A psychological model of entrepreneurial behavior

A psychological model of entrepreneurial behavior

Andrea Smith-Hunter


Entrepreneurship is a multidimensional process. A review of the literature provides some support to look at a multidimensional perspective when analyzing entrepreneurs. There are two distinct schools of researchers in the field of entrepreneurial psychology. The more traditional group of researchers have focused on the personality characteristics of the individual such as: locus of control, risk taking, achievement motivation, problem solving style and innovativeness, perception, and work values. The second group of researchers has taken a social cognitive approach, looking at the relationship between an individual and his or her environment. The external factors include culture, role models, work experience, education, and environment. It is important to look at all of these factors and their influence on entrepreneurial behavior. The relationship between the entrepreneur, personality characteristics, values, and other dimensions helps explain why some become entrepreneurs and others do not. This model has implications for entrepreneurial educators and policy makers.


The study of entrepreneurship is a multidimensional process that requires in depth analyses. Research on the topic is inherently complex and multidisciplinary, and is exceedingly difficult to do well. The purpose of this paper is to assess the impact of entrepreneurial behavior on the broad topic of entrepreneurship, looking specifically at the persons engaged in entrepreneurship, which are deemed to be critically important to the process of entrepreneurship.

Previous studies have concentrated on the total encompassing topic of entrepreneurship, which includes the sub-topic of entrepreneurs. Furthermore, most of these studies have tended to focus on entrepreneurial issues from a macro perspective, assuming a homogeneous group, with similar experiences and demographic characteristics. While the macro perspective–which looks at finances, structural and social factors (Appendix 1)–is important, none of these alone will create a new venture. For that, an individual is needed, one in whose mind all the possibilities come together, and who has the motivation to pursue opportunities in an entrepreneurial manner.

This paper departs from most of the earlier research on the topic in two major respects. First, it focuses on the personality characteristics of entrepreneurs, recognizing that individuals who become entrepreneurs will share certain common characteristics. The paper concentrates specifically on certain personality characteristics such as; the need for achievement risk taking propensity, locus of control and work values. Second, the paper continues by looking at other psychological characteristics of entrepreneurs such as problem solving style and innovativeness, role models, work experience, education, environment and perception.

Psychology can be distinguished from other behavioral sciences by its emphasis on the behavior of the individual person. Behavior, in turn is influenced by the way in which the external world is represented in the mind, and by the individual’s exercise of choice.

Research on the psychology of the entrepreneur is a critical first step in providing much needed meat to an area whose current skeletal research knowledge is lacking.


This paper concentrates on the study of entrepreneurs, instead of entrepreneurship per se, a distinction which is important. Entrepreneurship looks at the macro and micro perspectives of the topic. It concentrates on the social, structural, as web as psychological factors that determine who will become entrepreneurs. The study of entrepreneurs concentrates on the person in the process, the dancer of the dance, the core of the theoretical process.

The study of entrepreneurs has garnered many varied definitions of the topic. Some researchers have defined entrepreneurs as someone who recognizes an opportunity, and marshals the resources to take advantage of, or act on that opportunity (Huefner and Hunt, 1994; Chung and Gibbons, 1997; Begley, 1995). Other researchers have attempted more encompassing definitions, which look at the entrepreneurial process, event and the entrepreneur (Bygrave and Hofer, 1991; Gartner, 1989; Sexton and Smilor, 1986).

Bygrave and Hofer (1991) define the entrepreneurial event as the creation of a new organization to pursue an opportunity. The authors define the entrepreneurial process as involving all the functions, activities and actions associated with the perceiving of opportunities and the creation of organizations to pursue them. Finally, they define an entrepreneur as someone who perceives an opportunity and creates an organization to pursue it.

Another entrepreneurial definition ties the state of being an entrepreneur to innovative behavior and strategic management practices (Gartner 1988; Sexton and Smilor, 1986). The authors identify five innovative strategic postures of entrepreneurs: (1) introduction of new goods (2) introduction of new methods of production (3) opening of new markets (4) opening of new sources of supply and (5) industrial reorganization (Gartner 1988; Sexton and Smilor, 1986).

