Is There a Science of Success?

Americans have always believed in the power of self-determination and in their ability, with coaching, to change their attitudes—and their lives. But researchers have rarely bothered to study whether motivation has any measurable effect on the way a person’s life turns out. One who has hot he red is the psychologist David McClelland, who in a fifty-year career has never quite achieved the success he himself wanted

THE all-time best-selling recording of spoken words is, according to its publisher, a motivational talk called “The Strangest Secret,”by Earl Nightingale. I don’t think I’ll cut into its sales much if I reveal what the strangest secret is: “We become what we think about.” Nightingale says, that is, that where a person winds up in the social structure is the result of his or her state of mind. Educated, high-minded people are conditioned to think of such a message as, at best, lovable American bunkum of the kind dispensed by the minor characters in Huckleberry Finn or, at worst, insidious propaganda that leads to hopeless dreams of glory. The classic statement of the second view’ is Death of a Salesman, in which Willy Loman first allows success propaganda to lead him into a phony career that has “no rock bottom" (as one of his acquaintances puts it) and then blames himself for his failure to get rich.

You’ll recall that Willy constantly holds up to his sons the example of his brother Ben, who was “success incarnate.” In one scene Willy dreams that Ben has come to visit him, in order to urge him on in the pursuit of the bitch goddess. “The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy,” Ben says portentously. This appears to be a barely disguised reference to “Acres of Diamonds,” a sermon by Russell H.

Conwell, the pastor of the Grace Baptist Church, in Philadelphia, which was one of the two most popular American inspirational texts during the first half of this century. The theme of “Acres of Diamonds” is that men of humble origins can find great wealth in their own back yards, if they are diligent and have high aspirations. “Friends, never in the history of our country was there an opportunity so great for the poor man to get rich as there is now in the city of Philadelphia,” Conwell said.

“The Strangest Secret” is a postwar version of “Acres of Diamonds” and “A Message to Garcia,” by Elbert Hubbard, the other most popular inspirational text, which extracts lessons from an incident of heroism during the Spanish-American War. “It is not book-learning young men need,” Hubbard wrote, “nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies: do the thing.”

Earl Nightingale is gone now (he died in I 989), but pop motivation material retains its great appeal in American society. That appeal is one of the distinctive aspects of the national culture, demonstrating how much stronger a hold the idea of universal opportunity has here than it has in the rest of the world. Motivational hooks are always on the bestseller list. Most people who work for a big company have been exposed at one time or another to a motivational speaker or “trainer” who rides the circuit from corporate retreat to corporate retreat. During the 1970s motivational material made the leap from books to tape cassettes that people listen to on the way to work, and in the 1980s it became a staple of the thirty-minute “infomercials” you may run across on television when you have insomnia. (The leading publisher of motivational material told me that when he opened an office in England, he knew he was in for a long siege when one of his employees there asked him. in puzzlement, “If somebody wins, doesn’t that mean somebody else has to lose?”) Weekend life-enhancement seminars (Lifespring et ah), support groups, and participatory programs for solving life’s vast array of problems (Alcoholics Anonymous et ah) all come out of the motivation culture. So, to some extent, do educational and moral uplift programs aimed at young people in poor neighborhoods.

The motivation industry, being a weed rather than a cultivated plant, doesn’t have strict boundaries. Some parts are concerned with business success, others with home-brewed psychotherapy, diet and exercise, medical mind-cures, real-estate investment, and pyramid schemes to sell franchises and distributorships. But the main themes are quite consistent. People are exhorted to develop an optimistic cast of mind and then to generate lists of specific goals. The message is usually delivered by a dynamic, stentorian announcer who promises to reveal magical secrets and who refers vaguely to “scientific studies.” Often the customers are taken away from their ordinary lives for a few days and put into an enclosed, self-referential environment to receive the message. The industry is skewed toward fast-growing areas like southern California, Florida, and Texas, toward salesmen, and toward people who are ambitious but aren’t comfortably settled into a role: frontier America, such as it still is.

The Quasi-Science of Success

IN Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller presented an alternative to Willy Loman’s creed in the form of a character named Bernard, a classmate of Willy’s elder son. Biff. In high school Bernard studies hard and everyone makes fun of him, whereas Biff is athletic and popular. It’s obvious to Wiliy that this difference is going to translate into Biff’s being more successful in later life: “Bernard can get the best marks in school, y’understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y’understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him,” Willy tells Biff. Guess what? It’s Biff who becomes a failure and Bernard who gets to be a big success. In one scene Willy pathetically asks the grown-up Bernard why Biff never “caught on”; Bernard, who’s in a hurry because he’s on his way to Washington to try a case before the Supreme Court, takes a minute to explain that Biff was never forced by his family to complete the course that would have gotten him into college.

Miller’s message, revealing a niceJewish-boy essence just beneath the facade of the angry left-wing social critic, today seems so conventional as to be impossible to recapitulate with a straight face. There is no discernible moral distinction between Miller’s admiration for Bernard the lawyer (who has a pair of tennis rackets onstage next to him—he’s going to be staying with a friend who has his own private court) and Willy’s admiration for Ben, the acres-of-diamonds brother. The only real difference between Bernard and Willy is a practical one: Bernard (and Arthur Miller) did a better job than Willy of scoping out the route to the top of American society.

The Bernards—the people, that is, who interact favorably with the highereducation system—are now so obviously in the saddle in this country that Willy Loman’s view, that motivation is more important than credentials, has come to seem appealingly democratic and daring. It may just be coincidence, but under the Bernard regime the national economy hasn’t had the zip it had in the heyday of “A Message to Garcia,” and the people this has hurt worst are the working class and the poor. Moreover, who, even among the Bernards, hasn’t entertained the thought that attaining an optimistic mental state and setting goals might actually make a difference in life? Wouldn’t it be worth mounting a full-scale investigation into the question of whether the whole motivation business adds up to anything, as an alternative or additional navigational route through American society, instead of merely being amused, or even revulsed, by it?

