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


2 Responses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

FAQs and Media Requests: Click here…

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Obesity top bottom

The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

Food & Health Resources