Motivation is a psychological force that enables action and has long been the object of scientific inquiry (Carver & Scheier, 1998).
The study of motivation is a behavioral science that concerns those internal processes that give behavior its energy, direction, and persistence.
Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths.
When behavior has strength and intensity, we attribute this to the presence of energy. When our behavior is aimed or directed toward some particular goal or outcome, it is said to have a purpose. When the behavior endures and is sustained over time and across different situations, it implies persistence.
This article introduces vital findings in motivational science, including its neurological underpinnings, and lists various assessment tools used to measure its many facets. It complements our article on Motivation Tools & Worksheets and expands on the definitions and descriptions of the process that can be found in our What is Motivation blog post.
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.
This article contains:
When we think about the human brain, we tend to focus on its cognitive and intellectual functions, but ours is also a motivated and emotional brain. It generates wants, appetites, urges, needs, reward, cravings, desires, pleasure, feelings, mood, fear, anxiety, anger, and the full range of emotions in the very much the same way as it is capable of thinking, learning, and problem-solving.
Motivation science is a behavioral science where answers require objective, data-based, empirical evidence gained from well-conducted and peer-reviewed research findings. It uses empirical methods, emphasizes testable hypotheses, operational definitions of its constructs, observational methods, and objective statistical analyses to evaluate the scientific merit of its hypotheses.
Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.
The neuroscience of motivation studies explicitly how our environment and daily events activate specific brain structures and how those, in turn, are associated with the motivational states that energize, direct, and sustain behavior.
The motivated brain and its many functions are usually separated for the ease of understanding into an outer cortical brain and an inner subcortical brain (Reeve, 2018).
Our basic urges and impulses and emotion-rich motivations such as hunger, thirst, anger, fear, anxiety, pleasure, desire, reward, and wanting are associated with the subcortical brain. These are largely unconscious, automatic, and impulsive.
Here is a list of the subcortical brain structures and how they are involved in motivation and emotional states (Reeve, 2018):
|Subcortical Brain Structures|
|Reticular formation||Regulates arousal, alertness, and the neural process of awakening the brain’s motivational and emotional concerns.|
|Amygdala||Detects, learns about, and responds to the stimulus properties of environmental objects, including both threat-eliciting and reward-eliciting associations.|
|Basal ganglia (caudate nucleus, putamen, substantial nigra, and globus pallidus)||Contribute to the motivational invigoration and inhibition of movement and action.|
|Ventral striatum (nucleus accumbens) and ventral tegmental||The brain’s reward center.|
|Ventral tegmental area||Manufactures and releases dopamine that is received by the nucleus accumbens to produce pleasure and liking.|
|Hypothalamus||Responsive to natural rewards in the regulation of eating, drinking, and mating, and it also regulates both the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems.|
The cortical brain hosts cognitively rich motivations that are conscious, deliberate, and revolve around cognitive or executive control. These mental events include goals, plans, strategies, values, and beliefs about the self.
Some of the cortical brain structures are intimately involved in motivation and emotional states (Reeve, 2018):
|Cortical Brain Structures|
|The insula||Monitors bodily states to produce both positive and negative gut-felt feelings, and it also processes feelings associated with risk, uncertainty, intrinsic motivation, empathy, and personal agency.|
|The prefrontal cortex||Involved in making plans, setting goals, formulating intentions.|
|Right hemispheric activity||Associated with negative affect and “no-go” avoidance motivation, while left-hemispheric activity is associated with positive affect and “go” approach motivation.|
|The orbitofrontal cortex.||Stores and processes reward-related values of environmental objects and events to formulate preferences and make choices between options.|
|The ventromedial prefrontal cortex.||Evaluates the unlearned emotional value of basic sensory rewards and internal bodily states and is responsible for emotional control.|
|The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.||Evaluates the learned emotional value of environmental events and possible courses of action, and it is responsible for control over urges and risks during the pursuit of long-term goals.|
|The anterior cingulate cortex||Monitors motivational conflicts and resolves those conflicts by recruiting other cortical brain structures to exert cognitive control over basic urges and emotions.|
Although many individual structures featured in the cortical and subcortical brain, they are linked together by a network of neural pathways that communicate reciprocally with each other. As part of our nervous systems, these brain structures use neurotransmitters to talk to each other while the endocrine system relies on hormones. Cortisol, oxytocin, and testosterone flowing through the bloodstream to communicate between bodily organs are particularly important for motivation.
