Psychology Topics > Motivation


Motivation is defined as the desire and action towards goal-directed behavior. This is an important concept in psychology as well as in business, schools, and other areas. For example, we want our children to behave and do their homework. Businesses want to get the population to buy their products. Adults may want to change the behaviors of romantic others. All of these situations are examples of times that we may want to motivate someone else to do what we want them to do. Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic.

Intrinsic Motivation: A person is intrinsically motivated if the desire for change comes from within the individual. The person may want to learn something because he or she is interested. Another person may want to accomplish a goal or task because it is something he or she feels competent at and enjoys doing.

Extrinsic: On the other hand, extrinsic motivation comes from outside the person. They are bribed to do something or they earn a prize or reward. Paychecks are extrinsic motivators. Fear of punishment and coercion are also extrinsic motivators.

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Key Figures & Theories

Abraham Maslow
Abraham Maslow was a humanistic psychologist who believed people were motivated by survival and other needs. The needs he identified were physiological, security, needs of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

  • Physical needs: food, water, sleep
  • Security/safety: shelter, safe environment
  • Belongingness and love: friends, family, and intimacy
  • Esteem: Respect, self-esteem, recognition
  • Self-actualization: achieving an individual's full potential

He organized these needs into a triangle he called the hierarchy of needs. Maslow believed all people had an innate desire or drive to become self-actualized; however, people met their needs according to a particular order or hierarchy. The most important needs for life are those that are physically sustaining such as food, water, and shelter. Maslow stated that people had to fulfill these basic needs before other needs such as esteem and belonging could be met.

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Frederick Herzberg
Frederick Herzberg proposed a two-factor theory of motivation based on his research with job satisfaction. His theory is also referred to as the motivation-hygiene theory. The motivation piece of his theory states that people are motivated towards behaviors that offer growth and personal satisfaction. Hygiene refers to physical and emotional comforts. Herzberg believed that people are motivated to avoid deprivation. For example, people work to avoid being fired or losing pay. You may notice that his two-factor theory sounds familiar to the intrinsic versus extrinsic model. Motivation would be considered intrinsic while hygiene corresponds to extrinsic motivation.

Another important piece of this theory is that motivation can give positive satisfaction but if not met, it won't necessarily create dissatisfaction. On the other hand, hygiene factors won't motivate a person to action but if they aren't met, they will cause dissatisfaction. In other words, people who get great benefits at their job won't necessarily be motivated to work harder. If they don't have any benefits, however, they will be unhappy or dissatisfied. In terms of motivation, people may have higher satisfaction at their jobs if they feel competent and are given appropriately challenging tasks. If they aren't given growth opportunities, it doesn't mean they will have a decrease in job satisfaction.

Clayton Alderfer
Clayton Alderfer expanded on Maslow's theory and categorized needs into 3 categories; existence, relatedness, and growth (ERG). Alderfer's existence need refers to physical needs such as food, water, shelter, etc. Relatedness needs are the need to have relationships with other people. Growth needs refer to the need to develop to one's full potential. You will see that these are very similar to the needs in Maslow's hierarchy. Contrary to Maslow's theory, however, Alderfer believed that needs are not met in any order but simultaneously to different degrees. Some people place more priority on "higher needs" than "lower needs," e.g. someone spends more time studying and meeting their growth needs than they spend eating or sleeping.

A final point on the ERG theory is the idea of frustration-regression. If a higher order need such as growth is not being met, an individual will regress to an easier need and focus more energy on meeting that need. Alderfer's model also accounts for how people's needs change over time based on their environment and perceptions of experience.

Douglas McGregor
Douglas McGregor proposed "Theory X" and "Theory Y" to explain motivation in the workplace. His Theory X was that people avoid work because they don't like it. (is that profound or what?) People who meet the criteria for theory x are not ambitious, they want to do the minimum of work required, and they only complete tasks for job security. On the other hand, "Theory Y" refers to people who are creative and want responsibility. These people are usually ambitious and gain satisfaction from work.

McGregor believed that if the motives behind work were understood, managers could meet workers on their level and use the correct strategies to motivate each type. For example, if you are a theory x worker, then you won't be motivated to try harder if the reward was a promotion. To you, a promotion would mean more responsibility and more work that you didn't want to do. Therefore, I would need to use tactics such as performance reviews that you would need to score highly on to keep your job.

David McClelland
David McClelland proposed the theory that people not only have needs, but they develop more needs as they mature. His theory, the acquired needs theory, consisted of 3 specific needs; achievement, affiliation, and power. Achievement is the need to master tasks and be successful. Affiliation is the need to form positive relationships. And lastly, power is the need to be in control or have authority over others.

McClelland hypothesized that our experiences, particularly our early experiences as children, determined which of these three needs would develop and to what degree. Therefore, I as an adult have a need to control others (power) then power and control were things that were reinforced as a child or something happened that made me want to control others.

Victor Vroom
Victor Vroom was responsible for the expectancy theory. This theory states that if an individual believes he or she can do something then he or she is more likely to accomplish it. Thoughts and effort are vital to this theory because if someone does not think they are able to do a task, he or she is not likely to put forth much effort. Therefore, motivation is decreased. Failure does not motivate a person to try harder. Successes, even if they are small, motivate people to improve.

