Motivation involves the biological, emotional, social, and cognitive forces that activate behaviour. In everyday usage, the term motivation is frequently used to describe why a person does something. For example, you might say that a student is so motivated to get into a clinical psychology program that she spends every night studying.”The term motivation refers to factors that activate, direct, and sustain goal-directed behaviour… Motives are the ‘whys’ of behaviour—the needs or wants that drive behaviour and explain what we do. We don’t actually observe a motive; rather, we infer that one exists based on the behaviour we observe.” (Nevid, 2013)

What exactly lies behind the motivations for why we act? Psychologists have proposed different theories of motivation, including drive theory, instinct theory, and humanistic theory. The reality is that there are many different forces that guide and direct our motivations.


Theories of Motivation

Researchers have developed a number of theories to explain motivation. Each individual theory tends to be rather limited in scope. However, by looking at the key ideas behind each theory, you can gain a better understanding of motivation as a whole.

Motivation is the force that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviours. It is what causes us to take action, whether to grab a snack to reduce hunger or enrol in college to earn a degree. The forces that lie beneath motivation can be biological, social, emotional, or cognitive in nature.

What are the things that actually motivate us to act? Psychologists have proposed different theories to explain motivation:

  • Instincts: The instinct theory of motivation suggests that behaviours are motivated by instincts, which are fixed and inborn patterns of behaviour. Psychologists including William James, Sigmund Freud, and William McDougal have proposed a number of basic human drives that motivate behaviour. Such instincts might include biological instincts that are important for an organism’s survival such as fear, cleanliness, and love.
  • Drives and Needs: Many of your behaviours such as eating, drinking, and sleeping are motivated by biology. You have a biological need for food, water, and sleep. Therefore, you are motivated to eat, drink, and sleep. Drive theory suggests that people have basic biological drives and that your behaviours are motivated by the need to fulfil these drives.

Arousal Levels: The arousal theory of motivation suggests that people are motivated to engage in behaviours that help them maintain their optimal level of arousal. A person with low arousal needs might pursue relaxing activities such as reading a book, while those with high arousal needs might be motivated to engage in exciting, thrill-seeking behaviours, such as motorcycle racing.


Motivational Needs

David McClelland pioneered workplace motivational thinking, developing achievement-based motivational theory and models, and promoted improvements in employee assessment methods, advocating competency-based assessments and tests, arguing them to be better than traditional IQ and personality-based tests. His ideas have since been widely adopted in many organisations, and relate closely to the theory of Frederick Herzberg.

David McClelland is most noted for describing three types of motivational need, which he identified in his 1961 book, The Achieving Society:

  • achievement motivation (n-ach)
  • authority/power motivation (n-pow)
  • affiliation motivation (n-affil)

These needs are found to varying degrees in all workers and managers, and this mix of motivational needs characterises a person’s or manager’s style and behaviour, both in terms of being motivated, and in the management and motivation others.

The need for achievement (n-ach)

The n-ach person is ‘achievement motivated’ and therefore seeks achievement, attainment of realistic but challenging goals, and advancement in the job. There is a strong need for feedback as to achievement and progress, and a need for a sense of accomplishment.

The need for authority and power (n-pow)

The n-pow person is ‘authority motivated’. This driver produces a need to be influential, effective and to make an impact. There is a strong need to lead and for their ideas to prevail. There is also motivation and need towards increasing personal status and prestige.

The need for affiliation (n-affil)

The n-affil person is ‘affiliation motivated’, and has a need for friendly relationships and is motivated towards interaction with other people. The affiliation driver produces motivation and need to be liked and held in popular regard. These people are team players.

McClelland said that most people possess and exhibit a combination of these characteristics. Some people exhibit a strong bias to a particular motivational need, and this motivational or needs ‘mix’ consequently affects their behaviour and working/managing style.

McClelland suggested that a strong n-affil ‘affiliation-motivation’ undermines a manager’s objectivity, because of their need to be liked, and that this affects a manager’s decision-making capability.

A strong n-pow ‘authority-motivation’ will produce a determined work ethic and commitment to the organisation, and while n-pow people are attracted to the leadership role; they may not possess the required flexibility and people-centred skills.

