Theories of Motivation and Human Desire

December 2, 2019

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
Advancement and growth
The hygiene factors are:

Company policies
Relationship for supervisor and peers
Work conditions
Salary and status
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.

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.