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LAP#2 - Attribution Theory,
by Michael Beard, 1994


"Attitude is everything." I cannot attribute that quote to its original speaker, because I do not know who that was. I do know, however, that the words are very true, and often spoken. Upon deeper inspection, we can say that this phrase relates directly to how a leaner triumphs over both everyday tasks, and life-long dilemmas. Many educational psychologists have studied the effects of motivation on learning, including McClelland, Hoppe, and Atkinson, among others. The most important pieces of information are included in achievement motivation theory, and one method of analyzing it, attribution theory.


Thought of together, achievement motivation and attribution theory is the way in which a learner thinks about the success or failure of tackling a problem, and how this affects the outcome of future problems. We can study achievement motivation by examining what kinds of goals a learner sets for himself. If a learner tends to set unrealistically out of reach goals, or abysmally low and easily attainable goals, it is likely that the learner is trying to avoid dealing with failure. With a too-high goal, the learner can simply claim that the task was far too hard for him, and failure was not unexpected. With a low goal, the learner can attribute his success to the little difficulty presented in the problem. These examples of how a learner thinks about an attempted task shows attribution theory at work. When the learner attributes his failure to the unrealistically high difficulty, he sets himself up for another failure when faced with the same problem. Likewise, when an easy achievement is made, the learner does not gain any personal satisfaction from attaining the goal, and as such, he is less motivated in the future to achieve any higher. The "success seekers", however, set their goals at an attainable level that still provides a challenge. With this method, the learner increases his motivation to succeed at a task.


As a highly competitive person, I have always striven to be the best at what I thought I could succeed. I have not always pursued the best ways of motivating myself to achieve my goals. In fact, my means were sometimes far from it! My first real taste for competition was in elementary school. As with most kids (of any age), I wanted to be the very best at something, no matter what it was. Since I was the cliche kid that was always picked last for the team in gym class (except for twice), I made my mark in the classroom, instead. That mark was always an 'A.'

There did come a time, however, when I did get involved in physical sports. Like the present, though, the sport I chose was not a mainstream one such as football, baseball, or basketball, but rather I followed in the footsteps (and pedal strokes) of my older brother in cycling. Thus, my initial motivation to be a bicycle racer was fostered by my brother, Keith. When he had been a cross-country runner in high-school, I followed him on a run once, and that was the end of that! When Keith turned to cycling, though, that was something that my eleven year old body could handle.

Keith and I went on bike rides all the time, on those hot, humid summer days. Every time we rode out, he'd show me a different route that would rack up the miles, and find all the ominously challenging hills. I always kept up to him pretty well for a little kid, and of course I wanted to beat him home. As Keith grew to be a better cyclist, he made longer and harder trips that were physically too hard for a youngster like myself, but we still kept up with our outings. Keith also still trained as a runner, and I would accompany him out on six or eight mile runs.

While my major motivation was to be like my brother, which was a physically unattainable goal for my age, I still kept active with the sport by entering local races with him, competing on an amateur level. I finished fourth in my age group in my first race, the Great Pedal Race in Williamsport. I felt a sense of accomplishment for having made it through the race, and best of all, I beat my dad, who also raced. I know now that he was just hanging back to help me if I got a flat tire or wrecked my bike, but "I knew I beat him!" This attribution added to my motivation for the next race.

After every race, I had some sense of accomplishment that kept me going. Whether I had beat dad to the finish (which didn't always happen as I got older), or received a plaque for my performance, or even if I didn't get any reward from the race, I still knew that I had done my best, and I had done better than many other people. Although I always seemed to place in my age group just one number below the number of trophies they awarded, I had never experienced a crushing defeat, and I could always cheerfully say, "Next time!" Since I had come so close to my goals, I never considered any of them a failure, so a I continued my racing days as a success seeker.


I stopped cycling not long after my brother did, and I reverted back to competing mostly in the classroom. After several years, though, I was turning sixteen, and dad bought me a 1971 Plymouth Duster that graced the driveway in all of its loud orange and black paint. We worked on it all during the winter to get it road worthy before I got my license. All the time we worked on the car, one idea persisted in my mind: I want to go drag racing like dad! The motivation to be a cyclist vanished with my brother's own withdrawal from the sport, but when dad had started drag racing at the local track, a yearning started to grow inside.

Dad had raced on the street when he was a kid, as many people did in that supposedly "safer era." I still don't know what motivated dad to take his big Dodge truck to the track one weekend, but it turned out to be a weekly event. I was dad's "crew chief." We were as new to the strange concepts involved in bracket racing as you are! My job was to wander around the pits and talk to people, and learn all the little nuances involved in drag racing. I also helped dad by putting his competition numbers on the window in shoe polish before the race, and taking them off afterward. I helped unload the truck, and every other little chore I could help with, while dad raced. As he did the driving, I learned from experienced drivers how all the rules worked (and it took months to get the basics down), and tips on how to win. It occurred to me that this sport was more than grease and oil and noisy engines; there was a science to bracket racing! The thought of a completely even field of competition, no matter what car you drove, intrigued me.

The following summer, I raced for the first time. I had my license for sixteen days, and I was surprisingly very calm about trying my hand at drag racing. By the end of the day, I had made it to the fourth round: the quarter finals! With the initial motivation to be like dad, and the added motivation of being a winner, I knew there was more drag racing in my future. In the fourth race in which I competed, I won. Strict attribution theory might say that I would be unmotivated to do any better since I had goals that were easy to attain. I didn't win every race, and my own dad beat me more than any other driver, so I continued on with much determination. At the end of that half-season of twelve races that I competed in, I had two wins, a runner-up, and a semi-finals appearance. I looked ahead to the next year.

With the 1991 season close at hand, I set a goal for myself. I was going to continue to run in the street class (called ETK, standing for Elapsed Time King of the street) and run for trophies, but I was going to be the ETK champion. I expected it to be easy, considering my performances the previous year. I discovered, however, that it was not as easy as I thought, and it took a long time for the motivation to come back to me. I enjoyed the challenge I was getting, and the harder it became, the more I wanted to win. At the end of the season, I was at the peak of my determination. I was in the finals seven times out of the last nine races, and I shattered many track records in that final surge. I became the youngest ETK champion ever, and I was voted ETK Driver of the Year. I broke the points record of 9,850 with 11,450 points, with five wins and four runner-ups. The record remains untouched, and it is the second highest number of points ever scored in any class at Beaver Springs Dragway.

Since that dream season, I have made it a habit to make a goal for myself. I use my goals both to push myself to do better, and to judge how well I am doing. When I moved up into the class I am racing in now, Heavy Eliminator, I set a goal to finish in the top ten in my rookie year. I finished eleventh, so I was not disappointed. For my second year in Heavy, I wanted to finish in the top six drivers, and I did indeed finish exactly tied in the sixth position. This season, I have a realistic goal of being in the top three, but I have a higher goal that may very well be attainable: I want to be the Heavy Eliminator champion this year.


From my early days as a cyclist, to the present fast-paced world of drag racing, I have always been very motivated. As I have grown, I have learned to use motivation and attributions to achieve my goals more readily. By setting realistic, attainable goals, I have been able to make positive attributions that prepare my mental state for tackling the next problem with ever greater motivation. I have set goals for myself in drag racing competition, and I have achieved them. The increasing motivation is shown by the evolution of my goals toward an always more challenging level, which I have routinely overcome.

Copyright 1996-1999 Michael G. Beard

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