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What Is Motivation?



A motive is an impulse that causes a person to act. Motivation is an internal process that makes a person move toward a goal. Motivation, like intelligence, can’t be directly observed. Instead, motivation can only be inferred by noting a person’s behavior.

Researchers have proposed theories that try to explain human motivation. These theories include drive reduction theories and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory.

Drive Reduction Theories

Drive reduction theories of motivation suggest that people act in order to reduce needs and maintain a constant physiological state. For example, people eat in order to reduce their need for food. The idea of homeostasis is central to drive reduction theories.Homeostasis is the maintenance of a state of physiological equilibrium.

Drive reduction theories fail to explain several aspects of motivation:

  • People sometimes aren’t motivated by internal needs.

Example: Some people fast for long periods for political causes, despite feeling extreme hunger.

  • Sometimes, people continue being motivated even when they have satisfied internal needs.

Example: People sometimes eat even when they don’t feel hungry.

  • People are often motivated by external incentives as well as internal needs.

Example: If a person is hungry, he or she may choose to eat a salad rather than a cheeseburger because he or she wants to be slimmer.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

A motivation may be intrinsic, extrinsic, or both. Intrinsic motivation is the motivation to act for the sake of the activity alone. For example, people have intrinsic motivation to write poetry if they do it simply because they enjoy it.Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is the motivation to act for external rewards. For example, people have extrinsic motivation to write if they do so in the hopes of getting published, being famous, or making money.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In the 1970s, the psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested that people are motivated by a hierarchy of needs:

  • First, most basic level: physiological needs, such as the need for food, water, safety, and security.
  • Second level: needs for social interaction, such as the need to belong.
  • Third level: needs for esteem, which include the need for respect from oneself and others.
  • Fourth level: needs for self-actualization, or realizing one’s full potential.

Maslow believed people pay attention to higher needs only when lower needs are satisfied.

Critics argue that Maslow’s theory doesn’t explain why higher needs often motivate people even when lower needs are unsatisfied.

Example: Ray lives in a very dangerous neighborhood and constantly worries about safety. He makes little money at his job in civil-rights law, but he enjoys it because he believes that his true calling is to fight injustice.

Critics also point out that people are sometimes simultaneously motivated by needs at different levels.

Example: Angie might be motivated to join a theater club both because she wants to be part of a close community and because she wants to be respected for her acting skills.

Types of Needs

People have innate needs and learned needs, both of which are influenced by society and culture. People have a limited number of innate needs, which include needs for food, water, oxygen, and elimination of wastes. There are, however, a relatively large number of learned needs, including needs for achievement, autonomy, and power. These needs are determined byvalues, or people’s perceptions of what is important in life.

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