To describe the indescribable seems to be the ambitious undertaking of motivation theories.
The many approaches to defining what drives human behavior are best understood when considering the very purpose of creating them, be it increased performance, goal pursuit, resilience, or relapse prevention, to name a few.
There is nothing more practical than a good theory.
There is no single motivation theory that explains all aspects of human motivation, but these theoretical explanations do often serve as the basis for the development of approaches and techniques to increase motivation in distinct areas of human endeavor.
This article briefly summarizes existing theories of motivation and their potential real-world applications.
This article contains:
What is Motivation Psychology?
Motivation psychologists usually attempt to show how motivation varies within a person at different times or among different people at the same time. The purpose of the psychology of motivation is to explain how and why that happens.
Broad views of how to understand motivation were created by psychologists based on various types of analyses. Cognitive analyses, behavioral anticipation, and affective devices are often used to account for motivation in terms of expecting an end-state or goal.
Motivation psychology is a study of how biological, psychological, and environmental variables contribute to motivation. That is, what do the body and brain contribute to motivation; what mental processes contribute; and finally, how material incentives, goals, and their mental representations motivate individuals.
Psychologists research motivation through the use of two different methods. Experimental research is usually conducted in a laboratory and involves manipulating a motivational variable to determine its effects on behavior.
Correlational research involves measuring an existing motivational variable to determine how the measured values are associated with behavioral indicators of motivation.
Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.
Henry Ford, 1863–1947
To be motivated means to be moved into action. We are induced into action or thought by either the push of a motive or the pull of an incentive or goal toward some end-state. Here a motive is understood as an internal disposition that pushes an individual toward a desired end-state where the motive is satisfied, and a goal is defined as the cognitive representation of the desired outcome that an individual attempts to achieve.
While a goal guides a behavior that results in achieving it, an incentive is an anticipated feature of the environment that pulls an individual toward or away from a goal. Incentives usually enhance motivation for goal achievement. Emotions act like motives as well. They motivate an individual in a coordinated fashion along multiple channels of affect, physiology, and behavior to adapt to significant environmental changes.
See our discussion of the motivation cycle and process in the blog post entitled What is Motivation.
Theories of Motivation
Theories of motivation are often separated into content theories and process theories. In short, content theories explain what motivation is, and process theories describe how motivation occurs.
There are also a large number of cognitive theories that relate to motivation and explain how our way of thinking and perceiving ourselves and the world around us can influence our motives. From self-concept, dissonance and mindset to values, orientation and perceived control, these theories explain how our preference toward certain mental constructs can increase or impair our ability to take goal-directed action.
Theories of motivation are also grouped by the field of human endeavor they apply to. Several theories relate to motivating employees where incentives and needs take a central stage as well as theories used in sports and performance psychology where affect is considered a more prominent driver of human behavior. Some of these theories are also applied to education and learning.
Read our insightful post on motivation in education.
Content Theories of Motivation
Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs, Alderfer’s ERG theory, McClelland’s achievement motivation theory, and Herzberg’s two-factor theory focused on what motivates people and addressed specific factors like individual needs and goals.
Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs
The most recognized content theory of motivation is that of Abraham Maslow, who explained motivation through the satisfaction of needs arranged in a hierarchical order. As satisfied needs do not motivate, it is the dissatisfaction that moves us in the direction of fulfillment.
Needs are conditions within the individual that are essential and necessary for the maintenance of life and the nurturance of growth and well-being. Hunger and thirst exemplify two biological needs that arise from the body’s requirement for food and water. These are required nutriments for the maintenance of life.
The body of man is a machine which winds its own spring.
J. O. De La Mettrie
Competence and belongingness exemplify two psychological needs that arise from the self’s requirement for environmental mastery and warm interpersonal relationships. These are required nutriments for growth and well-being.
Needs serve the organism, and they do so by:
- generating wants, desires, and strivings that motivate whatever behaviors are necessary for the maintenance of life and the promotion of growth and well-being, and
- generating a deep sense of need satisfaction from doing so.
Maslow’s legacy is the order of needs progressing in the ever-increasing complexity, starting with basic physiological and psychological needs and ending with the need for self-actualization. While basic needs are experienced as a sense of deficiency, the higher needs are experienced more in terms of the need for growth and fulfillment.
