Motivation and What Really Drives Human Behavior


In our world of exponential change and ever-increasing complexity, the power rests with those who act, and especially those who act with self-determination and persistence.

Our motivation is our most valuable commodity. Multiplied only by action, its value fluctuates with how we invest our attention.

Why is it that we are all born with limitless potential, yet few people fulfill those possibilities?

Abraham Maslow

Some of our motives to act are biological, while others have personal and social origins. We are motivated to seek food, water, and sex, but our behavior is also influenced by social approval, acceptance, the need to achieve, and the motivation to take or to avoid risks, to name a few (Morsella, Bargh, & Gollwitzer, 2009).

This article introduces some of the core concepts in the science of motivation and provides links to more in-depth discussions of more nuanced topics and specific applications of motivational theories to real-world motivational problems.

This article contains:

Types of Motivation
Motivation and Emotion
Motivation and Personality
Motivation for Change
Maslow Motivation
Happiness Motivation
A Take-Home Message

Types of Motivation

The sources of motivation can be experienced as either internal in the form of push motivation or external as in the case of pull motivation. Push motivation is described in terms of biological variables originating in a person’s brain and nervous system and psychological variables that represent properties of a person’s mind, such as psychological needs.

Pull motivation is understood in terms of environmental variables that describe external sources of motivation, like incentives or goals. Our internal sources of motivation interact with external sources to direct behavior (Deckers, 2014).

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

George Eliot

Our evolutionary history also explains aspects of motivated behavior, and our individual personal histories shed light on how our lifelong experiences shape our motives and determine the utility of goals and incentives.

Motivation also depends on stable individual differences, like personality traits and psychological needs. Finally, emotions also serve as motives. Each of these sources of motivation is discussed in greater detail below as well as other articles on this topic which can be found by typing motivation in our blog search menu.

Drive Motivation

When the sympathetic nervous system produces hormones of epinephrine and norepinephrine, they create energy for action. This explains why motivation is often conceptualized in terms of drives, otherwise known as internal states of being out of balance. The need to return to equilibrium initiates the goal of striving toward a desired end-state where the drive has been reduced or eliminated (Reeve, 2018).

Needs are internal motives that energize, direct and sustain behavior. They generate strivings necessary for the maintenance of life as in physiological needs, and for the promotion of growth and wellbeing as in psychological and implicit needs.

A hungry stomach will not allow its owner to forget it, whatever his cares and sorrows.

Homer, 800 B.C.

Physiological needs like hunger, thirst, or sex are the biological beginnings that eventually manifest themselves as a psychological drive in a person’s subjective awareness. These biological events become psychological motives. It is important to distinguish the physiological need from the psychological drive it creates because only the later has motivational properties.

The drive theory of motivation tells us that physiological needs originate in our bodies. As our physiological system attempts to maintain health, it registers in our brain a psychological drive to satisfy a physiological craving and motivates us to bring the system from deficiency toward homeostasis (Reeve, 2018).

The biological need turns into a psychological motive when the drive to satisfy it interferes with our normal functioning by causing us to feel increasing tension until the need is satisfied.

When our body needs food, we describe it as pangs of hunger, we say we feel parched when thirsty, or sexually frustrated when our intimacy needs are not being met. Through complex feedback between our bodies and our brain, these biological needs evolved for our survival and drive our behavior in significant ways, which we often underestimate (Reeve, 2018).

If you want to know more about this topic, see our articles on Motivation Science and Theory of Motivation.

Goal Motivation

When talking about motivation, the topic of goals inevitably comes up. As a cognitive mental event, a goal is a “spring to action” that functions like a moving force that energizes and directs our behavior in purposive ways (Ames & Ames, 1984).

Goals, like mindset, beliefs, expectations, or self-concept, are sources of internal motives and are together referred to as cognition. These cognitive sources of motivation involve our way of thinking and unite together many mental constructs that spring us into action.

Ironically enough, goals are generated by what is NOT, or in other words, a discrepancy between where we are and where we want to be. The saying; “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there” describes the difference in motivated behavior between those who have goals and those who do not focus their attention towards a defined outcome (Locke, 1996; Locke & Latham, 1990, 2002).