A look at the vast array of research on entrepreneurs indicates that there is still no standard universally accepted definition of an entrepreneur. The definition used in a particular study is dependent on what one’s intent is, or what one hopes to accomplish. For the purpose of this paper, entrepreneurs are defined as individuals who pursue opportunities with a long-term focus in mind (Miner, 1997; Begley, 1995). This definition recognizes that tendencies such as internal locus of control, achievement orientation, risk taking propensity and work values, are important in analyzing the psychology of entrepreneurs.


The research on personality traits of entrepreneurs indicates that a large number of traits have been explored. The literature on the three most frequently researched personality dimensions: need for achievement, locus of control, risk taking and work values–as applied to the entrepreneur–is reviewed below.


The work of McClelland in the early to mid-1960s suggested that the key to entrepreneurial behavior lie in achievement motivation (McClelland, 1961). The need to achieve is a drive to excel, to achieve a goal in relation to a set of standards (Chell, Haworth, and Brearley, 1991, Johnson, 1990). A person endowed with such a need is expected to spend time considering how to do a job better, or how to accomplish something important to them. McClelland distinguished such persons from the rest of the population, suggesting that the former group were high achievers (McClelland, 1961).

McClelland argued that people who are high in the need for achievement possess five critical attributes. First, high achievers like situations where they can take personal responsibility for finding solutions to problems (Sexton and Smilor, 1986). Second, high achievers like rapid feedback on their performance so that they can judge whether they are improving or not (Chell, Haworth and Brearley, 1991). Third, high achievers avoid what they perceive to be very easy or very difficult tasks, and they dislike succeeding by chance (Chell, Haworth and Brearley, 1991). Fourth, they prefer striving to achieve targets, which represent both a challenge, and are not beyond their capabilities (Chell, Haworth and Brearley, 1991). Fifth, high achievers are interested in concrete knowledge (money as a measure of success) of the results of their decisions (Sexton and Smilor, 1986). McClelland concludes that a high need for achievement drives people to become entrepreneurs.

Other researchers have criticized McClelland’s achievement motivation theory of entrepreneurs over the last three decades. Most notably, Brockhaus (1982, as cited in Sexton and Smilor, 1986) questioned the predictive power of the theory. The author has pointed out that McClelland’s empirical research did not directly connect need for achievement with the decision to own and manage a business.

Other criticisms of McClelland’s achievement motivation theory on entrepreneurs look at the attempt to relate economic development to the prevalence of achievement imagery (Chell, Haworth and Brearley, 1991). The cultural basis of the achievement motive and its effects are also open to speculation. In some cultures, failure is seen as a positive learning experience, while in others it has a certain negative stigma attached.

There is however some empirical support for the idea that entrepreneurs have a higher motive to achieve compared to non-entrepreneurs. Begley (1995) and Hornaday and Aboud (1971) consistently found that the achievement motivation exists as a stable characteristic and is more prevalent among entrepreneurs when compared to others.


Closely related to the concept of a high need for achievement is the belief in an internal locus of control. Individuals who are reluctant in believing in their ability to control the environment though their actions, would also be expected to be reluctant to assume the risks that starting a business entails (Chen, Greene, and Crick, 1998; Mueller and Thomas, 2000, Sexton and Smilor, 1986;).

Rotter (1966, as cited in Chell, Haworth and Brearley, 1991) developed the notion of control of reinforcement as part of a wider social learning theory of personality. Rotter believed that the need for achievement is related to the belief of internal locus of control. People with an internal locus of control are those individuals who also believe themselves to be in control of their destiny (Chell, and colleagues, 1991). In contrast, people with an external locus of control sense that fate, in the form of chance events outside their control, or powerful people, has a dominating influence over their lives (Chell and Colleagues, 1991). Rotter hypothesized that individuals with internal beliefs would more likely strive for achievement than would individuals with external beliefs.

Other studies by Brockhaus and Nord (1980, as cited in Kent and Sexton, 1982) also found support for the high locus of control beliefs of entrepreneurs compared to managers. Brockhaus and Nord found that entrepreneurs were more internal in their locus of control beliefs when compared to managers (Kent and Sexton, 1982).