Alderfer’s ERG theory
Alderfer’s theory of motivation expands on the work of Maslow and takes the premise of need categories a bit further. He observes that when lower needs are satisfied, they occupy less of our attention, but the higher needs tend to become more important, the more we pursue them.
He also observed a phenomenon that he called the frustration-regression process where when our higher needs are thwarted, we may regress to lower needs. This is especially important when it comes to motivating employees. When a sense of autonomy or the need for mastery is compromised, say because of the structure of the work environment, the employee may focus more on the sense of security or relatedness the job provides.
McClelland’s achievement motivation theory
McClelland took a different approach to conceptualize needs and argued that needs are developed and learned, and focused his research away from satisfaction. He was also adamant that only one dominant motive can be present in our behavior at a time. McClelland categorized the needs or motives into achievement, affiliation, and power and saw them as being influenced by either internal drivers or extrinsic factors.
Among all the prospects which man can have, the most comforting is, on the basis of his present moral condition, to look forward to something permanent and to further progress toward a still better prospect.
The drive for achievement arises out of the psychological need for competence and is defined as a striving for excellence against a standard that can originate from three sources of competition: the task itself, the competition with the self, and the competition against others.
High need for achievement can come from one’s social environment and socialization influences, like parents who promote and value pursuit and standards of excellence, but it can also be developed throughout life as a need for personal growth towards complexity (Reeve, 2018).
Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory
Herzberg’s two-factor theory, also known as motivation-hygiene theory, was originally intended to address employee motivation and recognized two sources of job satisfaction. He argued that motivating factors influence job satisfaction because they are based on an individual’s need for personal growth: achievement, recognition, work itself, responsibility, and advancement.
On the other hand, hygiene factors, which represented deficiency needs, defined the job context and could make individuals unhappy with their job: company policy and administration, supervision, salary, interpersonal relationships, and working conditions.
Process Theories of Motivation
Process theories like Skinner’s reinforcement theory, Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory, Adam’s equity theory, and Locke’s goal-setting theory set out to explain how motivation occurs and how our motives change over time.
The most well-known process theory of motivation is the reinforcement theory, which focused on the consequences of human behavior as a motivating factor.
Based on Skinner’s operant conditioning theory, it identifies positive reinforcements as promoters that increased the possibility of the desired behavior’s repetition: praise, appreciation, a good grade, trophy, money, promotion, or any other reward (Gordon, 1987).
It distinguished positive reinforcements from negative reinforcement and punishment, where the former gives a person only what they need in exchange for desired behavior, and the latter tries to stop the undesired behavior by inflicting unwanted consequences.
Other process motivation theories combine aspects of reinforcement theory with other theories, sometimes from adjacent fields, to shine a light on what drives human behavior.
Adam’s equity theory of motivation
For example, Adam’s equity theory of motivation (1965), based on Social Exchange theory, states that we are motivated when treated equitably, and we receive what we consider fair for our efforts.
It suggests that we not only compare our contributions to the amount of rewards we receive but also compare them to what others receive for the same amount of input. Although equity is essential to motivation, it does not take into account the differences in individual needs, values, and personalities, which influence our perception of inequity.
Vroom’s expectancy theory
Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory (1964), on the other hand, integrates needs, equity, and reinforcement theories to explain how we choose from alternative forms of voluntary behavior based on the belief that decisions will have desired outcomes. Vroom suggests that we are motivated to pursue an activity by appraising three factors:
- Expectancy that assumes more effort will result in success
- Instrumentality that sees a connection between activity and goal
- Valence which represents the degree to which we value the reward or the results of success.
Locke’s goal-setting theory
Finally, Locke’s (1990) goal-setting theory, an integrative model of motivation, sees goals as key determinants of behavior. Possibly the most widely applied, the goal-setting theory stresses goal specificity, difficulty, and acceptance and provides guidelines for how to incorporate them into incentive programs and management by objectives (MBO) techniques in many areas.
Lock’s recipe for effective goal setting includes:
- Setting of challenging but attainable goals. Too easy or too difficult or unrealistic goals don’t motivate us.
- Setting goals that are specific and measurable. These can focus us toward what we want and can help us measure the progress toward the goal.
- Goal commitment should be obtained. If we don’t commit to the goals, then we will not put adequate effort toward reaching them, regardless of how specific or challenging they are.
