Motivational Theories in Cinema: Character Motivation of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver

There are three key motivational issues that can be identified in Taxi Driver as experienced by the film’s protagonist, Travis Bickle. (Please refer to the Appendix below for a summary of the film’s main plot and the characters involved.)

1) Travis’ motivation to date Betsy – which can be explained by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Drive Theory, and Social Comparison Theory.

2) Travis’ motivation to assassinate Senator Palantine – which can be explained by Attribution Theory.

3) Travis’ motivation to save Iris – which can be explained by the Self-Determination Theory.
I will also look into Travis’ motivation to assassinate Senator Palantine versus his motivation to save Iris, because in the film Travis decides to first pursue the former instead of the latter. This can be explained by the Cognitive Evaluation Theory.

Travis Bickle is perhaps one of the most complex characters in all of cinema.  While he is not exactly likable, there does not seem to be a strong reason to hate him either.  Although his capacity for violence is startling, Travis’ actions still contain a fair measure of justification, at least in the context of his feelings and attitudes, which are primarily shaped by the environment he lives in.

I feel it would be very interesting and apt to analyze Travis’ character as it could reveal aspects of character motivation that would not only give us a greater insight into the motivational issues observed in the film, but also help us to understand how motivational theories could link with, explain, and drive the film’s storyline.  I will structure this case analysis according to the film’s major turning points as these are where Travis’ motivations are the clearest.

First Turning Point – Travis Meets Betsy
Back from the Vietnam War, Travis is at the crossroads of his life.  He is not educated enough to land a steady job and has chronic insomnia, so he decides to work the night shift as a cab driver, earning enough money to satisfy his needs for the time being.  He also has no clear purpose in life.  He observes from the safety of his cab the rampant prostitution and drug-dealing that occur beneath the petty street crimes that plague the city. From Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943), Travis has only fulfilled the first two levels – physiological and safety.  He has yet to find a sense of belonging, has considerably low self-esteem, and is obviously far away from self-actualization.

The first turning point comes when Travis becomes attracted to Betsy, a woman who works behind a glass window as a volunteer for a political campaign.  Because Travis is lonely, he desires companionship i.e. a sense of belonging.  And despite being a lowly cab driver and feeling insecure, he is motivated to ask Betsy out for a date.  The Drive Theory (1943) by Hull can explain Travis’ motivation in this instance.  This theory states that everyone has needs and that internal stimuli pushes these people into action, driving them to reduce the stimuli by looking for ways to satisfy their needs.  What motivates him is his inner drive to seek a sense of belonging with someone with the hope that the other party would fulfill his needs, which in this case, is more emotional than sexual in nature.

In addition, Travis’ motivation to approach Betsy despite differences in their social and economic background could also be attributed to the presence of Betsy’s colleague, Tom, whom is seen by Travis as lacking in special qualities and getting nowhere with his constant flirting with Betsy.  Thus, Social Comparison Theory (1954) by Festinger, which posits that people learn about their own abilities and attitudes by comparing themselves with other people, can explain Travis’ motivation to date Betsy as Tom is seen to be more inferior than him i.e. downward social comparison, which means Travis perceives himself to be a more competent person than Tom, and that motivates him to ask Betsy out.

Second Turning Point – Travis’ Plan to Assassinate Senator Palantine
Unfortunately for the socially-inept Travis, his emotional needs are misread by Betsy as perverse sexual lust when he takes her to a porno theater on their first date.  Betsy rejects him, and despite reconciliation efforts by Travis, she shuns him completely.  Travis’ anger at himself leads him to think of violent thoughts.  This marks the film’s second turning point – in which he begins to train himself up physically and buy weaponry from an illegal dealer.  He now has a focus for his frustration, which is to target Senator Palantine, whom Betsy is working for.

Travis’ motivation to want to assassinate Palantine can be explained by the Attribution Theory (1958).  As developed by Heider, the theory says that people have a need to explain the world, both to themselves and to other people, attributing cause to the events around them, giving them a greater sense of control.  Thus, from my analysis, I would think that Travis is motivated to want to kill the senator because of the following reasons: (1) He wants to “impress” and show Betsy that he is not inferior to her, and that she is wrong to reject him; (2) he does not think Palantine is able to change society for the better, especially of wiping out its vices; and (3) he seeks to have control over his life (after presumably spending years taking orders from his superiors during the Vietnam War).

It appears that Travis’ motivation at this stage is the result of external factors such as the environment and past experiences.  Furthermore, his motivation to assassinate Senator Palantine is an extrinsic one, in which success will not only raise questions about the extent of New York’s urban malaise, but more importantly for Travis, his notorious act will transform him from a nobody into somebody (i.e. the need for recognition), and allows him to realize his (perceived) fullest potential, which translates into obtaining the levels of self-esteem and self-actualization respectively in Maslow’s Hierarchy.

