The Psychology of Motivation

iStock 000015346724XSmallFor centuries people have contemplated the origins of what motivates people. Before the term motivation was created, people just wanted to know what made people act with energy in certain ways.


People continue to seek the answers to the following questions to better understand how to motivate ourselves and others.


  • What can we do to increase a person’s interest in doing what we want them to do?
  • Why is it that some people are drawn towards behaving in ways that others are not?
  • Why do some people seem to get great joy out of pursuing certain goals and others do not?
  • Why are some people more “driven” in life and others are less ambitious?


These questions remain at the forefront of psychology and the study of human behavior.


Socrates and Aristotle pondered the foundations of human behavior and motivation, yet did not have scientific methods to test their theories.


It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that William James and Sigmund Freud began to theorize the explanation of human behavior, drives, and motives in the field of study we now call Psychology. In the twentieth century, The study of psychology, sponsored by many prominent universities, created a deluge of thought, theory, and research on personality and behavior, dysfunction, therapy, and motives.


Harvard University Psychology professors William James, William McDougall, Henry Murray, and David McClelland, over a period of decades, sought to better understand the fundamental motives that drive behavior. While their ideas and theories were both interesting and enlightening at the time, they were only based on observation and ethological studies.


Abraham Maslow created one of the most popular theories in Psychology in the 1960’s called the Hierarchy of Needs Theory proposing 5 levels of motivation that were linear and progressive. Maslow believed that one level of motivation must be met before another level would be ready for fulfillment.


While the theory provided good insights to our understanding of basic human needs, studies conducted in the later part of the twentieth century did not support Basic Needs Theory. In fact, studies found that people are different in their level of desire for each of these needs and a lower level of motivation does not necessarily have to precede a higher level.


Other theories of motivation include incentive theory, drive reduction theory, Hertzberg two-factor theory, and Alderfer’s ERG theory. Unfortunately, rigorous scientific study found many of these theories insufficient to fully understand motivation. Measurement reliability and validity were also absent.


Over the past 20 years, however, the psychological community has found means to better measure behavioral phenomena and study people and behavior in a reliable and valid way.


So where are we to go to both understand motivation and increase it for ourselves and the people we lead?


First we must realize that human behavior is complex and we can’t expect a quick and easy explanation for such an intricate concept. We have to seek to understand humans through a lens of individual difference based on desires and environmental factors that both support and hinder natural motivation.  While there are many theories of motivation, we are best served by looking to the theories that have the best scientific grounding and application value.


After more than 15 years of my own study and research, I have shifted my thinking to a more balanced perspective gleaning principles from only the scientifically valid theories that can be applied to work and life. I’ll talk more about my perspective of motivation and even what we can do to move beyond typical motivational techniques in my upcoming blog posts.

4 thoughts on “The Psychology of Motivation”

  1. You know, there is still a lot of buzz going around about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, even tough his theory has been discounted as the one size fits all solution. I agree with you that his method of reaching self-fulfillment failed, because some people place different priority on certain things than others.

    I have found that in life, there really is no “one size fits all.” Even the clothing companies have changed their label from one size fits all, to one size fits most…but when it comes to motivation, there really is no way to make a plan that will fit any two people alike, without making them assess what their on needs are. I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head here.

  2. Is it weird that I’m more motivated to do things that are difficult; than it is to do the simple stuff? I mean…if I have to break my back to do it, I will! But if it’s really no big deal…then it’s pretty easy to just let it go. What do you think about that?

  3. Yes, I have pondered these things for a long time. I imagine that parenting issues, relationship issues, and many many other issues would be resolved if we could just answer these questions.

    I have wondered for myself many times, why I have had to seek motivation to begin with. It confuses me when I think about the fact that desire to do something doesn’t necessarily come with the motivation to accomplish it. I wonder if maybe the issue is less about lack of motivation, and more about removing doubts that stifle it.

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