But it isn’t necessarily enlightening to simply formulate goals. As a motivational construct, goal setting translates into performance only when the goals are challenging, specific, and congruent with the self.

We exert more effort toward challenging goals (Locke & Latham, 1984, 1990, 2002), focus our attention to the extent of their specificity (Locke, Chah, Harrison, & Lustgarten, 1989), and draw energy from how those goals reflect our values (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999).

Motivation at its best is spontaneous and makes goal pursuit a way of being where self-concordance paves the way for strategic use of attention directed toward the end goal (Koestner et al., 2008).

But let’s not get carried away here, other factors such as ability and resources also influence performance, and there is no direct correspondence between goals and performance.

When difficult goals don’t energize the performer, specific goals fail to direct that energy toward a particular course of action, and concordant goals fail to enhance performance (Earley, Wojnaroski, & Prest, 1987; Sheldon & Elliot, 1999) it is time to take care of the basics and increase ability and resources.

Motivation and Emotion

The concept of motivation is closely related to emotion. Both of these words are derived from the same underlying Latin root movere that means “to move.”

Emotions are considered motivational states because they generate bursts of energy that get our attention and cause our reactions to significant events in our lives (Izard, 1993). Emotions automatically and rapidly synchronize four interrelated aspects of experience:


Different emotions are associated with distinct goals and elicit different action tendencies. The purpose component gives emotion its goal-directed character and generates an impulse to action that explains why we take the action necessary to cope with the circumstances at hand (Keltner & Gross, 1999).

Together with emotion, motivation is part of a core psychological phenomenon referred to as an affect. It is distinct from cognitive processes that are rational and calm because motivation and emotion involve physiological arousal.

This bodily response, created by the sympathetic nervous system, causes our heart to pump more blood, our respiration to increase, our pupils to dilate to help us see better, our liver to put extra sugar into the bloodstream, and we begin to perspire to cool the body (Reeve, 2018).

We feel these experiences, and they motivate and guide our behavior and decision making, but most importantly, they have a significant impact on our mental and physical health. See our article on the Importance and Benefits of Motivation.

Motivation and Personality

Is personality linked to motivation? Are we predisposed to be motivated in different ways?

Personality theory and research show that we are, in fact, motivated in different ways based on our personality traits. A high level of a particular trait will often make us act as the trait implies: we will be more open to experience, conscientious, extraverted, agreeable, and neurotic. We will be motivated by different incentives, goals, and activities but also choose to be in different situations.

The task of psychology is to determine what those situations and behaviors are.

The trait–environment correlation studies show that if we exhibit characteristics at one end of a personality dimension we will seek out, create, or modify situations differently than do individuals at the other end of the spectrum.

In addition to each of the big five personality traits, our tendency to sensation-seeking plays a significant role in how willing we are to take risks to experience varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences (Deckers, 2014).

The cybernetic big five theory linked personality traits with the type of goals we choose, and showed that specific goals would motivate appropriate personality state behaviors that are effective for achieving that goal. For example, although extraverts and introverts react similarly to stimuli designed to put them in a pleasant hedonic mood, extraverts have greater sensitivity to rewards. They react with greater energetic arousal in response to the pursuit of rewards and are more likely than introverts to seek social stimulation in a variety of situations (Deckers, 2014).

The channeling hypothesis examines how specific traits determine how psychological motives are expressed and satisfied and how we react and select or modify different situations. It proposed that:

extraverts tend to enter high-impact careers to satisfy their power motive and are more likely than introverts to do volunteer work to fulfill their affiliation motive
those who are high in neuroticism are easier to put in a bad mood, are less satisfied with their relationships and careers, and are more likely to choose to drink in solitude following negative social exchanges
individuals high in conscientiousness earn higher grades and are more likely to engage in health-enhancing behaviors
highly agreeable people were found more likely to help friends and siblings in distress.

