Psychology 101 – Motivation


eatingHaving explored the major perspectives in motivation, we now turn to specific motives, beginning with the most simple: eating. At its most basic level, the motivation to eat is biologically based, but it is not always that simple. We often eat well in advance of severe caloric depletion. We eat because food smells good, because it looks good and because it makes us feel better. We eat because it gives us something to do, we eat and we eat. I’m surprised we don’t eat each other. We eat in response to a vast variety of signals, many of which are not related to need. However, in general the function of eating is not to relieve anxiety, frustration or boredom, but to convert what were once cells of other living organisms into energy that we can absorb and use. Like my doctor once told me when I told him I didn’t like vegetables: we shouldn’t eat things simply based on taste, but rather we should view ourselves as a train that needs fuel to keep running.

While most people refer to metabolism as that thing that either keeps you thin or makes you fat, metabolism actually refers to the processes by which the body transforms food into energy. It’s purpose is to move muscles, maintain body heat, operate the nervous system, and build and maintain organ tissue; much of the energy that does this comes from glucose, a simple sugar. What makes metabolism a complex process is that the body has to maintain energy at all times, even though we cannot be eating at all times.

Metabolism has two phases, absorptive and fasting.

  1. In the absorptive phase, the person is ingesting food. During this phase, the body runs on some of the food that it is absorbing but puts additional reserves into short and long term stores. The short term stores hold carbohydrates by converting glucose to glycogen, a more complex sugar. The long term store, located under the skin and in the abdomen, mainly contain fats. Fat cells are capable of expanding enormously when reserves are high. From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to store fat served our ancestors well. When winter came and food was scarce, they had both extra reserves of body fuel and an extra layer of warmth.
  2. The second phase of metabolism, the fasting phase, occurs when a person is not eating, as the body converts its short and long term reserves into energy. In starvation, both these sources of fuel become depleted and the body starts converting proteins into fuel, often breaking down muscle.

Biological functions such as eating, drinking and sleeping are regulated by a process called homeostasis, which refers to the body’s tendency to maintain a relatively constant state that permits cells to live and function. Homeostasis literally means ‘standing still’. Homeostasis requires mechanisms for both detecting the state of the system (determining whether the body has enough nutrients) and correcting the situation to restore the system to the desired state.

Eating is part if a complex homeostatic process. Energy reserves become depleted, and the person becomes hungry and eats. As the fuel tank becomes full, ingestion stops, until reserves again become depleted. Like other homeostatic systems, the system that regulates food intake includes several features. First, the system has mechanisms that act like a set point, a biologically optimal level the system strives to maintain. Second, the system must have feedback mechanisms that provide information regarding the state of the system with respect to the variables being regulated. Thus, the body contains receptors that monitor, for example, how much sugar is in the bloodstream and provide feedback to the brain. Finally, the system must have corrective mechanisms that restore the system to its set point when needed.

And there you have it, that’s eating 101! I’m not going to tell you the psychology behind why you eat, because I honestly don’t know. But for the purpose of this post all that is important to know is that eating is biologically essential to our survival, and it is both biologically and socially important as a means of motivating humans. If we didn’t eat, we would die, and because of this we have created quite a lot of eating rituals to make the process feel a little less forced. Thanks to these eating rituals we actually find ourselves eating more than we have to, and often eat just because we haven’t got anything better to do, or because our mind needs something to distract it for a while. We live in a society of over eating, and obesity is not such an uncommon occurrence.


sex sex sex sex sex

Yes, yes I am

Like hunger, sex is a universal drive based in biology, but its expression varies considerably from culture to culture and from person to person. In fact, sexual motivation is even more variable than hunger. Most people eat two or three meals a day, some people eat 5 or 6 small meals, some people eat generally ‘normal’ food, while others eat cockroaches and other such things. Sex on the other hand, let’s just say some people are into some pretty weird shit.

Let’s leave sex at that and move on to psychological motives!

