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In psychology, motivation refers to the initiation, direction, intensity, and persistence of behavior. Motivation is a temporal and dynamic state that should not be confused with personality or emotion. It involves having the desire and willingness to do something. A motivated person can be reaching for a long-term goal such as becoming a professional writer or a more short-term goal like learning how to spell a particular word. Personality invariably refers to more or less permanent characteristics of an individual's state of being (such as shy, extrovert, conscientious). As opposed to motivation, emotion refers to temporal states that do not immediately link to behavior (such as anger, grief, or happiness).

Motivation can be categorized according to whether it is a basic, instinctive drive, unlearned and common to all people and also animals, or a learned motivation that can be unique. The former type of motivation involves satisfying the needs of the physical body, and include hunger, thirst, shelter or safety, sexual activity, and so forth. The latter type includes achievement of goals, whether they be in terms of gaining knowledge, power, self-development, or a loving relationship. This latter type can be seen as satisfying the desires of the mind and spirit. Motivation is complex since human nature is complex. Yet, to understand what motivates people to act in certain ways enables people to live and work peaceably with one another.


Motivation can be anything that arouses an organism toward action for a desired goal. Motivation can be the reason for the action or that which gives direction to an action.[1]

The word motivation most likely comes from the word "motive," which stems from either the French motiver or the German motivieren. The word first appeared in English in 1904.[2]

Importance of motivation

Motivation is considered an essential element not only in learning, but also in the performance of learned responses. In other words, even when an organism (including a human being) has learned the appropriate response to a particular situation they will not necessarily produce this behavior. The incentive to produce the behavior is motivation.

Sources of Motivation

Sources of motivation can be broken into two main categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic sources include physical, mental, and spiritual. Extrinsic sources include operant and social conditioning. Some examples of needs within these categories are listed below:

  • Avoidance of pain
  • Seeking physical pleasure
  • Hunger, fatigue, and so forth.
  • Cognitive: maintaining attention, developing interests, problem solving
  • Affective: increase feeling good, decrease feeling bad, increasing security, becoming enthusiastic
  • Conative: meeting goals, developing self efficacy, taking control of one's life
  • Understanding the purpose of one's life
  • Connecting one's life to deeper meanings.[3]

Theories of motivation

Theories of motivation are based on different criteria, and emphasize various needs as key drivers in our actions. Like needs, these theories are both internal and external.


Behaviorists believe that everything performed by organisms, including thinking, feeling, and acting, are behaviors. For Behaviorists there is no philosophical difference in describing externally visible things such as actions and internal things such as thoughts. Though there are nuanced theories of behaviorism, they generally state that behaviors can be traced to factors within a person's life such as their past and present environments, the actions of others, and their present feelings. These forces act on one another and result in an action, effectively making them the motivation for action.


Cognitive theories center on the effects of the different ways people process information with motivation. Some key theories are listed below.

Cognitive dissonance theory

The cognitive dissonance theory, first proposed by Leon Festinger, states that people need to maintain consistency among their beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. Contradicting cognitions serve as a driving force that compels the mind to acquire or invent new beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, in order to reduce the amount of dissonance (conflict) between cognitions and bring them back into a consistent relationship.

Attribution Theory

This theory posits that people explain success or failure with attributions. These attributions can be grouped as within or outside of a person's control and then internal or external. People will say that an event that occurs that is both external and out of their control is unstoppable, but will pride themselves on events that occur because of an internal characteristic that is within their control.

Expectancy Theory

Expectancy theory attempts to mathematize motivation. In this theory, expectancy (perceived probability of success), instrumentality (connection of success and reward), and value (value of obtaining goal) must all exist in order for a person to take action, according to the formula:

Motivation = Expectancy * Instrumentality * Value

Pyschoanalytic theories

Sigmund Freud and his followers describe the unconscious mind as controlled by a person's instinctual desires and needs. These instincts, however, come into conflict with the social demands of the conscious mind. Freud later divided the mind into three sections: the conscious mind, or ego, and two parts of the unconscious mind: the id, or instincts, and superego, the result of social conditioning.

Many of Freud's students broke with his theories, emphasizing instead the importance of the social and spiritual on motivation.

Humanistic Theories

Drive Reduction

Drive Reduction Theory grows out of the concept that we have certain biological needs, such as hunger. As time passes the strength of the drive increases as it is not satisfied. Then as we satisfy that drive by fulfilling its desire, such as eating, the drive's strength is reduced. It is based on the theories of Freud and the idea of feedback control systems, such as a thermostat.

