The Psychology of Motivation: Theories of Motivation

Why are some people strive for success while others are satisfied with whatever life offers them? Why are some people highly ambitious while others are not? One answer to these questions is: the people involved are motivated to perform them.

The term motivation refers to the internal processes that activate, guide, and maintains our behavior.

Theories of Motivation

Psychologists have proposed various theories of motivation that help us to understand the urges, wants, needs, desires, strivings, and goals that come under the heading of motivation.

Some major theories of motivation:

Instinct Theory

Before the concept of motivation, psychologists attempted to explain behavior in reference to various instincts. Instincts are the inborn patterns of behavior that are biologically determined rather than learned. Instinct theory suggests that many forms of behavior stem from innate urges or preprogrammed sets of behaviors.

Drive Theory

The instinct theories were replaced by drive theories.
According to the drive theory, biological needs arising within our bodies create unpleasant states of arousal like hunger, thirst, fatigue, and so on. To eliminate such feelings and restore a balanced physiological state known as homeostasis, we engage in certain activities (Winn, 1995). According to drive theory, motivation is a process in which various biological needs push (drive) us to actions designed to satisfy these needs. (Baron, 1999)

Behaviors that help to reduce the appropriate drive are strengthened whereas the behaviors that failed to produce the desired effects are weakened. Originally, the drive theory focused primarily on biological needs like food, water, and sleep. Soon, though, psychologists extended this model to other forms of behavior not so linked to basic needs, such as drives for stimulation, status, achievement, power, and stable social relationships (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Many psychologists including Robert S. Woodworth and Clark L. Hull believed that drives are triggered by the internal mechanisms of homeostasis.


One of the most important ideas in the drive reduction is the concept of homeostasis. We are motivated to seek a state of equilibrium of internal states, such as body temperature, fluid levels, and energy supplies. If any of these internal conditions deviate very far from the optimal level, the body initiates processes to bring the condition back to the normal or optimal range.

Although drive theory is able to explain some behaviors, this approach suffers from several major drawbacks. On the contrary to what drive theory seems to suggest, human beings often engage in actions that increase rather than reduce various drives. For instance, people eat food even they are not hungry whereas they sometimes skip food to lose weight even they are hungry.

Arousal Theory:

Arousal theory is a theory of motivation suggesting that human beings seek an optimal level of arousal rather than reduce existing drives. Different tasks require different levels of arousal for optimal performance. For example, if you are knitting or reading, a lower level of arousal will be preferred whereas you may better perform in sports if you have a higher level of arousal.

The relation between arousal and performance is explained by the ‘Yerkes-Dodson law’. According to Yerkes-Dodson law, the performance increases as arousal rises, up to some point. When the arousal becomes too high the performance decreases.

Source: Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson
Picture Courtesy: Harvard Business Review

Expectancy Theory: A Cognitive Approach

Why students study hard before the exam? Not because of the biological needs but because doing so will help them to attain higher goals. Our behavior is also determined by the expectancies, or thoughts about future outcomes, and by how our current actions can help you to achieve wherever we want to go in life. This theory is known as the expectancy theory of motivation. According to this theory, motivation is not a result of urges or drives but expectations of achieving the desired outcomes. Such desired outcomes are known as incentives and can be anything like money, status, and so on.

Research findings have also indicated that people will work hard at their jobs only when that working hard will improve their performance and the good performance will be recognized and rewarded.

Types of Motivation

Motivations are often classified as being either extrinsic or intrinsic.
Intrinsic motivation arises from within the individual whereas extrinsic motivations arise from outside of the individual and arise from reinforcements and punishments. For instance, reading books purely for personal gratification is an example of intrinsic motivation whereas reading a book to pass a test is an example of extrinsic motivation.