Cortisol, for example, may produce an energized stress response to a threat in the form of withdrawal, while oxytocin will motivate us to seek out other people when faced with stressful events in our lives.
Say we are exposed to a social-evaluative threat, such as a relationship conflict. Our initial reaction of anger and avoidance may be fueled by cortisol, but subsequently, the affiliation-based tend-and-befriend stress response will produce oxytocin and make us want to confide in friends. Finally, testosterone produces competitive status-seeking behaviors (Reeve, 2018).
The current state of motivational research allows us to make some concrete statements about the nature of human motivation. Reeve brought those into seven major themes that allow us to generalize about the motivational phenomenon:
- Motivation and emotion benefit adaptation and functioning
- Motivation and emotion direct attention
- Motivation and emotion are “intervening variables.” They are not observable, yet they explain human behavior and occur between the stimulus and response
- Motives vary over time and influence the ongoing stream of behavior
- Types of motivations exist
- We are not always consciously aware of the motivational basis of our behavior
- Motivation study reveals what people want
- To flourish, motivation needs supportive conditions
- When trying to motivate others, what is easy to do is rarely what works
- There is nothing so practical as a good theory (Reeve, 2018).
Motivation and Emotion Benefit Adaptation and Functioning
Motivation is a vital internal resource that allows us to adapt in response to changes in the environment, function productively, and maintain well-being. When we are treated unfairly, we can get angry, and that anger can motivate us to counter the exploitation. Likewise, when a stranger goes out of her way to help us when we need it, we feel gratitude and that warm glow can motivate us to develop a new friendship.
As demands on our time rise and fall, opportunities come and go, and previously supportive relationships turn sour, we need the means to take corrective action. Motivations serve as the means for such corrective action.
On the other hand, when students are excited about school, when employees are confident in their skills, and when athletes set high goals, these benefits of increased motivation are seen by and have a spill-over effect on those around them, their teachers, supervisors, and coaches.
See our discussion on The Vital Importance and Benefits of Motivation.
Motivation and Emotion Direct Attention
Motives capture our attention. As they enter our awareness, they cause us to interrupt what we are doing and take us away from doing other things. Motivational states impose a sense of priority congruent with our motive onto our thinking, feeling, and behaving and prepare us for motive-congruent action.
Some motives have a higher capacity for imposing urgency to act as they tend to generate more intensity and are more likely to occupy more of our attention. Take the example below, and you will see that physical pain like headache will register stronger in our awareness then interest and feeling motivated by achievement when we sit down to study.
Here is an example of how motives influence behavior for a student sitting at a desk:
|Event or Trigger||Aroused Motive||Motive-Relevant Course of Action||Motive’s Urgency Attention-Getting Status|
|Familiar voices||Affiliation||Talk with friends||***|
|Headache||Pain avoidance||Take aspirin||****|
|Lack of sleep||Rest||Lie down, nap||*|
|Upcoming competition||Achievement||Practice skill||**|
Note: The number of asterisks in column four communicates the intensity of the motive activated by an event or trigger. One asterisk denotes the lowest intensity level, while five asterisks denote the highest.
Motives Vary Over Time and Contribute to the Ongoing Stream of Behavior
Our motives are always changing, either rising or falling with our needs, cognitions, and emotions and are often competing against each other. The strongest motive will usually dominate our attention at any one point in time until a change in circumstances occurs, and a previously subordinate motive comes to the surface.
