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Achievement Personality Theory

The personality theory of achievement refers to a psychological concept that attributes an individual’s personality traits and background directly to their quest for personal achievement. This theory can be applied in a variety of ways to analyze the motivations behind an individual’s actions in order to better understand why they react to certain situations in different ways. A person’s need for achievement in both their personal and professional lives is directly related to their perceived self-worth.

The theory suggests that the reasons for differing levels of this need for achievement existing in individuals is related to their social background, how they were raised as children and the varying belief systems instilled in these individuals at a young age, as well as their own personality traits. Achievement personality theory implies that the personal need of an individual to succeed is based solely on factors that are largely out of their control.

By using an individual’s social background as an indicator for the level of achievement that an individual will seek throughout their lifetime, the theory is giving credit to others for a trait which will largely shape the individual’s life. The theory implies that individuals who were exposed to a large amount of emphasis placed on success and achievement at an early age will strive to achieve throughout their adult life.

Though the vast majority of individuals seem unconcerned with achievement, there is a select group that clearly displays the personality traits and characteristics of someone with a high level need for achievement. Some of the characteristics associated with people who have a high need for achievement are a measured amount of control over the situation or a need for mastery over the given situation as well as an ability to calculate the difficulty of a given situation and set relatively difficult, but achievable goals for themselves in order to provide a bit of challenge without making their goal seemingly out of reach.

People with a high need for achievement seek to be able to tightly control their circumstances and will continue to set these goals for themselves as long as they are relatively positive that they can control the majority of the aspects of the outcome of the situation. If control cannot be exerted over the outcome, the individual is less likely to want to participate in the exercise. In order to maintain their sense of mastery in their lives, these individuals will not react in a random or hastily though-out way to a situation, but rather will seek to calculate their odds of succeeding or failing before proceeding with their actions.

For these individuals, everything that they do is very deliberate in order to assure that they have the largest chance possible of reaching their goals. The goals that these individuals set for themselves are not unrealistic goals, but they are goals that require a certain amount of challenge in order to be realized. Without that challenge involved, there is no sense of mastery to be gained from achieving the goal which does nothing for the individual’s self worth which is tied in to their need for achievement.

The biological overload principle applies to this type of goal-setting on behalf of the individual. The overload principle refers to the amount of pressure put on an organism in order to achieve a goal or better itself. For instance, the setting of moderately challenging, but achievable goals by an individual. If the individual sets a goal for themselves that is too easy, such as a seasoned runner committing to running a mile three times a week, there will be no sense of achievement for them in the success of meeting the goal.

If the same runner sets a goal to run the New York City Marathon in two weeks but has not been training for something as strenuous as a marathon, they are simply setting themselves up for failure because they already are aware as they set the goal that it is an unrealistic goal. However, if the same runner sets a goal for themselves to run three miles every other day, they are setting a goal that is somewhat challenging for them, but is also something that is realistically achievable.

By setting a goal that is realistically achievable but still challenging in nature, they are insuring that the achievement of such a goal will positively affect their self-worth as well as give them a profound sense of mastery and satisfaction upon completing the goal. To illustrate that people with a high need for achievement need to maintain a sense of control over the outcome of the given situation, McClelland maintains that anyone possessing a high need for achievement will maintain it throughout most of their life, with that need possibly stemming back to childhood (McClellan, 1963).

McClelland expounded upon the findings of Henry Murray with regard to Murray’s TAT personality test to conclude that the need for achievement can be isolated from other human needs or personality traits though he did find that the need for achievement can be directly linked to other aspects of the individual’s personality. McClelland found that people who have a high need for achievement only seek achievement out when they can control or influence the outcome of the situation. His research showed that these individuals are not gamblers and cannot take small risks where the rewards would be minimal.

These people prefer rather to take a middle ground where the risks and rewards can be quickly calculated and their interaction controlled so as to minimize their risk. An achievement motivated person will seek out a situation where they can almost guarantee themselves of achieving their goal but there is just enough risk in the calculation to make the situation a challenge for them to accomplish. This person will not be able to easily rationalize their losses nor will they be able to gain any self-worth from the achievement of a simple goal.

