Understanding Motivation

The key to having more motivation is knowing not just what you want, but why.


Increase your self-awareness with these 4 theories in motivation.


Drive Reduction theory

Suggests it is your body’s homeostasis that drives your motivation. Homeostasis is the process of keeping bodily systems at a steady level, or equilibrium, by making constant adjustments in response to change. A bit like a thermostat.

Any imbalances in your body’s homeostasis, for example feeling hungry because you are low in blood sugar levels, create what psychologists refer to as ‘needs’. Needs are therefore biological requirements for well-being and the brain responds to ‘needs’ by creating a psychological state called a ‘drive’.
Primary drives are the inborn physiological needs that you do not have to learn, such as needing food or water.

Secondary drives are learned through experience, for example you learn to associate money with the ability to buy things that satisfy your primary drives for food, shelter and so on. Having too little money therefore starts to drive your behaviours, from those who work hard to get more money to those who steal to obtain it.


Arousal Theory

Suggests we are motivated to behave in ways that achieve our optimal level of arousal. When arousal is too low we try to increase it, and when it is too high we try to decrease it.

Too much arousal can hurt your performance, for example experiencing high levels of stress during an exam. As can too little arousal, for example when you start to feel sleepy at work out of boredom. People whose optimal arousal is relatively high try to keep it there, and so they are more likely than other people to smoke, drink alcohol and take other risks such as participating in adrenalin sports. Those with relatively low optimal arousal also try to keep it there, and so they tend to take fewer risks and avoid activities that are overly stimulating.


Incentive Theory

Suggests motivation is directed towards obtaining positive incentives and avoiding negative incentives. Examples of incentives include financial rewards, changes in social status, feelings of wellbeing etc.

The value an individual gives to an incentive is influenced by physiological needs (e.g. hunger), psychological needs (e.g. self-fulfilment) and social factors (e.g. recognition). People sometimes work hard for some incentives only to find that they don’t enjoy having them nearly as much as they thought they would. This then devalues that incentive and motivation towards it is likely to decrease.

Differences in people’s motivation and behaviour can therefore be traced to the incentives available and the value each individual places on them. For example the gym junkie who values looking good and visits the gym 7 days a week. Compared with the foodie who values good food and wine with friends and visits fine-dining restaurants 7 days a week.


Achievement Theory

Suggests it is extrinsic and intrinsic motivators that determine the degree to which an individual establishes specific goals, cares about meeting those goals, and experiences feelings of satisfaction by doing so.

Extrinsic motivation is a desire for external rewards such as money. Intrinsic motivation is a desire to attain internal satisfaction such as mastery – motivated to master tasks, recognition – motivated to receive praise, autonomy – motivated to be self-sufficient, growth – motivated to learn and grow.
People with high achievement motivation tend to set themselves challenging but realistic goals and are intensely satisfied when they succeed at them. People with low achievement motivation also like to succeed but instead of feeling joy, success tends to bring feelings of relief at having avoided failure.



We set ourselves goals when there is a discrepancy between our current situation and how we want our situation to be. Establishing a goal therefore motivates us to engage in behaviours that will reduce the discrepancy.

If you don’t have the motivation to achieve your goals, it’s likely you have set yourself unrealistic or undesirable goals. For example, if you don’t know how much money is ‘enough’ then your default just becomes ‘more’, and your time spent running on the hamster wheel of work and career progression, chasing pay rises, buying bigger houses and acquiring more ‘stuff’, never ends. Maybe your default has just become wanting more of everything, which, let’s face it, is demotivating for anyone.

The key to having more motivation is knowing not just what you want, but why you want it. Apply these theories for understanding your drives, your optimal arousal level, what incentives you value, and what your achievement motivation is, to really understand your ‘why’.



Unhappiness and psychological problems can often be traced to a ‘deficiency orientation’, which is trying to acquire the goods or status you don’t currently have but think you need. Efforts to get more of the things you think will bring you happiness may actually contribute to your unhappiness, if what you get is never enough. It is a dangerous cycle to just have a default of wanting ‘more’ of what you don’t have and less of what you do.

Research shows that what’s most important in generating happiness are close social ties such as friends, a satisfying marriage or partnership, religious faith and having the resources necessary to allow progress towards your goals. Now surely that’s all the motivation you need…



Bernstein, D.A., Pooley, J.A., Cohen, L., Gouldthorp, B., Provost, S., Cranney, J., Penner, L.A., Clarke-Stewart, A.C., & Roy, E.J. (2013). Psychology: An international discipline in context (Australian & New Zealand ed.). South Melbourne: Cengage Learning Australia.

Gross, J. J. & Thompson, R. A. (2007). Emotion regulation: Conceptual foundations. Handbook of emotion regulation.

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