What is Motivation?

What is Motivation?

5 April 2016 0 By Rhi Willmot

Whilst willpower is considered as an essential tool with which to maintain effortful, goal-directed behaviour, it is equally important to address how such behaviour can be initially motivated.

When an individual is first faced with the task of changing their behaviour, motivation may appear a slippery commodity. Moreover, encouraging populations to become motivated in the pursuit of a given goal is often a challenge for behaviour change professionals. However, research suggests the way in which challenges are presented, and the mindset with which an individual approaches them can significantly alter the resulting outcome. Additionally, the type of motivation an individual possesses has been shown to be integral to not only to the maintenance of effortful behaviour, but also the manner in which an individual goes about achieving their goals.

Historically, theories of motivation have focused on the importance of hedonic desire as the driving force behind human behaviour. The ‘pleasure principle’ describes humans as largely directed by the desire to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, in order to satisfy various biological and psychological needs. Here ‘pleasure’ is expressed as the relief of either external or internal tension, whilst pain results from when psychological discomfort is created. The pleasure principal is complimented by the ‘reality principle’ whereby individuals are able to integrate a more detailed level of information about the world into their decision-making process, and realize the importance of acknowledging the future. This elicits an ability to delay instant gratification in order to pursue longer-term goals. A greater capacity to delay gratification is associated with the maturity and integration of the prefrontal cortex, which develops during adolescence and early adulthood.

Whilst this approach has been highly influential in the modeling of motivation, it neglects to provide an objective and measurable illustration of pleasure and pain. Thorndike’s law of effect can help to rectify this issue and also explains the mechanics behind many fundamental theories of motivation and learning. Here, the concepts of reinforcement and punishment describe how certain stimuli either increase or decrease the likelihood of behaviour, demonstrating an observable method for examining how we are inherently driven by the desire for pleasure.P

However, it is important to not to over-simplify human psychology in the effort to conceptualise motivation. Whilst the pleasure principle describes hedonic pursuit in detail, it seems that in addition to pleasure, many individuals desire a life that is well-lived, meaningful and provides some sense of purpose. Given that a conflict between pleasurable and purposeful goals may commonly mean an individual must prioritize one aim over another, the importance of the balance between the two should be considered in the context of motivation.

A more detailed view of the derivatives is provided by self-determination theory (SDT) which posits the existence of three innate, universal needs; affiliation, autonomy and achievement. These needs can be seen in the same way as physical requirements whereby a threshold level is necessary to maintain well-being, deficits can produce impairments in functioning, and satisfaction provides pleasure and positive reinforcement for future behaviour.

Additionally, the balance hypothesis suggests that to function optimally it is important for individuals to sufficiently satisfy all three needs; an excess in one category does not compensate for a deficit in another. As a result of striving to satisfy their needs for autonomy, affiliation and achievement, individuals can be expected to pursue a variety of experiences and increase their subjective well-being as a result.

An important element of self-determination theory is that it is not concerned with motivational quantity, but instead focuses on the type and quality of motivation available. SDT specifies a crucial distinction between two types of motivation; autonomous and controlled. Autonomously motivated behaviour refers to that which either is inherently and personally valuable to an individual, otherwise known as intrinsic motivation. However, this term also refers to types of extrinsic motivation in which individuals have identified with an activity and integrated it into their sense of self.

In contrast, controlled motivation consists of external regulation in which behaviour is encouraged by an external contingency such as reward or punishment, as well as introjected regulation where the regulation of an action has only been partially internalized. In this case, the behaviour is motivated by external contingencies which still hold some internal value for the individual such as social approval, avoidance of shame and self-esteem.

An abundance of research has documented the relative value of autonomous motivation over more controlled behaviour. Individuals who are autonomously motivated to complete a task are generally more engaged, retain information better and are happier, ultimately leading to a better performance. Intrinsic motivation is also recognized as a natural inclination between curious behaviour which represents a source of enjoyment and vitality throughout life.

The finding that autonomous motivation is comprised of both intrinsic and identified substrates is an important consideration for behaviour change practitioners, as it means it is possible to produce the aforementioned benefits of intrinsically motivated behaviour, even if an individual does not initially feel inherently compelled to change their behaviour. Instead, it appears that as long as an individual identifies sufficiently with a given goal, behavioural change is possible. The important question, is how best to encourage such identification.