Can Schemas Motivate?23 min read

In an influential paper entitled “Schemas and Motivation,” the cognitive anthropologist Roy D’Andrade once remarked on the curious lack of relation (with reference to anthropological theory)

…between culture and action. Of course, one can say ‘people do what they do because their culture makes them do it.’ The problem with this formulation is that it does not explain anything. Do people always do what their culture tells them to? If they do, why do they? If they don’t, why don’t they? And how does culture make them do it? Unless there is some specification of how culture ‘makes’ people do what they do, no explanation has been given (1992: 23).

D’Andrade’s overall observation, namely, that cultural theory is not worth its salt unless it tells us how culture links to action, is important and worth making, as I noted in a previous post. As social scientists, we care about culture to the extent that it helps us explain what people do. In the same way, D’Andrade’s dismissal of the “naive” or unqualified version of the “culture causes action” (CCA) thesis is on the right track. In its unqualified form, CCA is explanatorily vacuous because it is completely unconstrained and does not specify the mechanisms via which such causal effects are supposed to happen.

D’Andrade notes that the “explanatory gap” he points to is particularly salient when it comes to trying to explain why people put effort and striving in engaging in some lines of action at the expense of others. For D’Andrade, there is a “standard account” that posits that culture helps in action selection (and persistence) because culture helps to motivate people to pursue one line of activity over others. But it

…remains unclear how culture is connected to motivational strivings. Without an account of the relation between culture and motivation, we may have an intuitive sense that there are culturally based strivings, but we have no explanation of this (1992: 23).

D’Andrade observes that to link culture and motivation, we must clarify what we mean by motivation. He proposes a quick and dirty definition based on the usual “folk” understanding. For D’Andrade, “motivation is experienced as a desire or wish, followed by a feeling of satisfaction if the desire is fulfilled.” Thus, motivation is intimately linked to the folk category of desire (as more recently argued by Schroeder 2004). Motivation also has to do with internal processes that “energize” or activate people to act in a given setting (as more recently argued by Turner 2010); “[a]long with this increase in activity there is is typically a striving for something—a goal directedness in behavior” (24).

Thus, motivation is the persistent, energized pursuit of goals, where the latter pertains to the fulfillment of desires. D’Andrade goes on to review models of motivation that were prominent in mid-twentieth century psychological science, namely, those conceptualizing motivation in terms of “drive reduction” (e.g., satiation of hunger, thirst, and the like) and those conceptualizing motivation in terms of “need-fulfullment” where the “needs” concern usually very long (or open-ended) lists of abstract things, states, or relations people might desire to pursue (e.g., achievement, autonomy, affiliation, order, dominance, and the like).

D’Andrade profers three (correct) critiques of such models.

  • First, a “list of motives” approach is incapable of capturing the open-ended nature of human desire (Schroeder 2004). Essentially, there is nothing that cannot be conceptualized as a “need,” which means that analysts will be forced to include all kinds of heterogeneous, incompatible, and contradictory goals (e.g., needs for “abasement,” and “enhancement”) into any presumably exhaustive (but largely unstructured) list. Both arbitrariness and the lack of structure make these lists suspect.
  • Second, motive lists will always be incomplete. Such lists will be necessarily partial and tilted towards the “needs” or strivings that make sense to WEIRD populations. They will necessarily lack cross-cultural (or even historical) coverage and thus will be powerless to account for the full observed empirical variation of motives and motivations exhibited by people.
  • Third, there are very few “trans-situational” motives. Most motivations are contextually specific; they are inclinations or dispositions to pursue particular goals in particular settings. That is why lists of motives end up degenerating into lists of personality-like traits. Saying someone has a trans-situational “need for dominance” is no different from saying that they will be aggressive in all or most settings. But as modern personality research shows (Cervone 2005), there are few (or no) trans-situational personality traits, needs, or strivings. List of motives approaches cannot capture the “situated” nature of human motivation.

D’Andrade also points to the difficulty of measuring motives (a problem shared by all theories of motives). At one point, analysts inspired by the list of motives approach relied on discredited instruments taken from psychodynamic theories (e.g., inkblot tests). Today, the workhorse measurement method is self-report, whether in surveys or interviews, as these approaches are more likely to capture the cultural and contextual specificity of motives. Regardless, the main point is that without calibrating standard social science techniques to detect people’s wishes, desires, goals, and strivings, the search for motives grounded in a solid empirical footing will continue to be elusive.