The “psychology of achievement” (to steal the title of a currently popular motivational cassette) isn’t so easy to investigate. People who have names that begin with “Dr.” are a large presence in the motivation industry, but they aren’t disposed to conduct controlled experiments aimed at finding out how well their materials work. Probably the closest thing to systematic research was conducted by Napoleon Hill, who in 1908, as a young reporter for a motivational magazine run by a former governor of Tennessee, interviewed Andrew Carnegie, at the time the leading living symbol of rags-toriches success in America. According to an account later published in Success magazine, “Alter a three-hour session, to Hill’s astonishment, Carnegie invited him back to his estate.” For several days Carnegie elaborated on an idea he had: that someone should systematically study successful people with the aim of distilling the lessons of their lives into “a practical philosophy of personal achievement which would help the humblest worker to accumulate riches in whatever amount and form he might desire.” Then Carnegie surreptitiously activated his stopwatch (thus setting up one of the suspiciously pat scenes that fill pop-motivation literature) and asked Hill to decide in the next sixty seconds if he would be willing to undertake a twenty-year unpaid investigation of “the causes of success and failure.” After twenty-nine seconds Hill agreed.

He conducted interviews with more than 500 captains of industry, and turned the results into a book called Law of Success. A following volume. Think and Grow Rich, ranks with Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking among the all-time best-selling motivational books. (It conveys some of Hill’s eminence in the motivation industry that W. Clement Stone, the waxedmoustached insurance magnate and onetime publisher of Success, who was the biggest single contributor to Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential campaign, is building a Hill archiveshrine outside Chicago.) Hill’s work, however, is entirely anecdotal; even that his lengthy inquiry was undertaken at the behest of Andrew Carnegie is hard to pin down, being nowhere mentioned, for example, in Carnegie’s papers at the Library of Congress.

IN mainstream academia the most substantial record of examining the relationship between motivation and economic success has been established by David C. McClelland, a psychologist who spent long periods at Wesleyan and Harvard and now teaches at Boston University. McClelland would be the hands-down winner in a casting call for someone to play God. Six-foottwo, seventy-six years old, he is lanky and erect, with long snow-white hair, a white aoatee, thick black eyebrows, big deep-set eyes, and a prominent nose, chin, and brow. If God is not to be fierce or angry, then McClelland’s personality is right for the part too: gentle, tolerant, broadly curious, morally concerned.

It takes some nerve to discuss McClelland in the context of the motivation industry, for which he has no respect and whose approaches over the years about forming strategic alliances he has always rebuffed. McClelland finds both professionally and personally bothersome the industry’s habit of making fantastic claims about how people can satisfy their greed. Still, McClelland, along with his protégés, colleagues, and critics, has spent decades building up an experimentally derived record pertaining to the connection between what we think about and what we become. This record provides almost the only basis for considering the issue of motivation in American society in an orderly, rational fashion.

A Disturbing Test

THE Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), published by Harvard University Press, comes in a thin robin’s-egg-blue box with a warning on the cover: “This test is sold on the understanding that the plates are not to be publicly displayed and may he purchased only by authorized persons.”

All important tests are kept secret from their potential takers so that they can’t figure out the answers beforehand, but in this case what’s inside the box seems to justify the warning purely because of how disturbing its contents are. Here we have a series of black-and-white drawings and photographs reproduced on stiff cardboard, which have the unsettling quality of tapping into some reservoir of insoluble anguish within every human soul. An unconscious naked woman with big breasts and flowing hair lies on a bed; next to the bed stands a man in a necktie, turned away from her, his face buried in the crook of his arm. A teenage boy dressed in a suit stands in an operating theater where a doctor holds a knife poised over a patient’s abdomen; a large rifle floats across the edge of the picture. A woman stands in a doorway, shakily, with her head in her hand. A beautiful, seductive woman embraces a handsome, supermasculine man. but he turns away with a look of dread on his face. A witch or crone stands just behind a woman who may not notice her but nonetheless appears troubled.

Like the Rorschach test (the one with inkblots), the TAT is what’s called a “projective test": the test-taker is shown the pictures and asked to tell stories about them, and these, in the words of Henry A. Murray, the TAT’s inventor, “expose the underlying inhibited tendencies which the subject ... is not willing to admit, or can not admit because he is unconscious of them.” Afterward “the subject leaves the test happily unaware that he has presented the psychologist with what amounts to an X-ray picture of his inner self.” Murray was one of the great characters in the history of American psychology. A tall, dapper man, born to great wealth, educated at Groton and Harvard, he became a medical doctor, and then his life was transformed when, during an Atlantic crossing in 1924, he read Moby Dick. That plunge into the realm of overpowering obsessions and symbols persuaded him to become a psychologist. He became a professor at Harvard and one of the pioneering thinkers about what he liked to call “personology.”

Murray developed the TAT during the late 1930s, partly in collaboration with his lover, Christiana Morgan, a student of Jung’s, who drew some of the more tortured of the TAT’s pictures. As a diagnostic instrument the TAT was meant to aid in the study of Murray’s main area of interest, the role of deep-seated “psychogenic needs" in shaping people’s lives. Following Freud. Murray believed that people don’t behave in a straightforward fashion; instead, much of motivation is an oblique recasting of unconscious material. The TAT is supposed to call forth fantasies that, like Freud’s psychoanalytic free associations, bring some of these secrets to the surface. During the Second World War, Murray worked with the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) to develop ways of selecting spies. But on the whole he was out to learn about the unknown, not to provide practical aid in the operation of society. He developed a schema of more than two dozen fundamental needs, and they have a dark, furry, Middle European feel: n Dominance (to use his shorthand for “need”), n Exhibition, n Abasement.