We are also motivationally complex (Vallerand, 1997), and intrinsic motivation is not the same as extrinsic motivation by Ryan & Deci (2017), and the motivation to approach must be differentiated from the motivation to avoid by Elliot (1997).
We Are Not Always Consciously Aware of the Motivational Basis of Our Behavior
Motives also vary in how readily they are accessible to consciousness and, therefore, to verbal report. Some motives like goals originate in language structures and the cortical brain, and we are usually able to articulate them when prompted and can list logical reasons for why we chose a particular goal.
Other motives are much less available to conscious awareness because they have their origins in non-language structures of the subcortical brain. You will not usually hear people talk about their reasons for seeking power and social status as having originated in childhood or being a result of having parents who imposed very high developmental standards on them. These motives are unconscious and less readily available.
See our discussion of implicit motives in What is Motivation blog post.
When Trying to Motivate Others, What Is Easy to Do Is Rarely What Works
There are no easy answers when it comes to putting motivation into practice, although it may seem that way at first glance. If we spend enough time with this topic, we start to realize that many of the attempts we make to motivate ourselves as well as other people in our lives often prove ineffective and in some instances, can have negative results.
There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.
H. L. Mencken
Like anything worthwhile, learning to increase one’s or other people’s motivation requires an investment of time and energy, and one must resist the temptation of simple solutions. Effective design and application of motivational strategies require a systematic approach, as can be seen in state-of-the-art interventions included in our blog post on Motivation in Education or the strategies exemplified in Motivational Interviewing.
Solving Motivational and Emotional Problems
Empowering self and others involve identifying, nurturing, and utilizing strengths. The psychology of motivation can teach us a lot about how to promote constructive motivational resources in oneself and others. Some of those resources include:
- Resilient self-efficacy beliefs
- Autonomy needs satisfaction
- Flow experience
- A fully functioning individual
- Mastery motivational orientation
- Difficult, specific, and self-congruent goals
- Mastery goals
- Ego development
Empowering self and others also involve identifying and repairing weaknesses and vulnerabilities. There are several motivational pathologies we may want to learn to overcome:
- Restraint release that leads to binge eating
- Hidden costs of reward
- Learned helplessness
- Fixed mindset
- Depleted self-control
- Pessimistic explanatory style
- Thought suppression
- Immature defense mechanisms
- Hubristic pride
- Malicious envy
Many of these are explained in greater detail and applied to motivational strategies in the remaining articles featured in this series of blog posts on motivation.
Finally, some of the topics that are subject to motivation research can also lead us down a rabbit hole of many a fascinating, motivational conundrum like the dual motivation theory of shame, for example.
The emotional experience of shame is a form of a self-conscious emotion generated not in response to external life events but in response to how the situation affects the evaluation of the self.
The feeling of shame generates two distinct motives: one to protect the injured self and the other to restore it to health. One is avoidance motivated while the other one is approach oriented, and they both lead to very different behavioral consequences where we either withdraw from the environment or take action, at times drastic, to re-establish the sense of self-worth (Reeve, 2018).
One thing to consider in this situation is the role of the adaptive unconscious, which represents our automatic behaviors. It can have a strong influence on motivation and regulation of behavior, where at the one end of the spectrum, it automates the decision-making process but at the other end, it can make us prone to repeat less desirable behaviors, particularly under stress or pressure when our executive brain is often compromised.
One way of dealing with the feeling of shame that can prove useful would be to downgrade this strong emotion into a less intense feeling of guilt. The feeling of guilt has to do with the act itself, which unlike shame, does not have to reflect on who we are.
Shame is often experienced in terms of what the act says about the person we are. If we make a mistake, we have a choice of viewing it as having made the best possible choice based on the information available to us at that moment, or we can result to self-criticism and see it as a reflection of our shortcomings and inadequacy of the self (Kashdan, & Diener, 2014).
Motivation Assessments, Scales and Questionnaires
Motivational researchers measure motivation in terms of observable responses. They can be cognitive responses such as the speed of recall or quality of perception. We can also measure affective responses through analyzing self-reports of subjective experience and behavioral dimensions such as performance on tasks. Brain activation can be used to assess physiological responses.
