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Motivation: The Whys of Behavior

From instincts to self-actualization: What motivates us?

Judging from the panoply of motivational books, speeches, videos, and how-to guides, you'd think that psychology has the surefire answer that can explain the simple basis for our many complex behaviors.

As it turns out, the complexity of our behavior requires a complex set of explanatory ideas. After teaching these concepts in my introductory psychology course for many years, using Robert Feldman's (2011) excellent text, I've found that these ideas can be boiled down to some straightforward and useful insights.

Why #1: Instinct Theory

According to the oldest motivational theory on the books, organisms behave as they do because they are following a set of biologically pre-programmed instinctual urges.

Like the birds and the bees, humans are enacting a set of behaviors hardwired into their neural circuitry. This theory is undoubtedly too simple to apply to humans, much less birds and bees. However, inner needs must certainly be part of the equation in understanding our behavior.

Why #2: Drive Reduction Theory

This next approach to motivation proposes that organisms, large and small, simple to complex, prefer the state of homeostasis in which all of their needs are fulfilled. Their "drives," in other words (the need states that propel behavior) must be "reduced."

Everyone might have a different definition of homeostasis—perhaps yours is sleeping late on a weekend morning, or just enjoying a relaxing drink in a cozy chair. Drive reduction theory's critics agree that it's great to have your needs met at least some of the time.

However, if the theory were true, no one would ever seek out excitement. No one would go bungee jumping or seek comparable mental challenges.

Why #3: Arousal Theory

At the opposite pole of drive reduction, arousal theory proposes that we seek to increase, not decrease, our level of stimulation. We want the high that accompanies a rush of endorphins when we push ourselves physically or mentally. Animals, as well as humans, get bored from too much homeostasis. However, too much arousal can also thwart our ability to achieve our goals.

A variant of arousal theory, called the "Yerkes-Dodson Law," takes this fact into account. The Yerkes-Dodson law proposed in 1908 but still used today (Smith et al., 2007), proposes that we each function according to an optimum level of arousal.

You might consider this the "Goldilocks" principle of motivation. If you're too sleepy or too nervous, you'll invariably perform poorly, whether giving a speech or shooting a basketball. Each individual, and each task, has its own peak between arousal that is too low and arousal that is too intense. Once you find your optimum level of arousal, your performance will be both flawless and enjoyable.

Why #4: Incentive Theory

Our behavior may also be determined by forces that propel us to do something we otherwise would not. Incentive theory is the basic principle behind marketing. A good marketing strategy will cause you to want something you neither have nor think you need. You expect that by having this "thing," you will be better off than you are without it (Beckmann & Heckhausen, 2008). It's like those catalogs that fall out of your mailbox during the holiday season and the emails that clutter up your inbox offering unbelievable "deals." Retailers are hoping that you will go after the products that they put out in front of you.

Similarly, grocery, convenience, and large-scale retail clothing stores place their little-but-often-expensive temptations where they are bound to have the most impact—namely, while you're waiting to check out. An item that you would have given no thought to now becomes a handy little impulse purchase that you toss into your bag or cart. Adding to the draw of the impulse purchase is the fact that you may feel you deserve a treat, having practiced extreme self-restraint throughout the rest of your shopping expedition (a phenomenon called "ego depletion").

Why #5: Cognitive Theory

Moving from simple conditioning to the realm of behavior controlled by thoughts, the cognitive theory of motivation proposes that our expectations guide our behavior. You'll behave in ways that you think will produce a desirable outcome.

Cognitive theory, which is the creation of University of Rochester psychologists Ed Deci and Richard Ryan, proposed that we have two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is what drives us to fulfill our inner potential and interests. Your intrinsic motivation is your desire to express your true self in your behavior, whether it's work or leisure. What's more, when you are driven by intrinsic motivation, you feel that you are determining the outcomes of your efforts. Extrinsic motivation, by contrast, is your desire to achieve tangible rewards such as money or the glory that come with status and recognition.

