Three key insights on entrepreneurial motives

The field of entrepreneurship research has been up and running now for decades, with a long list of academic journals publishing loads of research articles each and every quarter of each and every year. Notwithstanding this long history and huge stock of accumulated knowledge, much about entrepreneurship remains a mystery. Alex Coad observed that even a model that can explain up to 15 percent of the variance in entrepreneurial performance is exceptional. That means that 85 percent or more ends up as an error term, implying that we simply do not know why some entrepreneurs are more successful than others. This brought David Storey to the conclusion that a large part of the explanation must come down to mere luck. From the perspective of performance, some entrepreneurs happen to be luckier than others—full stop. Given this poor state of affairs, it is no wonder that one entrepreneurship researcher after another announces that s/he is going after the holy grail. For instance, Scott Shane and Roy Thurik are now searching for “entrepreneurial genes.” Similarly, it is little wonder that one former holy grail after another is, at some point, declared obsolete. Perhaps, though, such declarations come too quickly, and it would make better sense to have a bit more stamina.

The example of “entrepreneurial motives” may illustrate this point. For decades, entrepreneurship researchers tried to prove that the need for achievement was positively correlated to entrepreneurial success. As the evidence failed to converge in any way, however, this line of work was determined to be a dead end. But the burial of the entrepreneurial motives perspective might well have been premature. In the modern psychology of motives, three key insights have been developed that may well offer a chance to reboot the entrepreneurial motives lens. First, the need for achievement is just one of a series of motives, two other prominent ones being the need for affiliation and the need for power. For example, we can expect an entrepreneur with a high need for affiliation to prefer employment growth. Second, explicit motives must be distinguished from their implicit counterparts. An entrepreneur’s long-term performance is driven by implicit rather than explicit motives. Third, successful behavior is promoted when explicit and implicit motives are consistent. Perhaps surprisingly, many people, including entrepreneurs, are implicitly motivated by something other than what they state explicitly, often without being aware of it. An initial study performed by Hendrik Slabbink, along with myself and other colleagues, has revealed that if measured properly, entrepreneurial motives may be the key to explaining entrepreneurial performance after all.


Prof.dr. Arjen van Witteloostuijn


Tilburg, October 23rd, 2014


Arjen van Witteloostuijn is Head of Department of the Department of Economics at the Tilburg School of Economics and Management,Tilburg University . His research interests range from international macroeconomics and personality psychology to industrial economics and organizational behavior.