hiking snow mountain

The Psychology of Motivation

This post in the Psychology 101 series focuses on motivation, the driving force behind behaviour which leads us to pursue some things and avoid others. Firstly we will take a broad approach and examine each of the major perspectives on motivation ranging from the psychodynamic to the evolutionary model. Finally we will zoom in a little and consider some of the most important individual motives that guide human behaviour.

Table of Contents

  1. Perspectives on Motivation
    1. Psychodynamic Perspective
    2. Cognitive Perspective
    3. Humanistic Perspective
    4. Evolutionary Perspective
  2. Physical Motives
    1. Eating
    2. Sex
  3. Psychological Motives
    1. Intimacy
    2. Power
    3. Achievement
    4. Goals

Perspectives on Motivation

Psychodynamic Perspective

animal fight

The psychodynamic perspective emphasises the biological basis of motivation. Humans are animals, and their motives reflect their animal instincts. According to Freud, humans, like other animals, are motivated by drives, internal tension states that build up until they are satisfied. He proposed two basic drives: sex and aggression. The sexual drive includes the desire for love, lust and intimacy, while the aggressive drive includes blatantly aggressive or sadistic impulses and also desires to control or manipulate other people and the environment. These drives, if repressed, may express themselves in subtle, socially acceptable and ways, such as enjoying violent movies, making sarcastic comments, or watching pornography. Due to societies taboos, we feel a constant tension in that we instinctually want to satisfy our animalistic urges, but cannot due to the taboos society have placed, and the guilt that we have been burdened with for even thinking of committing any such acts.

world war agression

Initially Freud had proposed self-preservation and sex as the two basic drives, much like the evolutionary concept of reproductive success, which includes survival and reproduction. His decision to change from self-preservation to aggression stemmed in part from living through World War I and witnessing the beginning of World War II in Europe. If aggression on such a massive scale kept breaking through in the most civilised societies, he reasoned, it must be a basic motivational force.

Psychodynamic views of motivation have advanced considerably since Freud’s death in 1939. In addition to sexual and aggressive desires, psychodynamic theorists now emphasise two other motives – the need for relatedness to others (independent of sexual desires) and the need for self-esteem (feeling good about oneself). Just as psychodynamic theorists have moved away from Freud’s dual-instinct theory, many have also moved away from his abstract notion of drives and have instead moved towards his theory of wish fulfillment and fear.


A wish is a representation of a desired state that is associated with emotion or arousal. Wishes range from the obvious and commonplace, such as the desire to get a good job, to the less obvious and unconscious, such as competitive desires that the individual would feel guilty to acknowledge – such as wishing to be more successful than your siblings due to childhood jealousy. Once a wish is activated, it may become temporarily deactivated or less intense.

A fear is a representation of an undesired state that is associated with unpleasant feelings. Fears also range from the obvious, such as fear of being punished, to the more abstract and repressed, such as being afraid that making mistakes will cause your parents to lose their love and respect for you. Freud believed that wish fulfillment and fear avoidance were the two primary unconscious drives that motivated our behaviour, he explored in his research how, because of their unconscious and repressed nature, they are often satisfied or played out in the dream state rather than the waking state. For those interested in learning more about psychodynamic dream theory I recommend reading Sigmund Freud’s book  Interpretation of Dreams, followed by Carl Jung’s book – Dreams.

unconscious freud
Freud’s Structure of Mind ‘Iceberg’ Model

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of psychodynamic theory of motivation is the view that motives can be unconscious. The child of an abusive alcoholic father, for example, may desperately want to avoid such men in her life, but continues to end up in relationships with abusive men resembling her father. Similarly, a child who grew up without the love and support of his mother, is likely to go out with a succession of women who act as ‘substitute moms’, and may very well end up marrying a woman who is controlling and motherly like. All of these things occur without the person being aware of it, as these are behaviours that are driven by unconscious motivations.

