The 4 Dichotomies of Motivation


Motivation is fascinating yet maddening at the same time. Just when we think we got the concept nailed down, we think about another circumstance or scenario that doesn’t quite fit a framework we are trying to use.


This occurs because motivation, and human behavior for that matter, is very dynamic. Often more dynamic than we think. We’d all love to be able to understand the motives and behaviors of people in an easy and simple way. Yet, that’s just not the way we are.


We are not simple. But there is great beauty in the complexity of our human nature.


Motivation can be thought of in many different ways including short-term, long-term, negative, positive, and general to life or related to specific instances or circumstances.


To better wrap our minds around any situation that involves motivation we need to understand the dichotomies of motivation. Before we create a plan for motivating ourselves or others, it’s important to first define our intended outcome.


Here are 4 dichotomies we need to consider to better focus on the outcomes we want to create.


Situational Motivation vs. General Motivation


Motivation can be based on a specific situation. Situational motivation is when we think about a current situation, experience or action. We then choose our internal level of motivation. Although we may not be thinking specifically about a “level”, we will be determining what kind of energy we will put forth for the situation at hand. The energy could be positive, negative, high, low, and any variation in between.

In contrast to situational motivation, there is general motivation. General motivation describes our overall general level of motivation that affects all life events.


A person who has a higher level of general motivation is often referred to as being energetic, lively, optimistic, or ambitious.

A person with higher general motivation tends to have higher levels of situational motivation, although they are not always correlated.


A person with higher general motivation who finds themselves in a situation that is of little interest and meaning may have lower situational motivation yet still maintain a high level of general motivation.


Over time, the lack of situational motivation can negatively impact general motivation.

Negative Motivation vs. Positive Motivation


Negative motivation is the motivation one is feeling that leads to avoidance of some kind of negative experience or punishment. Negative motivation can cause people to behave or act with high energy; however, the energy is negative and has significant side effects.


An example of this is when a person is doing a job just sufficient enough to not get fired. The person will do the work, yet the work is often done grudgingly, resulting in poor quality. The person with negative motivation is not self-directed and therefore perceives little meaning within his/her work.


While the person’s work or behavior that is motivated may be up to par, in many cases the person is unfocused, cares little about the outcomes, and carries negative energy that impacts others.

Positive motivation is the motivation that drives self-determined behavior and action. A person who has positive motivation is described as being full of positive energy, engaged, optimistic, focused, and happy.


This motivation is derived from a person fully understanding the impact of the behavior and the activity is aligned with his or her sense of meaning, thus leading to a valued outcome.

Short-term Motivation vs. Sustained Motivation


Short-term motivation is a perspective that motivation is a series of short bursts of energy and confidence. While this can be true of motivation, it is not the kind of motivation we want to pursue in our lives.

People who pursue short-term motivation are looking for the next “motivation fix.” They seek the “high” of the motivated feeling and feed off of it. Once it has subsided, they seek the next high.


Some look to motivational speaker events or recordings, books, energetic people to be around, and some may even use drugs to falsely create this feeling.


There is certainly nothing wrong with listening to a motivational speaker, reading motivational books, or being with people who motivate you; the problem occurs when we rely only on these external experiences to get a boost in our motivation and energy.


In contrast, sustained motivation is energy that is more stable over time and is less intense at its high and low points. Someone who has sustained motivation does not live on a motivational roller-coaster.


We can’t always have high motivation. Our bodies, endocrine system and brain, are designed to modulate – allowing for positive stress and time for recovery. This means there are times when we will be more highly motivated and times when our motivation is moderate.


Extrinsic Motivation vs. Intrinsic Motivation

The Intrinsic-Extrinsic dichotomy is the most popular of them all. Extrinsic often refers to a behavior that is motivated by external or tangible factors such as money, acknowledgement, or some other kind of reward.


Intrinsic motivation is often defined as motivation based on internal factors such has fun, a good feeling, or sense of meaningfulness.


Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are typically view as opposites, yet given more thought and examining motivational scenarios, extrinsic motivation may be just a vehicle for the satisfaction of internal needs and desire.


This is a good indication that intrinsic motivation is the one true overall driver of behavior. I plan to talk more about this in my next blog post.

Understanding and determining the correct perspective of motivation for which we are trying to motivate ourselves or others is a key part of creating a plan for  increasing motivation.


Although it may sound elementary, it is amazing how many people continue to use old tactics that yield negative and short-lived motivation rather than utilizing tactics that creates an environment that enables sustained, positive, and intrinsic motivation.