David McClelland's Contribution to Applied Psychology

David McClelland (1917-1998), Distinguished Research Professor and Chair of Harvard University’s Department of Social Psychology, was a world-famous psychologist (6th best known by one survey) best known for his research on motivation and competence.

For additional information on Dr. McClelland visit his page on Wikipedia.org and his page on FamousPsychologists.org

McClelland made three fundamental discoveries which underlie many fields of psychological research and HR practice:

  • Reliable quantitative measurement of operant human motives, and an unlimited number of other personality characteristics and competencies. Operant measures are behaviors people spontaneously exhibit, as opposed to respondent answers to multiple choice questions. Operant measures of intrinsic motivation are 3-5 times more predictive of what people will actually do than what they say they will do when asked to respond to a test item. Before McClelland, psychologists tried to assess operant personality characteristics by “letting their unconscious hover over data” to make subjective predictions about what people would do. McClelland identified and validated 11 elements of Achievement thought. He demonstrated that social motives could be objectively coded with 95% inter-rater reliability, and contained three distinct motives Achievement, Affiliation and Power as McClelland outlined in his book Power: The Inner Experience. These motives account for ~90% of motivated human thought.

  • Empirical proof that motives measured predict behaviors and results in life for individuals, organizations, societies and cultures. The predictive validity of these motives at the individual, organizational and societal level, have been shown to predict innovative and entrepreneurial behaviors and growth in 80 different societies from 900BC to the present (see The Achieving Society). McClelland's empirical coding system, CAVE can and has been applied to text from any source and have been used to reliably code a wide range of spoken and written transcriptions from ancient to modern times.

  • McClelland demonstrated that Motives can be taught, and outlined a process for motive acquisition

This was revolutionary because at the time most psychologist believed Freud's notion of deep personality which posits that characteristics became fixed early in life, as early as age 6, and could not subsequently be taught or changed expect perhaps by many years of intense psychoanalysis. He showed in a randomized control group experiment with Indian entrepreneurs that 2 weeks of Achievement Motivation training increased trained small business peoples’ efficacy, such that their businesses generated 27% more jobs, 2x invested capital of individuals in the control group — effects that persisted for 15 years. The program became the basis for United Nations entrepreneurship development programs in 55 countries.

During his life he extended empirical measurement and change methods to competence, beginning with seminal paper Testing for Competence rather than Intelligence (1973). He also developed the technique of Behavioral Event Interviewing (BEI), adding TAT probes to Flanagan critical incident interview protocol (which identified job situations v. successful performers motives and competencies), launching the modern competency movement in educational and Industrial/Organizational psychology.

Near the end of his life, learned psycho- immunology and –transmitter biochemistry, invented Imglob A assay from saliva and did research at Harvard Medical School on neural bases of motivation, Identified neurotransmitters related to Achievement (Ach) (arginine, vasopressin), Power (Pow) (epinephrine) and Affiliation (Aff) (dopamine), impacts of motive stress on immune system, anticipating the extraordinary advances in neuroscience and psychopharmacology.

McClelland's publications include 22 books and more than 150 papers. He received numerous awards for his research, including the American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Scientific Contribution in 1987.

McClelland’s rigorous insistence on empirical measurement, demonstrated that motive and competency variables identified, and methods used to change these, statistically predicted economic value added. His influenced has been felt by 3 generations of psychologists and HR professionals.

Most of what passes for “competency” practice has strayed very far from McClelland's scientific rigor: no measurement reliability and no predictive validity. Competency International is dedicated to maintaining standards and advancing research and application methods of methods based on McClelland's work.


Books and Articles by Dr. McClelland


Selected References

McClelland, D. C.(1998). Identifying competencies with behavioral-event interviews. Psychological Science, 9(5), 331-339.

Jacobs, R. L., & McClelland , D. C. (1994). Moving up the corporate ladder: A longitudinal study of the leadership motive pattern and managerial success in women and men. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 46(1), 32-41.

McClelland, D. C. (1993). Intelligence is not the best predictor of job performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2(1), 5-6.

McClelland, D. C. Franz, C. E. Motivational and other sources of work accomplishments in mid-life: A longitudinal study. Journal of Personality, 60(4), 679-707.

McClelland, D. C., Koestner, R., & Weinberger, J. (1989). How do self-attributed and implicit motives differ? Psychological Review, 96(4), 690-702.

McClelland, D. C. (1987) Characteristics of successful entrepreneurs. Journal of Creative Behavior, 21(3), 219-233.

McClelland, D. C. (1985). How motives, skills, and values determine what people do. American Psychologist, 40(7), 812-825.

McClelland, D. C., & Boyatzis, R. E. (1982). Leadership motive pattern and long-term success in management. Journal of Applied Psychology, 67(6, 737-743.

McClelland, D. C. (1973). Testing for competence rather than for "intelligence." American Psychologist, 28(1), 1-14.

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Competency International is a research and consulting group dedicated to the application of scientifically validated techniques to the management of human capital in organizations. Committed to advancing the science of motive and competency assessment, application and development, our consultants adhere to the highest standards of ethics and practice.

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