children drawing

Until recently, the evidence for unconscious motivation was largely clinical and anecdotal. However, laboratory evidence now supports the distinction between unconscious motives and the conscious motives people can self report. To study unconscious motives, researchers often use the Thematic Apperception Test (Morgan & Murray, 1935). The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) consists of a series of ambiguous images which the participants are asked to make up a story for. Researchers then code the stories for motivational themes. The motives researchers code from people’s TAT stories are in fact highly predictive of their behaviour over time. Studies have found that the number of times an individual’s stories express themes of achievment predicts success in business over many years (McClelland et al., 1989). Similarly, the number of intimacy themes expressed in stories at age 30 predicts the quality of marital adjustment almost 20 years later (McAdams & Caillant, 1982).

Another way to measure motives is to simply ask someone what they are: ‘is achievement something you strive for?’ etc. However, studies with the TAT have shown that these sorts of questions are only beneficial in revealing one’s immediate motivations, and not their long term ones. The correlation between conscious, self reported motives and the inferred motives expressed in TAT stories is typically zero. People who demonstrate high achievement motivation in their stories, for example, don’t necessarily report high motivation to achieve. Although the discrepancy could simply mean one of the two assessment methods is invalid; in fact, each type of measure predicts different kinds of behaviour. For instance, achievement motivation assessed by the TAT is far more predictive of long term success than the same motive assessed by self report. However, if participants in the laboratory are told they must do well on a task they are about to undertake, self reported motivation is far more predictive of effort and success than TAT expressed motivation. Bow can both types of measure predict achievement behaviour but not predict each other?

David McClelland and his colleagues (1989) found a solution to this paradox, making a distinction similar to that between implicit and explicit memory. The TAT taps implicit (unconscious) motives, whereas self reports reflect explicit (conscious) motives. Implicit or unconscious motivation is expressed over time without conscious effort or awareness, whereas explicit or self reported motivation becomes activated when people focus conscious attention on tasks and goals. Conscious motives, which are more flexible and controllable, can override unconscious motives but often only temporarily, as anyone knows who has ever made and broken a New Years resolution. Further research suggests that the two kinds of motives, explicit and implicit, reflect different kinds of child-rearing experiences. For example, parental demands for control, mastery and autonomy in early life predict implicit need for achievement decades later. In contrast, parents explicit teaching about values predicts later explicit motives (Koestner, Zuroff, & Powers, 1991; McClelland & Pilon, 1983).

Cognitive Perspective

goal setting

Cognitive theories provide an alternative approach to motivation. One such theory is the expectancy-value theory, which views motivation as a joint function of the value people place on an outcome and the extent to which they believe they can achieve it. A considerable body of research has demonstrated the extent to which children’s beliefs about their abilities influence their motivation and subsequent achievement in school (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). Students of similar actual ability levels often differ tremendously in their success depending on their perceived ability. Similarly, research finds that unemployed workers’ expectancies about their likelihood of success in job seeking, together with the value they place on work, predict the probability that they will hold a job a year later.


Cognitive approaches to motivation often focus on goals – desired outcomes established through social learning. A cognitive theory widely used by organisational psychologists interested in increasing worker motivation is goal-setting theory. The core proposition of goal-setting theory is that conscious goals regulate much of human behaviour, especially performance on work tasks. Goals represent desired outcomes that differ in some way from a person’s current situation. Goals activate old solutions that have worked in the past and encourage efforts to create new solutions if the old ones fail. Research using this theory suggests that maximum goal achieving performance only occurs if the following conditions are met:

  1. The person must experience a discrepancy between what they have and what they want
  2. Must define specific goals rather than general ones; goals must have a clear outline
  3. Must receive continual feedback, from others or from oneself, to allow the person to gauge their progresses towards their goal
  4. Must believe they have the ability to attain the goal
  5. Must set a high enough goal to remain motivated – the goal must not be met too easily or too quickly
  6. The person must have a high degree of personal commitment towards the goal.
child guitar

Thirty years ago, Edward Deci began exploring a paradox that has engaged psychologists’ attention ever since. Thousands of studies from a behaviourist point of view have shown that rewarding people for performing behaviours increases the likelihood that they will perform them again in the future. But does reward increase people’s intrinsic motivation – their enjoyment of and interest in an activity for it’s own sake – or does it simply make them more likely to perform the behaviour when they can expect an external reward? This question has profound implications in school, work and parenting. Do we increase a child’s interest in mathematics by rewarding her for good grades or does rewarding her inadvertently extinguish her intristic interest in the subject?