The achievement oriented individual will want to have a problem to solve and take the time to truly consider all of the possibilities of the endeavor rather than leaving anything to chance. In sharp contradiction to assumptions made about achievement oriented individuals, McClelland’s research found that these people do not seek out wealth or social status as a result of their achievements. Rather these individuals use their monetary gains or changes in social status to chart their progress and compare their achievements to those of their peers.

The reward is in the solving of the problem or the actual achievement of the goal rather than in the profits associated with achieving such a goal. Though these people do not reject any awards given to them, their main joy is in the achievement of their success rather than in any perceived material or social gains. While they do compare their successes to those of their peers, it is not out of jealousy or any other common motivation but rather a way to set further goals for themselves and to judge the risks versus the benefits of achieving those goals, a measurement to judge the level of difficulty and the reality of reaching their goals.

The marked amount of realism in the presentation and achievement of goals by these types of individuals is highly coveted in the business world for their practicality while also having the need to maintain a certain high level of achievement. McClelland also stated that these individuals seek a certain amount of constructive feedback or response from their peers in order to better understand their measurement of their successes.

When seeking this feedback these individuals are looking for concrete numbers, statistics, and standings rather than a personal reflection of their attitude or perceived personality. How they rationalize their behavior is based more on their own need to meet their goals rather than society’s perceived views of their actions which allows the achievement motivated individual to apply a higher level of realism-based rationale to their actions than someone who is concerned with how they are presented as an individual to the world personally.

McClelland believes that the individual’s need to constantly achieve is rooted in their ability to calculate and rationalize situations due to their constant internal thought process surrounding how to improve their odds of achieving their goal, or simplified, how to do things in a better, more productive way (McClellan, 1963). Weiner took McClellan’s theories on achievement based motivational behavior one step further by attributing emotions to those behaviors.

Weiner proposed in correlation with McClellan’s research that the achievement oriented individual will carefully weigh the probability of success against the consequences of failure and the incentive of such a success. The higher probability of success that an individual calculates, the lower the incentive is for such a person to attempt to achieve that goal. Proportionately, the lower the probability of success that is perceived, the higher the incentive is for the achievement oriented individual to succeed at that goal.

If the probability of success is too low, the incentive for achievement will not sway the decision of the achievement oriented individual because no matter how high the incentive is if successful, the possibility of failure is a greater risk to this type of individual (Weiner, 1985). With the odds of failure overwhelming the odds of success, the achievement oriented individual will not attempt the task because of a lack of control over the situation and a fear of failure.

This particular aspect of the personality of this individual complements McClellan’s findings that these individuals do not make good gamblers because they cannot accurately calculate the risk of their actions. It also lends further proof to the achievement personality theory in that the achievement oriented individual must maintain a certain level of control and risk in their actions in order to receive any amount of satisfaction from the achievement of a goal. Weiner tied the individual’s need for achievement to the dynamics of feeling and action (Weiner, 1985).

Weiner theorized that behind the impulse to strive for achievement were the basic human emotions of expectancy and affect which lead to the experience of the common human emotions of guilt, anger, gratitude, hopelessness, pity, pride, and shame. The goal of the achievement oriented person is to avoid the majority of these emotions by constantly striving to find a better, more efficient way to act that will ensure their success in a given situation. Weiner stressed that the individual’s need for achievement is intrinsically tied to their ability to calculate stability, focus, as well as their need to maintain control.

If any one of the three of these personality traits was found to be lacking, such as the ability to focus on the given situation, the person’s need for achievement dropped in tandem with the abilities of the individual. For individuals who maintain a sharp focus on the situation at hand and who are able to maintain a larger amount of control over their situation, their need for achievement was greater, causing them to strive for more challenging goals, but still maintaining their ability to carefully calculate their success rate for the given task.

