Theories About Motivation

Learning Objectives

  • Describe basic theories of motivation, including concepts such as instincts, drive reduction, and self-efficacy
William James (1842–1910) was an important contributor to early research into motivation, and he is often referred to as the father of psychology in the United States. James theorized that behavior was driven by a number of instincts, which aid survival (Figure 1). From a biological perspective, an instinct is a species-specific pattern of behavior that is not learned. There was, however, considerable controversy among James and his contemporaries over the exact definition of instinct. James proposed several dozen special human instincts, but many of his contemporaries had their own lists that differed. A mother’s protection of her baby, the urge to lick sugar, and hunting prey were among the human behaviors proposed as true instincts during James’s era. This view—that human behavior is driven by instincts—received a fair amount of criticism because of the undeniable role of learning in shaping all sorts of human behavior. In fact, as early as the 1900s, some instinctive behaviors were experimentally demonstrated to result from associative learning (recall when you learned about Watson’s conditioning of fear response in “Little Albert”) (Faris, 1921).

Photograph A shows William James. Photograph B shows a person breastfeeding a baby.

Figure 1. (a) William James proposed the instinct theory of motivation, asserting that behavior is driven by instincts. (b) In humans, instincts may include behaviors such as an infant’s rooting for a nipple and sucking. (credit b: modification of work by “Mothering Touch”/Flickr)

Another early theory of motivation proposed that the maintenance of homeostasis is particularly important in directing behavior. You may recall from your earlier reading that homeostasis is the tendency to maintain a balance, or optimal level, within a biological system. In a body system, a control center (which is often part of the brain) receives input from receptors (which are often complexes of neurons). The control center directs effectors (which may be other neurons) to correct any imbalance detected by the control center.

According to the drive theory of motivation, deviations from homeostasis create physiological needs. These needs result in psychological drive states that direct behavior to meet the need and, ultimately, bring the system back to homeostasis. For example, if it’s been a while since you ate, your blood sugar levels will drop below normal. This low blood sugar will induce a physiological need and a corresponding drive state (i.e., hunger) that will direct you to seek out and consume food (Figure 2). Eating will eliminate the hunger, and, ultimately, your blood sugar levels will return to normal. Interestingly, drive theory also emphasizes the role that habits play in the type of behavioral response in which we engage. A habit is a pattern of behavior in which we regularly engage. Once we have engaged in a behavior that successfully reduces a drive, we are more likely to engage in that behavior whenever faced with that drive in the future (Graham & Weiner, 1996).

Photograph “left” shows a child eating watermelon. Photograph “center” shows a young person eating sushi. Photograph “right” shows an elderly person eating food.

Figure 2. Hunger and subsequent eating are the result of complex physiological processes that maintain homeostasis. (credit “left”: modification of work by “Gracie and Viv”/Flickr; credit “center”: modification of work by Steven Depolo; credit “right”: modification of work by Monica Renata)

Extensions of drive theory take into account levels of arousal as potential motivators. Just as drive theory aims to return the body to homeostasis, arousal theory aims to find the optimal level of arousal. If we are underaroused, we become bored and will seek out some sort of stimulation. On the other hand, if we are overaroused, we will engage in behaviors to reduce our arousal (Berlyne, 1960). Most students have experienced this need to maintain optimal levels of arousal over the course of their academic career. Think about how much stress students experience toward the end of spring semester. They feel overwhelmed with seemingly endless exams, papers, and major assignments that must be completed on time. They probably yearn for the rest and relaxation that awaits them over the extended summer break. However, once they finish the semester, it doesn’t take too long before they begin to feel bored. Generally, by the time the next semester is beginning in the fall, many students are quite happy to return to school. This is an example of how arousal theory works.

