Motivation and What Really Drives Human Behavior

Motivation and Human BehaviorIn our world of exponential change and ever-increasing complexity, the power rests with those who act, and especially those who act with self-determination and persistence.

Our motivation is our most valuable commodity. Multiplied by action, its value fluctuates with how we invest our attention.

Why is it that we are all born with limitless potential, yet few people fulfill those possibilities?

Abraham Maslow

And what actually drives humans?

Some of our motives to act are biological, while others have personal and social origins. We are motivated to seek food, water, and sex, but our behavior is also influenced by social approval, acceptance, the need to achieve, and the motivation to take or to avoid risks, to name a few (Morsella, Bargh, & Gollwitzer, 2009).

This article introduces some of the core concepts in the science of motivation.

But before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients create actionable goals and master techniques to create lasting behavior change.

Types of Motivation

Motivation can be experienced as internal. Biological variables originate in a person’s brain and nervous system and psychological variables that represent properties of a person’s mind – psychological needs.

External sources of motivation are often understood in terms of environmental variables, like incentives or goals. Our internal sources of motivation interact with external sources to direct behavior (Deckers, 2014).

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

George Eliot

Our evolutionary history also explains aspects of motivation and behavior, and our individual personal histories shape our motives and determine the utility of goals and incentives.

Drive Motivation

When the sympathetic nervous system produces epinephrine and norepinephrine, it creates energy for action. This may be why motivation is often conceptualized in terms of drives. Our bodies aim to return to equilibrium and strive toward a desired end-state, reducing or eliminating the drive (Reeve, 2018).

Needs are internal motives that energize, direct and sustain behavior. They generate strivings necessary for the maintenance of life, growth and wellbeing.

A hungry stomach will not allow its owner to forget it, whatever his cares and sorrows.

Homer, 800 B.C.

Physiological needs – hunger, thirst, sex, etc. – are the biological beginnings that eventually manifest themselves as psychological drives. These biological events become psychological motives. It is important to distinguish the physiological need from the psychological drive it creates because only the later has motivational properties.

The drive theory of motivation tells us that physiological needs originate in our bodies. As our physiological system attempts to maintain health, it creates psychological drive and motivates us to bring the system from deficiency toward homeostasis (Reeve, 2018).

If you want to know more about this topic, see our articles on Motivation Science and Theory of Motivation.

Goal Motivation

When talking about motivation, the topic of goals inevitably comes up. As a cognitive mental event, a goal is a “spring to action” that functions like a moving force that energizes and directs our behavior in purposeful ways and motivates people to behave differently (Ames & Ames, 1984).

Goals, like mindset, beliefs, expectations, and self-concept, are sources of internal motives. These cognitive sources of motivation unite and spring us into action.

Goals are generated by what is NOT, or in other words, a discrepancy between where we are and where we want to be. The saying “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there” describes the difference in motivated behavior between those who have goals and those who do not (Locke, 1996; Locke & Latham, 1990, 2002).

Goal motivation

But it isn’t necessarily enlightening to simply formulate goals. As a motivational construct, goal setting translates into performance only when the goals are challenging, specific, and congruent with the self.

We exert more effort toward challenging goals (Locke & Latham, 1984, 1990, 2002), focus our attention to the extent of their specificity (Locke, Chah, Harrison, & Lustgarten, 1989), and draw energy from how those goals reflect our values (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999).

To learn more about making goals challenging, specific, and personal, check out our articles on The Science & Psychology of Goal Setting 101 and Goal-Setting: Templates & Worksheets for Achieving Goals.

Download 3 Free Goals Exercises (PDF)

These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients create actionable goals and master techniques for lasting behavior change.

Motivation and Emotion

The concept of motivation is closely related to emotion. Both of these words are derived from the same underlying Latin root movere which means “to move.”

Emotions are considered motivational states because they generate bursts of energy that get our attention and cause our reactions to significant events in our lives (Izard, 1993).

Emotions generate an impulse to cope with the circumstances at hand (Keltner & Gross, 1999).

Motivation and Emotion diagram

Together with emotion, motivation is part of a core psychological phenomenon referred to as affect.

