THE SHORTCUT TO MOTIVATION: Motivation is a reason for actions, willingness, and goals. Motivation is derived from the word motive, or a need that requires satisfaction. These needs, wants or desires may be acquired through influence of culture, society, lifestyle, or may be generally innate. An individual's motivation may be inspired by outside forces (extrinsic motivation) or by themselves (intrinsic motivation). Motivation has been considered one of the most important reasons to move forward. Motivation results from the interaction of both conscious and unconscious factors. Mastering motivation to allow sustained and deliberate practice is central to high levels of achievement, e.g. in elite sport, medicine, or music. Motivation governs choices among alternative forms of voluntary activity. 


Motivation as a desire to perform an action is usually defined by two parts: the directional (such as directed towards a positive stimulus or away from a negative one) and the activated "seeking phase" and consummatory "liking phase." This type of motivation has neurobiological roots in the basal ganglia and mesolimbic (dopaminergic) pathways. Activated "seeking" behaviour, such as locomotor activity, is influenced by dopaminergic drugs, and microdialysis experiments reveal that dopamine is released during the anticipation of a reward. The "wanting behaviour" associated with a rewarding stimulus can be increased by microinjections of dopamine and dopaminergic drugs in the dorsorostral nucleus accumbens and posterior ventral palladum. Opioid injections in this area produce pleasure; however, outside of these hedonic hotspots they create an increased desire. Furthermore, depletion or inhibition of dopamine in neurons of the nucleus accumbens decrease appetitive but not consummatory behaviour. Dopamine, further implicated in motivation as administration of amphetamine, increases the break point in a progressive ratio self-reinforcement schedule; subjects will be willing to go to greater lengths (e.g. press a lever more times) to obtain a reward. 

Psychological theories

Motivation is a process in which thoughts influence behaviours. For example, drive performance affects thoughts, and these thoughts influence behaviours. Each phase of the cycle includes aspects such as attitudes, beliefs, intentions, effort, and withdrawal. All of these aspects affect an individuals motivation. Most psychological theories claim that motivation exists purely within the individual, but socio-cultural theories express motivation as an outcome of participation in actions and activities within the cultural context of social groups.

Content theories

Theories articulating the content of motivation: what kinds of things people find motivating are among the earliest theories in the history of motivation research. Because content theories focus on which categories of goal (needs) motivate people, content theories are related to need theories.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow's hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid with the more basic needs at the bottom

Content theory of human motivation includes both Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs and Herzberg's two-factor theory. Maslow's theory is one of the most widely discussed theories of motivation. Abraham Maslow believed that man is inherently good and argued that individuals possess a constantly growing inner drive that has great potential. The needs hierarchy system is a commonly used scheme for classifying human motives.

The American motivation psychologist Abraham H. Maslow (1954) developed the hierarchy of needs consisting of five hierarchic classes. According to Maslow, people are motivated by unsatisfied needs. The needs, listed from basic (lowest-earliest) to most complex (highest-latest) are as follows:

  • Physiology (hunger, thirst, sleep, etc.)
  • Safety/Security/Shelter/Health
  • Social/Love/Friendship
  • Self-esteem/Recognition/Achievement
  • Self actualization/achievement of full potential

The basic requirements build upon the first step in the pyramid: physiology. If there are deficits on this level, all behavior will be oriented to satisfy this deficit. Essentially, if you have not slept or eaten adequately, you won't be interested in your self-esteem desires. Subsequently, we have the second level, which awakens a need for security. After securing those two levels, the motives shift to the social sphere, the third level. Psychological requirements comprise the fourth level, while the top of the hierarchy consists of self-realization and self-actualization.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory can be summarized as follows:

  • Human beings have wants and desires which, when unsatisfied, may influence behavior.
  • Differing levels of importance to human life are reflected in a hierarchical structure of needs.
  • Needs at higher levels in the hierarchy are held in abeyance until lower-level needs are at least minimally satisfied.
  • Needs at higher levels of the hierarchy are associated with individuality, humanness, and psychological health.

Herzberg's two-factor theory

Two-factor theory

Frederick Herzberg's two-factor theory concludes that certain factors in the workplace result in job satisfaction (motivators), while others (hygiene factors), if absent, lead to dissatisfaction but are not related to satisfaction. The name hygiene factors are used because, like hygiene, the presence will not improve health, but absence can cause health deterioration.

