In 2002, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (David H. Cohen, Vice-President) and Columbia Business School (under former Dean Meyer Feldberg), with the support of the Provost Jonathan R. Cole, each contributed funds to develop a Motivation Science Center at Columbia. E. Tory Higgins was appointed as director of the center, and there was an advisory board that included faculty members from the Arts and Sciences and Columbia Business School.

The basic idea behind creating the center was that, compared to other scientific domains, like neuroscience, that interface with other disciplines, the domain of motivation science had not been well articulated or made accessible to scientists or the public. This was both surprising and unfortunate given that a major goal of families, organizations, and institutions is to motivate others, and behavioral problems with motivational roots are consistently included among major societal concerns. It was time that motivation science became both better articulated and more visible as a distinct integrative scientific enterprise.

The stated purpose of the center was to sponsor activities directed toward constructing a new motivation science, both by integrating phenomena that were already being studied into general scientific principles of motivation, and by providing opportunities for scientists and policymakers to recognize the utility of such principles for their own work. At the time of its launch, four central areas were identified that a motivation scientist needed to understand — preference and choice, well-being, achievement, and social influence.

Consistent with this purpose, the first international conference sponsored by the center was held at Arden House in May 2003. It brought together psychologists who worked at all levels of analysis (social, cognitive, and biological) to present research and discuss theories related to four general and integrative motivational principles — expectancy, value, goals, and strategy. Since then, other conferences have been held on various basic and applied issues central to motivation science.