Motives as Schemas

D’Andrade provides a swift solution to these problems: Conceptualize motives as schemas. Thinking of motives as schemas is useful, according to D’Andrade, because of three (representational) properties schemas have.

  • First, schemas can capture the processual and interpretive nature of many motives and motivations. In particular, schemas are useful for representing categorical domains with “prototype” organization, are readily memorable, and are used to fill in the blanks in context. Human motivation is one such domain. Representing goals in schematic format thus makes them cognitively available and usable.
  • Second, D’Andrade claims that schemas “have the potential of instigating action” (29). Although as we will see, he never quite cashes in on this claim. He points to the American “schema of achievement” as an example. D’Andrade notes that this schema does more than just representing the concept of achievement; it also functions as a “goal” for people. Albeit a goal of varying strength depending on the specificities of the situation in which it is activated.
  • Third, goal-schemas differ in their level of autonomy. This means that both motivations to engage in relatively short-term actions that are the means to larger goals, and more pervasive goals people pursue at longer time scales (perhaps lasting a lifetime) can be represented as schemas. In this way, low autonomy goals are embedded within larger projects. For instance, we activate the driving the car schema in order to make it to the PTA meeting, which satisfies a higher-order motive for affiliation or social integration. However, others (high autonomy) goals operate more or less as pervasive or chronically active (e.g., dominance, achievement). People for whom a given goal is in a high state of activation are likely to interpret even ambiguous cues in situations as prompts to engage in actions that are consistent with those goals.
  • Fourth, schemas differ in their schematicity, with some more specific or lower-level schemas nested within higher-level ones (thus reproducing standard categorical taxonomies). This, for D’Andrade, solves the problem of unstructured lists of motives. Instead of coming as an unstructured (and arbitrary) list, motives are structurally organized as hierarchies, with some of the vague needs and motivations (power, achievement, affiliation, and the like) being at the top, and then more specific action-guiding schemas (become a CEO, join the local PTA) at lower levels. For D’Andrade, goal-schemas at a lower-level of schematicity (and thus higher in specificity) are more context-driven, while higher-level (and thus more schematic) goal-schemas function as the pervasive “goals” of classical theories of motivation. These (autonomous) motives function “as a person’s most general goals,” or “master motives” (30). They are not directly connected to action (because many particular actions would be consistent with the schema). Still, They are connected to specific actions via more particular goal-schemas.

In sum, for D’Andrade, schemas solve many problems for anyone seeking to link culture, cognition, and motivation. Thinking of goals as having schematic representation in human memory allows us to understand human action as the result of cognitive structures activated in the situation, used by the person for categorization and interpretation, which ultimately “instigate” action. This context dependence accounts for situational variations in motivated action within-persons. At the same time, since motives differ in both autonomy and specificity, schemas can also represent pervasive, chronically active motivations that transcend situations. In contrast to the list of motives approach, the schema approach allows to properly theorize people’s goals as being part of an “overall interpretive system,” in which goals interrelate in structured ways, such as the hierarchical organization of lower-level goals nested within more schematic master motives. Finally, because schematic representation is a general representational format (capable of capturing anything that can be conceptually represented), there is no one “list” of motives; instead, “there are at least as many kinds of motives as there kinds of goal-schemas” (32). This accounts for cross-cultural variability in motivations since many goal-schemas will be specific to particular settings and locations. Schematic representation also facilitates the social-scientific job of identifying motives empirically. When motives are conceptualized as schemas, this task becomes the same as the more general endeavor of identifying schemas in text, discourse, and talk (Mohr et al. 2020; Quinn 2016).

How do Goal-Schemas Motivate?

D’Andrade’s argument that goals can be stored in human memory in the form of (more or less) schematic representations endowed with systematic organization is compelling. That is, D’Andrade provides (one) story of how one aspect of human motivation (the goals towards which we strive) is internalized as personal culture in the forms of a particular set of representations. However, representation is necessary but not sufficient for motivation. For a mental state or structure to be motivational, it must have the power to cause action. D’Andrade uses various metaphors to refer to this power in the paper, such as “instigate.” However, it is unclear how exactly a goal representation can be motivational. After all, we can have many goals represented in memory (or even currently active) without any of those goals “moving” us to act.

