Motivation and Decision Making

Motivation and emotion are closely linked when it comes to decision making. Often it is the desire to achieve or avoid a certain emotional state that drives a choice. Risk aversion is one example; people tend to prefer choices that decrease the probability that something negative will happen.

Motivational bias occurs when judgment is influenced by the desirability or undesirability of consequences or outcomes. This type of “motivated reasoning” causes people to interpret data and information in the most favorable light for outcomes they desire and in the least favorable for ones they wish to avoid. For example, a banker rewarded based on the number of loans that are approved may provide an overoptimistic assessment of an applicant’s ability to repay the loan. The influence of the motivator may be conscious, as when the banker deliberately interprets the data optimistically, or unconscious as part of the general approach to how the banker does her job.

Motivation drives goal-setting and the decisions made in pursuit of that goal. For example, career decisions can be motivated by many different factors such as the desire to follow in the footsteps of one’s parent, to earn a lot of money, to contribute to society, or to pursue a passion. People decide to become entrepreneurs because they are motivated by a need for achievement or a desire to be in control (i.e., to be their own boss). The desire to achieve a reward spurs choices that support attaining it; for example, a salesperson working on commission will make decisions about which customers to call on and how to make the pitch with an eye toward making the sale. In addition to external rewards, the decisions people make can also be motivated by intrinsic factors such as feelings of self-worth, self-efficacy, or pride.

As with cognitive biases, it is important to be aware of potential sources of motivation bias in oneself and in others. Otherwise, it can lead to distortion during the search for alternatives and the analysis stages of the decision making process. Information can be subject to interpretation, and data is not always unambiguous, so we can be motivated to see things a certain way and to discount other views.

Along these lines, decisions can be affected by individual needs and interests that motivate people to prefer certain outcomes over others. What we want shapes our attitudes, interpretations, priorities, and ultimately, decisions. Often, it is clear how someone’s perspective on a decision is shaped by what’s in it for them. They may state so explicitly, or it may be implied by their position or status as in the case of a manager whose support for an increased budget is motivated by a desire to have control over more resources. But sometimes these interests are not so clear. When we say people having hidden agendas, what we mean is they are motivated by one or more factors that they choose not to disclose but which biases their views one way or the other.


Roets, A. and A. Van Hiel. “An Integrative Process Approach on Judgment and Decision Making: the Impact of Arousal, Affect, Motivation, and Cognitive Ability”. The Psychological Record 61 (2011): 497-520.

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