Psychological Motives – Unlike sex, psychosocial needs (personal and interpersonal motives for achievement, power, self esteem, affiliation, intimacy and the like) are less obviously biological. Two major clusters of goals people pursue everywhere are relatedness – motives for connectedness with others, and agency – motives for achievement, autonomy, mastery, power and other self-oriented goals. Human beings have a number of interpersonal needs; the earliest to arise in children are related to attachment. Attachment motivation refers to the desire for physical and psychological proximity to another person, so that the individual experiences comfort and pleasure in the other person’s presence. Attachment motives forms the basis for many aspects of adult love. A related need common among adults and older children in some cultures is intimacy, closeness characterised by mutual caring.

Another social motive is the need for affiliation, or interaction with friends or acquaintances; most people need to be with and communicate with other people. Individuals differ in the extent to which they seek intimate vs affiliative relationships, depending on their personality type. Some people have many friends and acquaintances, but have little need for intimacy, while others desire one or two intimate friendships and have little need for a large group of acquaintances. Social relationships, particularly with people in in who we can confide, are important for both physical and mental health. For example, women who report having at least one close friend are 10 times less likely to suffer depression following a stressful event than women who do not have someone in who they can confide (Brown, Bhrolchain, & Harris, 1975).

Motives for power, competence, achievement, autonomy and self esteem forma  second cluster of motives common to humans throughout the world. As early as the second year of life, infants seem to have a desire to be competent and effective, even when they are not rewarded by their parents – this can be clearly seen in there persistence and pride shown by young children when they walk. According to some theorists humans have an innate need to know and understand the world around them and to feel competent in the exercise of their knowledge. Pleasure in knowing and displeasure in feeling uncertain may have evolved as mechanisms that foster exploration of the environment. Another self oriented motive is self esteem. Theorists of many theoretical perspectives – humanistic, psychodynamic and social cognitive amoing others – view self esteem motivation, which is the need to view oneself in a positive light, as a fundamental motivator of behaviour.

The need for achievement – to do well, to succeed and to avoid failure – is the best researched psychosocial motive. This is not surprising given that Western society applauds success and boos failure. People high in achievement motivation tend to choose moderately difficult tasks other than very easy tasks. They enjoy being challenged and take pleasure in accomplishing a difficult task but are often motivated to avoid failure. In one classic study, participants played a ring toss game and were free to choose their own distance from the target. (Atkinson & Litwin, 1960). Those who scored high in achievement motivation selected distances that were challenging but not impossible. In contrast, participants who scored low in achievement motivation and had a high fear of failure stood either very close to the target or impossibly far, positions that guaranteed either success or a good excuse for failing.

How do experimental findings such as these translate into everyday behaviours? People with a high need for achievement tend to work more persistently than others to achieve a goal , and they take more pride in their accomplishments when they succeed. Not surprisingly, they are consequently more likely to succeed. They also tend to attribute their past successes to their abilities and their past failures to forces beyond their control, which increases confidence and persistence in the face of adverse feedback. Achievement goals themselves appear to reflect a blend of at least three motives: performance approach, performance avoidance and mastery. Performance goals are motives to achieve at a particular level, usually a socially defined standard, such as getting an A for an assignment. The emphasis of performance goals is on the outcome – on success or failure in meeting a standard.


Some people are motivated to attain a goal (performance-approach goals), whereas others are motivated by the fear of not attaining it (performance-avoidance goals). Thus, if I am skiing, I may be motivated by the desire to know and brag about how I skiid a black diamond slope – a slope of considerable difficulty. Skiing a tough slope is a performance-approach goal. Alternatively, I may stay on the baby slopes to avoid skiing down the hill on my ass, a performance-avoiding goal. Performance goals, whether for approach or avoidance, are about achieving a concrete outcome – obtaining success or avoiding failure. In contrast, mastery goals are motives to icnrease one’s competence, mastery or skill. If I am motivated by mastery goals, my interest is in developing my skill or technique – enjoying the sheer pleasure of skiing more quickly or competently – not in being able to brag about my exploits or to have to avoid being made fun of for skiing on the baby runs.

I have little motivation to continue this post, so I’m going to wrap it up there.

Check Out Part 6 of Psychology 101: Development I – Physical and Cognitive Development!

Other guides in the Psychology 101 series:

10 thoughts on “Psychology 101 – Motivation

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  9. magnificent put up, very informative. I’m wondering why the other
    experts of this sector don’t understand this. You must continue your writing.
    I’m sure, you have a huge readers’ base already!


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