DAVID McClelland descends from hardheaded, rational authority figures. His paternal grandfather was the presiding judge of the United States Court of Customs. His father, a minister, was the president of a small Methodist women’s college in the town of Jacksonville, Illinois. McClelland was a sickly. brainy child: he didn’t start school until the third grade, but by the time he had finished high school he knew four languages.

In a brief memoir he wrote a few years ago. McClelland described an unpleasant routine that went on at his family’s dinner table. His father would initiate, under the banner of ruthless objectivity, a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of his latest sermon. But “in the end the thrust and counterthrust of argument often became quite personal, and a quarrel developed in which tempers flared. ... I came to hate these family arguments. . . . and sought to avoid them as much as possible, eventually by putting as much distance between myself and my family as I could, after going to college.” At seventeen McClelland left the Midwest. He went to college in Connecticut, at Wesleyan, his father’s alma mater and a school named after the founder of Methodism, and then to graduate school in psychology at Yale, where he was trained in the experimental side of the discipline—the side involving white rats and mazes—and wrote his dissertation on the memorization of nonsense syllables. He also left the Methodist Church and became a Quaker.

McClelland’s early career seems to have been an attempt to detach from his father’s mysterious rage the atmosphere of scientism, of improvement, in which he was raised and attach it instead to a gentler, calmer set of emotions. Hence his choice of a career as a laboratory investigator of the processes of the human mind; hence also his marriage to a fellow Quaker immediately after college. During the Second World War, when, as a conscientious objector, McClelland was working and teaching in Philadelphia, he discovered the work of Henry Murray. After the war he returned to Wesleyan as a professor and embarked on his real life’s work, which was, as he conceived it. “to be tough-minded (i.e., experimental) about a tender-minded subject (i.e.. human motivation).”

Although it was Murray’s influence that drew McClelland toward human motivation as a subject, and although Murray’s invention, the TAT, became McClelland’s basic research tool, and although Murray and McClelland developed a close relationship, the two men were looking for quite different things. For Murray, unruly compulsions were not merely interesting, they were of primary interest. McClelland had no inclination to explore the murky regions of the mind unless doing so would produce some kind of rational, quantifiable, productive payoff; in that way he would transmute the unpleasant into useful knowledge.

McClelland first set out to demonstrate that the TAT could provide a more accurate reading of people’s motives than could be had simply by asking them what their motives were. He did this by working with one of the simplest and most straightforward motives—hunger. Using as his subjects submariners on a Navy base in New London, Connecticut, he created what is known as an “aroused state,” by arranging for them to be deprived of food for up to sixteen hours. During the deprivation period, without telling them why, he administered a special TAT in which, as he later put it, “the pictures were chosen, not as in Murray’s procedure to tap deep underlying psychodynamic themes, but to represent scenes that could or could not be interpreted in terms of food deprivation.” He found that although the sailors weren’t necessarily conscious of how hungry they were, “stories relating to food deprivation and to implements related to getting food and eating . . . did increase in linear fashion with hours of food deprivation.” In other words, a good way to measure the sailors’ hunger motive was by administering a TAT.

The Miracle Motive

NEXT McClelland, along with his m associates John Atkinson, Thomas Shipley, and Joseph Veroff, plucked out of Murray’s list of needs the three that most interested him: n Achievement, n Power, and n Affiliation—n Power being a brightened-up version of Murray’s n Dominance. He was reducing Murray’s map of the human personality, keeping only the sections that pertained to people’s public lives and leaving out the private, intimate, secret areas that most interested Murray. Now he could use the TAT to study progress. The modified TAT that he developed at this time looks, beside Murray’s, resolutely normal. The opening picture shows two men, working in what appears to be a laboratory, looking at an object one of them is holding up. Another shows a boy sitting at a desk thinking, and another, taken from Murray, shows an older man and a younger man together. wearing what are by TAT standards remarkably untroubled expressions.

(Although McClelland’s credentials for sensitivity to feminist concerns are by now in good order, in the late 1940s he studied only men and used only male images.)

In a series of experiments performed on Wesleyan students, McClelland proceeded to do for n Achievement what he had done for hunger: he aroused the motive (for example, by telling his subjects they were about to be given a test that would determine conclusively their intelligence and leadership potential), administered the TAT, and then coded and scored the subjects’ stories. Each subject could thus be given a numerical n Achievement score. Next McClelland demonstrated that the score corresponded to some real-world quality by proving that the higher the n Achievement score, the likelier a student was to perform certain tasks (such as unscrambling anagrams) quickly and successfully. The effort to identify, isolate, and measure n Achievement became the basis for McClelland’s book The Achievement Motive (written with Atkinson and others), which was published in 1953.

The n Achievement work took place during what in academia was the beginning of the glory days of the postwar liberal consensus. The universities were growing rapidly in size and importance—a condition that always creates an optimistic aura. Confidence about what could be accomplished by the (then relatively new) social sciences, first conceptually and perhaps later practically, in partnership with government, was boundless. Harvard, for example, in the late 1940s set up an ambitious new Department of Social Relations, which blended the fields of psychology, anthropology, and sociology and was home to such giants as Henry Murray, Gordon Allport, Talcott Parsons, Jerome Bruner, and Clyde Kluekhohn; McClelland taught there in the 1949-1950 school year.

The academic establishment was in substantial agreement about the power of Soc Rel and similar efforts to solve most of the problems of the world, and about what the solutions would look like: economic development in the Third World, an end to communism and other forms of totalitarianism, the expansion of education, the elimination of prejudice, and, within the United States, a gradual victory of the forces of enlightenment over Babbittry, McCarthyism. conformity, and blandness. From where McClelland sat, then. Achievement looked like the good need and Power and Affiliation like the bad needs. N Power connoted Hitler and Stalin or, at the very least, the petty despotism of politicians and corporate executives. N Affiliation brought to mind David Riesman’s “other-directed” conformists, the Organization Man, gray flannel suits, suburban cocktail parties, and similar bugaboos of fifties intellectuals. N Achievement was pure: democratic, independent, productive.

