Exploration of the environment is considered to be a critical aspect of the development of competence in all children. For the very young child, a substantial part of exploration involves playing with objects; such play results in the eventual understanding that actions produce effects (Piaget 1952). The motivation to master such understanding is regarded as an intrinsic and integral part of human development (White 1959). As with other fundamental human characteristics, however, individual differences exist in the motivation to master an understanding of physical objects. We are only beginning to understand the origins and extent of such differences.
Theories of motivation suggest that cognitive ability, at least in part, explains differences in motivation. Theorists have conceptualized the cognition-motivation relation in a variety of ways. White (1959) contends that motivation in the young child manifests itself as an ‘urge toward competence’ that results in broad knowledge and skill in understanding the world of physical objects. In this regard, motivation may be considered the servant of cognition. A complementary perspective of motivation was conceptualized by Berlyne (1966), who contended that individuals engage in problem solving when experiences are discrepant from those anticipated. Thus, motivation stems from cognitive activity. Finally, Hunt (1971) implied an integrated relation between cognition and motivation in his proposal that motivation is a critical aspect of information processing. In this view, cognition and motivation are colleagues. All three theorists are united in their perspective that motivation and cognition are critically linked.
Although none of the theorists mentioned above used the term ‘mastery motivation’, all described behaviours that individuals display when mastering challenging problems. Mastery motivation has been conceptualized as ‘the psychological force that stimulates an individual to attempt independently, in a focused and persistent manner, to solve a problem or master a skill which is at least moderately challenging to him or her’ (Morgan et al. 1990:319). Mastery motivation has been operationalized