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What is Motivation?

Updated on August 14, 2010

Motivation is the state of moving or impelling. In psychology, motivation is a term used to describe and explain both the arousing or alerting of the organism and the subsequent directing of that organism's behavior. Simply, motivation is used to help tell why an organism behaves as it does. In human behavior the psychology of motivation is concerned with trying to understand what arouses people and why certain people, when aroused, behave in a particular way, while other people, when similarly aroused, act differently. For example, a study of motivation tries to explain why it is that when one person hears a noise at night, he turns over and goes back to sleep, while another person hearing a similar noise will get up, investigate, and then will still be unable to go back to sleep.

Clark L. Hull
Clark L. Hull

Theories of Motivation

Since ancient times, man has been concerned with understanding why he behaves as he does. In ancient Greece, for example, it was commonly thought that the whims of the gods were responsible for man's behavior. Later, in Christian societies, men tended to explain their behavior in terms of God's will.

In modern times there have been a number of attempts to explain motivation scientifically. In the early part of the 20th century, instinct was used to explain man's behavior. The next attempt was made by psychologists of the behaviorist school, such as Clark Leonard Hull. Motivation, it was argued, is created when a state of need or drive occurs in an organism. The organism is moved to reduce needs. The need for water is motivation for a thirsty man. When a person has a particular need, he becomes activated. If he had experienced this need previously, he would also seek some specific goal. For example, when any person becomes hungry, he becomes increasingly active in the search for food. The manner in which he searches, however, will depend on his previous experiences.

This drive theory of motivation introduced the concept of the secondary drive, thereby further explaining why each person has different motivations. Secondary drives are learned through association with an essential need. For example, the needs of a very young baby are few and unlearned. From time to time he needs milk. The milk is supplied by the mother, who usually appears just before the milk. After a number of such experiences the child learns to want the mother herself and her presence becomes satisfying even when the baby is not hungry. If the mother often weirs pink and never blue, the child may begin to prefer the color pink to blue.

Another important theory of motivation was put forward by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Like the behaviorist theory, his psychoanalytic theory of motivation stated that a person's behavior is dependent on factors within that person. The important factors for the psychoanalytic theory of motivation include conflict, frustration, and anxiety. Freud's greatest contribution to motivation theory was his demonstration that much of human motivation has unconscious causation; that is, a person is quite unaware of the real reasons why he behaves as he does and often requires skilled analysis by a psychiatrist to bring the real reasons to the surface.

A new theory of motivation emphasizes external stimulation, rather than internal needs or stresses. Studies have shown that people need a certain degree of external stimulation, such as noise, light, and touch, even while they are asleep. This theory suggests that people naturally seek sensory stimulation and a degree of excitement through such activities as playing and working with their environment and exploration of the elements in it.

Physiology of Motivation

The arousal, or energizing, of the body is a function of the reticular formation, which is a nerve system in the brain stem branching out widely to the cerebral cortex. During sleep the reticular formation is relatively inactive. During an experiment, if the reticular formation of a sleeping subject is stimulated chemically or electrically, the organism becomes highly alert. Similar stimulation occurs naturally whenever unexpected or excessive stimulation of a person's senses occur, as, for example, when a loud noise is suddenly heard. The directing, or goal-seeking, function of motivation is also dependent on the cerebral cortex.


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    • chiradeep profile image

      Chiradeep Patra 

      10 years ago from India

      This is a very nice article and its really informative.


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