Toward the end of the paper, D’Andrade gives another shot to explaining how an internalized goal-schema can be motivating. Here, he moves to a different metaphor: The idea that some internalized goal-schemas have “directive force.” Directive force can be thought of in the (Durkheimian) sense of a given representation exercising a “sense of [moral] obligation” in people. But for D’Andrade, this is actually “a special case of the more general phenomenon of motivation.” And therefore, schemas are “equally central to things people wanted directly—love, friendship, success…some of these schemas turn out to have their own obligations as well as their direct and indirect rewards” (36). D’Andrade then notes that these provide a link between the conception of motives as goal-schemas and Melford Spiro’s model of “levels” of internalization of cultural beliefs. Schemas endowed with motivational force would thus be those that have the “deepest” levels of internalization in Spiro’s sense. According to Spiro, people can go from simply being “acquainted,” with some set of public representations (level 1), to accepting them as half-hearted cliches (level 2), to adopting them as part of their stock of personal beliefs (level 3), to having them motivate and guide their action in everyday life (level 4) (D’Andrade, 1995, pp. 227–228). Only culture “taken up” at levels 3 and 4 counts as “internalized,” in a way that could plausibly “motivate” action. 

However, there is a problem here. The idea of internalization “depth” that D’Andrade, Spiro, along with other psychological anthropologists (Quinn et al., 2018a, 2018b) talk about is not a generic internalization story (in the sense discussed in a previous post). Instead, it is a special-purpose story that only applies to culture internalized as explicit, verbalizable belief; essentially knowledge-that (as distinguished from knowledge-what; see here for further discussion of knowledge-what). In a later publication, D’Andrade made this clear, noting that “[a]t the third level [of internalization], individuals hold their beliefs to be true, correct, or right” (1995, pp. 228, italics added). But as described by D’Andrade, goal-schemas are not a type of knowledge-that. Instead, they are a type of (categorical or conceptual) knowledge-what, endowed with all the characteristics of concepts when internalized in long-term memory and used for the same tasks (interpretation, property induction, inference, categorization, and the like). 

In this last respect, “levels” of internalization can be plausibly distinguished for beliefs concerning the “commitment” dimension. But this “levels imagery breaks down when it comes to the internalization of conceptual knowledge-what. It is nonsensical to say that people have a “lightly held” concept of achievement, affiliation, power, self-enhancement, and the like. Individual differences in internalized knowledge-what can be made, but the relevant dimension of internalization is not “depth” or “commitment” but something like “elaborateness.” Experts in a domain have more elaborate concepts of the entities and activities in that domain, not “deeper” ones. People for whom achievement is important may also have a more elaborate conceptual network (and perhaps hierarchical schema taxonomy) connecting various achievement-related goals and actions across various settings. 

Overall, the metaphor of “cultural depth,” while taken as a general-purpose account of cultural internalization (Sewell, 1992; Swidler, 2001), is a special-purpose story applicable to certain forms of knowledge that, like beliefs, encoding propositions about the world. While distinctions between different internalization modes can be made concerning knowledge-what, these will have very little to do with the idea of “depth,” or strength of commitment. In the end, it is unclear whether a schema is the sort of internalized culture to which the idea of levels of commitment applies. But more generally, it is doubtful that one can get a theory of motivation from a theory of degrees of commitment to such entities as beliefs or propositions. This account of motivation is not only overly intellectualist (as it restricts itself to consciously held belief), it is also not compatible with the very definition of motivation that D’Andrade began the paper with (where motivation is defined in terms of desire, want, pleasure, and reward). This commitment theory of motivation is also incompatible with the schema theory of representation that D’Andrade pursues in the paper. While motivation does undoubtedly have a representational component (something cannot be a motivation unless it is represented cognitively by the agent in some way) that role remains obscured in D’Andrade’s treatment. 


Overall, D’Andrade’s critique of the “list of motives” approach is well-taken, as is his suggestion that thinking of goals is represented in long-term memory in the form of schemas. D’Andrade thus provides an instructive account of how thinking about the format of mental representation can help us rethink some central concepts in cultural analysis such as “goals” or “ends.” The paper’s key message is still a sound one; to link culture and action, you need to have a story of how culture is internalized and represented in memory.  Mental representation (of goals, needs, desires, objects) is key because there can be no motivation without representation (Schroeder 2004). This approach can be extended by considering that schemas are only one way to represent goals in memory. After all, there is no reason why (following Rupert 2011) goals could also be represented by a panoply of other types of representation described by cognitive scientists, including (already considered) propositional beliefs, episodic memories, action-oriented representations, embodied representations, perceptual symbols, and many others.

