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Unconscious Motivation



A cursory look at the literature is enough to convince the reader that motivation research is an increasingly flourishing area in applied linguistics. More and more researchers are showing interest in understanding learner (and teacher) motivation, in theory and in practice. This may be because of the perception that motivation has more direct applications (and perhaps less dry) than some other areas of applied linguistics.
Unconscious Motivation
Ali H. Al-Hoorie
A cursory look at the literature is enough to convince the reader that motivation
research is an increasingly ourishing area in applied linguistics. More and more
researchers are showing interest in understanding learner (and teacher) motivation,
in theory and in practice. This may be because of the perception that motivation has
more direct applications (and perhaps less dry) than some other areas of applied
However, a closer look at this growing literature will also show the reader that
the majority of studies follow one pattern: The researcher approaches the partici-
pants (e.g., learners, teachers, etc.) and asks them about their motivation. This could
be in the form of an open-ended qualitative interview or in a more quantied form
using questionnaire surveysespecially those drawing from Likert-type items
(Al-Hoorie, 2017).
This self-report approach makes at least two assumptions. First, it assumes that
the participant is aware of their motives and what drives their behavior. Second, it
additionally assumes that participants are equally able to articulate these motives
and communicate them to others. While hardly anyone would claim that these two
assumptions are always false, many would also entertain the possibility that there
might be other, unconscious motives and processes of which the individual is
unaware (Al-Hoorie, 2015). If this is the case, then asking our research participants
about such unconscious aspects of their motivation and behavior may not be very
This recognition has led some researchers to complement self-reports with other
methods that do not rely on direct questions to the participant. One early method is
the matched-guise technique (see Al-Hoorie, 2019). Here, the participant listens to
speakers in two languages (or accents) reading the same text. The participants job
A. H. Al-Hoorie (&)
Jubail English Language and Preparatory Year Institute,
Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu, Jubail Industrial City, Saudi Arabia
©Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2021
H. Mohebbi and C. Coombe (eds.), Research Questions in Language
Education and Applied Linguistics, Springer Texts in Education,
would be to judge the personality of each speaker, something like how one makes
an impression about someone on the phone or on the radio. The tricky part,
however, is that the people speaking in the two languages are actually one person
uent in them. If the participant judges the personality of the two speakers differ-
ently, this might reect unconscious/implicit attitudes about the target language or
its speakers.
More recently, a number of new instruments have been devised by psychologists
in an attempt to measure implicit attitudes. One popular instrument is the Implicit
Association Test (Greenwald et al., 1998). Here, the participant is asked to perform
a special task that involves classifying a series of words to the right or left on a
computer screen. The participants implicit attitudes are deduced from the speed at
which s/he responds to these stimuli (see, e.g. Al-Hoorie, 2016a,b). Several other
instruments and variations are available for researchers.
Importantly, researchers interested in the unconscious aspect of motivation do
not claim that conscious motivation should be downplayed or replaced by uncon-
scious motivation. Instead, these two perspectives complement each other in order
to come up with a more complete picture of human motivation. This idea is
sometimes referred to as a dual-process theory of cognition (Sherman et al., 2014).
It is likely that the language motivation eld would benet from paying more
attention to unconscious processes involved in language learning and teaching.
The Research Questions
1. To what extent do unconscious factors inuence language motivation, learning,
and teaching? What can unconscious factors contribute to our knowledge over
and above the contribution of conscious factors?
2. How do conscious and unconscious factors and processes interact? How can we
investigate their dynamic interaction?
3. How do language-related implicit attitudes develop? What links are there to
evolution theory and evolutionary psychology?
4. Do these implicit attitudes change over time? What factors lead to this change?
5. To what extent can we intervene to modify unconscious factors to make lan-
guage learning and teaching more productive?
6. Which of the different implicit measures are more suitable to the different
problems in the language motivation eld? Can we devise new implicit
instruments specically for the context of language motivation?
7. Other than language motivation, how can the different subdisciplines of lan-
guage education and applied linguistics benet from implicit measures?
8. Using qualitative methods, do individuals with positive implicit attitudes per-
ceive and approach language learning/teaching any differently from those with
negative implicit attitudes?
756 A. H. Al-Hoorie
9. What effect does awareness of ones own implicit attitudes have?
10. Apart from learners and teachers, how is the topic of implicit attitudes relevant
to other stakeholders including parents, school administrators, and future
Suggested Resources
Gawronski, B., & Payne, B. K. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of implicit social
cognition: Measurement, theory, and applications.New York: Guilford Press.
This book, just like most of the other items in this annotated bibliography, comes
from psychology. This is because psychologists are the pioneers in this area. In fact,
most language motivation theories originated from psychology and were then
adapted to our purposes in one way or another. Therefore, the language motivation
eld owes a lot to psychology. In this edited volume, the contributors shed light on
various topics and issues related to implicit social cognition. This book would
provide the uninitiated reader with a wealth of information about this active area of
Wittenbrink, B., & Schwarz, N. (Eds.). (2007). Implicit measures of attitudes:
Procedures and controversies. New York: Guilford Press.
