The term achievement motivation refers to motivation stemming from a desire to perform well or a striving for success. It is evidenced by effort and persistence in the face of difficulties. It is regarded as a central human motivation and is a key determinant of aspiration and persistence when an individual expects that his or her performance will be evaluated on the basis of some standard of excellence. Such behavior is called being achievement-oriented. Motivation to achieve is instigated when an individual knows that he or she is responsible for the outcome of a venture and anticipates explicit knowledge of results that will define that venture as a success or failure. There also needs to be some degree of risk, such as uncertainty about the outcome of one's effort.
Achievement-oriented activity is aimed at succeeding and performing well in relation to a standard of excellence or when compared with other competitors. The topic of achievement motivation is of practical importance in education and industry, and relates to the sociological study of the achievement of mobility through life. Through David C. McClelland's study of the relationship between achievement motivation and entrepreneurial activity, this topic has also become a matter of considerable interest to historians, economists, and others concerned with economic development. Individuals differ in their ability to self-motivate, and different activities each pose different challenges to different people. Therefore, personality must be considered alongside environmental factors when accounting for the strength of achievement motivation in a particular person. The desire to achieve can fluctuate depending on a number of factors including confidence levels and physical strength.
Psychological studies conducted under various rubrics, such as success and failure, ego-involvement, and level of aspiration, have included antecedents of the concept of achievement motivation. However in the 1940s, when these studies were conducted, there was little basis for meaningful integration of knowledge because there was no common method for assessment of motivation to anchor research findings. Shortly after World War II (1939-1945) there was a methodological innovation, especially the experimental validation method of measuring achievement motivation and the systematic use of this new tool in behavioral and societal studies. The career ladder is one measure of achievement and success in life, in which attaining goals leads to an increase in responsibility and stature. The highly motivated spur themselves on to do better in school and aim to work in industries with a culture of high ambition, like business. Many studies into achievement motivation work from McClelland's hypothesis that it is "in part responsible for economic growth." Prominent sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) considered it an influence on the development of capitalism of the Protestant ethic.
In the 1950s, McClelland and his co-workers combined the traditional clinical assumption that human motives are freely expressed in imagination, and procedures developed within experimental psychology for manipulation of the strength of motivation. They demonstrated that the motivational state of an individual can be diagnosed by means of content analysis of his or her fantasy or imaginative behavior as revealed, for instance, in the Thematic Apperception Test. Achievement imagery in fantasy takes the form of thoughts about performing a task well, trying various means of achieving, and of experiencing joy or sadness depending on the outcome of the effort. Experimental fact has identified the particular diagnostic signs of achievement motivation, while the results of validating experiments have been replicated in other societies and social groups. The method of content analysis is applied to analysis of imaginative stories that are written by different people under standard conditions, in order to study antecedents or effects of individual differences. This method has been successfully applied to stories obtained in a national survey study, to children's readers, to folk tales, and to other samples of the imaginative behavior of whole societies.
Individuals producing the most achievement imagery in a standard assessment situation are considered the most highly motivated to achieve. Similarly, societies whose literary documents are saturated with achievement imagery are assumed to be more concerned about achievement in comparison to those where this type of imagery is less prevalent. During the 1950s and 1960s, lack of achievement motivation was a fashionable explanation for the lack of economic development in the Third World, especially among certain American modernization theorists. However, this thesis was much criticized by dependency theorists, including Andre Gunder Frank.