6 Key Ideas Behind Theories of Motivation

A Closer Look at Some Important 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 behaviors. It is what causes us to take action, whether to grab a snack to reduce hunger or enroll in college to earn a degree. The forces that lie beneath motivation can be biological, social, emotional or cognitive in nature.

Learn more about some of the different theories of motivation:

Instinct Theory of Motivation

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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 behavior. 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 behavior, it just described it.

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

Incentive Theory of Motivation

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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. Behavioral learning concepts such as association and reinforcement play an important role in this theory of motivation.

This theory shares some similarities with the behaviorist concept of operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, behaviors are learned by forming associations with outcomes. Reinforcement strengthens a behavior 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

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

Arousal Theory of Motivation

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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.

Humanistic Theory of Motivation

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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 fulfill 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 fulfill one's individual potential.

Expectancy Theory of Motivation

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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 with 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 endeavor, however, people well 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.

Final Thoughts

While no single theory can adequately explain all human motivation, looking at the individual theories can offer a greater understanding of the forces that cause us to take action. In reality, there are likely many different forces that interact to motivate behavior.

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