More recently, studies in emerging markets (Mueller and Thomas, 2001; Utsch, Rauch, Rothfufs, and Frese, 1999) have demonstrated how cultures with strong belief systems in self-determination tend to have higher rates of entrepreneur activity. Utsch et al’s study of managers and entrepreneurs in East Germany concluded that self-efficacy, or the belief in one’s ability to succeed, and control rejection of outside forces were the major differences between managers and entrepreneurs. What is interesting in this research is that the results are similar to studies of West German managers and entrepreneurs. However, entrepreneurship was never encouraged, but rather was discouraged in centrally planned economies (Luthans, Stajkovic, Ibrayeva, 2000; Utsch, Rauch, Rothfufs, and Frese). Therefore, one can conclude that there is an innate entrepreneur personality that emerges despite the environment or culture.

Hull, Bosley and Udell (1980) have challenged the findings from Brockhaus and Nord and Rotter. The former researchers surveyed over 300 University of Oregon alumni in an attempt to distinguish between the personalities of entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs. Internal locus of control was the one factor that showed no significant difference.

Chen, Greene, and Crick (1998) had similar results when surveying 140 MBA students. They suggested that business education help to create a sense of self-efficacy by giving students the skills needed to plan and make strategic decisions, regardless of their personality traits. However, when Chen, Greene, and Crick studied well-established entrepreneurs and managers, entrepreneurs had a significantly higher locus of control than managers did.

Some of the research raises the question of whether an entrepreneur’s personality is affected by experience (Littunen, 2000; Morrison, 2001; McCarthy, 2000). McCarthy’s illustrates the role of crisis on strategic planning and risk-taking. Entrepreneurs tend to have a higher locus of control after a crisis situation, especially if they have come through the crisis in a stronger position. However, a high locus of control sometimes is the cause of crisis resulting in the stifling of innovation and a resistance to change.

Although there exists conflicting evidence of the role of internal locus of control in predicting entrepreneurs from non-entrepreneurs, the attribute is still important in measuring the entrepreneurial trait. It is the nature of the managerial process that control be exerted over those factors, which they identify as having an influence on their business (Bowen and Hisrich, 1988). In a business environment, the cognitive process of developing and implementing plans and strategies in an effort to guide a business along a successful course is a particular example of an entrepreneur’s attempt to control and manage the environment. This suggests that behavior associated with internal locus of control has to be taken into account when studying entrepreneurial attributes.

Many recent studies have focused on the relationship between the locus of control and an entrepreneur’s level of self-efficacy (Chen, Greene, and Crick, 1998; Littunen, 2000; Luthans, Stakovic, and Ibrayeva, 2000; Utsch, Rauch, Rothfufs, and Frese). This research indicates that in addition to having a high locus of control, it is important for potential entrepreneurs to develop a strong sense of self-efficacy to insure that they follow through with their intentions.


Risk taking, whether financial, social or psychic, is a distinguishing characteristic of entrepreneurship. Early writers such as McClelland posited that entrepreneurs are high in the need for achievement and therefore prefer moderate levels of risks (Bowen and Hisrich, 1988). The usual interpretation of a risk taker is someone who in the context of a business venture pursues a business idea when the probability of succeeding is low.

There have been a number of studies supporting the idea that risk bearing is a prime factor in the entrepreneurial character and function. In particular, Hull and colleagues (1980) found that the personality characteristics most important in identifying entrepreneurial types of individuals are (1) functional task preference and (2) personality constructs of creativity, risk and flexibility.

Researchers such as Palmer (1971, as cited in Kent and Sexton, 1982) and Likes (1974, as cited in Shabbir and Gregorio, 1996) speculate that in becoming an entrepreneur, an individual risks financial well-being, career opportunities, family relatives and psychic well being. The level of uncertainty involved in an entrepreneurial venture indicates that individuals drawn to such lines of business will possess a certain level of risk taking propensity.

The level of risk taking that entrepreneurs possess have been shown to be moderate and calculated (Chell and colleagues, 1991; Kent and colleagues, 1982; Sexton and Smilor, 1986). Other results are split however, showing that individuals with an internal locus of control were less likely to engage in risky behavior, when compared to individuals with an external locus of control (McClelland, 1961; Chell and colleagues, 1991).