This book focuses specically on implicit measures. The contributors discuss and
raise important conceptual questions regarding implicit attitudes and their mea-
surement. An important and highly cited chapter in this volume is the one by Lane,
Banaji, Nosek, and Greenwald titled Understanding and using the Implicit
Association Test: IV. What we know (so far) about the method. This is the fourth
installment of a series of papers on the Implicit Association Test, detailing evidence
on its reliability and validity as well as how to design one suitable for a specic
purpose. This chapter is essential reading for anyone planning to use the Implicit
Association Test.
Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good
people. New York: Delacorte.
This is a very readable introduction to implicit attitudes and their role in our daily
lives. The authors present complex ideas in plain (and entertaining) English. The
authors argue that anyone can have hidden biases and prejudges, even if they feel
disgusted by such biases at the explicit/conscious level. Examples of domains
where biases can creep in include age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class,
disability status, and nationality. The authors use the term blindspotto describe
the idea that such biases can exist in ones mind without their awareness of it. The
authors also founded the Implicit Project (currently hosted at Harvard University
website:, where anyone can try different implicit tests to
get a glimpse of their own potential biases free of charge.
131 Unconscious Motivation 757
Schultheiss, O. C., & Brunstein, J. C. (Eds.). (2010). Implicit motives. Oxford,
UK: Oxford University Press.
This book is on another area of unconscious motivation, namely implicit motives.
Research in this area has a long history dating as far back as the 1940s. This line of
research has shown that individuals can be high or low on three main motives:
achievement, power and, afliation. The primary instrument used in this line of
research is the Picture Story Exercise. The participant is presented with an
ambiguous picture (e.g., a young male staring blankly into the window and a female
gure standing in the background) and is asked to make up story about what might
be happening. The story is then coded to determine the underlying motives. The
rationale of the Picture Story Exercise is that the individual is going to project
his/her own motives on that ambiguous picture. The contributors to this volume
discuss various topics and developments in this area.
Weinberger, J. L., & Stoycheva, V. (2020). The unconscious: Theory, research,
and clinical implications. New York: Guilford Press.
In this book, the authors present a state-of-the-art analysis of various domains
related to unconscious processes. The book starts with important philosophical and
historical aspects of the unconscious, and then provides an overview of each of the
major areas in unconscious research. These areas include heuristics, implicit
memory, implicit learning, implicit motivation, automaticity, misattribution,
affective primacy, and embodied cognition. The nal part of the book deals with the
neuroscientic underpinnings of the unconscious. This part discusses topics like
computations models of the mind, modularity, and parallel distributed processing.
Considering its wide scope, this book is an up-to-date and relatively concise
treatment for readers interested in the unconscious.
Al-Hoorie, A. H. (2015). Human agency: Does the beach ball have free will? In Z. Dörnyei,
P. MacIntyre, & A. Henry (Eds.), Motivational dynamics in language learning (pp. 5572).
Multilingual Matters.
Al-Hoorie, A. H. (2016a). Unconscious motivation. Part I: Implicit attitudes toward L2 speakers.
Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 6(3), 423454.
Al-Hoorie, A. H. (2016b). Unconscious motivation. Part II: Implicit attitudes and L2 achievement.
Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 6(4), 619649.
Al-Hoorie, A. H. (2017). Implicit attitudes in language learning. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis,
University of Nottingham, UK.
758 A. H. Al-Hoorie
Al-Hoorie, A. H. (2019). Motivation and the unconscious. In M. Lamb, K. Csizér, A. Henry, & S.
Ryan (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of motivation for language learning (pp. 561578).
Palgrave Macmillan.
Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. (1998). Measuring individual differences in
implicit cognition: The implicit association test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
74(6), 14641480.
Sherman, J. W., Gawronski, B., & Trope, Y. (Eds.). (2014). Dual-process theories of the social
mind. Guilford Press.
Ali H. Al-Hoorie is an assistant professor at the Jubail English Language and Preparatory Year
Institute, Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. He completed his Ph.D. in
Applied Linguistics at the University of Nottingham under the supervision of Professors Zoltán
Dörnyei and Norbert Schmitt. He also holds an MA in Social Science Data Analysis from Essex
University. His research interests include motivation theory, research methodology, and
complexity. He has published in various journals including Language Learning, The Modern
Language Journal, Studies in Second Language Acquisition, ELT J, Language Teaching
Research, and Learning and Individual Differences. He is also the co-author of the book Research
Methods for Complexity in Applied Linguistics and a co-editor of Contemporary Language
Motivation Theory: 60 Years Since Gardner and Lambert (1959).
131 Unconscious Motivation 759
... We must also acknowledge the recent literature on unconscious motives or attitudes in L2 learning that are not captured through self-report elicitation methods (Al-Hoorie, 2016a, 2016b. Exploring this unconscious aspect through instruments that do not rely on self-report data is a promising new avenue for the field, and its applications in language learning has begun to receive wider attention (e.g., Al-Hoorie, 2020a, 2020b). ...
