8 Theories of Motivation and Human Desire

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You may occasionally question why you behave the way you do. You may not know what motivates your actions and behaviors. But it may be valuable for you to attempt to understand your intrinsic motivation more clearly. Understanding what drives you can be a beneficial part of becoming more successful and fulfilled in life, and create an easier decision-making process when it comes to making big life choices. In understanding the driving forces behind your actions, you can also understand how to motivate yourself when feeling down.

Psychology has developed many theories of motivation that try to explain what drives human behavior and desire. Here are eight theories of motivation in psychology that have been developed to explain why humans behave the way they do.

1. Evolutionary Theory

The evolutionary theory of motivation states that humans behave in ways to optimize their genetic fitness. The evolutionary theory focuses on getting results for your personhood.

According to the theory of evolution, the most genetically fit will survive and their genes will eventually be spread across the whole population. American philosopher and psychologist William James helped define the link between evolution and survival instinct as the key sources of motivation in humanity. Evolution implies that all animals, including humans, will act in a way that supports their highest reproductive potential. In this theory, the motivation behind behavior is seen as the need to survive and reproduce most optimally. In other words, behavior is formed instinctually through the need to survive and pass on genes.

Going hand-in-hand with evolutionary theory, optimization theory is about maximizing the desired results for the individual. It holds that humans will always choose the option that allows them to consume the most energy while expending the least amount of energy. It is a form of cost-benefit analysis. This relates to genetic fitness because humans are motivated by the need to reproduce and will thus make decisions based off what will optimize their genetic succession and reproductive potential.

Once you have an understanding of this theory at its most basic level, you can start to see it at work in your own daily life. Understanding that every action you take is related to some degree may help you decide your motivation behind each action. Beginning your day with intention and reminding yourself of that intention throughout the day is a good way to ensure that the sum of your actions are pointed toward your predetermined goal.

2. Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory

American psychologist and business management expert Frederick Herzberg's theory of motivation was developed in the 1950s-1960s as a way to understand employee motivation and satisfaction. Through his research, Herzberg identified factors repeatedly linked to satisfaction and dissatisfaction (otherwise known as hygiene factors).

The factors for satisfaction are:

  • Achievement and recognition
  • The work itself
  • Responsibility
  • Advancement and growth

The hygiene factors are:

  • Company policies
  • Supervision
  • Relationship for supervisor and peers
  • Work conditions
  • Salary and status
  • Security

The hygiene factors are mainly attributed to the workspace environment and what kind of constraints are put around the employees. Through these findings, Herzberg concluded that the most motivation creation occurs not just when hygiene factors are in order, but when hygiene factors are adequately addressed and there is great focus on satisfaction factors such as achievement and recognition. Put more simply, employees perform at their highest level when the work environment is healthy and they feel like they are achieving success and rewards in their job.

If you connect to this theory of motivation, then you may wish to focus on finding a work environment that satisfies all of these needs as you work toward achieving happiness inside and outside of your career.

3. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

One of the most well-known motivational theories is American psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow’s theory of motivation, also known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which centers around the premise that humans are driven by needs that are hierarchically ranked. These needs are seen as necessary for human survival and development.

In the hierarchy of needs itself, Maslow believed that there were foundational needs upon which survival depended. Thus, if those needs are not satisfied, the higher-ranked needs are considered unimportant. In other words, if your basic survival needs are not satisfied, you cannot be driven to satisfy any further needs but rather will only be motivated by the most basic instinctual needs.

Here is the hierarchy of needs, beginning with the most basic and foundational:

  • Physiological: breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, excretion
  • Safety: security of body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, property
  • Love/belonging: friendship, family, sexual intimacy
  • Esteem: self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others
  • Self-actualization: morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts

Through Maslow’s theory of motivation, it is believed that if your physiological needs are not met, then there is no room for motivation resulting from your other needs. If you are not getting enough adequate sleep or have some sort of health issue, there is no room to be motivated by the desire for love or self-actualization; your main driving behavioral factor would be the need to survive. As more elements of the hierarchy are solidified, you move up the hierarchy of need and become motivated by more factors.

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4. Drive-Reduction Theory

The drive-reduction theory centers around the core idea that humans act merely to satisfy their physiological needs in order to remain in homeostasis. Homeostasis is every animal’s ability to remain in bodily equilibrium (for example, a mammal’s ability to remain warm-blooded). First proposed by American psychologist Clark Hull in 1943, this theory centers around the premise that humans are motivated to take action when there are disturbances to homeostasis. Because homeostasis is a reference to overall health, disturbances to homeostasis may look like anything ranging from lack of food to lack of job opportunities in order to have a source of income.

Within the motivation theory there are classifications of primary and secondary drives.

  • Primary drives are seen more as basic needs, such as your need for nourishment or sex drive.
  • The secondary drives are factors that indirectly satisfy primary needs—things like the desire for money, which can buy nourishment.

Hull proposed that all learned behavior only exists if it satisfies a drive in some shape or form. If this theory for motivation resonates with you, then you may need to look outside of your basic needs for motivation. Take extra time to consider what will make you happy rather than settling for only having your basic needs met. Remember to being each day with clear intentions.