The selection hypothesis suggests that frequently, a composite of trait levels will be associated with a particular behavior. Many of these studies produced some very interesting results, which showed that:

students low in extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness spend more time using the Internet
individuals high in openness-to-experience sought out minority contact more and reported less prejudice as a result than did individuals high in agreeableness
happiness was associated with high levels of extraversion and agreeableness and low levels of neuroticism (Deckers, 2014).

Coping styles were also shown to vary with personality traits:

those who are high in conscientiousness experience fewer stressors because of planning
individuals high in agreeableness experience fewer interpersonal stressors because they are more cooperative
those high in neuroticism experience more interpersonal stressors
individuals high in conscientiousness, extraversion, and openness-to-experience cope through direct engagement with stressors
those high in neuroticism cope through disengagement, such as escaping from a stressor or not thinking about it
weight gain over people’s lifetimes is more significant when their neuroticism and extraversion traits are high, and their conscientiousness trait is low
aspects of low agreeableness also contribute to weight gain
high-sensation seekers respond positively to risky events, drugs, and unusual experiences and are more likely to seek out and engage in risky sports, prefer unusual stimuli and situations, and experiment with things out of the ordinary
low-sensation seekers respond negatively to risky events
different components of sensation-seeking are associated with a preference for nonsense humor or sexual humor content (Deckers, 2014).

Finally, one study showed that personality traits of conscientiousness, openness, and extraversion were positively associated with intrinsic achievement motivation. But it also found that conscientiousness, extraversion, and neuroticism were also positively related to extrinsic achievement motivation.

Although agreeableness was found to be negatively associated with extrinsic achievement motivation, conscientiousness was anomalous in that it was positively related to both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. These results suggest that both forms of motivation may be more complicated than expected initially (Stasson, Mahoney, & Story, 2007).

See our article on the Importance and Benefits of Motivation to learn more about what constitutes self-motivation and full self-determination.

Motivation for Change

The topic of motivation is most frequently discussed in the context of change.

Many of us join a gym or a training program; others enter therapy or coaching because we desire change. But change is rarely a simple or a linear process. Part of the reason has to do with how difficult it is to find the motivation to engage in activities that are not intrinsically motivating.

When an activity is autotelic, or rewarding and interesting in its own right, we do it for the sheer enjoyment of it and motivation is hardly necessary (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Some changes look negative on the surface but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge.

Eckhart Tolle

More often than not, however, what we want to change requires self-control to abstain from behaviors that don’t serve us but are enjoyable. Not to mention that commitment is required to pursue these often challenging and unrewarding activities that move us in the direction of a valued outcome.

Ryan and Deci, who studied autonomous self-regulation, suggested that what we need is to move away from extrinsically motivated action, e.g., when we have to do something because we fear consequences, and toward introjected and even fully self-determined regulation, where we value the new behavior and align it with other aspects of our life (1995).

See our blog post entitled What is Motivation to learn more about self-motivation.

“Stage-based” approaches to behavioral changes have proven to be particularly effective in increasing motivation toward the pursuit of difficult and non-intrinsically motivating goals as they allow for realistic expectations of progress (Zimmerman, Olsen, & Bosworth, 2000).

The Stages of Change model of Prochaska, et al. (DiClemente, & Prochaska, 1998), also known as the Transtheoretical Model of Change (TMC), is one such approach commonly used in clinical settings. In this model, change is regarded as gradual, sequential, and controllable. Its real-world applications are seen in motivational interviewing techniques, a client-centered method of facilitating change.

Here motivation is increased together with readiness for change which is determined by our:

willingness to change,
confidence in making the desire changed and
the actions taken to make the change.

See our article on Motivational Interviewing for an in-depth analysis of this model of change and its many applications.

Maslow Motivation

The topic of motivation is most frequently associated with the name of Abraham Maslow and his famous hierarchy of needs (1971). Maslow argued that we all know we must eat, drink, and sleep, but once our basic needs are met, we develop meta-needs. They reflect our higher values, like the need for spiritual and psychological fulfillment.

Maslow believed that all psychological problems stemmed from a lack of meaning and anxiety about these needs not being met (Butler-Bowdon, 2007).

On the whole I think it fair to say that human history is a record of the ways in which human nature has been sold short. The highest possibilities of human nature have practically always been underrated.

