Why did you get out of bed this morning instead of snoozing your alarms and laying in bed for 4 more hours? Why do you go to work? Why did you decide not to go to McDonalds even though you’ve been craving their fries all week?
Every single decision and action we take relies on motivation. In essence, motivation reflects a drive to act in pursuit of a goal. It involves various forces (biological, social, psychological) that often interact with one another to activate our behaviour.
Most people are familiar with the saying “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”. This taps into the essence of operant conditioning theory, which states that people will continue to do things for which they are rewarded and avoid doing things for which they are punished. This idea is quite intuitive and highlights some of the processes that influence our motivation for certain behaviours.
There are 3 basic steps involved in the learning process of operant conditioning: First, we encounter a stimulus, which is any situation or event that we perceive (ex: your mom giving you chores). The second step involves a response, which is the behaviour or action we take in reaction to the stimulus (ex: doing the chores). Finally, there is a consequence that follows our response and has the power to make that response more or less likely to occur in the future (ex: getting an allowance for your hard work). Operant conditioning is a very basic but fundamental learning process that reflects our inherent drive to seek rewards and avoid suffering.
Generally speaking, there are two main types of motivation:
This describes motivation that comes from within yourself (ex: your values, your personal interests, your desires, etc.). If you have intrinsic motivation, you will choose to do an activity because it’s genuinely pleasant, enjoyable, and satisfying for you.
Some examples of this include: Studying because you are passionate about the topic and want to learn more, exercising because you enjoy being active, going to work because you find your job meaningful and believe in what you do.
This describes motivation that comes from external rewards in the environment, like money or praise for example. In this case, you are choosing to do an activity in order to gain something in return or to avoid something unpleasant.
Examples of this include: Studying in order to get a good grade, exercising in order to look a certain way and/or receive attention from others, going to your job because you want to earn money, washing the dishes so your partner doesn’t get upset with you.
These two motivational forces (intrinsic and extrinsic) work to influence us differently in different contexts. For example, if you have little intrinsic motivation for a task, then having some external incentive (like money!) will likely stimulate enough motivation for you to complete the task. So, there are situations in which extrinsic motivation can be quite helpful in giving us a push to engage in behaviour that might benefit us in the long run (like earning enough money to have food and shelter).
Although intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation can both be effective in different ways, research suggests that we should be careful not to rely too heavily on extrinsic motivations due to what is called overjustification effects. In this regard, research has shown that adding external rewards to activities that are already inherently satisfying undermines intrinsic motivation for those activities.
For example, if you love writing music because it’s a creative outlet and then you start getting paid to write music for others, you might find that over time this activity becomes less enjoyable and more like a chore. By replacing intrinsic motivation with an external reward, writing music could end up becoming associated with making money and pressure to meet deadlines rather than expressing yourself creatively.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested that humans are inherently motivated to improve themselves and have an internal drive towards self-actualization (i.e. achieving their full potential). In his theory of motivation, he proposed a hierarchy of needs that dictate our behaviour.
At the most basic level, there are our physiological needs and safety needs (ex: food, water, shelter) which must be satisfied before anything else. After our basic needs are met, we are motivated by our psychological needs for love and belonging (ex: having a sense of connection to others, having friendships and intimacy) as well as esteem needs (ex: gaining respect, recognition, feeling accomplishment). Finally, at the highest level is our need for self-actualization which describes our motivation to fulfill our potential and become the most that we can be.
Motivation is at the center of every action we take and it’s driven by many different forces. Maybe you got out of bed this morning because you were excited to go to your job and do some meaningful work or maybe it was because your job rewards you with money or status. Whatever the reason, motivation is ultimately what can help us to pursue our goals and reach towards our potential. So, the next time you’re in the mood for McDonald’s fries, consider your intrinsic desire to be healthy and use that motivation to guide an alternative action like opting for a healthier snack!
To learn about how to increase motivation, check out the next article in this series!