- Strategies to achieve this could include participation in the goal-setting process, the use of extrinsic rewards (bonuses), and encouraging intrinsic motivation through providing feedback about goal attainment. It is important to mention here that pressure to achieve goals is not useful because it can result in dishonesty and superficial performance.
- Support elements should be provided. For example, encouragement, needed materials and resources, and moral support.
- Knowledge of results is essential. Goals need to be quantifiable, and there needs to be feedback.
There are several articles on effective goal setting in our blog series that cover Locke’s theory and it’s many applications.
Cognitive Theories of Motivation
Some cognitive theories inform our understanding of motivation. They address specific cognitive phenomena that can influence motivation, represent a particular factor of motivation, describe a form of expression of motivation, or explain a process through which it can occur or be enhanced.
The list of cognitive phenomena is by no means comprehensive, but it does give us a taste of the complexity of human motivation and includes references for those who want to read further into more nuanced topics:
- Plans (Carver & Scheier, 1998)
- Goals (Locke & Latham, 2002)
- Implementation intentions (Gollwitzer, 1999)
- Deliberative versus implementation mindsets (Gollwitzer & Kinney, 1989)
- Promotion versus prevention orientations (Higgins, 1997)
- Growth versus fixed mindsets (Dweck, 2006)
- Dissonance (Festinger, 1957; Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999)
- Self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986)
- Perceived control (Skinner, 1996)
- Reactance theory (Brehm, 1966)
- Learned helplessness theory (Seligman, 1975)
- Mastery beliefs (Diener & Dweck, 1978)
- Attributions (Weiner, 1986)
- Expectancy (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1993)
- Values (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002)
- Self-concept (Markus, 1977)
- Possible selves (Oyserman, Bybee, & Terry, 2006)
- Identity (Eccles, 2009)
- Self-regulation (Zimmerman, 2000)
- Self-control (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011)
There are also several different approaches to understanding human motivation which we have discussed in greater detail in our article on Benefits and Importance of Motivation which amass a large body of motivational studies and are currently attracting a lot of attention in contemporary research in motivational science, namely intrinsic motivation (Deci, 1975) and the flow theory (Csíkszentmihályi, 1975).
Motivational Theories in Business
There are many theories developed for the purpose of application to the organizational setting and motivation of employees. In addition to the Two Factor theory and equity theory, some theories focus on autonomy, wellbeing, and feedback as core motivational aspects of employees’ performance; theories X, Y and Z, and the Hawthorne effect, respectively.
Theory X and Theory Y
Douglas McGregor proposed two theories, Theory X and Theory Y, to explain employee motivation and its implications for management. He divided employees into Theory X employees who avoid work and dislike responsibility and Theory Y employees who enjoy work and exert effort when they have control in the workplace.
He postulated that to motivate Theory X employees, the company needs to enforce rules and implement punishments. For Theory Y employees, management must develop opportunities for employees to take on responsibility and show creativity as a way of motivating. Theory X is heavily informed by what we know about intrinsic motivation, and the role satisfaction of basic psychological needs plays in effective employee motivation.
In response to this theory, a third theory, Theory Z, was developed by Dr. William Ouchi. Ouchi’s theory focuses on increasing employee loyalty to the company by providing a job for life and focusing on the employee’s well-being. It encourages group work and social interaction to motivate employees in the workplace.
The Hawthorne Effect
Elton Mayo developed an explanation known as the Hawthorne Effect that suggested that employees are more productive when they know their work is being measured and studied.
He recognized that employees need recognition for a job well done and reassurance that their opinion matters in the workplace to be motivated to perform. Mayo noticed that employees were more productive when provided with feedback and allowed to provide input into the work process.
Motivational Theories in Sports Psychology
There are also several theories on motivation that are used in sports and performance psychology. The core concept in understanding motivation from the performance perspective is how physiological and psychological arousal accompanies behavior.
Arousal is basically a form of mobilization of energy and activation either before or while engaged in the behavior. Arousal occurs in different modes. Physiological arousal refers to the excitement of the body, while psychological arousal is about how subjectively aroused an individual feels.
When we say that our palms are sweaty or our heart is pounding, it implies physiological arousal. When we feel tense and anxious, it signifies psychological arousal.
Robert Thayer (1989) evolved the theory of psychological arousal into two dimensions: energetic arousal and tense arousal, composed of energetic and tense dimensions. Energetic arousal is associated with positive affect, while tense arousal is associated with anxiety and fearfulness.