However, to connect culture represented at the personal level to action, we need a substantive account of how mental states can be implicated in the causation of action; essentially we need a theory of motivation. Unfortunately, D’Andrade never closes the gap between the general representational proposal and actual motivational mechanisms. Nowhere are we told how purely representational, conceptual, or schematic mental representations can go on to “energize” or sustain motivated action in context. Missing are key elements that any theory of motivation should have (and which were embedded in D’Andrade’s very definition of the concept), such as wants, striving, desire, reward, pleasure, reinforcement, and learning (Kringelbach and Berridge 2016). Instead, D’Andrade never moves from purely metaphorical versions of how a purely representational state links to action, for instance, speaking of schematically represented goals can “instigate” action once activated (which sounds like a covert, and largely unsatisfactory, “ideomotor” account of the link between represented goals action of the “monkey represents, monkey does” type). This cannot deal with the fact that people in a given setting walk around with many goal representations that never become motivational. Ultimately, it is unclear why some goal representations have this instigating virtue and others do not. 

When he tries to get more concrete, D’Andrade provides a (familiar to sociologist) story: the goal representations that motivate are the ones that have been “deeply” internalized. But beyond the fact that this is just another (spatial) metaphor, the account D’Andrade provides, based on Spiro’s theory of internalization, does not even match the representational format he spent the entire paper arguing goals are represented in: Conceptual knowledge-what combining procedural and declarative components. Instead, the Spiro levels account for a special-purpose internalization story applicable to “beliefs.” Even in the case of belief, it is unclear whether the Spiro story actually tells us how beliefs motivate without relying on circularities and tautologies. That is, it seems like the deeply internalized beliefs (levels 3 and 4) are the ones causally implicated in the production of action, but as we saw earlier, this is literally the definition of what it is for a mental state to be motivating. We are not given an “origin” story of why some belief-like mental states acquire this power. 

This is not to pile on D’Andrade (or Spiro). The problem of linking culture and action via motivation is a tough one. But as argued before, even if some solutions previously provided are not up to par, we can agree on what the general outlines of a satisfactory solution can be. In this post, we have learned that having an account of cultural internalization or how culture is represented in memory is not enough. This is especially the case when linking culture and motivation, because motivation while incorporating a representational component, is not exhausted by it. Thus a theory that links culture to action must also be a theory of motivation, as D’Andrade observed. Motivation is key, because it tells us which slice of the culture that people have internalized has causal effects on action and which one will not.

One problem is that contemporary social science does not have satisfactory conceptions of motivation (relying on outdated drive-reduction or “need” models). D’Andrade’s account in which “motivation is experienced as a desire or wish, followed by a feeling of satisfaction if the desire is fulfilled,” and is linked to internal processes that “energize” or activate people to act such that there is typically a striving for something—a goal directedness in behavior” (24) is not a bad one as a starter pack. However, as noted, none of these elements end up (striving, wish, pleasure, fulfillment) end up being linked to schemas as candidate motivating (and not just representational) structures in D’Andrade’s classic paper. Future posts will be dedicated to cracking the puzzle of motivation and linking it to cultural analysis. 


Cervone, D. (2005). Personality architecture: within-person structures and processes. Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 423–452.

D’Andrade, R. G. (1992). Schemas and motivation. In R. G. D’Andrade & C. Strauss (Eds.), Human motives and cultural models. (pp. 23–44). Cambridge University Press.

D’Andrade, R. G. (1995). The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Cambridge University Press.

Kringelbach, M. L., & Berridge, K. C. (2016). Neuroscience of Reward, Motivation, and Drive. In Recent Developments in Neuroscience Research on Human Motivation (Vol. 19, pp. 23–35). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Mohr, J. W., Bail, C. A., Frye, M., Lena, J. C., Lizardo, O., McDonnell, T. E., Mische, A., Tavory, I., & Wherry, F. F. (2020). Measuring Culture. Columbia University Press.

Quinn, N. (2016). Finding Culture in Talk: A Collection of Methods. Springer.

Rupert, R. D. (2011). Embodiment, Consciousness, and the Massively Representational Mind. Philosophical Topics, 39(1), 99–120.

Schroeder, T. (2004). Three Faces of Desire. Oxford University Press.

Sewell, W. H., Jr. (1992). A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation. The American Journal of Sociology, 98(1), 1–29.

Swidler, A. (2001). Talk of love: How culture matters. University of Chicago Press.

Turner, J. H. (2010). Motivational Dynamics in Encounters. In J. H. Turner (Ed.), Theoretical Principles of Sociology, Volume 2: Microdynamics (pp. 193–235). Springer New York.

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