Individuals who possessed a higher need for achievement were less indulgent in their emotions and were more easily able to separate their need for achievement from their emotional ties to the proposed goal, mostly due to their ability to carefully weigh the risks and rewards of the goal as well as their stark fear of failure which seems to be a recurring trend throughout the study of the achievement personality theory.

Rabideau’s research on the achievement personality theory led him to believe that motivation is the basic drive for all human actions, whether that motivation is positive or negative in nature (Rabideau, 1997). While he shares the theory that achievement based goals affect an individual’s behavior and approach to a given situation, he also believes that motivation is actually based primarily on an individual’s emotional response as well as on their achievement-related goals. This belief led Rabideau to further research the affects of implicit and explicit motives on achievement oriented individuals.

Rabideau found that achievement oriented individuals had more of a tendency to shy away from implicit behaviors which are spontaneous in nature, implying that their outcomes rest soundly outside of the realm of control of the individual, and instead tend toward explicit behaviors which are well thought out and carefully controlled to the extent that the individual is able. Rabideau concluded that explicit motives are centered around an individual’s self-image and as such are highly influenced by outside sources such as social background.

As Rabideau tied an individual’s self-worth to the fulfillment of their need for achievement, he proves further that the need for achievement is based on a control element as well as improving one’s own self-image rather than monetary or social gains. The status that one achieves through their completion of their goals is largely self-contained with only a measurement system in place with which to regard peer feedback. Though social background plays a large part in how achievement oriented an individual will be, it is not a factor which is consciously taken into account by the achievement oriented individual.

Rather this particular stimulus is believed to be a mitigating factor that presents itself throughout the individual’s life span to reaffirm the belief system of that individual which can be instilled as early as childhood. The belief system of the individual will either negatively or positively affect the individual’s self-worth, a value that is tied directly to their need for achievement. The belief system gives the individual their initial means by which to measure their success as well as their failure. It also gives them a basis upon which to measure their own self-worth against that of their peers.

Without this background, though the individual may find themselves being achievement oriented, they would have no scale upon which to base this personality trait. Achievement orientation is very much a measurable trait in the mind of the individual leading to them having to have some way in which to assign value to their goals and their successes. This further enhances the individual’s feeling of control over the situation as well as gives them the means by which they are able to judge their success and failure while also being able to measure the risks and possible rewards associated with their actions.

The achievement personality theory demands that an individual possessing a high need for achievement in their lives be able to calculate the risks versus the rewards of their potential goal as well as to strive for goals that are somewhat difficult to achieve in order to gain a larger sense of self-worth upon completion of the goal without placing the goal totally out of the realm of reality.

The research and studies provided by Weiner, Rabideau, and McClellan not only prove this theory to be correct within the scope of their research, but it also expounds upon the basic principles of the theory to tie the need for achievement to basic human emotions as well as to link this drive to the application of actions in everyday life, not just in certain given situations.

The personality traits of the achievement oriented individual do not allow them to take more than a calculated risk nor does it leave room for goals that are not without some challenge, making the achievement oriented personality extremely rational, logical, and realistic, a highly sought after prize in the business world, though an individual with this type of personality is not interested in wealth or notoriety.

One of the most interesting aspects of the achievement oriented personality is that they are not interested in fame or material wealth, but in meeting the calculated challenge of their goals strictly for themselves and their own self-perception. The achievement oriented individual is free from the constrains of societal views in a way that most others are not in that they do not value the opinions of others toward their own self-worth, but simply use the image perceived by others as a measuring tool to chart their own progress, regardless of whether that progress is viewed negatively or positively by society.

Works Cited McClellan, D. (1963). The Achievement Motive. In S. Gellerman, Motivation and Productivity (pp. 122-141). New York: American Management Association. Rabideau, S. (1997). Effects of Achievement Motivation on Behavior. Rochester: Rochester Institute of Technology. Weiner, B. (1985). An Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation and Emotion. Pshychological Review, Vol 92 , 548-573.

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