We feel these experiences, physiologically and emotionally, and they motivate and guide our behavior and decision making. Most importantly, they have a significant impact on our mental and physical health. See our article on the Importance and Benefits of Motivation.

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Motivation and Personality

Highly Sensitive PersonAre certain personality factors linked to motivation?

Are we predisposed to be motivated in different ways?

Personality theory and research show that we are, in fact, motivated in different ways based on our personality traits. A high level of a particular trait will often make us act as the trait implies: We will be more open to experience, conscientious, extraverted, agreeable, and neurotic. We will be motivated by different incentives, goals, and activities but also choose to be in different situations.

The task of psychology is to determine what those situations and behaviors are.

The trait–environment correlation studies show that if we exhibit characteristics at one end of a personality dimension we will seek out, create, or modify situations differently than individuals at the other end of the spectrum would (Deckers, 2014).

In addition to each of the big five personality traits, our tendency to seek sensation plays a significant role in how willing we are to take risks to experience varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences (Deckers, 2014).

The cybernetic big five theory linked personality traits with the type of goals we choose, and showed that specific goals would motivate appropriate personality state behaviors that are effective for achieving that goal (Deckers, 2014). For example, although people with extraverted and introverted personality traits react similarly to stimuli designed to put them in a pleasant hedonic mood, those high in extraversion have greater sensitivity to rewards.

They react with greater energetic arousal in response to the pursuit of rewards and are more likely than introverts to seek social stimulation in a variety of situations (Deckers, 2014).

The channeling hypothesis examines how specific personality traits determine how we express motivation and how we may respond to our personal motivation drives. It proposes that (Deckers, 2014):

  • Extraverts tend to enter high-impact careers to satisfy their power motive and are more likely than introverts to do volunteer work to fulfill their affiliation motive.
  • Those who are high in neuroticism are easier to put in a bad mood, less satisfied with their relationships and careers, and more likely to choose to drink in solitude following negative social exchanges.
  • Individuals high in conscientiousness earn higher grades and are more likely to engage in health-enhancing behaviors.
  • Highly agreeable people were found more likely to help friends and siblings in distress.

The selection hypothesis suggests that frequently, a composite of trait levels will be associated with a particular behavior . Many of these studies produced some very interesting results, which showed that (Deckers, 2014):

  • Students low in extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness spend more time using the internet.
  • Individuals high in openness to experience sought out contact with individuals from minority groups more and reported less prejudice than did individuals high in agreeableness.
  • Happiness was associated with high levels of extraversion and agreeableness and low levels of neuroticism.

There are other personality factors that may affect motivation and what drives us toward our goals (Deckers, 2014):

  • Those who are high in conscientiousness experience fewer stressors because of planning.
  • Individuals high in agreeableness experience fewer interpersonal stressors because they are more cooperative.
  • Those high in neuroticism experience more interpersonal stressors.
  • Individuals high in conscientiousness, extraversion, and openness to experience cope through direct engagement with stressors.
  • Those high in neuroticism cope through disengagement, such as escaping from a stressor or not thinking about it.
  • Weight gain over people’s lifetimes is more significant when they are high in their neuroticism and extraversion, and low in their conscientiousness.
  • Aspects of low agreeableness also contribute to weight gain.
  • High-sensation seekers respond positively to risky events, drugs, and unusual experiences and are more likely to seek out and engage in risky sports, prefer unusual stimuli and situations, and experiment with things out of the ordinary.
  • Low-sensation seekers respond negatively to risky events.
  • Different components of sensation seeking are associated with a preference for nonsense humor or sexual humor.

Finally, personality traits of conscientiousness, openness, and extraversion have been positively associated with intrinsic motivation. Conscientiousness, extraversion, and neuroticism on the other hand have been positively related to extrinsic achievement motivation (Deckers, 2014).

Although agreeableness was found to be negatively associated with extrinsic achievement motivation, conscientiousness was anomalous, in that it was positively related to both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. These results suggest that both forms of motivation may be more complicated than expected initially (Hart et al., 2007).

