The Psychology Behind Motivation

Do you think you know what it takes to get motivated? Or are you struggling to figure out what might motivate you to achieve your goals? Here are just a few fascinating things that researchers have discovered about the psychology behind human motivation. Some might surprise you, and some might offer you ideas for how to motivate yourself and others.


American Students Are More Motivated By Independent Work

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Americans are more motivated by messages that stress their independence rather than those that stress interconnectedness. In one study by Stanford psychologists, American students indicated that they were less interested in taking and less motivated to succeed in courses that required a great deal of group work and collaboration. They were, however, more motivated when it came to classes that required independent work.


Incentives Aren't Always the Best Solution

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Many models of motivation focus on a "carrot and stick" approach, concentrating on the use of incentives to motivate desired behaviors. Research suggests that while incentives can be important and useful in some cases, other factors such as the desire for achievement and effectiveness can be even more important.


In Fact, Incentives Can Sometimes Actually Decrease Motivation

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Incentivizing things that are already rewarding and enjoyable can backfire and actually decrease motivation. Researchers have found that when people are given extrinsic rewards for activities that they already find intrinsically motivating, they become less interested in participating in the activity in the future.

Psychologists refer to the phenomenon of incentives causing decreased motivation as the overjustification effect.

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Drawing on Intrinsic Motivation Might Be the Best Approach

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Designing activities to be intrinsically motivating can make the learning process easier and more effective. Research suggests that there are some vital factors that can be used to increase intrinsic motivation such as ensuring that activities are sufficiently challenging but not impossible, making the activity both attention-grabbing and interesting, giving people personal control over how they approach the activity, offering recognition and praise for efforts, and giving people the opportunity to compare their own efforts to those of others.


Praising Efforts Over Ability Can Improve Motivation

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Praising ability rather than efforts can decrease motivation. When a child solves a math problem, praising the child by saying "You're so smart!" actually makes them more likely to give up in the future when they encounter a problem that is very difficult. Why? Psychologists suggest that stressing innate ability (intelligence, appearance, etc.,) leads people to hold a fixed view or mindset of their traits and characteristics. Instead, experts suggest that praising the effort and process that went into solving the problem ("You worked really hard on that!," "I like how you worked through that and came up with a solution!") helps kids see their abilities as malleable. Instead of believing that they are either smart or dumb, they view themselves as able to improve through effort and hard work.


Relying on Willpower Alone Is a Mistake

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Willpower can only get you so far. Researchers have found that for particularly difficult or onerous tasks, your reserves of willpower can quickly become depleted. In one experiment, volunteers had to use willpower to take the role of an unpleasant character in a first task​ and were then asked to not laugh or smile while watching a humorous film clip. Both tasks required willpower, but the researchers found that participants who had "used up" their willpower reserves on the first task found it more difficult to refrain from laughing during the second task. So what's the solution? The researchers suggest that when willpower runs dry, coming up with sources of internal motivation becomes more important. By finding intrinsic sources of motivation, people can recharge their motivational energies.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Kuvaas B, Buch R, Weibel A, Dysvik A, Nerstad CGL. Do intrinsic and extrinsic motivation relate differently to employee outcomesJournal of Economic Psychology. 2017;61:244-258. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2017.05.004

  3. Murayama K. American Psychological Association. The science of motivation. 2018.

  4. Di Domenico SI, Ryan RM. The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017;11:145. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2017.00145

  5. Dweck CS. Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential. United Kingdom: Little, Brown Book Group; 2017.

  6. Gröpel P, Kehr HM. Motivation and Self‐Control: Implicit Motives Moderate the Exertion of Self‐Control in Motive‐Related Tasks. J Pers. 2014;82(4):317-328. doi:10.1111/jopy.12059

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.