Some researchers have cast doubt on the validity of risk taking propensity as an entrepreneurial characteristic. In particular Brockhaus (1982, as cited in Sexton and Smilor, 1986) found no significant statistical difference in the general risk patterns of a group of entrepreneurs and a group of managers. In another study, Sexton and Smilor (1986) found that students studying to be entrepreneurs scored higher on the variables of autonomy, change, dominance, endurance, innovation and self esteem. These students also scored lower on level of anxiety, cognitive structure and performance.

McCarthy’s (2000) longitudinal study of Irish entrepreneurs suggests that although the personality trait view is relevant to the study of risk, other variables are also relevant (Appendix 2 and 3). Specifically, social learning and external factors had an impact on the perception of risk.

The contradiction that currently exists would caution against using risk-taking propensity as an accurate way of distinguishing entrepreneurs. The level of risks seems to vary depending on specific environmental conditions in each situation (Kent and colleagues, 1982).


Any consideration of personality characteristics of the entrepreneur must entail an examination of their value systems. Value orientation can be defined as a generalized and organized conception of nature (Sexton and Smilor, 1986). Such a definition includes an understanding of one’s place in the society. Specifically, in studying entrepreneurs, it refers to an individual’s idea about persons and things.

One of the major studies of personal values of entrepreneurs was done by Hornaday and Aboud (1971, as cited by Sexton and Smilor, 1982). The researchers found that entrepreneurs scored significantly higher than the general population on the EPPS (Edward’s Personal Preference Scale) reflecting the need for achievement, on the SIV (Survey of Interpersonal Values) scale for independence and effectiveness of leadership. They scored lower however on the SIV need for support scale. The OIS (Occupational Interest Survey) scales were not significantly different from the general population.

Decado and Lyons (1979, as cited in Kent and colleagues, 1982) supported findings by Hornaday an Aboud. Komives (1972, as cited by Kent and colleagues, 1982) studied the personal values of approximately 20 high-technology entrepreneurs in the greater Palo Alto area. They scored significantly higher than the general population on the SIV leadership scale, but significantly lower on the SIV support and conformity scales.

All of these studies indicate that values may be effective in distinguishing successful entrepreneurs from the general population. A recent study by John Miner (1997, 2000) suggests that there is not just one kind of person or personality who has the potential to succeed as an entrepreneur. Rather, there are four classifications; the personal achiever, the real manager, the emphatic salesperson and the expert idea generator. Each category is suited to a management style that is more affective in certain types of entrepreneur structures than others. For example, the real manager will be more successful in a larger, quickly growing organization with formal hierarchies (Miner, 2000). The author goes on to suggest particular routes each entrepreneurial type will need to pursue in order to become successful and potential pitfalls to avoid.

Kisfalvi’s (2002) case study of entrepreneur’s life issues gives insights on the prioritizing of goals based on past experience and an entrepreneur’s personal values. She found that while priorities may differ from entrepreneur to entrepreneur, over time those primary priorities do not change. The secondary priorities do seem to vary overtime depending on the circumstances the entrepreneur faces.


Gartner (1989) refers to innovation as the central value of the entrepreneurial behavior, since it is successfully taking an idea or invention to market. Innovation and problem solving capabilities are expected to be the core of the entrepreneurial capability of an entrepreneur. Studies by Hoy and Hellriegel (as cited in Sexton and Smilor, 1986) indicate that the vast majority of entrepreneurs studied were characterized by sensation-thinking problem solving styles. Such individuals were shown to be short-term oriented, dealing with immediate problems. Entrepreneurs are faced with a number of challenges as they try to implement new ideas and solve problems; their innovativeness is thus a major issue. Schumpter (as cited in Sexton and Smilor, 1986) felt that innovation was one of the central characteristics of entrepreneurial endeavor. Looking at history, entrepreneurial activity is most active during periods of upheaval: economic, social, or political (Morrison, 2000). This is usually when traditional systems and ways of doing business are no longer affective. Those who survive the changes will be the businesses that act entrepreneurially; in other words, doing things differently and innovatively (Morrison).