Third Turning Point – Travis Meets Iris
Before Travis’ attempt to assassinate Palantine, he chances upon Iris, a young prostitute who boards his cab but is forced out by Sport, her pimp.  This encounter with Iris is the third turning point of the film.  He later sees her a couple of times, and tries to convince her to step out of prostitution.  By then, Travis has developed some kind of quasi-interpersonal relationship with Iris, and has become interested in helping her to leave Sport for good.  His desire to help Iris, in this case, is borne out of intrinsic motivation, as he does not get any reward or recognition for doing so.

Fourth Turning Point – Travis’ Decision to Save Iris
Before Travis’ attempt to assassinate Palantine, he sends money in an envelope to Iris, hoping she would heed his advice and leave Sport.  Unfortunately, Travis fails to kill Palantine but he escapes from the authorities in the nick of time.  Now at the height of his frustration, he goes back to save Iris.  He kills Sport and several other crooked men, but is also shot multiple times in the process.  He tries to kill himself with a gun but the bullets have run out.  The police later arrives at the scene of the crime.

In the fourth turning point, Travis’ motivation to save Iris stems primarily from his failure to assassinate Palantine.  However, his motivation can also be explained by Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory (1985) which says that the three principles of competence, relatedness, and autonomy (2002) must be satisfied in order to be motivated to complete a task.

For competence – if Travis has already been prepared to kill a senator (who is protected by armed Secret Service agents), he definitely perceives himself as competent enough to take on a low-lying pimp like Sport.  For relatedness – Travis feels a connection to Iris and cares for her enough to risk his life to save her.  For autonomy – Travis’ decision to save Iris is his own; he feels that he is in control of his own actions.  Thus, the three principles are satisfied and this explains Travis’ intrinsic motivation to save Iris.

Travis’ Dialectical Motivations
A question to ponder is this: Why is Travis still motivated to assassinate Palantine when he could have helped Iris instead?  How does one motivation give way to another motivation?  Why is one motivation able to suppress another motivation?  Cognitive Evaluation Theory (1975) by Deci could explain this interesting aspect.  This theory examines how intrinsic motivation is affected by external forces.  It posits that people evaluate a task in terms of how well it meets their needs to feel competent and in control.

As mentioned earlier, Travis’ motivation to assassinate Palantine is the result of external factors and is driven extrinsically.  These become the “external forces” that would limit the power of Travis’ intrinsic motivation to help Iris.  Moreover, the act of assassination itself is evaluated by Travis to be a personal decision i.e. he feels in control, and the preparations he has made e.g. physical training and the rehearsing of weapon concealment techniques make him feel competent enough to successfully execute the assassination.

Thus, from the film’s plot, it can be seen that Travis’ dialectical motivations tend toward extrinsic motivation (the assassination attempt).  But when that fails, intrinsic motivation (saving Iris) helps Travis to refocus his priorities and propel him to carry out the task successfully.

Travis’ motivations in Taxi Driver can be explained by a range of motivational theories devised by academics and scholars.  It is important to note that other social scientific theories not mentioned in the case analysis could also explain the same behavior, and that it may not necessarily be motivational in nature.  I hope what I have discussed in the case analysis helps to shed light and provide reasonable explanations for the actions of the lead protagonist in the film.

Deci, E. L. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum.
Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum Press.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (Eds.). (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.
Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117-40.
Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley.
Hull, C. (1943). Principles of Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-96.

Appendix (Film Summary)
Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) plays the lead character in Martin Scorsese’s controversial film about one man’s descent into the depths of violence.  Very much a filmic case study of a complex, anti-heroic character who is disillusioned as a result of his dark past and the urban malaise he is exposed to every day, Taxi Driver is a powerful take on one man’s motivation to do “what needs to be done” so that the world, according to his perception, would be a much better place for everyone to live in.

Travis is a Vietnam war veteran who finds work as a cab driver in downtown Manhattan.  He works nights and observes first-hand the vices of prostitution, drug-dealing, and other forms of decadence and sleaze that plague the city.  One day, Travis is caught by the beauty of a woman who works as a campaign volunteer for New York Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), who is running for President.  Her name is Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). Travis dates her out, but it turns very sour when he brings her to a porno theatre.

On another night, a teenage prostitute called Iris (Jodie Foster) jumps into Travis’s cab only to be forced out by Sport (Harvey Keitel), a foul-mouthed pimp.  Enraged by Betsy’s rejection and Iris’ victimization, he decides to take matters into his own hands.  He attempts to assassinate Palantine, but fails to do so at the last minute.  He then makes the decision to save Iris from Sport in a violent confrontation, which provides the film its unforgettable climax.  He tries to kill himself after saving Iris, but once again, he fails to do so.

In a twist of fate or perhaps irony, the film ends with Travis hailed by the media as a hero, when he could have been condemned as a psychopathic murderer.


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