But after you had identified it, then what? Achievement seemed too important to be allowed to lie inert in psychology textbooks. McClelland began to explore the line of inquiry that Freud had laid out in Civilization and Its Discontents: he wondered whether societies have personalities that tire structured along the same lines as the personalities of the millions of individuals who make them up. McClelland’s particular inspiration here wms Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. which posits that a change in culture or societal psychological orientation (namely, the Reformation) was the cause of an economic change (the birth of industrial capitalism). To McClelland. the son of a Protestant minister and a professor at a college founded by Protestants, Weber’s Protestant ethic, with its emphasis on “reliance on the self, so far as salvation was concerned,” looked a lot like n Achievement. In 1955. at the Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, the main annual conclave of motivational psychologists, McClelland delivered a paper called “Some Social Consequences of Achievement Motivation.” in which, after admitting that he was making “a breathtaking leap of hypothesizing so lar as the average psychologist is concerned,” he produced a chart comparing Protestant and Catholic countries by their average annual per capita consumption of electric power. The mean score of the Protestant countries was quadruple the score of the Catholic countries—so McClelland had statistically demonstrated the strength of the Protestant ethic, and therefore of n Achievement.

“That’s not psychology!” one member of the audience said in a stage whisper after McClelland read the paper. But McClelland stayed with the point until he had produced his most ambitious and unusual book. The Achieving Society (1961). A work of almost hubristic scope, it blends history, psychology, literary and art criticism, sociology, and economics to try to account in a sweeping, unitary way for the rise and fall of civilizations by identifying fluctuations in their n Achievement. n Power, and n Affiliation scores.

Because McClelland insisted that all his assertions be backed by statistics, he and his colleagues expended a great deal of effort on devising nonTAT means of measuring societal n Achievement and its economic consequences. The basic method was to code and score a country’s leading children’s stories (which have a high fantasy content) for n Achievement, n Power, and n Affiliation, as one would a TAT, and then to cross-tabulate the scores with the rate of growth in electrical output. For long-past societies McClelland used adult rather than children’s literature as the basic measure of A; Achievement, although he also coded the imagery on ancient Greek vases (a lot of diagonals in the design meant high n Achievement, unused space at the bottom low n Achievement) and the shapes of pre-Colombian Peruvian funerary urns. Sure enough, he found that societies grew when their n Achievement levels were high and decayed w’hen n Power and n Affiliation began to dominate. It almost goes without saying that The Achieving Society has attracted a great deal of skepticism over the years—but it is stunning in its way.

Beefing Up Motivation

AS conceptually and methodologically out there as The Achieving Society was, it remained under the roof of Freud’s and Murray’s ideas about human motivation. McClelland assumed that the deeper motives, including n Achievement, were formed during infancy and early childhood, and in adults were fairly immutable. High n Achievement came from having a nonjudgmental father and a mother who was close, loving, but strict (especially about toilet training). The example he liked to use. of typical McClellandesque grandeur, was that of Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus. The Achieving Society assumes that changes in child-rearing practices precede widespread changes in motives. But during the late 1950s, even as he was working on The Achieving Society, McClelland began toying with what was. from the standpoint of “depth psychology.”a truly heretical idea, which is also the idea underlying the pop motivation industry: that motives can be substantially and quickly modified in adulthood.

In 1936 McClelland moved from Wesleyan to Harvard. There he began to live the heady life of a big-name professor during the golden age of academia. As a member of a brush-cut, bowtied, tweed-jacketed order of nobility, he traveled widely, developed a network of students and followers all over the world, and had entree to the major foundations and to the federal government. Nothing seemed impossible.

In 1958 McClelland ran across a doctoral dissertation from Indiana University. written by R. W. Burris, called “The Effect of Counseling on Achievement Motivation.”Burris, a disciple of the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner. claimed to have raised students’ n Achievement scores, and also their grades (subsequent research, by the way, has not found a strong connection between n Achievement and grades), simply by giving them counseling sessions on how to increase the n Achievement content of their TAT stories. The implication of Burris’s argument was that if you “taught to the test,” you weren’t cheating—you were actually increasing the innate quality the test measured.

Also in 1958, in Italy. McClelland met Timothy Leary, a former West Point cadet who had quit the service and gone into academic psychology, and McClelland arranged for him to come to Harvard as a lecturer. Leary had the idea that people should be taught to cheat on IQ tests—not to beat the system (well, maybe a little) but on the rationale that there was no real difference between a higher IQ score, however achieved, and a higher IQ. “I thought that was smart as hell,” McClelland says. In 1960 Leary wrote a paper in which he called for the abolition of secrecy in psychological testing. Instead, he wrote, “the subject and the therapist {i.e.. the collaborators in the joint research) agree as to which natural records they want to change.” His idea about testing was embedded in a larger idea about the mind: that it is highly subject to modification at any time, rather than being static and measurable. An Earl Nightingale-like line appears in the paper: “What we think about we are likely to do.”

McClelland decided to devise an achievement-mot ivation training course that would operate on the assumption that if someone were taught “to think, talk, and act like a person with high n Achievement,” that person would actually acquire higher n Achievement. The course would be offered in underdeveloped countries, where the cultural habits that lead to economic growth had never taken root. As McClelland says now, he wanted to “train people to become the kind of people economists think everybody is.”If it worked, the potential impact of the training course would be enormous. McClelland would be proving under controlled scientific circumstances that motives could effectively be altered, and this would have many applications, both practical and theoretical, within the social sciences. With the promise of a substantial grant from the Agency for International Development to start the course in India, Tunisia, and southern Italy, he arranged to take the 1963-1964 school year off from Harvard. He rented out his house, sold his car. and took off for Delhi.

