Understanding Implicit Motive in Childhood Obesity

+ bonus Mother's Day Wall

Childhood Obesity News recently looked at a study about animal-assisted intervention (AAI) which showed that a child would willingly get more physical exercise romping with a dog than playing with another child. The dog-paired kids did not report experiencing higher levels of motivation, well-being, or satisfaction — it was only their behavior that hinted at these higher levels.

The researchers concluded that the presence of a dog can trigger implicit motives, which in turn enhance the motivation for engaging in activity. But what is an implicit motive? The most important thing to know is that it’s non-conscious and therefore inaccessible to even the most earnest self-reporting.

Self-attributed motives are the kind that turn up in response to questionnaires and interviews. While they may represent a person’s sincere wishes and beliefs, self-attributed motives are closely tied to social incentives, and for that reason they are often not robust enough to withstand other forces. Implicit motives, on the other hand, can sustain behavioral trends over the long haul, because the person derives pleasure from the activity itself — in this case, playing with a dog.

The American Psychological Association elaborates:

Implicit motives represent a more primitive motivational system derived from affective experiences, whereas self-attributed motives are based on more cognitively elaborated constructs.

What it all boils down to is that people often have no idea why they do the things they do. If this is true of adults, who have life experience and sometimes even a history of therapy to support their decisions, it must be even more true of children and teenagers. As any frustrated parent knows, when a child takes Mom’s lipstick and draws a line all the way around the expensively wallpapered room, it is pointless to ask why.

Hidden reasons

It might be that artwork brought home from preschool has been admired, so in the child’s primitive emotional calculus, a drawing that surrounds a room will be praised even more. Perhaps it was the challenge of keeping the line at the same height all the way around, and making the end point match up with the starting point.

Or maybe the lipstick smelled good, and it seemed like an excellent idea to circle the room with fragrance. Maybe the kid heard Mom and Dad fighting last night, and some primitive, unconscious survival instinct suggested giving them something else to think about instead of being mad at each other. Or simply, the wall was there, the lipstick was there, and it was fun.

Whatever the case may be, chances are the child will not be able to formulate or articulate an explanation of the motive. A number of kids seemed eager to control their eating with help from the W8Loss2Go program, and then puzzled Dr. Pretlow’s team by resisting or even quitting. They can perhaps be forgiven, because they probably don’t know any more about their own motives than a lipstick-wielding 5-year-old.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Dogs motivate obese children for physical activity,” NIH.gov, 10/29/13
Source: “How do self-attributed and implicit motives differ?,” APA.org, October 1989
Image by Romana Klee



  1. I am really impressed by your articles. Is there any way you would be interested in being an expert on our new platform Kinsights?

Leave a Reply

Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
Copyright © 2014 eHealth International. All Rights Reserved.