Motivation – the theory

Attempts to define motivation are varied, but it can be understood as a dynamic state which drives us to act and behave in a particular way. Here we will detail and critically analyse the principal theories of motivation to understand, in more depth, this complex concept.

If we think of a human, stripped back to the basic need for survival, and question why he acts in a certain way, it’s natural to look at how theories of instinct explain his behaviour.  Cannon (1939, cited in Beck, 2000) states that instinct is an imbalance (such as hunger) which motivates us to act to return the body to homeostasis or balance. Hess (1962, cited in Chamorro-Premuzic, 2011) goes further and explains that instinct provides “fixed action patterns” which allow us to react to biological objectives which are encoded in us all. This has been criticised by others, however, who note that we are actually motivated by prevention of imbalance, because in most cases we eat to avoid the feeling of hunger, not because we are actually hungry (Collier, Hirsch & Hamlin, 1972, cited in Beck, 2000).

Hull’s Drive Reduction theory (1952) is similar to instinct theory but Hull specifies that the absence of something (such as food) creates an internal drive and that it is our natural response to reduce the drive until we achieve homeostasis again. However, as Beck (2000) says, the generalization that drive increases activity is subject to so many qualifications as to be almost useless.  In addition, it has been shown that we sometimes act not because of a need to reduce a drive but for enjoyment and pleasure; for example when people eat food when they’re already satiated (Herman, 1996).  Psychodynamic theories of motivation also speak of internal, instinctive drives which motivate our actions.  Freud (1938, cited in Beck, 2000) claimed that humans experience life (Eros) and death (Thanatos) drives and that these are motivating forces which govern our behaviour.  However, Freud’s theories have been criticised for their lack of logic, empirical evidence and case study inconsistencies (Crews, 1999).

The idea that our needs determine our motivation has been extensively explored by numerous psychologists such as Maslow, Alderfer and McClelland and offers a view of motivation which expands on and complements instinct and drive theories.

Maslow (1954) detailed a Hierarchy of Needs, and suggested that our actions are determined by motivation to satisfy each need in this hierarchy, one after another, starting with physiological needs, then safety needs, followed by the need to belong, then the need to experience a strengthened self-esteem and through to the final need which is for self-actualization, or the fulfilment of one”s potential. Alderfer’s Existence, Relatedness and Growth (ERG) Theory (1969) simplified Maslow’s theory by condensing five needs into three whilst keeping the hierarchy but also noted that if we fail to attain higher goals, we experience frustration regression and this motivates us to apply ourselves to needs lower in the hierarchy, rather than moving our way upwards. This means that dissatisfaction can change our motivations.  However Wahba & Bridwell (1976) analysed multiple studies of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (including Alderfer’s) and found that none of the studies illustrated all five needs as autonomous factors.

Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory (1968) claimed that a need for satisfaction and lack of dissatisfaction determined our motivation, particularly in a working environment, stating that they are not at either ends of a spectrum but that they are distinct. We are either dissatisfied or not dissatisfied with mundane needs such as shelter or warmth (what he called hygiene); at the same time we can be either satisfied or not satisfied with higher level objectives such as recognition and reward (what he called motivators).  We need both satisfaction and no-dissatisfaction in place to be highly motivated to work. However, amongst other criticisms, Evans & Olumide-Aluko (2010) found that this theory did not necessarily hold true in non-western cultures and individual differences were not taken into account (Hackman & Oldham, 1976).

McClelland et al (1993, cited in Chamorro-Premuzic, 2011) also investigated the needs-based theory of motivation but in a much more social context.They found that motivation occurs when we experience the need for achievement, power and affiliation; they clarified that individual differences in personality traits determine differing levels in all three needs and therefore personality influences an individual’s motivation. However, McClelland et al used Thematic Apperception Tests to measure these needs and recent studies looked at how language and the act of narration in the TAT itself constructs a story about motivation, and is not necessarily a direct representative of the underlying motivational mechanisms (Cramer, 1999). In addition, our social identity, regardless of individual differences, has also been shown to impact on motivation; Knigge & Hannover (2011) found that the differing types of schools into which students in Germany were streamed impacted on motivation to learn and perform. In this way it has been shown that needs theories don’t seem to work alone.

In contrast with Needs theories of motivation, Arousal theories avoided attempts to categorise causes of motivation.  Initiated by Yerkes & Dodson (1908, cited in Beck, 2000) they revealed that motivation is simply dependent on energy levels within the individual.  The Yerkes-Dodson law states that if someone is minimally aroused then no action will occur, however there is a point of optimal arousal which motivates action and drives performance; too much arousal however and motivation decreases. This law was criticised by Brown (1965) who wrote that their studies lacked statistical significance due to small sample sizes and were neither precise nor reliable enough to be justified.

Duffy (1934) however developed an activation theory which she called energy mobilization. She found, through experiments measuring arousal with EEGs, that if stimulated or aroused, the reticular activating system in the mid-brain played a large part in mobilising energy and therefore driving motivation to act (1962, cited in Beck, 2000).  Duffy’s studies lend support to Yerkes & Dodson’s ideas, yet both stop short of understanding individual differences.

As one might expect, the Behaviourist strand of psychology also developed its own theory of motivation which has been dubbed Reinforcement Theory.  Spencer (1872, cited in Chamorro-Premuzic, 2011) showed that behaviour and therefore motivation to act is developed through conditioning via reward and punishment.  This was refined by Skinner (1938)  when he illustrated four ways in which individuals can be motivated via operant conditioning; positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, avoidance learning (getting rid of the negative reinforcer) and extinction (getting rid of the positive reinforcer).  However, Locke (1977) tested four different behaviour modification techniques and found that the behaviourist model did not influence motivation as it had claimed to do.  Deci (1971) refined the reinforcement model somewhat, finding that money or awards didn’t motivate people, in fact verbal praise was the most motivating extrinsic reward, and that extrinsic rewards can actually impair performance.  These findings themselves have been criticised by many however including Cameron & Pierce (1994) who found that reward had no negative effect on motivation.


