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The Concept of Motivation

Updated on September 27, 2012

The Concept of Motivation

The concept of motivation is an area of psychology that has gotten a great deal of attention because it is the force that makes people behave the way they do. Motivation cannot be simply defined, but a modest definition is that motivation is the driving force that causes people to achieve goals or behave a certain way. It can be an internal state or condition that activates behavior and gives it direction. According to Professor Huitt at Valdosta University, “motivation is the influence of needs and desires on the intensity and direction of behavior” (Huitt, 2001). Although there is not a clear cut definition of what motivation is, there is definitely a clear relationship between motivation and behavior.

Types of Motivation

There are two types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that is driven by a curiosity or gratification in the task itself, and exists within the individual, while extrinsic motivation comes from outside sources rather than that of the individual. According to the Edward L. Deci, Professor of Psychology at Rochester University:

“Intrinsic motivation is readily observable in young children; indeed, play is the “business of their lives.” They happily turn random objects into toys, they role-play others such as their parents, and they invent all kinds of games. Intrinsic motivation is also apparent in older individuals, although perhaps not so ubiquitously. Leisure activities such as playing golf, looking at paintings, and pursuing a bargain on a new dress are often intrinsically motivated (i.e., done for the spontaneous satisfaction provided by the activities themselves), and some people are fortunate enough to be intrinsically motivated for their jobs.”

While intrinsic rewards come from within, extrinsic motivations can be rewards such as money or grades. Extrinsic motivation refers to doing a behavior because it will lead to some separate outcome such as a reward, approval from others, or the avoidance of punishment. For example, competition is an extrinsic motivator because it inspires the person to beat others and win, not to enjoy the rewards of the actual activity. Even the threat of punishment and coercion are extrinsic motivators. Either intrinsic or extrinsic, motivation is the key to behavior.

Extrinsic Motivation & Behavior

The concept of extrinsic motivation is linked to behaviorist theories. Behavior modification, for example, was based solely on extrinsic motivation, in which a desired behavior and gets a reward. This reward is also known as reinforcement. The two primary schools of behaviorism, the Hullian drive theory and the Skinnerian operant theory, were both built around the concept of reinforcement. In both theories, people learn behaviors when they are reinforced (Deci, 2010).

Intrinsic Motivation & Behavior

Intrinsic motivation is based in people's innate predisposition to be proactive, to feel a sense of accomplishment and to interact with the world in an attempt to have an effect. When people are at their healthiest, they are curious, eager to take on challenges, engaged with interesting tasks or stimuli, and ready to learn (Deci, 2010). The concept of intrinsic motivation arose in reaction to problems that became apparent within each school of behaviorism. Consequently, there were initially two different portrayals of the intrinsic motivation. The first suggested that not all behaviors are derived from the basic drives such as thirst, sex and hunger. The second was just as people have biological needs, the so-called drives —that must be satisfied for them to remain healthy, people also have psychological needs that must also be satisfied for them to thrive (White, 1959). According to Professor Deci, “as it turns out, many of the activities people do are not intrinsically motivated, especially from the time they move out of early childhood and face increasing demands to assume social roles and accept responsibilities. Children must begin to interact congenially with playmates, then to do schoolwork that they do not find interesting, and eventually (as adults) to hold gainful employment and function within the laws of society. Evidence shows, for example, that even during children's years in elementary school, their intrinsic motivation tends to become weaker with each passing year.”


Motivation is essential to be successful in any endeavor. Although the motivation can be positive, negative, tangible or intangible, subtle or obvious it is still needed in order to energize behavior (Romando, 2007). Motivation, intrinsic or extrinsic is the driving factor in people’s behavior. Although there is not a clear cut definition of what motivation is, there is definitely a clear relationship between motivation and behavior. Without intrinsic motivation, one would not take part in past times or hobbies such as sports or stamp collecting. Without extrinsic motivation, one would not strive to be the best, there would be no sense of competition, and there would be no drive to be the best.


Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. 2010. Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination. (2004). In Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology. Retrieved from

Huitt, W. (2001). Motivation to learn: An overview. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [1/10/2011], from

Romando, R. (2007). Define Motivation. Retrieved from

White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66, 297-333.


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