Abraham Maslow

Maslow’s legacy also included an interesting observation that we fear our best as much as our worst. The Jonah Complex describes our tendency to evade our own capacities.

He observed that for some to have ideals and a mission in life is simply a frightening prospect as it implies that we must lay aside the excuses for not living up to our potential. As a result, we resist the call to greatness and practice what Maslow calls mock humility (1971).

He warns us that when we set low aims for ourselves and do only as much as necessary to be competent, we set ourselves up for deep unhappiness in life. When his students shivered with weakness at the thought of becoming remarkable, Maslow would recall Nietzsche’s idea of the law of eternal recurrence and suggested that if we had to live our lives over and over again, we would only do what was really important (1971).

More on Maslow and the hierarchy of needs in our article on Theories of Motivation.

Happiness Motivation

Can happiness be a motivating factor? The answer to that questions depends both on how we define happiness, and also on whom we ask.

Thanks to the rapidly growing research in positive psychology, the science behind what makes life worth living, we know a lot about what makes us happy and what leads to psychological wellbeing. There is also plenty of evidence that positive subjective experiences contribute to increased motivation, or in the least what psychology considers an expression of the same.

From Barbara Fredrickson’s research on how positive emotions broaden our perception and increase positive affect and wellbeing to the studies of Teresa Amabile that show how happy employees are more productive, we can see how cultivating optimism and positive emotions can serve an adaptive role and be a distinct motivational factor.

Those who feel good or show positive affect are more creative, help others more, show persistence in the face of failure, make decisions efficiently, show high intrinsic motivation, and so on. Studies show that short-term positive affect helps us be successful in many areas in our lives, including marriage, friendship, income, work, and health (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005).

Model of the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions Reprinted with permission of Guilford Press, Fredrickson, and Cohn (2008, Figure 48.1) [17]. Figure 2. Conceptual framework of the study.

When we combine basic emotions, cognitive appraisals, and higher-order cognition (e.g., self-concept, emotion, knowledge), we get what psychologists call emotion schemas, which function as the central source of human motivation (Izard, 1993). And here is how we get to connect motivation to the pursuit of what makes life worth living.

The good life consists in deriving happiness by using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of living. The meaningful life adds one more component: using these same strengths to forward knowledge, power or goodness.

Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman argued that genuine happiness and life satisfaction has little to do with pleasure, and much to do with developing personal strengths and character. If cognition operates in the service of motivation (Vohs, & Baumeister), then developing personal strengths and character should lead to increased motivation.

Studies in eudemonic wellbeing, associated with happiness, excellence, and flourishing, describe eudemonic behaviors to include excellence, autonomy, authenticity, self-development, engagement, and autotelic motivation.

When talking about eudaimonia as a form of wellbeing, the recurring concepts include meaning, higher inspiration, connection, and mastery (David, Boniwell, & Ayers, 2014), all attributes related to cognitive mechanisms of motivation.

The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limited in voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

These higher motives and their behavioral expressions can also be described as consequences of eudaimonia. According to Haidt (2000), elevating experiences can motivate virtuous behavior. Seligman (2002) called it a higher pleasure, and Maslow (1973) described an eudemonic person as autonomous, accepting of self, positively relating to others, and possessing a sense of mastery in all of life’s domains (David, Boniwell, & Ayers, 2014). And as this description indicates, these individuals would be highly motivated.

Positive psychology looks at a person and asks, “What could be?” Most importantly, however, positive psychology brings attention to the proactive building of personal strengths and competencies, and these cannot be bad for motivation.

A Take-Home Message

Understanding the principles of motivation gives us the capacity to find workable solutions to real-world motivational problems. For what could ever be more important than empowering those around us toward more intentional action, goal attainment, optimal experience, full functioning, healthy development, and resilient sense of self.

Studying and applying motivational science can also help us reverse or cope with impulsive urges, habitual experience, goal failure, counterproductive functioning, negative emotion, boredom, maladaptive or dysfunctional development, and fragile sense of self.

If the greatest victory is over self, should we not aspire to rise above our limitations?

Leave us your thoughts on this topic.

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