Full-text available
Research on language learning motivation has typically focused on the strength of different motives in isolation and often out of context. The present study aims to explore the applicability of Higgins’s (2014) global theory of motivation to integrate different perspectives. We investigated how adaptive interactions between learners’ motivations for value, truth and control effectiveness, and contextual factors led to varying motivational trajectories and patterns of emergent stability at different stages of the language learning experiences of six Iranian graduate students learning English in the USA. Using a retrospective-longitudinal design, quasi-narrative accounts of key phases of the learners’ language learning histories were documented through interviews. These data were analyzed following an analytic inductive approach (Saldaña, 2015) to identify the main events within different contexts, themes associated with each setting, and other bottom-up conceptual categories. Using a process tracing procedure (Bennett & Checkel, 2015), our results showed that dynamic processes and adaptive or competitive interactions between value, control, and truth-related motivations and the context in which they emerged resulted in specific motivational trajectories that shaped these learners’ language learning choices and experiences. We discuss the contribution of these novel frameworks for understanding the complex motivational development of language learners.
Full-text available
In this chapter, Al-Hoorie presents an overview of the role of unconscious motivation and its relationship to conscious motivation. The author reviews some interesting findings from mainstream psychology pointing to the pervasive role of unconscious processes in human motivation. The discussion is then linked to language learning, where comparable findings are found. These findings emerged from various instruments and methodologies, including the Match-Guise Technique, the Implicit Association Test, the Single-Target Association Test, as well as qualitative observation. Directions for future research are finally suggested.
Full-text available
This paper investigates the attitudinal/motivational predictors of second language (L2) academic achievement. Young adult learners of English as a foreign language (N = 311) completed several self-report measures and the Single-Target Implicit Association Test. Examination of the motivational profiles of high and low achievers revealed that attachment to the L1 community and the ought-to L2 self were negatively associated with achievement, while explicit attitudes toward the L2 course and implicit attitudes toward L2 speakers were positively associated with it. The relationship between implicit attitudes and achievement could not be explained either by social desirability or by other cognitive confounds, and remained significant after controlling for explicit self-report measures. Explicit–implicit congruence also revealed a similar pattern, in that congruent learners were more open to the L2 community and obtained higher achievement. The results also showed that neither the ideal L2 self nor intended effort had any association with actual L2 achievement, and that intended effort was particularly prone to social desirability biases. Implications of these findings are discussed.
This handbook offers an authoritative, one-stop reference work for the dynamic and expanding field of language learning motivation. The 32 chapters have been specially commissioned from the field’s most influential researchers and writers. Together they present a compelling picture of the motivations people have for learning languages, the diverse ways we can research motivation, and the implications for promoting and sustaining learners’ motivation. The first section outlines the main theoretical approaches to language learning motivation; the next section presents ways in which motivation theory has been applied in practice; the third section showcases examples of motivation research in particular contexts and with particular types of language learners; and the final section describes the exciting directions that contemporary research is taking, promising important new insights for academics and practitioners alike. Martin Lamb is Senior Lecturer in TESOL at the University of Leeds, UK. He previously worked as a language teacher and trainer in Sweden, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Bulgaria. His main research interest is in language learner motivation and how it interacts with features of context like teaching in school. Kata Csizér is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of English and Applied Linguistics at Eötvös University, Hungary. Her main field of research interest is the social psychological aspects of L2 learning and teaching, as well as second and foreign language motivation. Alastair Henry is Professor of Language Education at University West, Sweden. His research involves the psychology of language learning and teaching. In addition to motivation, his work has focused on teacher identities and language choices in contexts of migration. Stephen Ryan is Professor of Applied Linguistics in the School of Culture, Media and Society at Waseda University, Japan. His research covers various aspects of psychology in language learning, and he has several co-authored books in the field.
This paper reports the first investigation in the second language acquisition field assessing learners’ implicit attitudes using the Implicit Association Test, a computerized reaction-time measure. Examination of the explicit and implicit attitudes of Arab learners of English (N = 365) showed that, particularly for males, implicit attitudes toward L2 speakers are associated with self-reported openness to the L2 group and with strength of correlations among attitudinal and motivational variables. Implicit attitudes also moderated important paths in the L2 Motivational Self System. The paper concludes that implicit attitudes seem to be a meaningful individual difference variable, adding a new dimension to our understanding of language motivation.
An implicit association test (IAT) measures differential association of 2 target concepts with an attribute. The 2 concepts appear in a 2-choice task (2-choice task (e.g., flower vs. insect names), and the attribute in a 2nd task (e.g., pleasant vs. unpleasant words for an evaluation attribute). When instructions oblige highly associated categories (e.g., flower + pleasant) to share a response key, performance is faster than when less associated categories (e.g., insect & pleasant) share a key. This performance difference implicitly measures differential association of the 2 concepts with the attribute. In 3 experiments, the IAT was sensitive to (a) near-universal evaluative differences (e.g., flower vs. insect), (b) expected individual differences in evaluative associations (Japanese + pleasant vs. Korean + pleasant for Japanese vs. Korean subjects), and (c) consciously disavowed evaluative differences (Black + pleasant vs. White + pleasant for self-described unprejudiced White subjects).
The Palgrave handbook of motivation for language learning
  • A H Al-Hoorie