See our article on the Importance and Benefits of Motivation to learn more about what constitutes self-motivation and full self-determination.

The secret to understanding humans - Larry C. Rosen

Motivation for Change

The topic of motivation is frequently discussed in the context of change.

Many of us join a gym or a training program; others enter therapy or coaching because we desire change. But change is rarely a simple or a linear process. Part of the reason has to do with how difficult it is to find the motivation to engage in activities that are not intrinsically motivating.

When an activity is autotelic, or rewarding and interesting in its own right, we do it for the sheer enjoyment of it and motivation is hardly necessary (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Some changes look negative on the surface but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge.

Eckhart Tolle

More often than not, however, what we want to change requires self-control to abstain from behaviors that don’t serve us but are enjoyable. Not to mention that commitment is required to pursue these often challenging and unrewarding activities that move us in the direction of a valued outcome.

Deci and Ryan (1995), who studied autonomous self-regulation, suggested that we need to move away from extrinsically motivated action, (e.g., when we have to do something because we fear consequences), and toward introjected and even fully self-determined regulation, where we value the new behavior and align it with other aspects of our life.

See our blog post entitled What is Motivation to learn more about self-motivation.

“Stage-based” approaches to behavioral changes have proven to be particularly effective in increasing motivation toward the pursuit of difficult and non-intrinsically motivating goals as they allow for realistic expectations of progress (Zimmerman, Olsen, & Bosworth, 2000).

The Stages of Change model of Prochaska, et al. (DiClemente, & Prochaska, 1998), also known as the Trans-theoretical Model of Change (TMC), is one such approach commonly used in clinical settings. In this model, change is regarded as gradual, sequential, and controllable. Its real-world applications are seen in motivational interviewing techniques, a client-centered method of facilitating change.

Here motivation is increased together with readiness for change which is determined by our:

  • Willingness to change.
  • Confidence in making the desire changed.
  • Actions taken to make the change.

See our article on Motivational Interviewing for an in-depth analysis of this model of change and its many applications.

Happiness and Human Motivation

What is true happinessCan happiness be a motivating factor?

The answer to that question depends both on how we define happiness and whom we ask.

Thanks to the rapidly growing research in positive psychology, the science behind what makes life worth living, we know a lot about what makes us happy and what leads to psychological wellbeing. There is also plenty of evidence that positive subjective experiences contribute to increased motivation.

From Barbara Fredrickson’s (2004) research on how positive emotions broaden our perception and increase positive affect and wellbeing to the research of Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer (2011) that shows how happy employees are more productive, we can see how cultivating optimism and positive emotions can serve an adaptive role and be a distinct motivational factor.

Those who feel good or show positive affect are:

  • more creative (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005),
  • help others more (Feingold, 1983),
  • persistent in the face of failure (Erez & Isen, 2002; Kavanagh, 1987),
  • make decisions efficiently (Schwartz et al., 2002), and
  • show high intrinsic motivation (Graef et al., 1983).

Studies show that short-term positive affect helps us be successful in many areas in our lives, including marriage, friendship, income, work, and health (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005).

Model of the broaden-and-build theory

Model of the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions Reprinted with permission of Guilford Press, Fredrickson, and Cohn (2008, Figure 48.1) [17]. Figure 2. Conceptual framework of the study.

The good life consists in deriving happiness by using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of living. The meaningful life adds one more component: using these same strengths to forward knowledge, power or goodness.

Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman (2002) argued that genuine happiness and life satisfaction have little to do with pleasure, and much to do with developing personal strengths and character. If cognition operates in the service of motivation (Vohs & Baumeister, 2011), then developing personal strengths and character should lead to increased motivation.

When talking about eudaimonia as a form of wellbeing, the recurring concepts include meaning, higher inspiration, connection, and mastery (David, Boniwell, & Ayers, 2014), all attributes related to cognitive mechanisms of motivation.

The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

These higher motives and their behavioral expressions can also be described as consequences of eudaimonia. According to Haidt (2000), elevating experiences can motivate virtuous behavior.

