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Unconscious Motivation

Motivating impulses that influence behavior without conscious awareness.

Unconscious motivation plays a prominent role in Sigmund Freud's theories of human behavior. According to Freud and his followers, most human behavior is the result of desires, impulses, and memories that have been repressed into an unconscious state, yet still influence actions. Freud believed that the human mind consists of a tiny, conscious part that is available for direct observation and a much larger subconscious portion that plays an even more important role in determining behavior.

The term "Freudian slip" refers to the manifestation of these unconscious impulses. For example, a person who responds "Bad to meet you" instead of the usual "Glad to meet you" may be revealing true feelings. The substitution of "bad" for "glad" is more than a slip of the tongue; it is an expression of the person's unconscious feelings of fear or dislike. Similarly, a talented athlete who plays an uncharacteristically poor game could be acting on an unconscious desire to punish overbearing or inattentive parents. Unknown to the athlete, the substandard performance actually is communicating an important message.

Freud also contended that repressed memories and desires are the origins of most mental disorders. Psychoanalysis was developed as a method of assisting patients in bringing their unconscious thoughts to consciousness. This increased awareness of the causes for behavior and feelings then would assist the patient in modifying the undesired aspects of behavior.

See also Memory; Repression.

Further Reading

Atkinson, Rita L.; Richard C. Atkinson; Edward E. Smith; and Ernest R. Hilgard. Introduction to Psychology. 9th ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.

Clark, David Stafford. What Freud Really Said. New York Schocken Books, 1965.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Perception: early Greek theories to Zombie