Exploring the 7 theories of human motivation

Human beings are innately complex, so we need these seven theories to explain what really motivates us.

What motivates us? That’s a question that psychologists and scientists have been trying to answer for centuries, as we try to predict what cognitive, chemical, and circumstantial influences shape our daily behaviors. In this blog, we'll cover the seven theories of human motivation most prevalent in the field of human psychology today:

Instinct Theory.

This is the oldest and most established of all theories of motivation because it attributes our behavior not to conscious choice, but pre-programmed biological imperatives. Just like insects, birds, and other animals have a set of behaviors that are hardwired into their DNA – such as eating, self-preservation, reproduction, etc., human beings, too, are hardwired. However, human beings are also much more complex and capable of self-examination than other organisms, so Instinct Theory serves as a good explanation for our intrinsic urges, but not our complete set of motivations

Drive Reduction Theory.

The next theory on the pyramid of human motivation simply states that human beings look to satiate their urges or drives, like taking a drink when you're thirsty. By responding to our inherent drives as they appear, we're unconsciously aiming to achieve a state of homeostasis or natural balance where all of our needs are fulfilled. While this "we itch therefore we scratch" theory explains so many of our fundamental behaviors, it doesn't account for why human beings do things that seek pleasure with the risk of pain, discomfort, or loss.

Arousal Theory.  

Running counter to Drive Reduction Theory, Arousal Theory emphasizes our need to increase, not decrease, our level of stimulation. When we engage in experiences that provide a rush of endorphins, whether that’s falling in love, running a marathon, or jumping out of an airplanewe’re motivated by the expectation of arousal. Basically, human beings get bored with too much homeostasis – or having all of our needs met and then just existing – so we’re constantly trying to push, challenge, and excite ourselves. A supplement to this is the Yerkes-Dodson Law, originated in 1908 but still in use today, which explains that each person has their own optimal balance between homeostasis and the need for new arousal, which they’ll naturally seek out.

Incentive Theory.  

Is it possible that our daily behaviors are actually dictated (or at least influenced) by forces outside of our own determination? Incentive Theory points to the fact that we often do things that we otherwise would not except for urges or pushes, like in the case with marketing, advertising, and peer pressure from friends. Once we encounter those external stimuli, we’re suddenly motivated to do something that we now perceive as improving our life or bringing us pleasure or gain. Incentive Theory, which we can also think of as impulsive decision making, is the whole reason your mail is filled with sales circulars and catalogs, your email is filled with spam, and everywhere we look or read there are sales messages.

Cognitive Theory. 

Instead of just being hardwired or conditioned to behave in certain ways, what if our expectations for certain desired outcomes controlled our motivation? That’s the theory University of Rochester psychologists Ed Deci and Richard Ryan outlined when they determined that we have two different motivations that propel us to act, Intrinsic and Extrinsic.

Intrinsic Motivations are our inner drive to fulfill our potential, pursue our passions, and follow the internal map of where we want our life to go. What's more, when you are driven by intrinsic motivation, you are more likely to feel like you’re determining your own outcome, with a lasting sense of fulfillment or purpose.

Extrinsic motivation, however, is our urge to achieve external, tangible rewards, like money, an attractive mate, the thrill of winning something, etc. While extrinsic rewards may be strong short-term motivators, the satisfaction is often fleeting, and people who pursue them often become less creative and productive, according to their theory.

Self-Determination Theory.

However, Cognitive Theory falls short in explaining some of the most important choices in our life, including the reason why we work and the fulfillment we get from it.

Faced with this flaw, psychologists Deci and Ryan updated their theory, postulating that people don’t have to be motivated by intrinsic OR extrinsic motivation, but we often have both at the same time. Their new self-determination theory incorporates both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations at the same time, such as when we are motivated and fulfilled at work.

While you’ll always be most satisfied by the behaviors and activities that you feel you can control, extrinsic awards – such as being recognized or promoted at work – can offer their own deep sense of satisfaction beyond external rewards.

In fact, research shows that even when we have to go to work and punch a clock doing mundane tasks that aren't overly fulfilling if we feel we have autonomy and are self-directed, we're much more likely to gain satisfaction – and do a much better job.

Self-actualization Theory.

The seventh theory of motivation we’ll cover is the Self-Actualization Theory, as established by famed psychologist Roger Maslow in his Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Stay tuned for part two of this blog where we examine that theory and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs!


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