Motivation is also often measured in relative terms. The current state of motivation can be compared to previous or subsequent levels of motivation or to motivation in a different goal state, as in salient versus non-salient goals.
For example, if we are offered a membership card, we might be more motivated to exercise now than before, and we might be more motivated than another person who did not receive the same.
Here is a list of some of the most commonly used assessments of motivation that combine cognitive, affective, and behavioral measures of motivation:
- Motivation Assessment Scale (MAS) designed to help identify the motivation behind a target problem behavior (Durand & Crimmins, 1988; 1992)
- The Situational Motivation Scale (SIMS) used for the Assessment of Situational Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. The SIMS is designed to assess the constructs of intrinsic motivation, identified regulation, and external regulation (Guay, Vallerand, & Blanchard, 2000)
- The Sport Motivation Scale (SMS) is a new measure of intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, and motivation in sports (Pelletier, Tuson, & Fortier, 1995)
- General Procrastination Scale (Lay, 1986)
- Achievement Motives Scale is a short questionnaire revised by Lang and Fries (2006)
Many scales measure the satisfaction of psychological needs:
- Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction & Frustration Scale that addresses both need satisfaction and frustration. There are several sub-scales included in the full packet:
- General including versions for adults and children and adults with intellectual disabilities). It has 24 items assessing the needs for competence and autonomy
- Physical Education
- Physical Exercise
- Education (students and teachers)
- Romantic Relationships
- Work Domain still in an experimental stage and NOT included in the full packet yet but available for download, this assessment of needs was shown to be related in theoretically meaningful ways to work adjustment (see Schultz, Ryan, Niemiec, Legate, & Williams, 2015).
- Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg)
- Need for Cognition Scale contains statements regarding a person’s enjoyment in thinking and solving complex problems (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982; Cacioppo et al., 1996)
- Meaning in Life Questionnaire (Steger et al., 2006)
Finally, there are also several motivational assessments and questionnaires that measure key components of motivational phenomena from self-efficacy and self-regulation to flow states. Many of these have been covered in our articles on these specific topics, and you can find a full list of them through the following links:
- Measuring Self-Efficacy with Scales and Questionnaires
- Self-Regulation Test and Assessment
- How to Measure Flow with Scales and Questionnaires
Finally, to effectively determine how to measure motivation, we need to understand what type of motivation we are attempting to capture to take into account different dimensions of motivation.
We may also want to distinguish between the outcome-focused motivation directed at completing a goal (Brehm & Self, 1989; Locke & Latham, 1990; Powers, 1973) and the process-focused motivation which attends to elements related to the process of goal pursuit that can include means used during goal pursuit (means-focused motivation; Higgins, Idson, Freitas, Spiegel, & Molden, 2003; Touré-Tillery & Fishbach, 2012) or the enjoyment of the experience of goal pursuit (intrinsic motivation; Deci & Ryan, 1985).
Best Motivational Podcasts
1. The School of Greatness with Lewis Howes
Inspirational stories from business minds to athletes and celebrities who had to overcome personal challenges to accomplish something larger than themselves.
2. The Gary Vee Audio Experience
Hosted by Gary Vaynerchuk this combination of interviews and talks on business and marketing ideas will make you reconsider everything you thought you knew about the paths to success.
3. The Tim Ferriss Show
A behind-the-scenes look at world-class performers of all kinds and what they need to excel and improve themselves hosted by an author of many books on the subject.
4. Hidden Brain
Insights from research in psychology and neurobiology with findings from economics, anthropology, and sociology on how to understand our behavior, why we do what, how to master our will, and align our desires to change outcomes in our life. Hosted by NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam.
5. Art of Charm
Motivational podcast with hosts AJ Harbinger and Johnny Dzubak focused on helping us become better with people and more effective in relationships.
