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What is Motivation? (Essay)

Updated on December 5, 2018

Some days we manage to write a four-page essay in one high energy eight-hour daze, and some days we choose to watch Netflix for eight hours in one dull sitting. Why are we productive some days and worthless dredges of society on others? The origin of motivation has been a subject of investigation from the dawn of modern psychology. Behavioral psychology was studied by B. F. Skinner to determine why we sometimes show effort while others we do not. Sigmund Freud first treated those with hysteria, and he ultimately theorized why some people have more mental power to avoid maladaptive behavior or deluded conclusions. Hysterical people mostly shared traumatizing events prior to psychosis (Freud, Breuer, & Strachey, 2001). We are all capable of becoming mentally ill in the same way we are all able to become alcoholics. The degree of exposure to traumatizing events reaches a tipping point from genetics before mental disorders surface. This is similar to the degree of exposure to alcohol will eventually lead to dependence. The origin of motivation works in the exact same way, through exposure. Psychology has shown that motivation is the result of learned behavior. No one is born lazy. We get our motivation from those we observe and in which we emulate (Vansteenkiste & Mouratidis, 2016). After understanding the origin of motivation it is easy to understand how to measure motivation based on learned behavioral mannerism. Motivation cannot exist unless there is a planned path and an end goal. Motivation is only as powerful as the effort put in to complete this goal. Motivation is only ever realized when the plan is followed through to the end without wavering. Thus, the three intrinsic factors of motivation are direction, motivation, and persistence.


Direction is the collection of goals that are created like a roadmap to accomplish a task. Without goals there will not be a clear understanding how to complete the task that is set for any form of motivation. Goals create a way to gauge progress to finishing the task. Goals create positive motivation along the way to success with the task. Psychologist Icek Ajzen created a theory of “Planned Behavioral Motivation”. This theory states direction is created by believed norms, perceived control of behaviorism, expected rewards, and our ability to plan or predict outcomes (Ajzen, 1991). We can only create goals that we think are worthwhile, we only create paths we think are less risky, and we only plan for tasks we believe we can complete. Behavioral psychology plays a key role in why we plan and how we execute it. Planning is mostly a learned ability which is why we need to study the habits of successful people to learn how they plan to emulate them in hope of our own success. Albert Bandura, another famous psychologist, created the “Social Learning Theory” which concluded that we learn motivation from observing others (Bandura & McClelland, 1977). This is possibly why some people enjoy watching sports and shows with industry authority figures, such as Celebrity Apprentice, American Idol, & Chopped. People want to watch others that they perceive as “leaders in the field” to emulate and find motivation in their own endeavors. Humans are social animals. We rarely plan alone or without the advice or emulation of others.


Intensity is the degree of energy spent completing each step to finish the task. There are two different kinds of intensity in motivation; intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is when we are motivated to complete a task because we enjoy the activity. Extrinsic motivation is when we are motivated to complete a task because of a reward or because of a consequence (Lens & Vansteenkiste, 2006). Extrinsically motivated people may need the fear of being fired for not being motivated to go to work or a bonus at the end of the year for selling the most candy bars. This is often increased when the perceived reward for finishing the task is higher. We work hard when we know it will be worthwhile. We work less if we think the risk is too great or the reward is too low. Although, a reward may have a negative connection with intrinsically motivated people. The “over-justification effect” becomes apparent then their motivation diminishes over time (Akin-Little & Little, 2004). If someone is rewarded for playing sports they already love to do this will happen. Although, if someone is rewarded for winning at sports this does not happen. This explains why the theory of “everyone should get a trophy” is so flawed. Adrenaline courses through the body when we compete in a big game with a prize at stake, but our body relaxes and we perform on muscle memory during a mid-season game with little consequence and little reward. Completing the physical fitness requirement for the United States Air Force's one and a half mile run requires a thirteen minute forty-five second run time. To make the cutoff on a quarter mile track this would equate to an average two-minute seventeen-second lap. Maintaining this average lap time or better is key to success. This is an example of using intensity in motivation to succeed. Intensity is exactly like maintaining an average lap time to meet a run goal. The steady intensity in progress for any task will guarantee success and better create a determined end date to meet the goal.


Persistence is the continued participation in the direction and the regulated intensity needed to complete a task in a decent amount of time. Behavior, personality, risk, reward, and need play a factor in our ability to persist in completing a task. Our ability to follow the path we plan for leads to success, where wandering an unprepared path or wavering to quit leads to failure. Maintaining our intensity to never reach zero is key to completing the task. When we stagnate we only increase our chances to fail. The Department of Education did a ten year longitudinal study on the effects of taking a “gap year” after High School before enrolling in college courses. This study took a census of how many people ended up completing a bachelor's degree or higher and who didn't. The findings showed that about forty percent of those that did not take a “gap year” completed a bachelor's degree or higher whereas only about twenty percent completed a bachelor's degree or higher when taking a year to reflect, travel, or work minimal jobs (Education Longitudinal Study, 2002). This shows that with college education when we do not follow goals set before us, and lose persistence to complete these goals for an extended period we can increase our chances to fail at twice the rate if we had just followed through. Persistence is a mental form of resilience. Many psychology studies have been conducted on the correlation of those that have mental fortitude and motivation (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2013). Those that have trained their mind to accept small failures on the path to completing a task are more likely to finish opposed to those that shy away at the first bump in the road.


In conclusion, many factors determine degree of motivation. A person that plans and follows a direction will show more motivation. Someone that maintains constant intensity through the course of completing the task is more motivated. Those that persists with resilience in completing their task through difficulties and roadblocks will be seen as having motivation. All of these mannerisms are learned and emulated from direct contact or observed behavior. If you want to be motivated follow those that are motivated. If you want to increase motivation then find direction, maintain intensity, and develop persistent resilience. If you are working too hard on that four page essay you might overextend your intensity so make sure to reward yourself with some Netflix after. If you can not get yourself away from the television to get writing at least find something with inspiring people to watch. Hopefully this will give you direction to eventually get up and follow through.


Akin-Little, K. A., & Little, S. G. (2004). Re-Examining the Over Justification Effect. Journal Of Behavioral Education, 13(3), 179-192. doi:10.1023/B:JOBE.0000037628.81867.69

Ajzen, I. (1991). Theory of Planned Behavior. The Theory of Planned Behavior. doi:10.4135/9781412952576.n208

Bandura, A. and McClelland, D. C. (1977). Social learning theory.

Education Longitudinal Study (ELS), 2002: Base Year. (2002). United States Department of Education. doi:10.3886/icpsr04275.v1

Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2013). Psychological Resilience. European Psychologist, 18 (1), 12-23. doi:10.1027/1016-9040/a000124

Freud, S., Breuer, J., & Strachey, J. (2001). Studies in hysteria: (1893-1895). London: Vintage.

Lens, W. and Vansteenkiste, M. (2006). Motivation: About the “why” and “what for” of human behavior In: Pawlik, K. and d’Ydewalle, G. eds. International conceptual history of psychology. Hove, UK: Psychology Press, pp. 249–270.

Vansteenkiste, M., & Mouratidis, A. (2016). Emerging Trends and Future Directions for the Field of Motivation Psychology: A Special Issue in Honor of Prof. Dr. Willy Lens. Psychologica Belgica, 56(3), 317-341. doi:10.5334/pb.354


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    • Hacicu Bogdan profile image

      Hacicu Bogdan 

      11 months ago from Cluj-Napoca, Romania

      One thing is sure. Most remarkable accomplishments in this world are due to intrinsic motivation.

      Really informative hub!

      Well Done!


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