What Motivation Theory Can Tell Us About Human Behavior

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. Let's take a look at each one.

Instinct Theory of Motivation

Man with snowshoes walking on a snowy mountain

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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. Animals do not learn to migrate to certain places at certain times each year; it is instead an inborn pattern of behavior. Instincts motivate some species to do this.

William James identified a list of human instincts that he believed were essential to survival, including fear, anger, love, shame, and modesty. The main problem with this theory is that it did not really explain behavior, it just described it.  James presumed that we act on impulse, but that leaves out all the learning/conditioning that informs behavior.

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.

Drive Theory

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.

The drive theory is based on the concept of homeostasis, or the idea that the body actively works to maintain a certain state of balance or equilibrium.

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

Arousal Theory

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

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 describes various levels of needs and motivations.

Maslow's hierarchy suggests that people are motivated to fulfill basic needs before moving on to other, more advanced needs. For example, people are first motivated to fulfill basic biological needs for food and shelter, then to progress through higher needs like safety, love, and esteem. Once these needs have been met, the primary motivator becomes the need for self-actualization, or the desire to fulfill one's individual potential.

Maslow was interested in learning about what makes people happy and the things that they do to achieve that aim, rather than focusing on problematic behaviors.

Incentive Theory

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.

Incentives can arise from outside (extrinsic) or inside (intrinsic) an individual. Intrinsic motivation is when you engage in a behavior because you find it rewarding for your own sake, rather than from the desire for an external reward.

Extrinsic Motivation
  • Going to work to get paid

  • Studying to get a good grade

  • Working hard to get a raise or recognition from your boss

  • Tidying your house to avoid feeling embarrassed when company comes over

Intrinsic Motivation
  • Working because you enjoy the job

  • Studying because you find the subject interesting

  • Tackling a new project because you love a challenge

  • Tidying your house because a clean home keeps you calm

Expectancy Theory

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: the value people place on the potential outcome
  • Instrumentality: whether people believe that they have a role to play in the predicted outcome
  • Expectancy: the belief that one has the capabilities to produce the outcome

A Word From Verywell

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.

1 Source
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  1. James W. Instinct. In: The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt and Company; 1890.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."