Tense arousal can be divided further into two types of anxiety: trait anxiety and state anxiety. One refers to the degree we respond to the environment in general negatively and with worry, while state anxiety refers to feelings of apprehension that occur in response to a particular situation.
Arousal originates from several sources. It can be generated by a stimulus that has an arousing function and a cue function. But background stimuli that do not capture our attention also increase arousal.
Thayer found that arousal varies with time of day, for many of us being highest around noon and lower in the morning and evening. Coffee, for example, can boost arousal, as can an instance of being evaluated during exams, music performance, or sports competitions.
Arousal also depends on more complex variables like novelty, complexity, and incongruity. The interaction of various stimuli explains why sometimes arousal increases behavioral efficiency and in other instances, decreases it.
Optimal functioning hypothesis
The zone of optimal functioning hypothesis in sports psychology identifies a zone of optimal arousal where an athlete performs best (Hanin, 1989). As arousal increases, performance on a task increases and then decreases, as can be seen on the inverted-U arousal–performance relationship diagram below.
According to the zone of optimal functioning hypothesis, each individual has her preferred area of arousal based on cognitive or somatic anxiety. The Yerkes–Dodson law explains further that the high point of the inverted-U or arousal–performance relationship depends on the complexity of the task being performed.
Several theories have been proposed to explain the relationship between the inverted-U nature of the arousal–performance relationship.
Hull–Spence drive theory
The classic Hull–Spence drive theory emphasizes how arousal affects performance with little regard for any cognitive awareness by the individual. Also known as drive reduction theory, it postulates that human behavior could be explained by conditioning and reinforcement.
This oversimplification is part of the reason why more nuanced and complex cognitive theories have largely replaced the theory. The cusp catastrophe model in sports psychology, arousal-biased competition theory, processing efficiency theory, and attentional control theory are more concerned with the cognitive aspects of arousal and how this affects behavioral efficiency.
Arousal-biased competition theory
Mather and Sutherland (2011) developed an arousal-biased competition theory to explain the inverted-U arousal–performance relationship. It suggests that arousal exhibits biases toward information that is the focus of our attention.
Arousal effects and therefore increases the priority of processing important information and decrease the priority of processing less critical information. The presence of arousal improves the efficiency of behavior that concerns a crucial stimulus, but it is done at the expense of the background stimuli.
Two memory systems theory
Metcalfe and Jacobs (1998) postulated the existence of two memory systems that influence the level of arousal we experience: a cool memory system and a hot memory system, each in a different area of the brain. The cool system, located in the hippocampus, serves the memory of events occurring in space and time and would allow us to remember where we parked our car this morning.
The hot system in the amygdala serves as the memory of events that occur under high arousal. Metcalfe and Jacobs theorized that the hot system remembers the details of stimuli that predict the onset of highly stressful or arousing events, such as events that predict danger and is responsible for the intrusive memories of individuals who have experienced extremely traumatic events.
Processing efficiency theory
The processing efficiency theory of Eysenck & Calvo theorized on how anxiety, expressed as worry, can influence performance. Preoccupation with being evaluated and being concerned about one’s performance turns to worry, which takes up working memory capacity and causes performance on cognitive tasks to decline (Eysenck & Calvo, 1992).
Textbooks on Motivation
Here are a suggested book references for tertiary-level study of motivation for those who want to dive deeper into some of these topics:
Understanding Motivation and Emotion (6th ed.) – Johnmarshall Reeve (2015)
By delving into the roots of motivation, the emotional processes at work, and the impacts on learning, performance, and well-being, this book provides a toolbox of practical interventions and approaches for use in a wide variety of settings.
Available on Amazon.
Motivation: Theories and Principles (5th ed.) – Robert C. Beck, R. C. (2004).
This experimentally-oriented book provides a critical examination of research and theory with a topical approach. It covers a broad range of motivational concepts from both human and animal theory and research, with an emphasis on the biological bases of motivation.
Available on Amazon.
Motivation: Biological, psychological, and environmental (4th ed.) – Lambert Deckers (2014).
This textbook provides a complete overview of motivation and emotion, using an overarching organizational scheme of how biological, psychological, and environmental sources become motivation―the inducement of behavior, feelings, and cognition.
Available on Amazon.
Motivation and Emotion: Evolutionary, physiological, developmental, and social perspectives – Denys A. DeCatanzaro (1999).