But after McClelland arrived in Delhi. he learned that AID had changed its mind and wouldn’t be funding the project after all. That was in October of 1963. Somehow the project had such a distinctively Camelot coloration that after President Kennedy was killed, the following month, there was no question of its being revived. Thirty years later McClelland is still angry about the ruination of his great moment, which conclusively broke the onward momentum of achievement motivation. What happened? One possibility is that the use of LSD by Leary and another young Harvard protégé of McClelland’s. Richard Alpen (now Baba Ram Dass), which had become known by then, made McClelland himself too controversial—even though he was the one who had dismissed Leary as a Harvard lecturer, for skipping classes he was supposed to be teaching. McClelland himself believes that the problem was something else: that somebody in the Kennedy Administration had run across his invidious economic comparison of Catholics and Protestants and was afraid that Representative Otto Passman, from heavily Catholic Louisiana, then the chairman of the House committee that controlled AID’S budget, would take offense at money’s being given to McClelland.

John Kenneth Galbraith, a Harvard colleague of McClelland’s, and the ambassador to India at the time, helped McClelland get a small subvention; the Carnegie Corporation also provided one. There was now enough money to get the course off the ground, though just in India. McClelland had dispatched David Winter, a young associate of his, to India a year earlier to begin setting things up, so the course was nearly ready to go. Fifty-two businessmen in the small city of Kakinada were rounded up and brought in four groups to Hyderabad, 200 miles away, for two weeks of training in achievement motivation.

What strikes a nonpsychologist about the course is how strongly it echoes various techniques of the American motivation industry. Motivational courses don’t use the TAT, but they do try to get people to practice changing the content of their fantasies; they do try to create what McClelland calls an “ideal self-image” and the motivation industry calls a “positive mental attitude”; they do rely heavily on goal-setting (in one exercise the businessmen were asked to spend an hour alone thinking about what they’d like to see inscribed on their tombstones), on the use of retreat sites that engender a feeling of “membership in a new and continuing reference group,”and on the use of corporate and scientilic namedropping to create an aura of “prestige suggestion” around the course. McClelland and Winter followed the subsequent careers of their trainees, using as controls a group of untrained businessmen from a nearby city, Rajahmundry, and were able to generate statistics showing that the trainees were more likely to engage in subsequent entrepreneurial activity than the nontrainees.

His days in India left McClelland convinced that brief training courses can engender important lasting changes in behavior. A main theme of his subsequent career is the refusal, in his view, of the establishment to take this crucial breakthrough seriously. In 1965 his foundation grants for motivational training in India were reduced—and this was only one of a thousand cuts he has suffered (another was the refusal he got when he tried to persuade Citicorp, which was headed by his college acquaintance Walter Wriston, to institute the course there). As McClelland put it in a letter to me.

To my dismay, I found that nobody was impressed by results—not the government that funded a lot of our research, not the banks who could have implemented the training to improve the performance of their loans, not international aid organizations that are supposed to be promoting economic development, etc. What everyone wanted to know was what prestigious persons or organizations recommended the training or had tried it—not whether it succeeded.

Even as a Harvard department chairman (as he was at the time of the AID troubles) who moved in high-level social-science, education, foundation, and government circles, McClelland felt himself to be a rebel and an outsider. The biblical battle between David and Goliath is one of his touchstones; he has often observed that it is no accident, given whom he was named after, that he is attracted to the role of the underdog. This may help explain why he never seriously considered taking steps that would have made him even more of a rebel and an outsider: he already had just the degree of that status that he wanted. Back in the early 1960s he resisted Timothy Leary’s urgings to try psychedelic drugs and in the late 1960s he resisted joining forces with the substantial existing universe of motivation-course operators.

From McClelland’s standpoint the problem with the motivation industry is that it has no interest in subjecting its work to experimentation and evaluation. Also, it hopelessly conflates the three essential motives, each of which, he believes, requires different training. For example, the Dale Carnegie motivational empire grew out of the success of a book whose title. How to Win Friends and Influence People, indicates that its aims are to increase n Affiliation and n Power, not n Achievement. Although McClelland has publicly praised the motivationchanging abilities of religious organizations such as the Nation of Islam and the Jesuits, he thinks that the secular American motivation industry focuses too singlemindedly on getting rich as the end toward which all trainees must aim. I asked David Winter, who has developed a technique for scoring political speeches and other texts tor motivational content, to read “The Strangest Secret.”He said that some of the techniques it suggests might be useful. But Winter went on, “This stuff is largely enmeshed in a set of values that are repellent to me. There is a sort of money focus here that I find repellent. All goals come down to money.”

Power Pursuits

ONE effect of McClelland’s misadventures with the forces of respectability was that they stirred up his interest in the power motive. Some of the people around McClelland fee! that moving from Wesleyan to Harvard helped to bring the power motive to the fore in his mind. “Wesleyan was all boys and heavily sons of entrepreneurs,”says Richard deCharms, a former protégé of McClelland’s. “At Harvard everyone was instantly sucking up to Dave, which they never did at Wesleyan.”During the late 1960s the Harvard social-relations department began to divide into its component parts, an event that upset McClelland greatly and seemed to him to be another example of the power motive at work. Also, some psychologists in the department undertook a long-term study of members of the Harvard class of 1964. and it was clear as the results began to come in that, as McClelland’s former student Joseph Veroff puts it, “the real hotshots turned out to be high in n Power but not in n Achievement.” (McClelland today freely admits that power-motivated people are “more likely to have glamorous lives.”) McClelland began to feel that 1960s American society was essentially power-motivated, and that, too, made n Power more interesting to him.