Deci offered a controversial and counter intuitive prediction – that reward can actually stifle intrinsic pleasure in learning – a prediction largely supported by available data (Deci et al., 1999). The most recent version of the theory, called self-determination theory, suggests that people have innate needs – competence, relatedness to others and autonomy – and that intrinsic motivation flourishes when these needs are fulfilled rather than compromised. Rewards, as well as threats, tend to compromise people’s sense of autonomy. As a result, even though they may develop competence in a domain, they are likely to see the motivations as forced on them and therefore lose their intrinsic interest.
guitar child

Therefore, when possible, parents who want to foster intrinsic motivation in their children are advised to praise and support their children’s interests and successes, but only by emphasising the child’s competence rather than compliance. So maybe you should think twice before forcing a musical instrument on your child, sure they might excel at it if started at a young age, but if they feel as though it wasn’t their idea, and they weren’t pursuing it out of their own self interest, they will quickly see it as a chore. Even later in life, when the child grows to accept the instrument (as an example) as their own passion, unconsciously they will still harbor the same childhood feelings towards it.

Although self-determination theory is a cognitive theory, it has drawn heavily from other perspectives. For example, Deci derived his theory that children have innate needs for challenge and mastery from the psychoanalyst Robert White (1959), and the theory is compatible with many humanistic approaches to personality that focus on innate needs for growth and self-development. Another cognitive approach on motivation that borrows from other psychological perspectives is the work of Jonathan Bargh on implicit motives, motives that can be activated and expressed outside of awareness. According to Bargh, just as well-learned cognitive procedures can become automatic and occur without conscious awareness, so too can well-learned goals. Drawing upon principles of association, Bargh argues that if an individual frequently chooses the same goal i a certain situation, the goal will become associated with the situation. As a result, whenever the situation arises, the goal state will be activated and guide behaviour, whether or not the person has any conscious of the intention.

In a series of studies, Bargh and his noble colleagues tested this hypothesis using priming techniques usually used to assess implicit memory (Bargh, 1997). They primed participants by having them make words out of scrambled letters, under one of two conditions. In one condition, the words were related to achievement (e.g strive); in the other, the words were related to affiliation (e.g friend). Next, they informed participants that the study was over, but asked if they could help an experimenter down the hall who was allegedly conducting an entirely separate experiment. In this ‘second experiment’, participants found themselves in a situation of motivational conflict.

Each participant was paired with an incompetent partner (Bargh’s experimenting buddies) and given a puzzle task on which they would receive a joint score reflecting their work as a team. Participants could therefore succeed by ignoring their incompetent partner’s suggestions, and possibly hurting their feelings, or they could be more interpersonally sensitive but receive a lower score. As predicted, participants who had been primed with achievement words significantly outperformed  participants who had been primed with affiliation words. Through studies such as this one, Bargh suggests that motives, like other psychological processes, can be activated either implicitly or explicitly and can guide our behaviour even when we have no idea when or how they became activated.

Humanistic Perspective

maslow hierarchy of needs

An alternative approach to motivation was advanced by Abraham Maslow (1962, 1970). Humanistic psychologists such as Maslow emphasise dignity, individual choice and self-worth as playing key roles in explaining human behaviour. Maslow believed that people are motivated by the desire for personal growth above all other needs. He developed a needs hierarchy that has become famous in psychology and HR management.

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, lower level needs, beginning with basic survival must be fulfilled before higher level needs guide a person’s behaviour. At the most basic level are physiological needs, such as for food and water. Next are the safety needs for security and protection. Having satisfied physiological and safety needs to some extent, people are motivated to pursue close connections with others, and to feel a sense of belonging. After feeling close to and accepted by others, people are then motivated by esteem needs, which includes not only self esteem (how you value your worth) but also other people’s esteem (how others value your worth).