There are several problems, however, that leave the validity of the Drive Reduction Theory open for debate. The first problem is that it does not explain how Secondary Reinforcers reduce drive. For example, money does not satisfy any biological or psychological need but reduces drive on a regular basis through a pay check second-order conditioning. Secondly, if the drive reduction theory held true we would not be able to explain how a hungry human being can prepare a meal without eating the food before they finished cooking it.

However, when comparing this to a real life situation such as preparing food, one does become hungrier as the food is being made (drive increases), and after the food has been consumed the drive decreases. The reason that generally the food is not eaten before preparation is complete is the human element of restraint. Knowing that the food will be nicer (or simply edible as opposed to inedible when raw) after it is cooked enables the preparer to delay drive reduction.

Diagram of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of human needs" theory is the most widely discussed theory of motivation. The theory can be summarized thus:

  • Human beings have wants and desires which influence their behavior; only unsatisfied needs can influence behavior, satisfied needs cannot.
  • Since needs are many, they are arranged in order of importance, from the basic to the complex.
  • The person advances to the next level of needs only after the lower level need is at least minimally satisfied.
  • The further the progress up the hierarchy, the more individuality, humanness and psychological health a person will show.

The hierarchy arranges needs from basic physiological (lowest, earliest), through safety, social, and self esteem to the most complex (highest, latest) need for self actualization.


Created by Clayton Alderfer, Maslow's hierarchy of needs was expanded, leading to his ERG theory (existence, relatedness and growth). Physiological and safety, the lower order needs, are placed in the existence category, Love and self esteem needs in the relatedness category. The growth category contained the self actualization and self esteem needs.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination theory, developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, focuses on the importance of intrinsic motivation in driving human behavior. Like Maslow's hierarchical theory and others that built on it, SDT posits a natural tendency toward growth and development. Unlike these other theories, however, SDT does not include any sort of "autopilot" for achievement, but instead requires active encouragement from the environment. The primary factors that encourage motivation and development are autonomy, competence feedback, and relatedness.[4]

Social Learning

Social learning theories state that watching the actions of other can prove the most influential on the actions we take.

Social Cognition

Social cognition theories elaborate on the three way relationship between personal qualities, behavior, and society. Theorists in this school write that all three can affect the other for good or bad.

Spiritual Theories

Spiritual theories attempt to find meaning in our lives and to develop the underlying spiritual goals towards which we act.

Achievement Motivation

Goal-setting theory is based on the notion that individuals sometimes have a drive to reach a clearly defined end state. Often, this end state is a reward in itself. A goal's efficiency is affected by three features: proximity, difficulty and specificity. An ideal goal should present a situation where the time between the initiation of behavior and the end state is close in time. This explains why some children are more motivated to learn how to ride a bike than mastering algebra. A goal should be moderate, not too hard or too easy to complete. In both cases, most people are not optimally motivated, as many want a challenge (which assumes some kind of insecurity of success). At the same time people want to feel that there is a substantial probability that they will succeed. Specificity concerns the description of the goal. The goal should be objectively defined and intelligible for the individual. A classic example of a poorly specified goal is to get the highest possible grade. Most children have no idea how much effort they need to reach that goal.

Controlling motivation

The control of motivation is only understood to a limited extent. There are many different approaches of motivation training, but many of these are considered pseudoscientific by critics. To understand how to control motivation it is first necessary to understand why many people lack motivation.

Early programming

Modern imaging has provided solid empirical support for the psychological theory that emotional programming is largely defined in childhood. Harold Chugani, Medical Director of the PET Clinic at the Children's Hospital of Michigan and professor of pediatrics, neurology and radiology at Wayne State University School of Medicine, has found that children's brains are much more capable of consuming new information (linked to emotions) than those of adults. Brain activity in cortical regions is about twice as high in children as in adults from the third to the ninth year of life. After that period, it declines constantly to the low levels of adulthood. Brain volume, on the other hand, is already at about 95 percent of adult levels in the ninth year of life.


Besides the very direct approaches to motivation, beginning in early life, there are solutions which are more abstract but perhaps nevertheless more practical for self-motivation. Virtually every motivation guidebook includes at least one chapter about the proper organization of one's tasks and goals. It is usually suggested that it is critical to maintain a list of tasks, with a distinction between those which are completed and those which are not, thereby moving some of the required motivation for their completion from the tasks themselves into a "meta-task," namely the processing of the tasks in the task list, which can become a routine. The viewing of the list of completed tasks may also be considered motivating, as it can create a satisfying sense of accomplishment.