McClelland firmly believed that achievement-motivated people are generally the ones who make things happen and get results, and that this extends to getting results through the organisation of other people and resources, although as stated earlier, they often demand too much of their staff because they prioritise achieving the goal above the many varied interests and needs of people.


Instinct Theory of Motivation

According to instinct theories, people are motivated to behave in certain ways because they are evolutionarily programmed to do so. An example of this in the animal world is seasonal migration. These animals do not learn to do this, it is instead an inborn pattern of behaviour. Instincts motivation some species to migrate at certain times each year.

William James created a list of human instincts that included such things as attachment, play, shame, anger, fear, shyness, modesty, and love. The main problem with this theory is that it did not really explain behaviour, it just described it.

By the 1920s, instinct theories were pushed aside in favour of other motivational theories, but contemporary evolutionary psychologists still study the influence of genetics and heredity on human behaviour.

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Incentive Theory of Motivation

The incentive theory suggests that people are motivated to do things because of external rewards. For example, you might be motivated to go to work each day for the monetary reward of being paid. Behavioural learning concepts such as association and reinforcement play an important role in this theory of motivation.

This theory shares some similarities with the behaviourist concept of operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, behaviours are learned by forming associations with outcomes. Reinforcement strengthens a behaviour while punishment weakens it.

While incentive theory is similar, it instead proposes that people intentionally pursue certain courses of action in order to gain rewards. The greater the perceived rewards, the more strongly people are motivated to pursue those reinforcements.

Drive Theory of Motivation

According to the drive theory of motivation, people are motivated to take certain actions in order to reduce the internal tension that is caused by unmet needs. For example, you might be motivated to drink a glass of water in order to reduce the internal state of thirst.

This theory is useful in explaining behaviours that have a strong biological component, such as hunger or thirst. The problem with the drive theory of motivation is that these behaviours are not always motivated purely by physiological needs. For example, people often eat even when they are not really hungry.

Arousal Theory of Motivation

The arousal theory of motivation suggests that people take certain actions to either decrease or increase levels of arousal.

When arousal levels get too low, for example, a person might watch an exciting movie or go for a jog. When arousal levels get too high, on the other hand, a person would probably look for ways to relax such as meditating or reading a book.

According to this theory, we are motivated to maintain an optimal level of arousal, although this level can vary based on the individual or the situation.

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Humanistic Theory of Motivation

Humanistic theories of motivation are based on the idea that people also have strong cognitive reasons to perform various actions. This is famously illustrated in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which presents different motivations at different levels.

First, people are motivated to fulfil basic biological needs for food and shelter, as well as those of safety, love, and esteem. Once the lower level needs have been met, the primary motivator becomes the need for self-actualization, or the desire to fulfil one’s individual potential.

Expectancy Theory of Motivation

The expectancy theory of motivation suggests that when we are thinking about the future, we formulate different expectations about what we think will happen. When we predict that there will most likely be a positive outcome, we believe that we are able to make that possible future a reality. This leads people to feel more motivated to pursue those likely outcomes. The theory proposes that motivations consist of three key elements: valence, instrumentality, and expectancy.

Valence refers to the value people place on the potential outcome. Things that seem unlikely to produce personal benefit have a low valence, while those that offer immediate personal rewards have a higher valence.

Instrumentality refers to whether people believe that they have a role to play in the predicted outcome. If the event seems random or outside of the individual’s control, people will feel less motivated to pursue that course of action. If the individual plays a major role in the success of the endeavour, however, people will feel more instrumental in the process.

Expectancy is the belief that one has the capabilities to produce the outcome. If people feel like they lack the skills or knowledge to achieve the desired outcome, they will be less motivated to try. People who feel capable, on the other hand, will be more likely to try to reach that goal.


Anyone who has ever had a goal (like wanting to lose 20 pounds or run a marathon) probably immediately realizes that simply having the desire to accomplish something is not enough. Achieving such a goal requires the ability to persist through obstacles and endurance to keep going in spite of difficulties.