Theories of Motivation: What Drives Us to Do What We Do

shutterstock_141144724You signed up for a fitness class at the gym so you could lose five pounds, took it diligently and dropped the weight.

Your sister signed up for the same fitness class, took it sparingly, and then dropped the class without losing any weight.

What motivated you to go to the class each time, participate in the class, follow through with your fitness plan and lose the weight?

And why wasn’t your sister motivated to do the same?

(If you find YOU can’t get motivated, learn how in our Motivation Booster class, which teaches students techniques for getting – and staying – motivated!)

What Are Theories of Motivation?

Theories of motivation try to explain why people do the things they do. What makes one person more motivated than the next to accomplish the same goal? Where does the motivation come from? Is your reward something you can touch, or is it something you feel inside? (If you can’t find the motivation at all and you find yourself constantly negating your abilities, it might be time to take Motivation to Dream Bigger, which will teach you how to monitor the negative self chatter.

Oftentimes our motivation to do something – run a marathon, read a particular book, attend church, eat dinner – depends on a specific situation. For example, eating, many times, happens because we are hungry. In most instances we don’t get ‘rewarded’ for eating. We don’t win a medal when we finish our meal at the end of the day – unless, of course, our ‘medal’ is a piece of cake and we only eat the meal to get the piece of cake.

Most of the time, though, we eat because our body is hungry. We hope the food tastes good, but sometimes we have to eat because if we don’t we will get ill from lack of food.

Sometimes we are motivated to do a task for a number of reasons, and those reasons may vary. We might run a marathon because:

  • We need to lose weight
  • That feeling of accomplishment is one we need as we cross the finish line, so we can feel that we can do anything we set our mind to, no matter how hard
  • The medal that we get for crossing the finish line after running 26.2 is cute and we want to hang it in our office to show off to all of our friends.

Theories of motivation attempt to explain why we make the decisions we make to do the things we do. Before we talk about these theories of motivation, though, we have to first understand the meaning of motivation.

What Exactly IS Motivation?

We use the term motivation or motivate often, as in “I was so motivated today I got a lot done!” But what does that term actually mean?

According to Mirriam-Webster.com, motivation is the ‘act or process of giving someone a reason’ to do something, or it is the condition of being eager to do some type of work.

So when we talk about theories of motivation, we are talking about the theories behind what it is that drives us to do the things we do.

Intrinsic and External Motivation

Motivation may come from the outside, or externally, or it may come from the inside, or internally/intrinsically.

External motivations might include an award at work for completing a particular project or a new purse because you saved enough money after paying the bills.

Intrinsic, or internal, motivation might include reading a novel because you enjoy the feeling you get when you have a great book in your hands and not because you have to memorize the text written between the pages for your English 101 course so you can ace the test. If you work with children and are interested in learning more about nurturing intrinsic motivation, sign up for Beyond Compliance.

Theories of Motivation

Theories of Motivation got their start around the 1930s and have changed from the idea that people are not aware of choices they are making to the idea that we are actually aware and are able to make decisions. In this article we will take a look at several theories of motivation, although there are others we won’t touch on here.

The theories of motivation we’ll look at include:

  • Drive theory
  • Arousal Theory
  • Incentive Theory
  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Drive Theory

The drive theory looks at motivation through the eyes of our biological needs. These biological needs, such as hunger, drive us to do something to satiate those needs, such as eat. So we are motivated to do things by these biological needs because we need to alleviate the feelings that these needs give us at certain times.

The drive theory is based on the idea that we want to feel balanced. When the body makes us feel uncomfortable or out of balance, we are motivated to do something to bring back that feeling of comfort and balance. So our stomach grumbles because we are hungry, and then what do we do? We eat. We may be driven by primary needs that are biological in nature or we may be driven by learned needs.

Clark Hull, who developed this theory, created this equation:

Behavior = Drive X Habit

Of course, not everything that we are motivated to do is based on making us feel balanced. Sometimes we eat when we aren’t hungry. We aren’t eating to create balance; in fact, we are creating the opposite feeling if we eat too much. And we don’t have a biological drive to purchase a new pair of shoes that we like; we do this because we want the shoes, or we are rewarding ourselves with the shoes for doing something else. So while the theory is a popular one, it doesn’t fit with many situations.

Arousal Theory

This theory of motivation states that maybe we are motivated to do things because doing these things creates a feeling of arousal once they have been done (or are being done).  In this theory, people are motivated by the excitement they feel when they do particular things, which could explain when people do ‘bad’ things that create ‘good’ arousal feelings: for instance, seeking poor relationships because they are ‘exciting’ or drinking excessively because of the way it makes them feel.

In the arousal theory of motivation the idea is that each person has a level of arousal to be met, and this level varies from person to person. This is why certain people prefer more intense activities than others (ie: skydiving versus reading). So your level of arousal may be different that your sister’s, which may be why, in the example above, you completed the fitness class and lost the weight and she didn’t.

Incentive Theory

In this theory of motivation, people do things because they want to accomplish goals. You might be motivated to run a 5K because you want to reach a goal of running a certain distance. You might be motivated to finish a college course because you want to achieve a diploma at the end of the class. You might, as a child, complete your chores because you want the $5 bill your dad will hand you when you get done.

The reward you receive at the end of achieving the goal could be tangible, like money (ie: you go to work to earn the paycheck, so your paycheck is the motivation to work) or it could be something intrinsic, such as you paint a picture because the act of painting the picture creates a happy feeling inside of you.

If you consider the example that we opened up with, perhaps you accomplished your goal of attending the fitness class and losing weight because the reward – losing weight – was enough of an incentive to motivate you. Perhaps your sister didn’t master her goal of attending the class and losing weight because the reward for her wasn’t motivation enough.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Chances are you have heard of Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. This is a theory that is fairly well known, even by those who aren’t close followers of psychology and its studies. Maslow believed that people were motivated by their needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was as follows, with the basic needs on the bottom:

  • Self-actualization
  • Aesthetic Needs
  • Need to Know
  • Self -Worth
  • Love & Belonging
  • Safety
  • Physiological

Maslow further broke this chart down by stating that psychological, safety, love and belonging, and self-worth fell into deficiency needs; the remaining needs were described as growth needs. Maslow felt deficiency needs were those needs that, when they were met, reduced motivation. For instance, you aren’t motivated to eat if you eat and then you are no longer hungry.

Growth needs, on the other hand, were needs that once met increased motivation.

Managers can sign up for the Motivating Employees course to learn more about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and how it relates to motivating employees.