Most electronic to-do lists have this basic functionality, although the distinction between completed and non-completed tasks is not always clear (completed tasks are sometimes simply deleted, instead of kept in a separate list).

Other forms of information organization may also be motivational, such as the use of mind maps to organize one's ideas, and thereby "train" the neural network that is the human brain to focus on the given task. Simpler forms of idea notation such as simple bullet-point style lists may also be sufficient, or even more useful to less visually oriented persons.


Neurobiological evidence supports the idea that addictive drugs such as cocaine, nicotine, alcohol, and heroin act on brain systems underlying motivation for natural rewards, such as the mesolimbic dopamine system. Normally, these brain systems serve to guide us toward fitness-enhancing rewards (food, water, sex, etc.), but they can be co-opted by repeated use of drugs of abuse, causing addicts to excessively pursue drug rewards. Therefore, drugs can hijack brain systems underlying other motivations, causing the almost singular pursuit of drugs characteristic of addiction.[5]



Motivation is of particular interest to Educational psychologists because of the crucial role it plays in student learning. However, the specific kind of motivation that is studied in the specialized setting of education differs qualitatively from the more general forms of motivation studied by psychologists in other fields.

Motivation in education can have several effects on how students learn and their behavior towards subject matter.[6] It can:

  1. Direct behavior toward particular goals
  2. Lead to increased effort and energy
  3. Increase initiation of, and persistence in, activities
  4. Enhance cognitive processing
  5. Determine what consequences are reinforcing
  6. Lead to improved performance.

Because students are not always internally motivated, they sometimes need situated motivation, which is found in environmental conditions that the teacher creates.


The idea that money is a powerful motivator can be illustrated with numerous examples of theft or white-collar crime. However, Maslow and Herzberg both believed that money is not a very powerful motivator. At higher levels of the hierarchy, praise, respect, recognition, empowerment and a sense of belonging are far more powerful motivators than money, as both Abraham Maslow's theory of motivation and Douglas McGregor argue. McGregor says of motivation:

  • Motivated employees always look for better ways to do a job.
  • Motivated employees are more quality oriented.
  • Motivated workers are more productive.

Elton Mayo described workplace motivation in his Hawthorne studies, which revealed what has become known as the Hawthorne effect. His studies showed that workers are motivated to work harder when they perceive they are being studied. Mayo was originally intending to study the effects of lighting on employee productivity, but eventually isolated all variables and determined that by having workers believe they were being watched by their managers or others, they would in fact work harder.


  1. Motivation Retrieved March 6, 2008.
  2. Motivate Etymology Online. Retrieved March 6, 2008.
  3. Motivate Educational Psychology Interactive. Retrieved March 6, 2008.
  4. Edward Deci and Richard M. Ryan, Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior (New York, NY: Plenum, 1985, ISBN 0306420228).
  5. Cdk5 Modulates Cocaine Reward, Motivation, and Striatal Neuron Excitability Journal of Neuroscience. Retrieved March 6, 2008.
  6. Jeanne Ellis Ormrod, Educational Psychology: Developing Learners, (Prentice Hall, 2007, ISBN 0136127029).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bentham, J. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Adamand Media, 2005. ISBN 1402185642
  • Deci, Edward. Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. Penguin, 1996. ISBN 0140255265
  • Deci, Edward and Richard M. Ryan. Intrinsic Motivation and Self-determination in Human Behavior. New York, NY: Plenum, 1985. ISBN 0306420228
  • Huitt, W. Motivation to Learn: An Overview Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University, 2001. Retrieved March 6, 2008.
  • Ormrod, Jeanne Ellis. Educational Psychology: Developing Learners. Prentice Hall, 2007. ISBN 0136127029
  • Reeve, Johnmarshall. Understanding Motivation and Emotion. Wiley, 2004. ISBN 0471456195
  • Schunk, Dale. Motivation in Education: Theory, Research, and Applications. Prentice Hall, 2007. ISBN 0132281554
  • Thomas, Kenneth. Intrinsic Motivation at Work: Building Energy and Commitment. Berret-Koehler Publishers, 2002. ISBN 1576752380

External links

All links retrieved November 10, 2022.


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