It’s time for stories!

— — assessing the Big Three Motives from your imaginative work

If we characterize the Big Five traits as descriptions of how we behave in social situations, the Big Three Motives proposed by David McCellend explain why we behave in certain ways and what we are striving for. Specifically, they include the need for achievement, the need for power and the need for intimacy (previously called the need for affiliation).

To assess the Big Three Motives, psychologists or clinicians use the thematic apperception test (TAT), where five to six ambiguous pictures of social situations are shown and participants are asked to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. A children’s version for the TAT also exists; however, animals, instead of people, are used in the pictures. The reason why projective test is appropriate for this psychological construct is that it measures implicit motives, the recurrent, non-conscious desires developed early in life. Therefore, even though people might not be aware of their implicit motives while making the stories, the implicit motives are more significant and more likely to predict the choices people will make in the future.

The story themes are coded by psychologists, who give a score to each picture (0 for no specific motivation and 5 for a full demonstration of a specific motivation) and average the values for the three motives presented to minimize random errors. Since the scoring system is standardized, there shows a good inter-rater reliability. Results are shown on a normal distribution of T scores (mean 50, standard deviation 10), indicating that the majority of people lie in the middle on each of the three motives.

The TAT for the Big Three Motives shows good construct and predictive validities, and it has both therapeutic and interpersonal purposes. For instance, if you have a high need for achievement, in your story there should be recurrent episodes of doing things successfully with a preference for moderate challenge, personal responsibility and extensive feedback. If there is a high need for power, a theme of having impact on others and being noticed will be coded. If you are high in the need for intimacy, you should present a recurrent preference for experiences of warm, close, reciprocal and communicative interactions with others. On the other hand, a low motivation for intimacy would be an indicator of certain mental disorders like autism that requires further clinical interventions.

In addition, the Big Three Motives can predict occupational preferences: high need for achievement and being a small business owner, high need for power and being a manager, and high need for intimacy and being a counsellor. Furthermore, the Big Three Motives are also related to interpersonal relationships: a high need for intimacy is predictive of dyadic interactions with friends, a high need for power is predictive of having a dominant, assertive style in relationships, and a high need for achievement is predictive of engaging in goal-oriented shared activities.

However, there are always ethical considerations when using the TAT. For example, the pictures should be appropriate to the participants age, gender and culture, e.g. not too intense or provocative. Also, the context and purpose of the test should be clear in order not to influence the participants’ narrative choices. For instance, a person’s story for a job interview and a story for a creative test would be different. Moreover, gender differences in certain motives should also be taken into consideration e.g. the need for intimacy is usually higher in female.

Now it’s time to make your own stories!

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