However, according to Maxwell and Westerfield (2002) entrepreneurs are not uniformly innovative. The level of innovation is dependent upon the entrepreneur’s formal education and managerial experience. Their study of 184 firms in the Midwest showed a correlation between a higher level of managerial experience and more years of education with a higher level of innovation.


There is a growing body of entrepreneurial literature based on social cognition or social learning theory (Chen, Greene, and Crick, 1998; Luthans, Stajkovic, and Ibrayeva, 2000; Kisfalvi, 2002; Morrison, 2000, 2001; Mueller and Thomas, 2001). In social psychology, the focus is on the interaction between the environment and the individual. An individual’s behavior is affected by the interaction between the internal factors (personality, motivation, self-concept) and external factors (work situation, culture, support and role models, education, and environment) (Chen, Greene, and Crick, 1998; Luthans, Stajkovic, and Ibrayeva, 2000). It is this interaction that will distinguish an entrepreneur from a manager.


Work experience as a determinant of entrepreneurial behavior can be assessed from two angles. First, dissatisfaction with previous work experience has been shown to increase the probability their own venture (Naffziger and colleagues, 1994; Sexton and Smilor, 1986). Studies by Broackhaus and Weinrauch, as cited in Sexton and Smilor, 1986) supported this proposition. Dissatisfaction was a major source of push from one’s mainstream job to an entrepreneurial venture (Sexton and Smilor, 1986). Second, previous work experience has been shown to be very useful to entrepreneurs (Naffziger and colleagues, 1994). Most entrepreneurs begin business in industries with which they are already familiar from their work experience.


Social Learning Theory (SLT) proposes that one way learning can occur is vicariously, through the observation of behaviors in others, referred to as role models (Bandura, 1977, as cited in Scherer and colleagues, 1989). Adapting the principles of SLT to entrepreneurial role models would indicate that individuals having greater exposure to other entrepreneurs are more likely to engage in entrepreneurial ventures later in life (Schaver and Scott, 1991). Entrepreneurial role models may appear in the form of family members, employers, teachers, or anyone whom the individual has had an opportunity to observe (Sexton and Smilor, 1986). The authors found through their research that most entrepreneurs were more likely to have been exposed to role models involved in the entrepreneurial process.

Some cultures have more role models available than others do. (Littunen, 2000; McCarthy, 2000). However, the study by Utsch, Rauch, Rothfufs, and Frese (1999) demonstrate that entrepreneurship can flourish without role models. East German entrepreneurs had no role models available in 1990 when Germany was reunified. Despite this, entrepreneurs developed their own companies. Luthans, Stajkovic, and Ibrayeva (2000) do suggest that entrepreneurs from countries in transition would benefit from western role models, which may explain East German entrepreneurs’ success.

Another factor that affects entrepreneurial success is family and community support. Ajzen’s theory of planned behavior (as cited in Kruger, Reilly, and Carsrud, 2000) identifies perceived Social Norms as an important factor in entrepreneurial activity. Family and important social contacts, including network members establish these norms. However, Kruger, Reilly and Carsrud’s research did not find that social norms had a significant influence on predicting entrepreneurship. They theorized that this might be due to the high level of locus of control, which would decrease the influence of social pressure.


Related to role models and support is cultural norms. The network of multinational researchers in the field of entrepreneurial psychology is helping to define an “entrepreneurial” personality and external influences (Kisfalvi, 2002; Littunen, 2000; Luthans, Stajkovic, and Ibrayeva, 2000; McCarthy, 2000; Mueller and Thomas, 2001). Mueller and Thomas conducted a nine-country study concluding that there were some factors that were universal for entrepreneurs (innovativeness, differences in perception of risk, internal locus of control). However, due to cultural differences, the pool of potential entrepreneurs would be limited in cultures that were collective and high avoiders of uncertainty. Both Littunen and Utsch (1999), Rauch, Rothfufs, and Frese (1999) had similar results in determining entrepreneurial traits, despite the fact that they were studying entrepreneurs in Finland and Germany. This would support Mueller and Thomas’s contention that there are some universal entrepreneurial traits, which culture does not affect. Rather, culture affects the propensity to act, thus, the actual number of entrepreneurs that will attempt to start a business.