By this time McClelland and his followers had refined their definitions of the three motives quite a bit. Achievement, rather than being the universal solvent, was being defined more narrowly; McClelland now says he wishes he had called it Efficiency instead. The person who is high in n Achievement is preoccupied with completing series of tangible tasks that produce rewards. If you experiment with every conceivable way to drive to work, time each one, and thereafter always use the fastest, you’re an n Achievement person. Achievement people don’t necessarily get the highest grades in school, but they make good small-scale entrepreneurs and excel at other solitary, results-oriented pursuits; in academia they are the kind of professors who publish a lot. In one McClelland game, subjects were asked to position themselves for tossing a ring onto a post; the n Achievement people put themselves in a position of moderate risk—that is, near enough to the post to have a decent chance of ringing it. Rather than inventing their own goals, achievement-motivated people assimilate the society’s and figure out how to reach them. For this reason they tend to be the kind of people who take the road more traveled, but also the kind who turn to crime if they conclude that they can’t achieve the goal legitimately.

In the ring-toss game people high in n Power would stand far away from the post: they’d rather win spectacularly than regularly. At the roulette wheel they bet on a number, while n Achievement people bet on red or black. A slogan of the McClelland circle is Achievement wants to build a better mousetrap, and n Power wants the world to beat a path to his door.” The goal of the power-motivated is to influence, to impress, to have an impact on other people. To the extent that they want to make money, they want it so that others will know they have it, so they buy big houses and flashy cars. Politicians are high in n Power; the desire for fame is a pure manifestation of the power motive. For corporate managers, as opposed to entrepreneurs, n Power is the crucial need (the best executives, according to McClelland, have something he calls “Leadership Motive Pattern”; high n Power; low n Affiliation, so they’re not afraid to Hre people; and high “activity inhibition,” so they don’t become tinhorn dictators). High n Power people tend to mix together sexuality and power and to value seduction or conquest highly.

If Power was the need of the 1960s, Affiliation began to seem much more interesting in the 1970s. when social critics were focusing on excessive individualism rather than excessive conformity as the country’s big problem, and when the ability to maintain warm relationships became part of the working definition of success. A McClelland student named Dan McAdams came up with a new need, related to but not replacing Affiliation, which he called Intimacy (n Affiliation is a fear of being disliked or rejected, n Intimacy a hope of forming close emotional ties). The name alone puts Intimacy in a much more positive light than Affiliation.

AS this definitional work was going . on. McClelland and his colleagues were continuing to develop motivational training courses. McClelland set up a company to run the achievement-motivation training course in India; in the 1970s, under the name McBer and Company, it became a sizable concern.

McBer trained U.S. Navy personnel in a program to improve leadership and management. It taught managers at General Electric how to use their n Power effectively, and it gave achievement-motivation training to workers at the Gdansk shipyard in Poland, including the future leaders of Solidarity. “I always figured that was why they weren’t killed,” MeClelland says. “If they’d been power-motivated, they would have been.”McBer’s tangled company history, which involved being sold to Saul P. Steinberg (who years later sold it to Saatchi & Saatchi), stimulated McClelland’s feeling that he should develop a better understanding of n Power,

The War on Poverty and related government activities got McClelland interested in doing with motivational training in the United States what he had tried to do in the Third World. He could help to heal the ghettos by enhancing n Achievement and modifying n Power. Associates of McClelland’s trained minority entrepreneurs for the Small Business Administration and for the Office of Minority Business Enterprise, and heads of community-action agencies for the Office of Economic Opportunity.

Richard deCharms, now a professor at Washington University, in St. Louis, fell under the influence of a German psychologist named Fritz Heider, who posited a distinction between people who believe that what happens to them is the result of what they have done and people who believe that it is the result of what has been done to them. This became the basis of a McClelland-style motivational course in which DeCharms trained innercity schoolteachers to get their students to think of themselves as “origins” rather than “pawns.” His follow-up studies showed that high-school graduation rates increased. A McClelland student named Abigail Stewart worked on a related field of inquiry, scoring women on “self-definition”—the degree to which they actively conceptualized their lives rather than just accepting what came their way. These notions of internal and external causation are another staple of the pop motivators, who always urge one to become a person who, in Earl Nightingale’s words, “knows where he’s going,” rather than “acting like everyone else . . . without knowing why.”

McClelland himself was developing a motivational training course designed to cure alcoholism. Once, in Toronto to give a speech, he had had a couple of drinks beforehand to settle his nerves and found that his anxiety worsened. This got him thinking that the prevailing view of alcoholism, which held that people drank to reduce anxiety, was wrong. People who drink a lot aren’t trying to escape something, he thought. They’re trying to get something—the feeling that comes after having a couple of drinks. In motivational terms, that feeling is high power combined with low inhibition. After testing the hypothesis and finding that it proved out. McClelland concluded that the way to cure alcoholism in men was to train them to inhibit their power motive so that they wouldn’t feel the “impulsive need for power” they had tried to satisfy by drinking. He tried the course on a group that was already in intensive Alcoholics Anonymous-style treatment, and raised the group’s rehabilitation rate from 25 to 50 percent—but once again, he couldn’t get the world to take heed.

McClelland did write a book called The Drinking Man, and then began to explore other health problems associated with highly power-motivated people, such as hypertension and heart attacks. During the 1972—1973 school year McClelland took a sabbatical and lived in Sri Lanka, and he returned bearded, tieless, and devoted to the practice of Buddhist meditation. The McClelland home in Cambridge became a magnet for meditators, mystics, and healers. McClelland met an auto mechanic who called himself Karmu and who temporarily healed a persistent bowel problem of McClelland’s that prescription medicine hadn’t resolved. During the late 1970s McClelland’s wife, Mary, got stomach cancer. The McClellands decided to forgo the standard medical treatments for it. and during her final illness she was under the care of a homeopathic physician.

All this led McClelland to explore another of the great themes of the American motivation industry—mental cures for physical ailments. After conducting a series of experiments that correlated subjects’ TAT results with a hormonal analysis of their saliva, he concluded that high “affiliative trust” (as evidenced by the ability to love and be loved) and “agency” (a sense of optimism and of being in control of one’s life) lead to belter health. He also identified the production of a specific hormone called norepinephrine, which may be connected to a decrease in natural immunity, with high n Power. As should be unsurprising by now, the medical-research community has not enthusiastically embraced his findings.

