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'Need for Achievement (N-Ach') is a term introduced by Henry Murray into the field of psychology, referring to an individual's desire for significant accomplishment, mastering of skills, control, or high standards. It is a particular approach to achievement motivation

N-Ach is related to the difficulty of tasks people choose to undertake. Those with low N-Ach may choose very easy tasks, in order to minimise risk of failure, or highly difficult tasks, such that a failure would not be embarrassing. Those with high N-Ach tend to choose moderately difficult tasks, feeling that they are challenging, but within reach.

People high in N-Ach are characterised by a tendency to seek challenges and a high degree of independence. Many entrepreneurs may fall in this group. Their most satisfying reward is the recognition of their achievements. Sources of high N-Ach include:

  1. Parents who encouraged independence in childhood
  2. Praise and rewards for success
  3. Association of achievement with positive feelings
  4. Association of achievement with one's own competence and effort, not luck
  5. A desire to be effective or challenged
  6. Intrapersonal Strength

The measurement of N-Ach[]

The techniques McClelland and his collaborators developed to measure N-Ach, N-Aff and N-Pow (see McClelland et al, 1958) can be viewed as a radical break with the dominant psychometric tradition. However, it should be recognised that McClellend's thinking was strongly influenced by the pioneering work of Henry Murray, both in terms of Murray's model of human needs and motivational processes (1938) and his work with the OSS during World War Two. It was during this period that Murray introduced the idea of "situation tests" and multi-rater / multi-method assessments. It was Murray who first identified the significance of Need for Achievement, Power and Affiliation and placed these in the context of an integrated motivational model.

Whilst trait-based personality theory assume that high-level competencies like initiative, creativity, and leadership can be assessed using “internally consistent” measures (see psychometrics), the McClelland measures recognize that such competencies are difficult and demanding activities which will neither be developed nor displayed unless people are undertaking activities they care about (ie are strongly motivated to undertake). Furthermore, it is the cumulative number of independent, but cumulative and substitutable, components of competence they bring to bear while seeking to carry out these activities that will determine their success. Accordingly, the N-Ach, N-Aff and N-Pow scoring systems simply count how many components of competence people bring to bear whilst carrying out activities they have a strong personal inclination (or motivation) to undertake.

An important corollary is that there is no point in trying to assess people’s abilities without first finding out what they care about. So one cannot (as some psychometricians try to do) assess such things as “creativity” in any general sense. One has always to ask “creativity in relation to what?” So McClelland’s measures, originally presented as means of assessing “personality”, are best understood as means of measuring competence in ways which break radically with traditional psychometric approaches. (See Raven (2001) for a fuller discussion).


  • McClelland, D. C., Atkinson, J. W., Clark, R. A., & Lowell, E. L. (1958). A scoring manual for the achievement motive; R. W. Heyns, J. Veroff, & J. W. Atkinson, A scoring manual for the affiliation motive; J. Veroff, A scoring manual for the power motive. Respectively, Chapters 12, 13 and 14 in J. W. Atkinson (Ed.), Motives in Fantasy, Action and Society. New York: Van Nostrand.
  • Raven, J. (2001). The McClelland/McBer Competency Models. Chapter 15 in J. Raven & J. Stephenson (Eds.), Competence in the Learning Society. New York: Peter Lang.

External links[]

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