6. The Dave Ramsey Show
Geared more towards motivation on improving your financial wellbeing, Dave Ramsey is known for motivating people to change and provides sound advice on how to set realistic goals with tangible ways of obtaining them.
7. Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations
Oprah interviews with thought-leaders, best-selling authors, spiritual luminaries, as well as health and wellness experts who can make anything seem more possible and find the positive in any situation.
8. The Minimalists Podcast
Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus talk about the motivational power of letting go and eliminating, while focusing less on things and more on perception about things.
9. This is Your Life
Michael Hyatt’s podcast is for those looking to be motivated to lead their teams more effectively with more clarity and courage.
10. TED Talks Daily
Thought-provoking ideas on every subject by the world’s leading thinkers and doers from talks given at TED and TEDx conferences around the globe. This is a great daily dose of motivation!
11. The Tony Robbins Podcast
Industry masterminds talk with Tony Robbins about top strategies to bring about the change we’re all looking for and how to improve our personal life, business, relationships and also our health and finance.
12. 20 Minutes With Bronwyn
A different approach to helping you get motivated, grow your business, your mindset and your impact by communication coach, writer, and speaker Bronwyn Saglimbeni.
We also share a selection of the 8 best positive psychology podcasts for you to enjoy.
A Take-Home Message
Some believe that science is myths about the world which have not yet been proven wrong. Others argue that much of psychology is simply reification and postulate that just because it has a name, it does not mean it exists. Nevertheless, understanding what motivates human behavior is a worthwhile endeavor, not to mention a fascinating one for those who are so inclined.
Science may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification.
For the author of these articles, this was quite a journey and a real-life experience of the process of trying to muster enough motivation to cover this topic, not to mention an actual test of the ability to practice what one preaches.
Share with us what motivational phenomena you find most interesting.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free.
If you’d like to help others succeed in life, our Motivation & Goal Achievement Masterclass© is a comprehensive training template for practitioners that contains everything you need to help your clients reach their goals and master motivation-enhancing techniques.
- Beck, R. C. (2004). Motivation: Theories and principles (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2000). Scaling back goals and recalibration of the affect system are processes in normal adaptive self-regulation: understanding ‘response shift’ phenomena. Social science & medicine, 50(12), 1715-1722.
- Deckers, L. (2014). Motivation: Biological, psychological, and environmental (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
- DeCatanzaro, D. A. (1999). Motivation and emotion: Evolutionary, physiological, developmental, and social perspectives. Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
- Edwards, D. C. (1999). Motivation and emotion: Evolutionary, physiological, cognitive, and social influences. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Elliot, A. J., & Church, M. A. (1997). A hierarchical model of approach and avoidance achievement motivation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 72(1), 218.
- Ferguson, E. D. (2000). Motivation: A biosocial and cognitive integration of motivation and emotion. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Franken, R. E. (2006). Human motivation (6th ed.). Wadsworth Thomson Learning, Belmont, CA.
- Gollwitzer, P. M. & Bargh, J. A. (1996). The psychology of action: Linking cognition and motivation to behavior. Guilford Press, New York/
- Heckhausen, J. & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Motivation and self-regulation across the life span. Cambridge University Press, New York.
- Kashdan, T., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self, not just your “good” self, drives success and fulfillment. Penguin.
- Nunez, R. & Freeman, W. J. (1999). Reclaiming cognition: The primacy of action, intention, and emotion. Imprint Academic, Thorverton, UK.
- Petri, H. L., & Govern, J. M. (2013). Motivation: Theory, research, and applications (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
- Reeve, J. (2015). Understanding motivation and emotion (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications.
- Sansone, C. & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: The search for optimal motivation and performance. Academic Press, San Diego, CA.
- Schwartz, B. (2004, January). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York, NY: Ecco.
- Sheldon, K. M. (Ed.) (2010). Current directions in motivation and emotion. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
- Vallerand, R. J. (1997). Toward a hierarchical model of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 29, pp. 271-360). Academic Press.
- Wagner, H. (1999). The psychobiology of human motivation. New York, NY: Routledge.