MCCLELLAND’S own motivational structure has not been particularly well suited to the propagation of his ideas. Rather than endlessly hammering home one theory, he moves around among loosely interrelated interests. Rather than battling his critics, he will gladly point out the weaknesses in his own ideas. Rather than working to set up a tight network of proteges in key academic posts and in grant-making positions, he has watched many of his students wander away from the study of his three key motives. He is resolutely not a pop psychologist, but he also feels uncomfortable within just about every organized, respectable held he knows.

However, the possibility must also be considered that McClelland’s work has been less than widely influential because it doesn’t deserve to be. The hard, quantitative branch of psychology is suspicious of the idea that motivation is a real scientific concept. Psychological tests are supposed to have two essential qualities: reliability (meaning that a subject’s score will be constant from test to test) and validity (meaning that the score correlates with performance in some other activity). IQ scores, for example, are considered reliable because they remain constant over the years, and valid because they correlate with grades in school. TATgenerated motivation scores are notoriously variable. David Winter figured out a way to raise their reliability significantly: in addition to the classic Henry Murray instruction to “be imaginative and creative,” he told the testtakers it would be all right if they told the same stories they told the last time. But the image of unreliability persists. The validations of motivation, and especially of motivation courses, rest on relatively thin data. Skeptical quantitative scholars question McClelland’s use of saliva instead of blood to measure hormone levels, and of electrical output instead of GNP to measure economic growth.

Another line of criticism of McClelland—one that really hurts, because it presents him as being an unwitting servant of conservatism rather than a liberal reformer—is that he has greatly overestimated the importance of motivation in shaping people’s lives. Social and economic conditions are much more important, this argument goes, and to hold up n Achievement training as a cure for poverty is to undercut other anti-poverty measures that would do more good—like giving people money. The Survey Research Center, at the University of Michigan, runs a longitudinal study of people’s economic fortunes called the Panel Study of Income Dynamics; when the study began, in 1968, an early McClelland student who teaches at Michigan, Joseph Veroff, put some motivational questions (though not a TAT) into the subjects’ questionnaires. A 1985 report on poor people in the study found “no more than modest and usually insignificant effects of the basic motives on economic outcomes.” N Achievement seemed to have a small positive effect on the lives of poor blacks, but in general education and economic conditions were much more important than motivation in lifting people out of poverty.

Ability Over Aptitude

WHAT is intriguing, though, is to assume that McClelland has been completely right about everything, to grant him retroactively the high power motive that would have made him an effective politician for his ideas, and then to wonder what would have happened if American society during the half century since the Second World War—the long span of McClelland’s work on motivation—had been organized along McClellandesque lines. What if McClelland had been able to do for motivation what Abraham Flexner did for health when, in the early twentieth century, he led the way toward the transformation of a great swamp of quacks, sawbones, and patent-medicine shills into our current professionalized medical system? What if we had a precise science of motivation, worked into the weave of the systems of education and employment through which Americans are sorted and slotted, instead of a wacky, greedy, huckster-dominated motivational pseudoscience existing outside these systems, serving people who don’t obtain satisfaction from them?

A group of psychologists at the University of Michigan who are in the McClelland orbit did two national surveys, one in 1957 and one in 1976. to try to determine the general direction of the country, motivationally speaking. They found that among blacks and women both n Achievement and n Power increased dramatically—which could be seen as either a result or a cause of the civil-rights and feminist movements. The higher n Power, unfortunately, took the form of a “concern about maintaining status” rather than “having an impact on the environment.” Among men the picture showed lower n Affiliation and higher n Power—a “disturbing change” resulting from their response to the loss of unquestioned authority in the family and of security at work. “Men are watching pro football on TV,” David Winter says, disapprovingly. John Atkinson, who like Winter is a professor at Michigan, and who was McClelland’s main collaborator on the earliest n Achievement studies, points with alarm to the spread of lotteries and casinos as evidence of the country’s skewed motivational structure: gambling is popular only among the power-motivated, because achievement-motivated people like realistic, moderate risks. Atkinson believes that the United States may have peaked as an achieving society with its victory over Hitler, and has been declining ever since.

McClelland’s position would be that a national commitment to motivational training could have stemmed this decline. It’s true that lately all sorts of programs with a motivational component have been introduced in schools and in offices, but most of them proceed from what McClelland would consider imprecise, untested, or downright erroneous assumptions. For example, the McClelland school doesn’t think much of the idea that enhancing self-esteem will increase motivation, because it regards high selfesteem as nothing more than an uncontrolled power motive.

What helps people most, McClelland believes, is learning to inhibit and channel their power motive while increasing their achievement motive.

Aside from his dealings with foundations and government agencies, McClelland’s big chance to inject precise motivational measurement and training into the American personnel system was through his dealings with the Educational Testing Service, the organization in Princeton, New Jersey, that produces and administers tests used by the millions every year in school admissions, professional licensing, and employment. ETS was founded in 1948, just when McClelland was doing his pioneering work in the measurement of n Achievement. From the very beginning ETS knew how to measure one quality—“scholastic aptitude,” a predictor of grade-point average. Scholastic-aptitude scores were obtained through multiple-choice tests that could be mass-administered and machinescored; they were highly reliable; and they could be easily validated by correlating scores with grades.

The president of ETS, Henry Chauncey. was interested in measuring many other qualities as well, and in the early years of ETS he spent a lot of time meeting with psychologists who might show him how to do so. Chauncey had some contact with Henry Murray, which wasn’t very productive because Murray’s work didn’t seem translatable into measurement and training. That was where David McClelland’s work seemed much more promising. Starting in the early 1950s McClelland was in touch with ETS about the possibility of its measuring motivation.