The factors that motivate people can change over their lifetime. Some claimed motivating factors (satisfiers) were: Achievement, recognition, work itself, responsibility, advancement, and growth. Some hygiene factors (dissatisfiers) were: company policy, supervision, working conditions, interpersonal relations, salary, status, job security, and personal life.

Alderfer's ERG theory

Alderfer, building on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, posited that needs identified by Maslow exist in three groups of core needs — existence, relatedness, and growth, hence the label: ERG theory. The existence group is concerned with providing our basic material existence requirements. They include the items that Maslow considered to be physiological and safety needs. The second group of needs is those of relatedness- the desire we have for maintaining important personal relationships. These social and status desires require interaction with others if they are to be satisfied, and they align with Maslow's social need and the external component of Maslow's esteem classification. Finally, Alderfer isolates growth needs as an intrinsic desire for personal development. All these needs should be fulfilled to greater wholeness as a human being.

Incentive theories: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Motivation can be divided into two different theories known as intrinsic (internal or inherent) motivation and extrinsic (external) motivation.

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation has been studied since the early 1970s. Intrinsic motivation is a behavior that is driven by satisfying internal rewards. For example, an athlete may enjoy playing football for the experience, rather than for an award. It is an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on external pressures or a desire for consideration. Deci (1971) explained that some activities provide their own inherent reward, meaning certain activities are not dependent on external rewards. The phenomenon of intrinsic motivation was first acknowledged within experimental studies of animal behaviour. In these studies, it was evident that the organisms would engage in playful and curiosity-driven behaviours in the absence of reward. Intrinsic motivation is a natural motivational tendency and is a critical element in cognitive, social, and physical development. The two necessary elements for intrinsic motivation are self-determination and an increase in perceived competence. In short, the cause of the behaviour must be internal, known as internal locus of causality, and the individual who engages in the behaviour must perceive that the task increases their competence. According to various research reported by Deci's published findings in 1971, and 1972, tangible rewards could actually undermine the intrinsic motivation of college students. However, these studies didn't just affect college students, Kruglanski, Friedman, and Zeevi (1971) repeated this study and found that symbolic and material rewards can undermine not just high school students, but preschool students as well.

Students who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to engage in the task willingly as well as work to improve their skills, which will increase their capabilities. Students are likely to be intrinsically motivated if they...

  • attribute their educational results to factors under their own control, also known as autonomy or locus of control
  • believe they have the skills to be effective agents in reaching their desired goals, also known as self-efficacy beliefs
  • are interested in mastering a topic, not just in achieving good grades
  • don't act from pressure, but from interest

An example of intrinsic motivation is when an employee becomes an IT professional because he or she wants to learn about how computer users interact with computer networks. The employee has the intrinsic motivation to gain more knowledge, and will continue to want to learn even in the face of failure. Art for art's sake is an example of intrinsic motivation in the domain of art.

Traditionally, researchers thought of motivations to use computer systems to be primarily driven by extrinsic purposes; however, many modern systems have their use driven primarily by intrinsic motivations. Examples of such systems used primarily to fulfill users' intrinsic motivations, include on-line gaming, virtual worlds, online shopping, learning/education, online dating, digital music repositories, social networking, online pornography, gamified systems, and general gamification. Even traditional management information systems (e.g., ERP, CRM) are being 'gamified' such that both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations must increasingly be considered. Deci's findings didn't come without controversy. Articles stretching over the span of 25 years from the perspective of behavioral theory argue there isn't enough evidence to explain intrinsic motivation and this theory would inhibit "scientific progress." As stated above, we now can see technology such as various forms of computer systems are highly intrinsic.

Not only can intrinsic motivation be used in a personal setting, but it can also be implemented and utilized in a social environment. Instead of attaining mature desires, such as those presented above via the internet which can be attained on one's own, intrinsic motivation can be used to assist extrinsic motivation to attain a goal. For example, Eli, a 4-year-old with autism, wants to achieve the goal of playing with a toy train. To get the toy, he must first communicate to his therapist that he wants it. His desire to play is strong enough to be considered intrinsic motivation because it is a natural feeling, and his desire to communicate with his therapist to get the train can be considered extrinsic motivation because the outside object is a reward (see incentive theory). Communicating with the therapist is the first, the slightly more challenging goal that stands in the way of achieving his larger goal of playing with the train. Achieving these goals in attainable pieces is also known as the goal-setting theory. The three elements of goal-setting (STD) are Specific, Time-bound, and Difficult. Specifically, goals should be set in the 90th percentile of difficulty.

