How Do Psychologists Define Motivation?

By Julia Thomas

Updated August 13, 2019

Reviewer Laura Angers

Psychology Textbook Definition of Motivation

Motivation is defined by psychologists as the process by which activities are started, directed, and sustained so that certain needs are met, either psychological or physical. Most general psychology books also have that definition. The idea is that motivation is what guides us to accomplish a goal. It is our desire to do things that lead us to set and attain our goals.

Psychologists define motivation on a biological, emotional, social, and cognitive level. It is the all-encompassing "why" behind why we do something.

Motivation is The Drive That Helps Us Take Action to Better Ourselves
Learn How to Become More Motivated in Online Therapy Today


Types of Motivation

There are two main types of motivation, namely, intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual. When you are intrinsically motivated, you do something for the personal gratification. An example of intrinsic motivation is completing a puzzle because you find it challenging. (Find more examples here.)

In contrast, extrinsic motivation is when you do something to get a reward or avoid a punishment. In this case, the motivation for your behavior comes from something outside of yourself, such as an award or a good grade.

Components of Motivation

There are three main components of motivation and those are activation, persistence, and intensity.


Activation is the decision to start doing a certain behavior.

The next step, Persistence, is continuing to put in the effort to achieve a goal even when obstacles appear.

Lastly, Intensity is the concentration and energy that someone puts into accomplishing his or her goal.

Theories of Motivation

Psychologists have identified three main theories of motivation that seek to explain motivation, whether that motivation is biological, emotional, social, or cognitive.

The first theory of motivation is the Instinct Theory, which says that we are motivated to complete goals through our instincts. An instinct is a fixed, inborn pattern of behavior that acts as a drive. Therefore, Instinct Theory postulates that behaviors occur so that we can get the basic things we need to survive. An example of an instinctual drive is fear, which allows people to avoid dangerous situations and thus, live.

Another theory of motivation is the Theory of Drives and Needs. We have biological needs for food, water, and shelter. This theory states that our behaviors are motivated by the fact that we have to meet these needs. Thus, we find food, we drink, and we rest.

The last theory of motivation is Arousal Theory. This theory suggests that people engage in behaviors to keep their arousal level at one that is personally optimal. For example, a person with high arousal needs may engage in high-risk behaviors such as skydiving or rock climbing. A person with low arousal needs may be content with reading a book.

Motivation is The Drive That Helps Us Take Action to Better Ourselves
Learn How to Become More Motivated in Online Therapy Today



When we think of these theories we often categorize them based on life experience.

MONEY: The quest to meet biological needs, for example, may find expression through the acquisition of money. But after the basic needs are met, other theories may play a part. In fact, most people that work just for money, would rather not work but the acquisition of the things money can provide may grow and the esteem gained from that can motivate one to strive for more money in order to have a feeling of ownership, pride, and accomplishment. But in this case, you might end up chasing after things that you truly don't need or want and true fulfillment may be lacking.

AVOID PAIN, GAIN PLEASURE: Gaining pleasure may go along with the arousal theory in that some people may be motivated simply by the quest for happy feelings. If an action seems to provide more pleasure than pain on balance, it would likely be the preferred course of action. When you are motivated to watch a movie rather than wash the dishes, that may be the result of the pain/pleasure balance. A lot of people may put off working on their goals because it does not provide pleasure, but over time as the goals become delayed the beneficial aspects of working on them may increase and force them to act. Liken this to putting things off until the last minute.

"Desire is the starting point of all achievement, not a hope, not a wish, but a keen pulsating desire which transcends everything.:" (Napoleon Hill)

DRIVE TO BE EXCELLENT: Some people simply cannot tolerate being second….they are driven to win and be the best. Olympic athletes are an example of this drive to excel as are some entrepreneurs and leaders. Muhammad Ali is quoted as saying, "I hated every minute of training, but I told myself, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'" Sacrifice leads to success in this case.

AULTRUISM: Some people are motivated by the desire to help others. A philanthropist would be an example of someone that is motivated by this desire to make the world a better place. The motivation to help others may come from an intrinsic disposition combined with a sense of the common good and basic empathy for others.

POWER, FAME: Political leaders may be the most obvious class of people that seem to be driven by the need for power and fame, but many other professions can lay claim to this as a motivating factor. This is grounded, to some extent, on the desire to have an influence over others and perhaps be dominant. This could include being recognized that you are right and others are wrong, being in a position to judge others, for example.

PASSION: The basic drive to achieve may be based on genetic and environmental conditions but some people simply are able to dedicate a major portion of their life to a purpose that they are willing to literally sacrifice sleep to achieve. These people can be considered driven to do what they do. A person with passion can wake up each day with the drive to achieve what they want in life.

Think about what it is that truly motivates you and which one can drive you the most. Know yourself first and then enhance that and be intentional in the use of it. Make note of it and daily think about you and what motivates you to achieve and set your course accordingly.


Getting the Help You Need

If you find yourself in need of professional mental health help, there are many resources available for you. Sometimes, you may find yourself lacking motivation and with that, you have to reach out and get help - YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

As an example, BetterHelp is a company that offers online counseling and therapy.

This is a company that strives to provide mental health help for those who want to avoid the stigma associated with seeking assistance for illnesses that cannot be readily observed. It can also be a platform for you to talk to someone who understands whatever situation it is that you are in - you will never be judged. This company is also professional, truly affordable, and very convenient.

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