Deci and Ryan developed the counterintuitive proposal that people who receive extrinsic rewards for behaviors that they find intrinsically satisfying become less creative and productive. This has the picturesque name of "motivational crowding out." The extrinsic rewards of money, fame, and recognition crowd out the intrinsic satisfaction that you experience from doing something because you really like to do it.

The motivational crowding out idea has some obvious flaws. Managers could use this theory to pay workers less or deny them promotions. "Why should we pay you more (or at all)?" You'll be less creative and productive! This problem led to a revision of the theory which is called ...

Why #6: Self-Determination Theory

With the obvious flaw in cognitive theory, it became clear that work motivation needs to incorporate both intrinsic and extrinsic sources of motivation. Deci and Ryan, therefore, revised their theory.

Self-determination theory proposes that you can have a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation driving your work-related and other behavior. The most satisfying activities you can engage in, the ones that will motivate you the most, are those that allow you to feel most in control of your behavior. You can be motivated by the mundane satisfaction provided by extrinsic rewards. However, the more autonomy you feel, the more self-directed you'll be, and the most satisfied you'll be in your work, as suggested by research on college alums who felt they were fulfilling their intrinsic needs (Niemiec et al, 2009).

Being able to express your inner motives and get paid at the same time is a hard combination to beat. The problem for many people is that they feel that their work behavior is controlled by factors outside of their own inner self-determination. It's that feeling of external control that leads to job discontent and stagnation. The remedy to this problem is to find ways to express your autonomy, even if it's only in a few minor ways.

Why #7: Self-Actualization Theory

At the very pinnacle of motivation, self-actualization theory proposes that we are most motivated to realize our own inner potential. Maslow's self-actualization theory is one of the most recognizable topics in psychology, but also one of the least well-tested and least well-understood.

According to Maslow, self-actualization is the true realization of your inner potential, whatever that is. Self-actualization is not a state of complete perfection. Maslow's very lofty definition proposed that self-actualization is a continual process of becoming.

The hierarchy of motives for which Maslow became famous proposed that we have lower-order needs (those instincts and drives) and higher-order needs (total self-expression). After you satisfy your lower-order needs, says the theory, you can self-actualize. This idea might be wrongly translated into the expression "A hungry poet cannot write."

However, as we all know, hungry poets do write. In fact, many people will set aside physical needs, safety, and even positive regard from others in order to fulfill their highest-order needs. To many, Steve Jobs was just such a man. Maslow actually proposed that, in fact, many of the people he considered self-actualized had given up their lower-order needs for safety, security, and even love, to realize their innermost passions. According to Maslow, very few people achieve this nirvana, and when they do, they're typically in their middle or later years.

Now that you've seen the range of motivation theories, you've probably been able to pick out parts of each that apply to you either now or at some point in your past. By recognizing that your behavior reflects these many complex pieces, you can move on to developing your own unique path to change. Whether it's arousal, incentive, self-determination, or self-actualization, understanding the motivation behind your behavior can give you the insights you need to develop your own unique pathway to fulfillment.

Further reading:

Feldman, R.S. (2011). Understanding psychology (10e). New York: McGraw-Hill (an excellent overview of the above theories).

Read more here about SDT's extensive empirical support and the response to criticisms from behaviorists and others.

Copyright 2011 Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.


Beckmann, J., & Heckhausen, H. (2008). Motivation as a function of expectancy and incentive. In J. Heckhausen, H. Heckhausen, J. Heckhausen, H. Heckhausen (Eds.) , Motivation and action (2nd ed.) (pp. 99-136). New York, NY US: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511499821.006

Niemiec, C. P., Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2009). The path taken: Consequences of attaining intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations in post-college life. Journal of Research in Personality, 43(3), 291-306. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2008.09.001

Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (2007). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. In D. Smith, M. Bar-Eli, D. Smith, M. Bar-Eli (Eds.) , Essential readings in sport and exercise psychology (pp. 13-22). Champaign, IL US: Human Kinetics

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