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Updated: Jun 4, 2023

Theories in the field of psychology about motivation are vast. What can we use to motivate ourselves toward lessons with a goal of improved technical or emotional expression on our piano (instrument), or a goal to perform in front of a teacher, friend, or on a stage?

In psychology, basically there are two types of motivation, (1) process and (2) content.

Adams’, Vroom’s, and Reich's theories are three process motivation theories that fit for me.

The Justice Theory of Motivation

Adams’ equity theory of motivation (1965), based on Social Exchange theory, states that we are motivated when treated equitably, and we receive what we consider fair for our efforts. It suggests that we not only compare our contributions to the amount of rewards we receive but also compare them to what others receive for the same amount of input. Although equity is essential to motivation, it does not take into account the differences in individual needs, values, and personalities, which influence our perception of inequity.”

Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory (1964) integrates needs, equity, and reinforcement theories to explain how we choose from alternative forms of voluntary behavior based on the belief that decisions will have desired outcomes. Vroom suggests that we are motivated to pursue an activity by appraising three factors: (1) Expectancy that assumes more effort will result in success, (2) Instrumentality that sees a connection between activity and goal, and (3) Valence which represents the degree to which we value the reward or the results of success.

I’m certain that I am motivated by justice. It's not far fetched to say that I became a lawyer out of exactly that motivation! Thus, if I feel I have been treated unfairly during a piano lesson, I feel stress, anger, and disappointment. Accordingly. I will likely give up sooner rather than later in attempting to gain a new skill or continuing to study with that particular teacher.

An example is a teacher who jumps to a quick diagnosis of a problem in a lesson rather than first ask me what is going on. Another example is someone who blames my stress or conflict in the relationship on a perceived “defect” they think I have, rather than acknowledge his or her own contribution to the problem, and directly apologize when the teacher has been hasty or unfair in his or her diagnoses.

I’ve had one teacher tell me several times that “you don’t listen to me,” “you don’t appreciate how difficult learning the piano is,” and “you become impatient too quickly.” Why would I NOT listen when I am paying that teacher TO listen and learn? It made no sense to me.

That same teacher made an overbroad statement regarding a new piece I was learning and had just played for the first time, that I had “forgotten to attend to rhythm,” implying that I had forgotten in the whole piece. Yet originally we had agreed that rhythm was my principal learning goal! In addition, I pointed out that before I commenced practicing this new piece, I had marked the note values above all measures in the first section, proving that, indeed, I had not forgotten rhythm at all. What I had done was fail to implement rhythm correctly in some parts; in other parts I had gotten it right.

I never received an acknowledgement of those facts, and obviously, never an apology. Because their statements seemed particularly inaccurate, insensitive, and thus, unjust, a few months later after another incident that I considered unfair, I quit lessons with this teacher.

The Ambivalence Theory of Motivation

Taly Reich (2016), an associate professor of marketing at Yale University introduced something interesting regarding cultivating ambivalence toward a goal, which is typically felt as uncomfortable. One could say this just confirms other researchers, such as Ilinca Vartic in the online class I am taking at

"The more importance we give a certain event, the stronger are the chances

that we’ll fail. Philosophers say that this way the Universe is balancing the scales.

As a pianist, I have a simpler explanation: if you give too much importance

to your next exam, your rational mind tells you: “Failure is unacceptable!”

This way, you’re welcoming stress."

“Historically, it’s been viewed as an aversive state, as something people want to eliminate or reduce,” says Taly Reich, associate professor of marketing at Yale School Of Marketing. “I’ve already shown how that’s not always the case, and my new work builds from there, giving us a fuller picture of what ambivalence really is.”

She also says “ “Ambivalence is this sweet spot of wanting something but being aware of the negatives in a way that lets you approach a decision you’d otherwise feel too threatened to approach.”

How does it work?

Specifically what it does, if we keep the negatives in mind, is that it allows us to approach a desired goal with more motivation, not less.

Regarding performing in a upcoming lesson, recital, or concert, you create a list of one pro and two cons. The goal is to feel two opposed states deeply and simultaneously. Thus, Reich believes you become less fearful and more proactive toward your goal, as her research suggests!

It seems what is happening with her approach or technique, is that we take the sting of potential rejection or failure away, or we reduce it’s emotional pull on us to avoid an otherwise threatening action or situation.

One positive lesson I took away from my former teacher as well as from Noa Kageyama’s amazing class on reducing stress and distraction, Psych Essentials, is to experiment. Thus,

I think I’ll try Reich’s approach the next time I enter into lessons or decide to entertain a friend or two at a party!

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