Understanding The Psychology Behind Motivation

Updated February 7, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The term “motivation” is used in many fields and situations, but what does it mean in psychology? Motivation is that little part of us that spurs us to action. Understanding motivation and its driving forces have long interested psychologists and businesspeople alike. If you want to dive a little deeper, gain knowledge and explore your motivation, start by looking at how psychologists define the term.

A Psychologist’s Definition Of Motivation

Psychologists define human motivation as “the impetus that gives purpose or direction to behavior and operates in humans at a conscious or unconscious level.”  The idea is that motivation guides us to accomplish a goal and that goal-directed behavior can be very satisfying. 

Psychologists have several theories on what forces can cause an individual to act. Some of these theories are based on need, while others are based on instinct and arousal. Motivation can rarely be narrowed down to a single driving force.

Types Of Motivation

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There are two main types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual. When you are intrinsically motivated, you do something for personal gratification. You are not motivated by external incentives and act simply because you gain internal satisfaction. Instead of expecting external rewards for your behavior, the behavior itself is the reward.  When your motives are intrinsic, the journey, not the end goal, is most satisfying. Consequently, intrinsic motivation does not require much effort because it arises within and does not require external factors or motives.

Below are some examples of intrinsic motivation in action:

  • You complete a puzzle because you find it challenging.

  • You help a person carry their groceries without expecting rewards or recognition.

  • Exercising because you enjoy it, not because you want to lose weight.

  • Playing a game because you find it enjoyable.

  • Spending time with someone because you like them and not because you can get something from them.

In contrast, extrinsic motivation makes you do something to get rewards or avoid punishment. In this case, motivation comes from something outside of yourself, such as external awards or a good grade. Though you can enjoy the process of achieving a goal, extrinsic motivation means that your motives are primarily external. External factors motivate you to take action – or avoid action altogether.

Some examples of extrinsic motivation include:

  • Pursuing a master’s degree so that you can work in your dream field or industry.

  • Competing in sports to gain trophies and recognition.

  • Spending time with someone because they can improve your social status.

  • Spending more time with one student in particular because they can help you with homework and improve your grades.

Theories Of Motivation

Psychologists have identified three main theories of motivation that seek to explain motivation and whether that motivation is biological, emotional, social, or cognitive. These theories include the instinct theory, the theory of drives and needs, and the arousal theory.

Instinct Theory

Instinct is a fixed, inborn behavior pattern acting as a drive. Instinct theory postulates that certain behaviors occur so we can satisfy basic survival needs. Fear is an example of an instinctual drive, which allows people to avoid dangerous situations.

Theory Of Drives And Needs

We have biological needs for food, water, and shelter. The theory of drives and needs states that our behaviors are motivated by the necessity to meet these needs. Therefore, we are motivated to find food, drink, and rest. Psychological needs (such as the need for validation) can also motivate people.

Arousal Theory

The arousal theory suggests that people engage in certain behaviors to keep their arousal level 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.

Maslow’s Theory Of Self-Actualization

Another theory about motivation developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the mid-twentieth century is the theory of self-actualization. Based on a hierarchy of basic psychological needs, this theory focuses on how a person must meet their needs before reaching the highest level of self-actualization. The levels of needs form a period, with physiological needs forming the base. They include the following:

  1. Physiological needs

  2. Safety 

  3. Love and belonging

  4. Self-esteem

  5. Self-actualization

According to Maslow’s theory, every individual can move toward self-actualization if the motives are present. When at the top of the pyramid, the individual has reached the best version of self possible. 

How To Find Your Motivation

People looking to improve their motivation may mean that they want to improve their intrinsic motivation. That’s because they’ve recognized that external factors and motives are not enough to motivate them to achieve their goals. The goal-setting and the process of working towards the achievement itself are not enough to motivate them to make an effort and act. Therefore, many motivated people you know are often productive and motivated by intrinsic motives.

So, how do you increase motivation? It can often feel like some people are born with a ton of motivation and don’t have to make an effort to improve it. However, this is not true. People with great intrinsic motivation often take good care of themselves and have all their needs met, as outlined in Maslow’s theory. Therefore, here are a few things you can do to improve your motivation:

  • Remind yourself of why you do certain things.

  • Take care of your body.

  • Make sure all of your physical needs are met.

  • Let go of all-or-nothing thinking.

  • Find additional external factors that can motivate you.

  • But also find interest and joy in the present moment and during the journey to your goals.

  • Utilize mindfulness and journaling to reflect upon what you really want in life.

Set Realistic Goals

Goals can be tricky. They must be big enough to inspire you and small enough to accomplish. Set attainable yet challenging goals, helping give you some direction to your schedule.

Keep A Journal

Writing in a journal helps you connect with that little voice inside you that lights the fire in your soul to work toward your goals. It can help you clear your head and remind you of everything you’ve already achieved, which can be motivation in and of itself!


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Exercise and see your motivation improve! Exercise has been proven to reduce the risk of major depression, increase energy, improve sleep, relieve stress, and boost your mood-all factors that can affect your motivation.

Get A Good Night’s Sleep

Getting enough quality sleep can make a world of difference in your motivation, as sleep deprivation has been proven to alter the systems involved in motivational processes. So make sure you are getting enough Z’s.

Connect With A Pro

Not everyone is inherently motivated all of the time. Motivation may lag only to pick back up again. Many people can renew their efforts toward developing goal-oriented behaviors after trying one or more of the above-mentioned techniques.

Some people feel that specific behaviors may dampen their motivation, and the continued effort toward achieving goals may seem exhaustive. If a particular behavior is getting in the way of your well-being, it may be time to turn to professional help for positive psychology techniques.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is based on humanistic theory and is designed to challenge your existing patterns of thoughts and behaviors. CBT can be just what you need to find and grow your self-motivation when you lack motivation. 

Online therapy may be a great option if you are uncertain about attending counseling in person or if such resources are unavailable in your area. Counselors are available via phone or video calls, messages, or live chat, whatever is convenient for you. Additionally, a little research can help you find specific counselors whose backgrounds fit your situation.

An article published in 2020 sought to evaluate the efficacy of an online motivational intervention as a pre-treatment to online CBT. The study’s authors found that internet-delivered CBT (ICBT) is emerging as a practical approach to treating mental health concerns comparable to traditional therapy. Participants actively involved in the ICBT study with online motivational enhancement strategies had a 75% completion rate. More than half saw significant reductions in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns. BetterHelp has many licensed and certified counselors ready to help you find the motivation within; reach out to learn more.


Motivation helps us accomplish goals, but finding it isn’t always easy. If you need help boosting your intrinsic motivation, online therapy can help.

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