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What Is the Cognitive Evaluation Theory?

E. Reeder
E. Reeder

Cognitive evaluation theory is a psychological theory that deals with internal or external — also called intrinsic or extrinsic — motivation as related to the level of competence or incompetence that people feel. This theory also deals with how likely it is that people will believe that what they do is controlled either internally by themselves or externally by their environment and other people. People view tasks in terms of their level of comfort and how well that task meets their needs to feel in control of their actions and competent in performing those actions.

One relevant psychological principle related to cognitive evaluation theory is called locus of control. People whose internal locus of control in stronger will feel that they are in charge of how they behave and of their level of proficiency when they complete tasks. Those whose external locus of control is stronger believe that other people or their environment have more influence over what they do than they personally do themselves. Most people have a degree of both of these loci of control but have one that is stronger than the other. People's locus of control determines whether internal or external influences will have more of an effect on their successful completion of tasks and their accompanying feelings of competence.


Cognitive evaluation theory say that when people are internally motivated, their feelings of competence and their drive to succeed also come from within. They are less dependent on the praise or criticism of others or of rewards or punishments to complete tasks successfully or to change their behavior. When people are more geared toward an external locus of control, their motivation to succeed relies more on how others react to them and their environment, and they believe that they have less control over their own success or failure.

An example of cognitive evaluation theory at work might involve a worker whose internal locus of control is stronger. She would feel that she had more control over her work and other aspects of her life than other people or her work environment did. The way to motivate a worker like this might be to give her important projects and the responsibility and authority to complete them. If her boss offered her monetary rewards such as a bonus for her work, it might actually make her feel less competent and less likely to succeed at her task or to feel motivated to do it.

Another worker whose external locus of control is stronger, on the other hand, might feel more competent when he receives praise from his boss, a raise or a certificate of recognition for his contributions. This worker would require more external validation for his efforts. Any external validation that he received would, in turn, increase his motivation and help him to feel more competent. Criticism or failure related to a task that he completed at work, however, would lower his feelings of competence and self-worth and would decrease his motivation.

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Discussion Comments

It seems that those with a stronger internal locus of control would function well, perhaps even better, working independently, while those with a stronger external locus of control would benefit from outside opinions offered when working in a group.

Someone who feels in control of their own work would most likely also be more apt to adopt the old adage of it you want something done right, you should do it yourself.

Meanwhile, a person who takes control from external sources would probably be worried that they are not doing well when working independently. This could hurt their ability to complete a project quickly and efficiently.

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