Instinct, Needs, Arousal and Reinforcement theories have all come under criticism so it remains to examine some evaluative theories of motivation such as Attitude, Emotion, Expectancy, Equity and Attributional theories.

Many theorists have studied attitudes as motivators and predictors of behaviour however Beck (2000) suggests that analysis of attitudes is not a reliable forecasting tool.  People carry out actions which seem to entirely contradict their attitudes, and the role motivation plays in this becomes blurred.  Festinger (1957, cited in Beck, 2000) called this Cognitive Dissonance and noted that individuals change their attitude to fit or justify their prior behaviour so as to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of dissonance.  Here, then, motivation cannot be seen to be derived directly from attitude.  Bem (1970, cited in Beck, 2000) however, did not believe that it was dissonance which caused attitude change, but that it is our behaviour which determines our attitudes; we act and then alter attitudes to match our actions; attitudes are therefore not a motivating factor in behaviour.

Emotion has been studied as a factor influencing motivation but few agree on their relationship; indeed most studies limit their focus to one emotion at a time.  For example, emotions such as frustration have been used to explain the motivation for aggressive behaviour.  Amsel (1958) found that frustration itself has motivational drive properties. In contrast, motivation to be aggressive has been shown to be caused by biological factors (Berman & Corcaro, 1998, cited in Beck), environmental factors (Ulrich & Azrin, 1962) and social factors (Milgram, 1974).
So the emotion-motivation-aggression connection is by no means clear.

Bandura’s research took an altogether more cognitive approach to motivation.  He built on the foundations of Vroom’s Expectancy Theory (1964, cited in Behling & Starke, 1973) which found that motivation was driven by the expectancy of the outcome.  Bandura (1977) established that an individual’s subjective prediction and valuation of an action’s consequence would determine the individual’s motivation; as such he believed that we could use these subjective beliefs to predict behaviour. Bandura also found that rewards are not the only factors in determining motivation levels, illustrating that individuals with perceptions of high-control over a situation (self-efficacy) are more likely to choose difficult challenges and this also leads to a more effective problem solving approach (1989, cited in Skinner, 1995). Bandura felt that self-efficacy was independent of expectancy of outcomes yet Williams (2010) and others found this to be contradictory and felt that there was a disproportionate emphasis on self-efficacy at the expense of expectancy theories.  Nevertheless, many studies reinforced Bandura’s self-efficacy approach to motivation, and his approach was further strengthened with the discovery of learned-helplessness (where continued attempts to improve the situation fail). In such a situation, researchers found that individuals become entirely demotivated and give up all together (Hiroto, 1974).  Learned Helplessness has been criticised by Barber and Winefield (1986) however because they thought that the experiments actually showed participants selectively ignoring uncomfortable stimuli; they were switching off rather than accepting it. Self-efficacy and expectancy theories were one of the first approaches to motivation which started to account for the individual differences observed.

Adams (1963, cited in Chamorro-Premuzic, 2011) developed his Equity Theory as a theory of motivation which sits comfortably between Vroomâs Expectancy Theory and Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory and which has often been applied to work-performance situations. Adams found that we compare the ratio of effort we put in versus what we get out, to the ratio of those around us, and if we see a discrepancy (our colleague works less but receives more pay) then this will de-motivate us.  Adamsâ theory is called a Two-Process theory because whilst equity is one factor, expectancy (again), acts as the second factor determining motivation. His findings have been criticised however because they were conducted in experimental test conditions and people have queried whether they still apply in the ‘real world’ (Huseman, Hatfield & Miles, 1987).

Weiner (1985) countered that it is the attribution that an individual makes about the cause of a situation which influences motivation.  Weiner suggests that there are three factors; whether the success or failure was stable, controllable and whether it was an internal or external cause, which determine how an individual attributes causality and therefore reacts to the outcome.  The resulting emotion and expectancy will determine motivation.  However, understanding these factors has been shown to be little use in predicting behaviour; Heckhausen (1975, cited in Beck, 2000) found that students who perceived their failure as due to their own lack of effort (internal) still showed little effort or motivation to increase effort even when they were shown to be highly motivated by achievement.

As previously discussed, few of these theories take into account individual differences between people and their motivation.  Personality is a key factor in understanding the level of motivation someone will have; in a stressful situation, personality types have been found to determine individuals’ perceived control (Kaiseler & Polman, 2012), emotion (Schneider, 2011), appraisal of a situation (Penley &Tomaka, 2002) and behaviours afterwards (Carver & Connor Smith, 2010) all of which, we have seen, have been shown to have an influence on motivation.  Another individual difference, Emotional Intelligence (EI) also serves as a motivator during stress, providing both a “cheering section” and a guide to keep us “moving towards our goals in life” (Goleman, 1996).  In a similar way, those with high self-efficacy also “choose to perform more challenging tasks, set themselves higher goals, are more persistent, and recover more quickly in the face of setbacks” (Ebstrup & al, 2011).  However, work on self-efficacy has been criticised by Marzillier &amp Eastman (1984) because it cannot be seen as independent of outcome expectations and with regards to EI, Conte (2005) has queried the validity of measurement tools; suggesting that EI overlaps with personality.

In conclusion, it would be easy to assert that internal drives, needs, rewards, cognition, society, culture, biology and individual differences all have an impact on motivation. However, further study remains to be carried out in all of these areas and in particular the idea of motivation as constructed by language and narration in order to fully develop our understanding of this psychological force.

Leave a Reply