Within each topically organized chapter, which all begins with a concise overview statement and ends with a personal summary, the author highlights material of special importance and concludes major sections with a summary.
Available on Amazon.
Motivation: A biosocial and cognitive integration of motivation and emotion – Eva Dreikus Ferguson (2000).
A wide range of topics concerning motivation and emotion are considered, including hunger and thirst, circadian and other biological rhythms, fear and anxiety, anger and aggression, achievement, attachment, and love.
Available on Amazon.
Human Motivation (6th ed.) – Robert E. Franken (2006).
Exploration of day-to-day human motivation, Franken provides a topical organization that shows students how biology, learning, and cognition interact with individual differences to produce human behavior.
Available on Amazon.
The Psychology of Action: Linking cognition and motivation to behavior – Peter Gollwitzer and John Bargh (1996).
Renowned social and motivational psychologists present concise formulations of the latest research programs which are effectively mapping the territory, providing new findings, and suggesting innovative strategies for future research.
Available on Amazon.
Motivation and Self-regulation Across the Life Span – Jutta Heckhausen and Carol Dweck, C. S. (1998).
Critical elements of motivational systems can be specified and their interrelations understood by charting the origins and the developmental course of motivational processes.
Available on Amazon.
Reclaiming Cognition: The primacy of action, intention, and emotion – Rafael Nunez and Walter J. Freeman (1999).
Traditional cognitive science is Cartesian in the sense that it takes as fundamental the distinction between the mental and the physical, the mind and the world. This leads to the claim that cognition is representational and best explained using models derived from AI and computational theory. The authors depart radically from this model.
Available on Amazon.
Motivation: Theory, Research, and Applications (6th ed.) – Herbert Petri and John Govern (2013).
Reflects the latest developments from the field in its thorough coverage of the biological, behavioral, and cognitive explanations for human motivation. The book clearly presents the advantages and drawbacks to each of these explanations, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.
Available on Amazon.
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: The search for optimal motivation and performance – Sansone and Harackiewicz. (2000).
This book provides a summary view of what research has determined about both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and clarifies what questions remain unanswered.
Available on Amazon.
Current Directions in Motivation and Emotion – Kennon Sheldon (Ed.) (2010).
Available on Amazon.
The Psychobiology of Human Motivation – Hugh Wagner (1999).
The Psychobiology of Human Motivation explores what directs our behavior, from basic physiological needs like hunger and thirst to more complex aspects of social behavior like altruism.
Available on Amazon.
A Take-Home Message
There is no shortage of explanations for what constitutes human motivation, and the research on the topic is as vast and dense as the field of psychology itself. Perhaps the best course of action is to identify the motivational dilemma we’re trying to solve and then select one approach to motivation if only to try it out.
By annihilating desires you annihilate the mind. Every man without passions has within him no principle of action, nor motive to act.
Claude Adrien Helvetius, 1715–1771
As Dan Kahneman argues, teaching psychology is mostly a waste of time unless we as students experience for ourselves that which we are trying to learn or teach about human nature and can induce if it is right for us.
Because then and only then, we can choose to act on it, move in the direction of change, or make a choice to remain the same. It’s all about experiential learning and connecting the knowledge we acquire to our own experience.
What motivational theory do you find most useful?
- Reeve, J. (2015). Understanding motivation and emotion (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. Coop. Amazon. Google Books. Companion site. UC Library. ISBN: Paperback 978-1-118-51779-6, E-text 978-1-118-80456-8.
- Beck, R. C. (2004). Motivation: Theories and principles (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Deckers, L. (2014). Motivation: Biological, psychological, and environmental (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
(Eysenck & Calvo, 1992).
- Mather and Sutherland (2011)
- Metcalfe and Jacobs (1998),
- Robert Thayer (1989)
- Renovating the Pyramid of Needs: Contemporary Extensions Built upon Ancient Foundations” by D. T. Kenrick et al., 2010, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 292–314 (see p. 293 ), and from “
- A Theory of Human Needs Should Be Human-Centered, Not Animal-Centered: Commentary on Kenrick et al. (2010)” by S. Kesebir et al., 2010, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 315–319 (see p. 316 ), and from “
- Human Motives, Happiness, and the Puzzle of Parenthood: Commentary on Kenrick et al. (2010)” by S. Lyubormirsky & J. K. Boehm, 2010, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 327–334.