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What is an Ulterior Motive?

By Maggie Worth
Updated May 16, 2024
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A motive is a person’s reason for doing something. An ulterior motive is a motive that is different than or beyond the expressed or apparent motive. The term generally connotes deception or an intent to hide a person’s true motivation.

While a person may have many reasons for an action, his ulterior motive will reflect the true thing that he is trying to accomplish. It is usually the most important of all of his reasons and most accurately represents his own goals and desires.

For example, a politician’s ulterior motive is frequently to ensure his reelection. He may participate in a charity event with the apparent motive of raising money for the cause. His true intent, however, may be to gain voter support so they are more likely to vote for him. If asked, he is likely to cite his desire to support the charity over his desire to create a positive image.

This does not mean that he isn’t interested in supporting the event in which he is participating. He may care very much. He just cares about winning reelection more. Alternatively, a politician may participate in such an event simply because he wants to raise money or awareness for the charity. People may suspect that he has an ulterior motive of being reelected, even if he doesn’t.

Such a motive usually remains hidden. This can be due to a number of factors. The person may feel that expressing his true motive reflects badly on him or he may be embarrassed. Alternatively, he may be aware that he won’t be given what he needs if others are aware of his true motive.

Presence of an ulterior motive does not always involve deception, however. It may, in fact, be clearly stated up front. One party may offer another assistance, support or funding and state that he is doing so because he is going to need the other party’s assistance later. This is still ulterior because the first party is not providing assistance purely to help the second party out. He is doing it for a reason beyond the immediate or obvious reason.

An ulterior motive may also be unexpressed without being hidden. For example, both parties in the previous example may be aware that party one is only helping party two to gain assistance in the future. The true motive need not be expressed, but neither is party one attempting to deceive party two.

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