5. Arousal Theory

As an expansion to drive-reduction theory, psychologists Stanley Schachter and Jerome E. Singer developed the arousal theory of motivation, which tacks on the idea that humans are also motivated by various levels of arousal. This theory investigates the influence of neurotransmitter dopamine on human motivation. In this context, the term arousal refers to the psychological state of being more alert and stimulated, and dopamine is a chemical compound in the brain that is associated with transmitting a message of pleasure.

The focus of this theory is on the level of sensitivity to rewards or goal-achievement that the human mental state facilitates. Fulfilling a goal or accomplishing something always has a level of biological arousal, or neurotransmission of dopamine in the brain, and this motivates individuals to make certain decisions or take specific actions in order to achieve this effect. You tend to engage in activities that are physiologically arousing or make you feel good. This theory is essentially oriented as pleasure-seeking as a motivation for human behavior.

Follow this theory when you need to motivate yourself when you are feeling down. Figure out what makes you feel good. Whether it is training for the goal of completing a half marathon or taking time to finish a book, focus on the pleasure that comes from accomplishing goals to elevate your mood.

6. Incentive Theory

The incentive theory of motivation is supported by many behavioral phycologists. This theory states that humans act in response to extrinsic or intrinsic incentives. Extrinsic motivation refers to inessential or external factors, while intrinsic motivation refers to essential or internal factors. This theory argues that you are more often extrinsically motivated by rewards rather than doing things purely because you enjoy them or find the activity fulfilling in itself. For example, you may work more out of a desire for monetary rewards rather than the joy of work itself. You would experience the strongest form of motivation if you find a task enjoyable and receive a reward for participating. This will vary based on individual differences because each person has a unique sense of desire.

Consider that you enjoy painting artwork (an intrinsic incentive) but you are also popular enough to sell the paintings for money (an extrinsic incentive). Both intrinsic and extrinsic factors are then sources of motivation because your motivation to create the artwork is present without the monetary reward, but you are likely to choose to paint more frequently once you also have the incentive of money.

7. Cognitive and Achievement Approaches

Through the cognitive and achievement approaches to motivation, psychology explores how achievement goals and cognitive dissonance can affect motivation for human behavior. In accordance with this ideology, the desire for success drives peoples’ performances. In broader terms, you are driven by seeking positive outcomes and avoiding negative ones.

Social psychologist Leon Festinger developed the theory of cognitive dissonance, which is a contradiction between someone’s thoughts or beliefs and their actions. For example, someone’s actions may not align with what they believe to be the morally correct thing to do. Using the cognitive and achievement approaches, motivation is seen as the drive to eliminate or reduce cognitive dissonance.

People seek to bridge the gap of inconsistencies between their actions and beliefs. If someone’s attitudes do not line up with their behaviors, their motivation will be to take actions that help to line up the two elements. For example, if you perceive your job position to be a subordinate role, you may seek a promotion. Your motivation may be a desire to hold a position you perceive as an intellectual equal to your mental capacity, which would be a bridge between the gap of what you believe you are capable of versus what you are actually doing.

8. Temporal Theory

Developed by organizational theory researcher Piers Steel and psychologist Cornelius J. König as an integrative motivational theory, the temporal theory of motivation focuses on how time and responses to deadlines affect human motivation. This theory is interesting in regards to understanding procrastination and how the process of goal setting works within the human mind. Studies have shown that as a due date nears, motivation increases. In other words, this theory identifies procrastination as part of human nature because motivation is low when time is not of the essence. The temporal theory includes a formula to evaluate level of motivation:

                                Motivation = (Expectancy × Value) / (1 + [Impulsiveness × Delay])

The higher the expectancy (or your self-efficacy beliefs) and the higher the value of the expected outcome, the more likely that person is to have a high motivation to complete a task. In this context, self-efficacy is your own belief about their competence or ability to complete a task. People with low self-efficacy in terms of a certain task are much more likely to expend less effort early on and procrastinate, particularly if you minimally value the outcome of the task. This theory also investigates the idea that people with impulsivity problems tend to have little motivation to resist non-task related urges and, therefore, do not act quickly on tasks that have a far-out deadline.

Motivate Yourself

Once you have a clear understanding of yourself and your goals, you can be more confident in not only making big life choice but stay consistent with your day-to-day actions. In order to know yourself on a deeper level, you must first understand what motivates you. Understanding what drives you can be a significant part of becoming more successful, fulfilled, and self-aware. 


Learn how to let go of struggle and create a life of meaning, purpose, and flow at I am Infinite Possibilities, our one-of-kind event led by Deepak Chopra. Learn More.


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This article was written as a combined effort of the editors for Chopra.com and the Chopra Centered Lifestyle community. The editors take advantage of the wisdom and knowledge at the Chopra Center through access to Master Educators, Program Developers, and Speakers, and bring you the healing wisdom in a simple, online format. Want to submit content for the editors to consider? Visit our content submission guidelines .Read more