Finally, at the highest level are the self-actualisation needs, motives to express oneself and grow, or to actualise one’s potential. Self-actualisation needs differ from all the previous levels in that they are not generated by a lack of something (food, shelter, closeness, the esteem of self and others). Rather, they are growth needs – motives to expand and develop one’s abilities and life purpose. Attaining this level of self-actualisation – what Jung referred to as self-realisation and the Buddhists as enlightenment – is something that few people actually reach; but it still a goal, whether consciously or unconsciously, that drives all humans.


Clayton Alderfer refined the aspects of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and condensed it into a version known as the ERG theory, which only contains three levels: existence, relatedness and growth.

Evolutionary Perspective

chimp happy

In the early part of the twentieth century, psychologists assumed that most motivated behaviour in humans, as in other animals, was a result of instincts, relatively fixed patterns of behaviour produced without learning. Most psychologists have abandoned instinct theory due to the huge variability in human behaviour across cultures, which led them to believe that learning, rather than instinct, motivates behaviour in humans. Despite this, it is still hard to ignore the patterns in all animal’s behaviour, particularity patterns in survival and reproductive tendencies. While these may appear different across different animals and different cultures, from different courting rituals to different methods of reproducing, they all seem to share the same fundamental instincts that are inherent in any animal. Whether we lay eggs, produce children in a womb, or adopt, or whether we protect our young by living in straw huts, in brick houses or in holes in the ground we all are driven by the same instinctual drives – to reproduce, and to survive.

chimps kiss

Contemporary evolutionary psychologists contend that motivational systems, like other psychological attributes, have been selected by nature for their ability to maximise reproductive success. Organisms that do not replenish their energy by eating do not survive and reproduce. Nature has thus designed humans and other animals with intricate systems for maintaining basic life support processes. Evolutionary psychologists believe throw a phrase around a lot, and that phrase is ‘survival of the fittest’, basically they argue that evolution selects animals that maximise their reproductive success. This theory makes mathematical sense, considering if an animal (humans included) protects its child then the probability that it’s gene will survive is 50% because his child shares 50% of his genes. This is why it is necessary for a lot of male animals in their ‘kingdom’ to ‘spread their seed’ to as many partners as possible; there are no taboos in the animal kingdom, they can do this till they die of exhaustion if they like as they are driven by instinct – as opposed to us humans who are driven by just about everything, except for instinct, which is largely repressed.

So how do these animals, whether it be bees or humans, know who their brothers and sisters are? Who do they protect? Recent research suggests that some species are actually endowed with chemical mechanisms (pheromones) for kin recognition. Pheromones are similar to hormones, except that they allow cell to cell communication between rather than within organisms. Whether pheromonal communication leads to increased investment in close relatives is unknown, but it does help members of some species avoid mating with members of other species and avoid incest, which can produce genetically defective offspring and hence reduce reproductive success. Humans probably do not rely on pheromones for kin recognition, they instead make use of other mechanisms, such as familiarity and facial recognition, particularly from childhood. Throughout the course of much of human evolution, people who grew up together were more than likely family members, so longtime familiarity would be a rough index of degree of kinship. Even if the people you grew up with weren’t genetically your family, a sense of family is still felt between humans.

Humans are an interesting species in that we don’t really know what the hell motivates us! In a way we are motivated by aspects of all of the above theories discussed, but there is no be all end all theory that explains our behaviour, because it all depends on your perspective. If you look at humans from an evolutionary perspective you’re obviously going to look at human motivation in terms of instinct, you’re going to compare humans to chimpanzees and other animals and you will do this until you can’t differentiate the two or your head explodes. On the other hand, you could look through the humanistic perspective, and see that human motivation is really different from animal motivation, but then you lose sight of how animalistic we really are.

Physical Motives



Having 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.


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: