Motivation theories

Three definitions of motivation from psychology:

  1. Motivation is an internal state that incites, directs and maintains behavior (Woolfolk, 1999).
  2. Motivation is the set of factors that direct and give energy to the behavior of humans and other organisms (Feldman, 2011).
  3. Motivation is defined as the influence that explains incitement, selection, direction and continuation of behavior (Aamodt, 2012).

Some explanations of motivation are based on internal factors (intrinsic motivation): needs, interests, curiosity and enjoyment, while others point to the elements of the environment (extrinsic motivation): rewards, social pressure and punishment.


Theories of motivation

Throughout the history of the thought have been elaborated diverse theories on the motivation of which we show a brief summary:

Hedonism: Psychological hedonism means that the individual is motivated by the desire to have pleasure and avoid pain (Bruton, 2016). Used in neoclassical microeconomics.

Instincts: Some of the most primitive motivational theories explained behavior through instincts, understanding them as entrenched patterns of behavior that will trigger actions necessary for survival.

Hull Impulse Reduction Theory: Humans are motivated to satisfy our physiological needs (impulses) to maintain homeostasis (= The ability of a living system or organism to adjust its internal environment to maintain a stable equilibrium). Primary impulses (thirst, hunger, sleep, procreation, …) and secondary impulses (achievement, progress, social identity, recognition, personal fulfillment, …).

Arousal: Theories based on excitement operate on the basis that people want to sustain some degree of stimulation and excitement to feel motivated.

Incentives: The motivation of the individual arises from trying to satisfy the desire for something worth striving for. These incentives can work together with internal impulses.

Cognitive approaches: Cognitive approaches to motivation are interested in the thought processes that lead to decisions about activities.

Hierarchy of Maslow Needs: According to Maslow, human needs have a clear hierarchy that is often represented as a pyramid. The five needs are physiological, security, social, esteem, self-actualization. Needs have to be satisfied starting with the simplest and passing sequentially to self-realization.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory: Cognitive dissonance occurs when there is an unresolved conflict in our mind between two beliefs, thoughts or perceptions we have on a given subject. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful motivator because it creates a feeling of discomfort in an individual who, in order to be solved, needs a change in the conflictive cognition created by the new information that allows to justify its behavior or a change of said behavior. In order to do this, they must identify the beliefs that are at the bottom of the attitude and see how to counteract or replace those beliefs with more information and argumentation.

Theory of Attribution: The first reaction when we make a mistake or “fail” in something usually consists of an automatic response that implies the internal attribution, that is, the error is our fault. Then a conscious reaction, slower than the previous one, seeks to find an alternative external attribution (a kind of survival mechanism).

Progress-Based Effect: When people feel that they have made some progress towards a goal, they will feel more committed to their achievement. Conversely, people who are making little or no progress are more likely to quit early in the process.

Theory of Cognitive Evaluation: When evaluating a task, we do it in terms of how well it satisfies our need to feel competent and in control (mastery). We will be intrinsically motivated by tasks that we believe fall into our current level of competence and are unmotivated (“postponing”) those tasks that we believe we will do poorly because of our self-perceived levels of competence.

ERG theory (Existence, Relationship and Growth): The theory proposed by Alderfer redefines Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in these three categories: existence needs (basic for survival), relationship needs (aspirations, group identification, recognition, Fame) and growth needs (personal development / self-realization and progress).

Herzberg’s dual factor theory (Theory of hygienic factors and motivators): The motivating factors are personal stimulation, achievement and self-realization, while the hygienic factors are the environment, personal relationships, work / study conditions and Policy of the organization in which the person is inserted. Of both types of factors comes the concept of job enrichment: avoid monotony by increasing responsibilities, valuing people, autonomy, feedback and work environment.

Theory of McClelland’s acquired needs: Motivation is determined by three needs (trichotomy): need for power (influence on the desires of others through a sense of belonging, empowerment and participation in decision-making), achievement (excel and Success), and affiliation (positive interpersonal relationships that allow group work, quality of work, and achievement of objectives).

Theory of the four drivers of Lawrence and Nohria: The model is a holistic way to see the motivation of employees in four underlying forces: 1) The impulse to Acquire and Achieve (payment base, cash incentives, performance evaluation, … ); 2) to Connect and Belong (mutual support, work teams, sharing best practices, …); 3) to be Challenged and Understand (commitment, not boredom and learning: structuring jobs and projects); And 4) Define and Defend (reputation, moral role, culture, open communication, transparency, …).

Adams’ Equity Motivation Theory: The balance between the employee’s contribution and the compensation he receives for it is the guarantee of a positive, productive and motivated employee. Inequity in comparing rewards and the product of work done by people are the main source of demotivation. The satisfaction is reached if equal work is received equal reward.

Theory of motivation by the hope or expectation of Vroom: motivation comes from the results, not the needs. Factors that modulate behavior are the probability of completing the task and the consequences, impacts or results of completing the task. The fundamental thing in this theory is to identify what the person is looking for in the organization and the forms that he will use to try to achieve it. Therefore, their motivation will be determined by what they believe they have invaluable for the goals and incentives, therefore their behavior will be based on their beliefs, hopes and future expectations.

Handy’s Motivation Calculus: Each person has their own calculation of motivation, whether conscious or unconscious. The factors involved in their motivational decision are: needs, desired results (expectation of results), cost factors (costs of efforts made in relation to the reward obtained).

Locke’s Goal Setting Motivation Theory: The theory links the setting of a person’s goals with the performance of tasks. The more specific and clear the target, the better the performance you can expect. The impulse given by a person’s intention to reach a goal is appreciated through the recognition of his effort to achieve it. Goals have several functions: Focus attention and action by being more attentive to the task, mobilizing energy and effort, increasing persistence, and helping to strategize.

Skinner’s Reinforcement Motivation Theory: Past behavior, and the consequences of such behavior, affect future behavior in a cyclic learning model. Essentially, the theory says that the resulting consequences (response) of behavior prior to a given situation (stimulus) will determine whether the person chooses to repeat the same behavior in similar circumstances.


If you want to know a little bit more …


Aamodt, M.G. (2012). Industrial/organizational psychology. An applied approach. (5th ed). Belmont, CA:     Wadsworth.

Avey, J.B., Avolio B., Crossley C., Luthans, F. (2009). Psychological ownership: Theoretical extensions, measurement, and relation to work outcomes. Journal of Organizational       Behavior, 30, 173-191.

Woolfolk, A. E. (1999) Psicología Educativa. México: Prentice Hall. 1999. Cap.10.

Boundless (2016) Drive-Reduction Theory of Motivation. Boundless Psychology, 26 May. 2016.

S. Feldman (2011), Understanding Psychology, McGraw-Hill, New York

Lawrence, P. y Nohria, N. (2001) Driven: How Human Nature Shapes our Choices. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bruton, S.V. (2016) Psychological hedonismin: Encyclopedia Britannica.

Cherry, K. (2016) What is the instinct theory of motivation? How instincts motivate behavior. Verywell, November 30, 2016.

Festinger, L. (1957) A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Combined Academic Publ. Anniversary Ed. June, the 1rst, 1957.

Nunes, J.C. y Drèze, X. (2006) The Endowed Progress Effect: How artificial advancement increases effort. Journal of Consumer Research, Inc. Vol. 32. March 2006.

Alderfer, C.P. (1969) An empirical test of a new theory of human needs. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance Vol 4, Issue 2, May 1969, Pages 142-175.

McClelland, D.C. (1967) The Achieving Society. The Free Press. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. New York.

Locke, E.A. y Latham, G.P. (1990) A theory of goal setting & task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, US: Prentice-Hall, Inc.


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