychodynamic approach these include; the object relation theory, counter transference, ego psychology and the self, attachment theory, and the conversational model.

Automatic (Unconscious) Goal Pursuits

Generally today, researchers studying goals and goal processes; identify more with cognitive theory than with psychodynamics. Thus, they have not been excessively concerned with unconscious goals and unconscious conflicts. Unlike its historical ancestors, contemporary motivational researchers place less emphasis on unconscious motives and more on the deliberate nature of the process.

*Deliberate processes require intentional resources, are volitional and conscious, and are goal driven. Automatic processes require neither attention nor intention, occur outside of awareness, and are stimulus driven (Bargh, Gollwitzer, Lee- Chai, Barndollar & Trotschel, 2001). Although often conveyed as clear opposites, many researchers believe that these processes are located on a continuum from conscious, effortful, and controlled regulation to unconscious, effortless, and automatic regulation (Bargh & Trotschel, 2001; Butler & Berry, 2001; Riketta & Dauenheimer, 2003).

It is important to recognize that a number of factors may affect the ability of people to access goal relevant information, not all of them motivated, defensive processes. Moreover, it may well turn out that level of consciousness may be a dimension of goals, with some goals dynamically more available to awareness than others.

Cognitive Processes

*Social cognition researchers use the term ‘automatic’ to distinguish the unconscious goals from purposeful, conscious goals. Bargh & Tortschel, (2001) model of automatic goal activation suggests that situational cues trigger the activation of chronic, latent goals outside a person’s awareness. They add, these ‘auto-motives’ then guide behaviour without the person being aware of the influence of the guiding goal thoughts, perception, action, and emotion. Thus, people often engage in goal- directed actions without consciously choosing or thinking about them (Bargh & Tortschel, 2001).

Prehaps the most comprehensive model of conscious and unconscious influences was proposed by Epstien (1994), who posited two parallel, interacting systems of information processes.

Klein, M. H. (1976). Feminist concepts of therapy outcomes. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 13, 89-95

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