A line graph has an x-axis labeled “arousal level” with an arrow indicating “low” to “high” and a y-axis labeled “performance quality” with an arrow indicating “low” to “high.” A curve charts optimal arousal. Where arousal level and performance quality are both “low,” the curve is low and labeled “boredom or apathy.” Where arousal level is “medium” and “performance quality is “medium,” the curve peaks and is labeled “optimal level.” Where the arousal level is “high” and the performance quality is “low,” the curve is low and is labeled “high anxiety.”

Figure 2. The concept of optimal arousal in relation to performance on a task is depicted here. Performance is maximized at the optimal level of arousal, and it tapers off during under- and overarousal.

So what is the optimal level of arousal? What level leads to the best performance? Research shows that moderate arousal is generally best; when arousal is very high or very low, performance tends to suffer (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). Think of your arousal level regarding taking an exam for this class. If your level is very low, such as boredom and apathy, your performance will likely suffer. Similarly, a very high level, such as extreme anxiety, can be paralyzing and hinder performance. Consider the example of a softball team facing a tournament. They are favored to win their first game by a large margin, so they go into the game with a lower level of arousal and get beat by a less skilled team.

But optimal arousal level is more complex than a simple answer that the middle level is always best. Researchers Robert Yerkes (pronounced “Yerk-EES”) and John Dodson discovered that the optimal arousal level depends on the complexity and difficulty of the task to be performed (Figure 4). This relationship is known as Yerkes-Dodson law, which holds that a simple task is performed best when arousal levels are relatively high and complex tasks are best performed when arousal levels are lower.

A line graph has an x-axis labeled “arousal level” with an arrow indicating “low” to “high” and a y-axis labeled “performance quality” with an arrow indicating “low” to “high.” Two curves charts optimal arousal, one for difficult tasks and the other for easy tasks. The optimal level for easy tasks is reached with slightly higher arousal levels than for difficult tasks.

Figure 4. Task performance is best when arousal levels are in a middle range, with difficult tasks best performed under lower levels of arousal and simple tasks best performed under higher levels of arousal.

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Self-efficacy and Social Motives

Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief in her own capability to complete a task, which may include a previous successful completion of the exact task or a similar task. Albert Bandura (1994) theorized that an individual’s sense of self-efficacy plays a pivotal role in motivating behavior. Bandura argues that motivation derives from expectations that we have about the consequences of our behaviors, and ultimately, it is the appreciation of our capacity to engage in a given behavior that will determine what we do and the future goals that we set for ourselves. For example, if you have a sincere belief in your ability to achieve at the highest level, you are more likely to take on challenging tasks and to not let setbacks dissuade you from seeing the task through to the end.

A number of theorists have focused their research on understanding social motives (McAdams & Constantian, 1983; McClelland & Liberman, 1949; Murray et al., 1938). Among the motives they describe are needs for achievement, affiliation, and intimacy. It is the need for achievement that drives accomplishment and performance. The need for affiliation encourages positive interactions with others, and the need for intimacy causes us to seek deep, meaningful relationships. Henry Murray et al. (1938) categorized these needs into domains. For example, the need for achievement and recognition falls under the domain of ambition. Dominance and aggression were recognized as needs under the domain of human power, and play was a recognized need in the domain of interpersonal affection.

Link to Learning

Watch this video from Dan Pink’s Ted talk on “The surprising truth about what motivates us.” Think about what things motivate you, and how you anticipate that you might respond to the types of incentives explained in the talk.

You can view the transcript for “RSA ANIMATE: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us” here (opens in new window).

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drive theory: deviations from homeostasis create physiological needs that result in psychological drive states that direct behavior to meet the need and ultimately bring the system back to homeostasis
habit: pattern of behavior in which we regularly engage
instinct: species-specific pattern of behavior that is unlearned
motivation: wants or needs that direct behavior toward some goal
self-efficacy: individual’s belief in his own capabilities or capacities to complete a task
Yerkes-Dodson law: simple tasks are performed best when arousal levels are relatively high, while complex tasks are best performed when arousal is lower


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