Intrinsic motivation comes from one's desire to achieve or attain a goal. Pursuing challenges and goals come easier and more enjoyable when one is intrinsically motivated to complete a certain objective because the individual is more interested in learning, rather than achieving the goal. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan's theory of intrinsic motivation is essentially examining the conditions that “elicit and sustain” this phenomenon. Deci and Ryan coin the term “cognitive evaluation theory which concentrates on the needs of competence and autonomy. The CET essentially states that social-contextual events like feedback and reinforcement can cause feelings of competence and therefore increase intrinsic motivation. However, feelings of competence will not increase intrinsic motivation if there is no sense of autonomy. In situations where choices, feelings, and opportunities are present, intrinsic motivation is increased because people feel a greater sense of autonomy. Offering people choices, responding to their feelings, and opportunities for self-direction have been reported to enhance intrinsic motivation via increased autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 1985).

An advantage (relative to extrinsic motivation) is that intrinsic motivators can be long-lasting, self-sustaining, and satisfying. For this reason, efforts in education sometimes attempt to modify intrinsic motivation with the goal of promoting future student learning performance, creativity, and learning via long-term modifications in interests. Intrinsic motivators are suggested to involve increased feelings of reward and thus may support subjective well-being. By contrast, intrinsic motivation has been found to be hard to modify, and attempts to recruit existing intrinsic motivators require a non-trivially difficult individualized approach, identifying and making relevant the different motivators of needed to motivate different students, possibly requiring additional skills and intrinsic motivation from the instructor.

Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation comes from influences outside of the individual. In extrinsic motivation, the harder question to answer is where do people get the motivation to carry out and continue to push with persistence. Usually, extrinsic motivation is used to attain outcomes that a person wouldn't get from intrinsic motivation. Common extrinsic motivations are rewards (for example money or grades) for showing the desired behaviour, and the threat of punishment following misbehaviour. Competition is an extrinsic motivator because it encourages the performer to win and to beat others, not simply to enjoy the intrinsic rewards of the activity. A cheering crowd and the desire to win a trophy are also extrinsic incentives. For example, if an individual plays the sport tennis to receive an award, that would be extrinsic motivation. VS. The individual play because he or she enjoys the game, that would be intrinsic motivation.

The most simple distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is the type of reasons or goals that lead to an action. While intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable and satisfying, extrinsic motivation, refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome. Extrinsic motivation thus contrasts with intrinsic motivation, which is doing an activity simply for the enjoyment of the activity itself, instead of for its instrumental value.

Social psychological research has indicated that extrinsic rewards can lead to over justification and a subsequent reduction in intrinsic motivation. In one study demonstrating this effect, children who expected to be (and were) rewarded with a ribbon and a gold star for drawing pictures spent less time playing with the drawing materials in subsequent observations than children who were assigned to an unexpected reward condition. This shows how if an individual expects an award they don't care about the outcome. VS. if an individual doesn't expect a reward they will care more about the task. However, another study showed that third graders who were rewarded with a book showed more reading behaviour in the future, implying that some rewards do not undermine intrinsic motivation. While the provision of extrinsic rewards might reduce the desirability of an activity, the use of extrinsic constraints, such as the threat of punishment, against performing an activity has actually been found to increase one's intrinsic interest in that activity. In one study, when children were given mild threats against playing with an attractive toy, it was found that the threat actually served to increase the child's interest in the toy, which was previously undesirable to the child in the absence of threat.

Advantages of extrinsic motivators are that they easily promote motivation to work and persist to goal completion. Rewards are tangible and beneficial. A disadvantage for extrinsic motivators relative to internal is that work does not persist long once external rewards are removed. As the task is completed for the reward quality of work may need to be monitored, and it has been suggested that extrinsic motivators may diminish in value over time. Read More

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