One of the major concerns of the study of entrepreneurship concerns the issue of whether entrepreneurs are born, or whether they can be created through training. In previous time periods before the industrial revolution, when personal skills were important to one’s earnings, formal education was not viewed as a critical factor. The growth of high technology and heavy competition has resulted in education becoming increasingly important. Kent, Sexton and Vesper (1982) expressed the belief that the most likely entrepreneurs to fail would be those with experience but no education. The authors stated that the second most likely entrepreneurs to fail would be those with education, but no experience. In summary, while experience is perceived as a critical factor in the determination of the business effort’s direction, entrepreneurs appear to benefit from both appropriate experience and education (Maxwell and Westerfield, 2002). Luthans, Stajkovic, and Ibrayeva (2000) further suggest that the focus of education should be on developing self-efficacy, which Chen, Greene, and Crick’s (1998) research seems to support.


It is hypothesized that perceptual interpretations made by the entrepreneur play a key role in the total motivational process (Naffziger and colleagues, 1994). The entrepreneur needs to believe that certain strategic actions undertaken will produce positive results, such as profits, sales, or market share. It is also hypothesized that the stronger the entrepreneur’s perception of positive result, the stronger will be the motivation to behave entrepreneurially (Naffziger and colleagues, 1994).

Perceived self-efficacy is the perceived personal ability to execute a target behavior (Krueger and Brazeal, 1994). The fact that self-efficacy predicts opportunity recognition, it is expected that self-efficacy will be essential in a study of entrepreneurial behavior. Research has begun to identify perceived self-efficacy as a critical part of the entrepreneurial process (Krueger and Brazeal, 1994). Someone with well developed intentions towards staring a business is more likely to have investigated obstacles, and identify the target behavior necessary to pursue and entrepreneurial venture.

If one returns to the definition of an entrepreneur as someone who perceives an opportunity and creates an organization to pursue it (Stearns and Hills, 1996), the word perception plays a key role in the statement. Studies by McGrath and Macmillan (1992) indicate that entrepreneurs’ perception of the situation around them is a key determinant, and of critical importance in identifying entrepreneurial activity.


This paper attempted to cast some light on the antecedents of entrepreneurial behavior. Appendix 4 provides a model of the overall perspectives that impact the psychology of entrepreneurial behavior. A review of the literature provides some support to look at a multidimensional perspective when analyzing entrepreneurs. There are two distinct schools of researchers in the field of entrepreneurial psychology. The more traditional group of researchers have focused on the personality characteristics of the individual such as: locus of control, risk taking, achievement motivation, problem solving style and innovativeness, perception, and work values. The second group of researchers has taken a social cognitive approach, looking at the relationship between an individual and his or her environment. The traditional theory of trait analysis assumes that no amount of training will make an entrepreneur. Rather, it is important to identify those with entrepreneurial potential and create an atmosphere where entrepreneurship can thrive. The programmatic focus would be on lobbying to create pro-entrepreneurial laws, making financial resources available to invest in entrepreneurial ventures, and creating networks for greater exchange of information.

The social cognitive approach focuses on the novice entrepreneur and supporting him or her from intention to creating a business. To do this, the entrepreneur needs help in developing self-efficacy, role models, and a support system from the community to help in planning, self-regulation, and turning ideas into a viable business enterprise.



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Dr. Andrea Smith-Hunter earned her Ph.D. in Organizational Studies from the University at Albany, State University of New York. She has written extensively on women and minority entrepreneurs and small business owners. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Marketing and Management at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. Her first book, Diversity and Entrepreneurship: Analyzing Successful Women Entrepreneurs is currently available from University Press of America.

Dr. Joanne Kapp received her Ph.D. in Communication from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her research focuses on the psychological behavior of managers and entrepreneurs. She is currently an Associate Professor of Marketing and Management at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y.

Virginia Yonkers is a Doctoral student in Education Theory and Practice at the University at Albany, with a Master of International Management from the University of Denver. She is a former Project Manager for SUNY’s Hungary Program, which provided training for entrepreneurs and new small business owners. She is a Visiting Professor of Marketing and Management at Siena College in Loudonville, NY.

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