Motive as a Concept in Natural Science

Floyd Henry Allport
Syracuse University

The concept of motivation suffers from a vagueness which has long been a stumbling block to psychological research. This paper will attempt to show the reasons for this situation and to indicate the methodological possibilities and limitations in the study of motivated behavior.

For this purpose all objects proposed for scientific study may be divided into two groups distinguished by the type of behavior of the scientist by which they are identified. We have, respectively, objects capable of explicit denotation, and objects (perhaps it would be better to call them entities) which can be made known only through implicit denotation. In explicit denotation the object is pointed out by some form of skeletal response. We are also able to react successively, either by pointing, touching, or manipulation, to a series of points lying within it. Implicit denotation, on the other hand, is not a point-for-point response of the scientist's organism to the stimulus field, but consists of descriptive or symbolic reactions made about the object in verbal or other terms. A wire, for example, exhibiting certain changes as an electric current passes, is explicitly denotable; the units in which those changes are recorded, as well as the so-called energy of the current itself, are capable only of implicit denotation. A piece of iron is explicitly denotable; its alleged atoms and electrons are restricted, as yet, to implicit denotation. A nerve fiber as it conducts an impulse is capable of explicit denotation; conduction conceived as a process is identifiable only implicitly. A neuron chain is explicit, a habit implicit, and so on. Now with regard to motivated behavior—it is my thesis that it is only the organism (or its

(170) parts) as it moves, or changes position, which can be treated by the explicit procedure.[2] Drive, instinct, incentive, goal-value of the object, and motive are, like atoms, kilowatts, and processes, capable only of implicit denotation.[3]

To reveal the point of this contrast let us compare the situation in motivated behavior with that in gravitation. According to the Newtonian observation (and that is sufficiently exact for our purposes) two objects tend to move toward each other at a rate which varies directly with the product of their masses and inversely with the square of their distances apart. If we hold the mass of two bodies constant but decrease their distance from one another we increase accordingly the degree of their tendency to move toward one another.[3] We have here, as in all scientific laws, simply a statement of the relation between two variables, each determinable by explicit denotation of the objects concerned. So far we have projected no cause or force into the situation. The word gravitation, if used at all, is used only as a convenient synonym for the descriptive mathematical statement.

Now let us imagine a rat which has not been fed for twenty-four hours brought into a situation in which he is shut off from access to food only by a problem, such as a concealed doorway or simple multiple choice, which is for him soluble. We note that his movements in this situation are relatively rapid and frequent, and that consequently he may solve the problem more quickly than if he had recently been fed. Here again we have a constant relation between two variables, the contractions of muscles in the rat's stomach and the increase in rate of skeletal movement, two variations which can be determined, directly or indirectly, through

(171) explicit denotation of the objects concerned. Holding other conditions constant it might even be possible to secure an approximate mathematical statement of this relationship. Here also, as in the case of gravitation, we need assume no force or drive. Words like hunger, instinct, and motive, if used at all, are merely less exact names which we use for the co-variation above described. We do not think of motive as a force in the rat's organism driving him to make rapid movements which eventually bring him to the food, any more than we posit in the earth or the stone a force which propels them toward each other.

This formulation, however unsatisfactory it may be to psychologists of the hormic school, has one clear advantage. It makes possible what I shall call a multi-level approach to the phenomena we are studying. That is to say, it enables us experimentally to break up the objects studied into their components, and to discover what goes on at this simpler level concomitantly with the events which transpire at the more complex. The advantage of this procedure, in turn, is that it enables us to reach more basic generalizations, to explain the exceptions which have appeared in our previous formulations, and to predict not only the familiar but the unexpected happening. To take an example, we may note that certain exceptions have appeared even in a law as apparently stable as that of gravitation. A possible approach to this problem is, by experiment, to analyze our materials (at least conceptually) into smaller particles and see what happens at the more elementary levels. By this method modern physicists have, in fact, begun to catch a glimpse of more basic laws which comprise under one formulation the old law of gravitation and certain phenomena, such as those of electromagnetism, which were previously regarded as unaccountable exceptions. Knowing such a formulation, we might be able actually to predict events which would otherwise be quite unintelligible.

Similarly, in the case of the rat, should a sudden anomaly occur in the curve of motivated learning, such anomaly can be made the strategic point for analysis to determine what

(172) is happening at the neurological and the physico-chemical levels of the animal's structure. There might, for example, be discovered products of catabolism or hormone secretions which would throw light both upon the disturbance and the usual process, and would enable us to combine both the familiar law and its exception in a more fundamental generalization.

This attacking of exceptions through the multi-level approach has been of great importance throughout the history of scientific discovery. And it is my thesis that the multilevel approach, with its peculiar advantages, is made possible only by keeping before us as our primary objects of study things which are capable of explicit denotation. In cases where only implicit identification is possible these benefits are lost.

But even though the view of motive as an implicitly denoted force must forego these advantages, is it therefore useless? By no means. The engineer finds it helpful to think of gravitation and electrical energy as definite working forces. Similarly, the applied psychologist can use categories of instincts, desires, and motives in controlling men for practical rather than scientific ends. Exceptions to these formulations, however, cannot be dealt with. The telic, implicit approach, yields only uni-level observations. If the hunger-motive fails to operate in five trials out of a hundred, the telicly conceived law of hunger as a drive of behavior must forever remain only ninety-five per cent perfect. No wider generalization can be secured until the objects are re-approached with the attitude of explicit, rather than implicit, denotation.

But in spite of the advantages described for the explicit method, there must be pointed out, for this procedure also, some genuine limitations. It can give us laws of learning in general, but that the rat will learn this particular combination of problem-box habits as a part of his neural organization cannot be predicted in any scientific fashion. The physicist can state laws for all falling bodies alike, but he cannot accurately foretell what bodies will fall, or when and how far,

(173) or what the pattern of their combined falling will be. Again, the qualitative aspect of motive must, in the explicit approach, be completely lost. In industrial workers, for example, diverse situations, such as those of resentment, ambition, or family affection, may have afforded conditioning stimuli for the same type of visceral response. The method of explicit denotation, which deals only with bodily changes at the present instant, will overlook these differences of motive which, from the subjective standpoint, are indubitable. The genetic as well as the telic perspective is lost when we cut across the life-stream by the approach of explicit, multi-level analysis.

To insist, therefore, that all aspects of motivation can be illuminated through explicit denotation is to close our eyes to the limits of our method. To expect, on the other hand, that an implicit, telic, or anthropomorphic denotation will lead us into the paths of discovery followed by natural scientists of the past is to invoke upon ourselves both obscurity and disappointment. These limitations seem, at present, to be inescapable. And in our dilemma it is perhaps better to secure half a loaf than, through a confusion of our methods, to gain no substantial results at all.

[MS. received September 13, 1929]


  1. Read at the Ninth International Congress of Psychology, held in New Haven Conn., September, 1929.
  2. The stimulus object, provided it is not thought of as a `meaningful situation' is, of course, also explicitly denotable.
  3. These terms should not be confused with `implicit and explicit behavior' as used by certain behaviorists. The latter expressions refer only to the organism itself, with regard to whether the behavior is hidden from view or manifest. Explicit and implicit denotation have a very different meaning in that they indicate certain relationships between the scientist's behavior and the objects to which he reacts (i.e. which he studies).
  4. The fact that, owing to the great mass of the earth always present in the situation, this demonstration is possible only upon bodies of a planetary order does not invalidate the principle involved.

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