What's the difference between these two terms when used in the context of cognitive psychology? To the best of my knowledge, research on 'Goal Oriented Behavior' refers to the subset of motivation that involves translating explicitly construed goals into actions the agent can perform in order to accomplish these goals (e.g. means-ends analysis). However, its hard for me to grasp when this is not the case insofar as theories of motivation are concerned.

So are these terms effectively synonyms with 'Goal Oriented Behavior' simply being the more modern verbiage? Or is 'Goal Oriented Behavior' a special subset of Motivation? Or is the relationship between the two terms something else entirely (perhaps each is used in a different field of study).


2 Answers 2


Major theories of motivation distinguish between implicit and explicit motives - the first refering to (relatively) unconscious, automatically operating motives, the second refering to motives and goals which are accessible for self-reports (McClelland, Koestner, & Weinberger, 1989). Explicit motives are translated into conscious goals, whereas implicit motives influence spontaneous, uncontrolled, and long-term behavior (without goal-planning behavior).

Furthermore, 'Motivation' referes to a larger process (e.g., selective attention, comparison of set points with actual situations, the processing of situational incentives), where the translation into goals and actions only is the last part of a sequence of processing steps.

Concerning your question, I would say that 'goal oriented behavior' indeed is a subset of motivation, namely explicit motivation.


McClelland, D. C., Koestner, R., & Weinberger, J. (1989). How do self-attributed and implicit motives differ? Psychological Review, 96, 690-702.

Schultheiss, O. C. (2008). Implicit motives. In O. P. John, R. W. Robins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of personality psychology: Theory and research (3rd ed.). (pp. 603-633). New York, NY US: Guilford Press.


One example, I can think of, which is an example of motivation, which does not need to be driven by wanting to accomplish a goal is doing arts. The motivation to play an instrument might be to learn how to master the instrument, but is might as well come from enjoyment of earning how to master the instrument. In the latter case, it is not so important whether one will ultimately master the instrument, because it is the process of learning it, which is the fun part.

  • $\begingroup$ That is a good way of looking at it, and one I hadn't thought of. However, I'm really looking for confirmation within the existing research. If you could find citations backing up your definition, I'd happily accept it then. $\endgroup$
    – zergylord
    Jan 23, 2012 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ Your answer relates to flow theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 2010) where the incentives is in the activity itself, not in a goal to be completed. If you search for 'flow' you will find an abundance of references backing up that view. $\endgroup$
    – Felix S
    Jan 26, 2012 at 5:45
  • $\begingroup$ @FelixtS, I'd argue that the activities carried during a flow experience has effect on the brain, which you can argue satisfice internal (subconscious) goals. A philosophical argument can be made that there is no point in a process unless it leads to some favourable state in the brain, and such state may be external or internal. Further more, a process without a stop-condition (ie, goal, fuzzy at is may be) is paradoxical. $\endgroup$
    – Izhaki
    Dec 23, 2015 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ In your example of "doing arts", that is driven by a goal. In fact you give examples of what those goals might be in your: The goals of "enjoyment in learning" or "fun" that comes from engaging in the "doing art" behavior. Motivated behavior (that is not the result of a pathology) is always goal-oriented (whether or not one can identify the goals). That is, there is always some underlying stimulus that is driving the behavior, and the goal stems from and in relation to that. $\endgroup$ Feb 11, 2019 at 18:24

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