The Big 3 Motives — Moving past the Big 5 Traits.

In my two most recent blog entries, I have considered both the strengths and weaknesses of the Big 5 Trait Model. I concluded that although the model is seemingly unparalleled in its ubiquitous usage and descriptive ability, it simply cannot fully describe a person. Thankfully, the field of personality psychology has proposed more than one alternative to complement the Big 5 Traits. Among these, is McClelland’s famous “Big 3 motives”.

Unlike traits, motives are understood to be related to goal-seeking; they represent the class or theme of one’s goals. McClelland postulated three distinct motives: need for achievement, need for power, and need for intimacy.

People high in need for achievement, spend a lot of time thinking about how to do things successfully. People high in need for power, have a recurrent preference for experiences that impact others. Lastly, people high in need for intimacy, can be understood as having a relationship motive: a recurrent preference for experiences of warm, close and communicative interactions with others.

According to McClelland, everyone lives their lives in accordance with at least one of these motives. Unlike the Big 5 Traits, which are typically assessed using a standardized questionnaire, the Big 3 Motives are measured through projective testing. Typically, the participant, or patient, will be shown a somewhat ambiguous picture, based on a measure of the original Thematic Appreciation Test (TAT), and adapted for research purposes.

An official TAT picture used to assess motives.

They are then given 5 minutes to ‘tell a story’ based on the picture. The test is scored using a coding system, whereby certain terms, related to each motive, will add to your score for that particular motive (scoring from 0–5 for each of the three motives). Each participant or patient is asked to tell 6 such stories, which are then carefully coded in order to arrive at an overall score for the 3 motives.

These motives should not be used to substitute for the Big 5 Traits, but rather to complement them and help provide a more complete assessment of the individual. McClelland also demonstrated that motive assessment is very useful for the purpose of helping people figure out their career paths. As such, and in so far as the Big 5 Traits can be thought of primarily as descriptive-helping us answer the ‘what’- the Big 3 Motives contribute importantly to personality assessment in their predictive focus and power — helping us answer and better understand the ‘why’.

Langan-Fox, Janice, and Sharon Grant. “The Thematic Apperception Test: Toward A Standard Measure Of The Big Three Motives.” Journal of Personality Assessment 87.3 (2010): 277–91. Print.

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