Stacy Adams
Stacy Adams' theory, equity theory, is based on comparisons and equality. She believed that people were motivated if they felt they were receiving compensation that was equal to what others received. A common plot of high school depictions on television is the situation in which one student is discriminated to the point that he or she always receives low scores no matter what homework is turned in. In this plot, no one believes the student so he or she switches homework with a fellow classmate known for getting high grades. In the end, the student still gets a low grade and the A student does well despite the fact that they switched homework.

This is an example of how inequality would result in a decrease of motivation for both students. The "A" student would not feel validated for his or her effort and the other student would possibly quit. According to Stacy's theory, if there is inequality or "inequity" then individuals will increase or decrease their effort, they may contest the inequality and request fairness, or they may even quit entirely.

B. F. Skinner
Skinner believed that people are motivated by rewards. Skinner's theory, operant conditioning, concerns reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement is a stimulus that is given immediately after a behavior that will increase the likelihood that the target behavior will be repeated. Punishment is a stimulus that is given immediately after a behavior that will decrease the likelihood that the target behavior will be repeated. Reinforcement and Punishment are also further divided into 2 types, positive and negative. Positive is something that is added while negative means something has been taken away. These types are outlined in the following table:

  Reinforcement Punishment
Positive Something is added to increase the likelihood a behavior will occur Something is added to decrease the likelihood a behavior will occur
Negative Something (usually unpleasant) is taken away to increase the likelihood a behavior will occur Something (usually pleasant) us taken away to decrease the likelihood a behavior will occur

An example of a powerful negative reinforcer is a screaming child. The sound is so annoying that many adults will give the child anything he or she wants in order to get the screaming to stop. The child will stop screaming (take away the piercing sound) when the adult gives him or her candy (increase likelihood that behavior occurs.) Therefore, the child used negative reinforcement to motivate the adult to action, e.g. giving candy. Unfortunately, the parent used positive reinforcement by giving in to the child which will motivate the child will have more tantrums in the future!

Steven Reiss
Steven Reiss believed that motivation was dependant on an individual's desires. Reiss identified 16 desires that he believed affected behavior, power, independence, curiosity, acceptance, order, saving, honor, idealism, social contact, family, status, vengeance, romance, eating, physical exercise, and tranquility.

Like Clayton Alderfer, Reiss stated these desires are very individualized. People have these desires in different combinations and in different amounts, i.e. people place a higher priority on some desires versus other desires. Reiss believed that motivation problems resulted from not taking these individualized desires into account.

Michael Apter
Michael Apter developed the reversal theory of motivation. The reversal theory is separated into 4 domains:

  • Means/Ends: a person may be either motivated because he or she wants to achieve a goal or because he or she enjoys doing the activity.
  • Conforming/Rebellious: this domain concerns rules. Either a person is motivated to follow the rules, or he or she wants to be free of any restrictions.
  • Mastery/Sympathy: In this domain, the person is motivated by power and control or through compassion.
  • Autic/Alloic (Self/Other): This means a person is motivated in self-interests or by the interest of others.

An interesting point of Apter's theory is that motivation changes and fluctuates. A person may go through a "rebellious stage" and then switch to being motivated to follow the rules. Another example is a person who is sometimes compassionate towards a pan handler and sometimes very rude towards a pan handler.

Albert Bandura
Albert Bandura coined the term "self-efficacy" to describe motivation. Self-efficacy is a person's belief in his or her ability and capability to solve a problem in any future situation. For example, if a person believes he is a brilliant scientist and can complete any scientific experiment, he has a high self-efficacy in science because he believes in his competency to perform a future experiment. Whether it is true that he is brilliant in science or not doesn't really matter, it only matters what he believes.

Bandura stated that self-efficacy influenced motivation of a person's goals, actions, and successes (or failures) in life. For example, if your self-efficacy in an area is much lower than your ability, you will not be motivated to challenge yourself or improve. If your self-efficacy in an area is much higher than your ability, you may be motivated at first but then will set goals that are too high and fail which also leads to a decrease in motivation. The ideal self-efficacy is slightly above a person's ability: high enough to be challenging while still being realistic.

Another important contribution from Bandura is his theory of social learning. He stated that people will repeat behaviors that they see others do if they also see a reward given. Thus, people are motivated to copy others actions because they believe they will be rewarded also.

Motivational-Interviewing is a therapeutic technique developed by William Miller and Steven Rollnick. Their theory of motivation is that people are motivated to change when there is a discrepancy from where they are at the present moment to where they want to be. Part of motivational-interviewing is to emphasize this discrepancy without confrontation. In motivational-interviewing, confrontation is viewed as counter-productive because it elicits defensiveness or resistance to change. The idea is to get the person to identify their own discrepancy and desire to change rather than the therapist telling them what to do. Consider the following scenario.

A man comes to therapy involuntarily because he is court ordered from receiving a DUI. The man does not want to be there so one goal of therapy is to get him to change his attitude while another goal is for him to realize the effects of drinking alcohol on his behavior. In regards to the man's DUI, the therapist may ask him what he likes about drinking alcohol. Then the therapist would ask if there are any things he doesn't like about drinking alcohol. This leads the man to identify the pros and cons of his own behavior and hopefully the costs (or discrepancy) will motivate him to want to decrease or quit drinking alcohol.