The “4 I’s” Framework: Core Motives

What motivates our dogs?  Four core motives have been identified that guide decision making in social dilemmas (Fiske, 2009).  These have been applied in environmental conservation but can equally apply to understanding motivations in dogs.

INFORMATION (Understanding)

Dogs (as do humans) have ‘a fundamental need to understand their environment to predict what will happen in case of uncertainties’ (Van Vugt, 2009).  Understanding their environment and the actions of humans around them is important for dogs.  Predictability and the availability of coping strategies when things are unpredictable, is important to reduce anxiety about what will happen next.

IDENTITY (Belonging)

Dogs are a social species and the native habitat of the domestic dog is alongside and with humans.  Dogs form strong bonds and even attachment relationships with humans and with oher dogs and species with whom they live.  In that sense, dogs identify with their family group, it gives them a sense of belonging, which affects their behaviour towards those within, and outside, the group.


Dogs need human guides and leaders that they can trust to look after their best interests. We owe it to them to be fair, respectful and clear.  Any rules imposed must reflect the dog’s interest as well as our own and others.  Trust must be given freely, it cannot be demanded.

INCENTIVES (Self-enhancing)

We all want to seek rewards and avoid punishment.  Incentives can work to motivate dogs with the following considerations.

  1. Take individual differences into account: dogs are different and what one dog considers an incentive, the next might not.
  2.  An incentive that fulfils other core motives simultaneously is most likely to be successful.  So a reward that enhances feelings of trust, belonging and understanding will work better than an isolated ‘appetitive stimulus’.
  3. Incentives may not work if the undermine other core needs.  So an incentive that undermines trust or does not increase understanding, may not motivate.


Background:Van Vugt (2009) applied the “4 I’s” framework in identifying the four key components of successful strategies for environmental resource management.  The four components: Information, Identity, Institution and Incentives correspond to four core motives for decision making in social dilemmas.  They can also be applied as a framework to understand what motivates our dogs.


Fiske, S. T. (2009). Social beings: Core motives in social psychology. John Wiley & Sons.

Van Vugt, M. (2009). Averting the tragedy of the commons: Using social psychological science to protect the environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(3), 169-173.

About cambridgedogs

Dog training and behaviour in Cambridgeshire
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