Seligman (2002) called it a higher pleasure, and Maslow (1973) described a eudemonic person as autonomous, accepting of self, positively relating to others, and possessing a sense of mastery in all of life’s domains (David, Boniwell, & Ayers, 2014). And as this description indicates, these individuals would be highly motivated.

Positive psychology looks at a person and asks, “What could be?” Most importantly, however, positive psychology brings attention to the proactive building of personal strengths and competencies, and these cannot be bad for motivation.

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A Take-Home Message

Understanding the principles of motivation gives us the capacity to find workable solutions to real-world motivational problems. For what could ever be more important than empowering those around us toward more intentional action, goal attainment, optimal experience, full functioning, healthy development, and a resilient sense of self?

Studying and applying motivational science can also help us reverse or cope with impulsive urges, habitual experience, goal failure, counterproductive functioning, negative emotion, boredom, maladaptive or dysfunctional development, and fragile sense of self.

If the greatest victory is over self, should we not aspire to rise above our limitations?

Leave us your thoughts on this topic.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

According to Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), the three motivators of human behavior are:

  • autonomy – the need to have control and choice over one’s actions,
  • competence – the need to feel capable and effective, and
  • relatedness – the need for social connection and interaction with others.

According to the Four-Drive Theory proposed by Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, (2002) there are four basic human drives that motivate behavior, the drive to:

  • acquire,
  • bond,
  • comprehend, and
  • defend.

The four C’s of motivation are (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009);

  • competence,
  • confidence,
  • connection, and
  • choice.

By fostering the four C’s, individuals are more likely to experience a sense of autonomy, relatedness, and competence, which are key components of intrinsic motivation.

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What our readers think

  1. Japheth

    Great teaching, super message 👏

  2. Stan kirdey

    Interesting read, but it appears to be the neurotypical point of view.
    As an autistic person, most of the article and information did not resonate with me.

    • Steven Wolfe

      Why would you assume that an article that doesn’t mention autism once would take into account the differences in motivation between people with and without autism? Pointless to even leave a comment like this.

  3. TP

    How can those with high level of neuroticism find significant motivation to take actions towards realizing their potentials? How can they get more enjoyment from their achievements?

  4. M2

    Motive of Being
    (By definition)

    I AM .ie ” THE CREATOR” therefore I .ie “ones self” thinks.  Ones conscious connects ones conscious self to ones unconscious self that’s why some humans have no idea why they do or don’t do something.  The process of quantum mechanics can be manipulated to bend the laws of physics in the physical world just as one’s conscious self can be manipulated by ones unconscious self.  This process can be observed in quantum dynamics, whereas
    the Effects sometimes comes before the Cause, and we are only aware of this because we observed the process, just as an police officers looking over a crime scene to find an motive to a crime.

    By M²

  5. Jeyaraj Veluswamy

    Can it be really possible that one is given all tips and guides in counselling to achieve greater and greater wellbeing or wellness, but completely divorced of having any thought or concern or even attention to the plight or suffering of fellow humans living perhaps in the next slums or shanties or country sides.? Or as fellow human beings, one needs to be in some way socially caring and reaching out to others, as long as we fall short of creating an egalitarian and equal society. In some developing countries, some self styled gurus and counsellors promise to take people to the land of perfect happiness and wellbeing through all types of workshops and meditation methods etc but no word on their brotherly concern for other fellow humans. Aren’t people being taken for a ride?

    • Candace Ling

      Thank you for your heart- warming comment. I couldn’t agree with you more.
      I truly believe we are made in such a way that we can never get ” to the land of perfect happiness ” unless we take our less fortunate fellow brothers and sisters there with us.

      • Shankar Singh Bhadouria

        Very nice happy family and other person

  6. A William McVey

    I WOULD LIKE TO TALK IF POSSIBLE. I teach gratitude courses, and I am also an active business consultant. I am presently writing essay for Brill publications on “Soulful Exemplar Leadership and Spiritual Motivation. I am most interested in Motivational Psychology, especially in the Pandemic chaos. I am doing webinars on this topic. I think all leadership is about the motivational leadership. I am very Aristotelian in my approach to motivational psychology
    A William McVey Ph.D.
    Holy Apostles College and Seminary
    913 669-3934


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