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Motivation: ‘What’ or ‘How’ or both?

May 23, 2019
Jaap Hollander

Content oriented theories and process oriented theories of motivation
MindSonar is a process oriented instrument. Many authors have distinguished between content oriented theories and process oriented theories of motivation (Graham and Weiner, 1996). 

Content theories
A content theory is a system of constructs that are linked logically together, explaining why people behave as they do in which conditions. They want to predict what happens if the conditions change (McAuley et al., 2007). Content theories of motivation concern themselves with what people want.

An example of a content theory is Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of needs’ theory (Maslow 1943). Maslow defines 5 sets of goals (basic needs), arranged in a hierarchy. Each of these goals has a specific content: physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness and love needs, esteem needs and self-actualisation.

Process theories
Process theories, on the other hand, attempt to provide a generalised explanation of processes and the behaviors these processes lead to, describing the major conditions necessary for explaining the process. They want to describe how people think, what the processes are in their minds that induce their behaviour (Kispál-Vuitai, 2016). They contain constructs (Binning, 2016) that are not necessarily linked together in a coherent theory, but explain behaviour and allow for prediction of future behaviour. Proces theories of motivation concern themselves with how people arrive at wanting something.

An example of a process theory is Bandura’s ‘Social learning theory’: the individual learns behaviours through observation, repeats behaviour if it is rewarded and ceases it when it is not rewarded (Bandura 1977). Bandura does not define the content of either the behaviour or the rewards.

These two types of theory spring from different traditions in psychology. Process theories stem from experimental studies as well as from qualitative experiential findings, systematically modeled by practitioners. The latter is the case with the meta programs and cognitive criteria measured by MindSonar. These constructs were formalised based on personal change work (Cameron et al, 1985). Content theories, on the other hand, have grown mostly out of personality studies and qualitative clinical-differential studies.

We propose an eclectic approach in which the findings in one type of theory are used to enrich understanding and exploration of the other type. For example, Bateman and Crant (1999) identify a general behavioural factor they call ‘proactive’, defining it by its specific behavioural elements as: ‘to intentionally and directly change things in an intended direction’. This content-oriented approach can be meaningfully complemented by a process-oriented one, explaining the critical cognitive meta programs, such as ‘proactive’, ‘towards’, ‘options’ and ‘change’, the are underlying this Bateman and Crant’s ‘proactive’ behaviour.

Atoms and molecules
We can take concepts from different psychological theories, compare them with the related meta programs and demonstrate how they can be clarified with their possible underlying process (meta program) elements. We like to use molecules and atoms as a metaphor. If we look, for instance, at the chemical structure of caffeine, we see that is is made up of four atoms (H3C, O, N and CH3) linked together in a certain configuration. Likewise, many constructs from content oriented theories can be described as configurations of meta programs.

About the author 

Jaap Hollander

Psychologist, living in the Netherlands. Founded MindSonar in 1995. Directs MindSonar Global, which manages the ICT development, applications and the curriculum of the MS Certification Trainings. Working part time as a trainer, writer and coach as well as being an expressionist painter (artist name JAAPH, see jaaph.com). Has written 10 books on NLP and Provocative Coaching.

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