But McClelland’s preferred test of motivation, the modified TAT, couldn’t be given to hundreds of thousands of people on a single day and then quickly scored. McClelland was not interested in helping EPS to produce a workable compromise—that is, a multiple-choice test of motivation. So ETS became a large influence in American society without McClelland’s having much of an influence on it. In 1961 McClelland broke ranks with ETS by writing an article in the Harvard alumni magazine decrying what he called, in its title, “The Stranglehold of Academic Performance on the Admissions Process.” If prestigious colleges functioned as the gateway to positions of authority in credential-oriented postwar America, he wrote, and if they selected their students solely on the basis of their gradegetting ability, then people with other abilities wouldn’t be able to get positions of authority.

On Henry Chauncey’s copy of the article is this handwritten notation: “He’s Hipped.” But Chauncey, an exemplar of the inhibited power motive, immediately wrote McClelland a couple of amiable letters of disagreement, insisting that college admissions officers do look at qualities other than scholastic aptitude and that ETS was continuing its search for ways to measure some of these qualities. He invited McClelland to come down to Princeton for a visit. McClelland, a little waspishly, replied,

I look forward to the time when ETS or some group will supply colleges with scores on other characteristics that may be relatively unrelated to academic success in college but very much related to success in later life. When you make these scores available to college admissions officers, my worries will be considerably diminished. However, at the present time, I think . ,. a boy . . . who scores, say, between 550 and 600 on his SAT Math and Verbal examinations and below average in rank and class has about one chance in a thousand of getting into Harvard, whatever his other abilities may be.

A few years later McClelland decided to beard the lion in its den by delivering a lecture at ETS that criticized standardized testing in sweeping terms. He made a series of suggestions to reform testing: testing “competencies”— the ability to perform specific tasks— rather than aptitude: teaching people how to raise their test scores; designing tests so that people’s scores would rise as they learned more, rather than staying constant; abandoning multiple choice in favor of “operant response,” or answers produced by the test-taker; and changing the names of the tests to remove the implication that general aptitude or intelligence was being measured. Even more ambitiously, he envisioned a change in the overall purpose of tests, from selection to “evaluating educational progress”—which, by eliminating the need for annual rankings of millions of people, would mean that the existing tests of motivation could be included and used to shape the functioning of schools.

The lecture was published in the American Psychologist in 1973, and it got. McClelland says, “the most response of anything I ever wrote.” One part of the response was that a delegation from Yale came to see McClelland and asked him how the Yale admissions office could use his ideas. The leader of the delegation was Henry Chauncey Jr., the son of the president of ETS, who was a dean at Yale. The junior member was an undergraduate named Robert Sternberg, one of whose vivid childhood memories is of the humiliation of getting a low score on an IQ test in elementary school; he later decided to devote his life to reforming testing. (Today Sternberg is a psychology professor at Yale and a leading authority on broadening the definition of intelligence.) McClelland wasn’t much help. “Our interest was. Are there any other measures that are ready and offthe-shelf? and he said no,” Sternberg says, McClelland remembers the meeting as having been another occasion for him to play the role of David-who-loses: “I said, You can’t fight city hall.” But this was the rare case in which McClelland’s disinclination to push his ideas did not hamper their influence. In recent years ETS has moved dramatically. at least in its rhetoric, in the McClellandesque direction of testing “performance” or “competency” rather than “aptitude,” and using questions that require written-out answers. Its biggest ongoing research project is the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This year it changed the name of its best-known exam from Scholastic Aptitude Test to Scholastic Assessment Test.

IN Motivating Economic Achievement. a book about the Indian motivational training course which McClelland wrote with David Winter, McClelland ended with a characteristic leap from tables of data about businessmen in Kakinada and Rajahmundry into an empyrean realm of intellectual ambition. He observed that during modern times the whole thrust of the history of ideas has been to make the fate of the individual appear to be “predetermined.” Darwin showed that man “was a byproduct of a process of natural selection over which he certainly had no control”; Marx discussed “desires and aspirations as if they were wholly determined by economic conditions”; Freud added unconscious forces to the list of all-powerful, immutable shapers of people’s destinies. “Where in all this picture of social determinism,” McClelland asked, “was there a place for man as a creator rather than a creature, as an actor rather than a reactor, as an agent of change rather than a product of historical, social, and personal history?” He ended with the stirring, if grandiose, assertion that “scientific knowledge is the new God,” which could enable people to throw off the shackles of determinism and shape their own destinies. In a sense McClelland here came full circle: the Methodist minister’s rebellious son finally embraced a kind of secular (though hardly modest) Methodism, in which motivational psychology would enable anyone to attain salvation in the form of success in American society.

Scoff if you want, but it’s a notion that has innate pull. In America nothing is more appealing than the idea (which sounds like a joke to most people from other countries) that anyone, at any point in life, can reinvent himself psychologically and socio-economically, simply by exercising mindpower. But is it really possible, or is it just a cruel delusion that leads people into Willy Loman-style agonies if they don’t become successful?

For the half of the country that goes to college, the higher-education system provides all those rogue American ambitions with a channel. It’s for people who are able to do very well in school between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five that the United States is most truly a land of opportunity.

A small subgroup of the rest are able to play out their ambitions successfully in the more chaotic atmosphere of the marketplace—as entrepreneurs, entertainers, and, yes, salesmen. These people are on what McClelland calls “a second success ladder based on money.” As a result, they don’t present a pretty picture: by most people’s standards they’re greedy. But they have made the American idea work for them.

Motivational psychology seems to hold the promise of another route through the American social structure. If motivation to succeed really were both measurable and teachable, it could help people for whom both high educational performance and bare-knuckles moneymaking are unattainable—people with different values, or inconvenient backgrounds, or unruly life trajectories. The benefits in individual happiness, social peace, and economic productivity would be worthy of serious national discussion. At the moment, however, about the only place such discussion occurs is on infomercials.