Understanding the Psychology Behind Motivation

Updated September 30, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The term “motivation” is used in so many different 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 been of interest to psychologists and businessmen 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 process by which activities are started, directed, and sustained so that certain needs are met. Needs can be psychological (for example, needing validation) or physical (for example, needing food). The idea is that motivation guides us to accomplish a goal, and that goal-directed behavior can be very satisfying. Online therapy can help you get a deeper understanding of your own motivation and motivational forces.

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

Are You Reaching The Best Version Of Yourself?

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 from doing so. Instead of expecting external rewards for your behavior, the behavior itself is the reward.  When your motives are intrinsic, it is the journey, not the end goal that is most satisfying. Consequently, intrinsic motivation does not require much effort because it arises within and does not require external factors or motives.

Much research around motivation finds that most people’s motives are extrinsic. People expect something in return for their behavior, whether it be rewards or something for survival (such as food, money, or shelter). However, research is more confused about why intrinsic motivation exists. However, one theory suggests that the motives behind intrinsic motivation are due to our psychological needs, such as the need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

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, the motivation for your behavior 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. It is external factors that motivate you to take action – or avoid an 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.

Components of Motivation

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

  • Activation is the decision to start doing certain behaviors. Someone with strong activation is more likely to start pursuing a goal than someone who has weak activation.
  • Persistence is continuing to put in the effort to achieve a goal even when obstacles appear. The motives (whether intrinsic or extrinsic) are greater and have more influence than the obstacles during the journey.
  • Intensity is the concentration and energy that someone puts into accomplishing his or her goal. Those who have a greater number or more influential motives will be more motivated to remain concentrated and focused.

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 Arousal Theory.

Instinct Theory

The Instinct Theory states that we are motivated to complete goals through our instincts. Instinct is a fixed, inborn pattern of behavior that acts as a drive. Therefore, Instinct Theory postulates that certain behaviors occur so we can satisfy basic survival needs. An example of an instinctual drive is fear, 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 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 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.

Maslow’s Theory of Self-Actualization

Another theory, 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 the order in which a person’s needs must be met before reaching the highest level of self-actualization. The levels are stacked one on top of another, in the shape of a pyramid. Think of each level as a base for the one above it.

  1. The first level is physiological. A person must have food and water, air to breathe, sleep and so on.
  2. Love and belonging. When the first two needs are met, people focus on love, intimacy belonging – to a family, a group or a community.
  3. Self-esteem. Here an individual acquires self-confidence, self-esteem and respect.
  4. Self-actualization. In the last level, people can accept facts, act with morality and be creative because they have transcended themselves.

According to Maslow’s theory, every individual has the capability to 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. Understanding motivation is possible only when one has reached self actualization.


When we think of these theories, we often categorize them based on life experiences related to human behavior and our continued effort in reaching goals.

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. Most people that work just for money would rather not work. However, the acquisition of the things money can provide may grow and the esteem gained from that can motivate one to strive for more money to have a feeling of ownership, interest, pride, and accomplishment. But you might end up chasing after things you don’t need, 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 positive feelings. If an action seems to provide more pleasure than pain, 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. Many people may put off working on their goals because it does not provide pleasure, but over time as the goals become delayed, the benefits of working toward them may increase and motivate them. Liken this to putting things off until the last minute.

Drive to Be Excellent: Some people 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.

Altruism: 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 driven by the need for power and fame, but many other professions can find these to be strong motives. This is grounded, to some extent, on the desire to influence others. For example, this could include being recognized you are right and others are wrong, or being in a position to judge others.

Passion: The basic drive to achieve may be based on genetic and environmental conditions, but for some people, the fulfillment of achieving goals in itself is what propels them. A passionate person can wake up each day with the drive to achieve what they want in life. They need nothing else to motivate them, as they are motivated simply by their interest and passion for the goal.

Getting the Help You Need

Think about what it is that truly motivates you. Know yourself first. Make note of what motivates you to achieve and set your course accordingly.

Set Realistic Goals

Goals can be tricky-they need to be big enough to inspire you and small enough to accomplish. Make sure you set yourself goals that are do-able yet challenging, 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 serve as a reminder of everything you’ve already achieved-which can be motivation in and of itself!


Are You Reaching The Best Version Of Yourself?

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 all your Z’s.

How To Improve Your Motivation

When people are looking to improve their motivation, what they really mean is 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 of the 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 increase it. However, this is not true. People with great 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.

Getting Motivated

Not everyone is inherently motivated all of the time. It’s common for motivation to fall behind, only to pick back up again. Many people find that they can renew their efforts toward developing goal oriented behaviors, after trying one or more of the techniques mentioned above.

Some people feel that specific behaviors may be dampening 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.

Connect With A Pro

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is based on humanistic theory, and it’s designed to challenge your existing patterns of thoughts and behaviors. When you lack motivation, CBT can be just what you need to find and grow your self motivation again. If you are uncertain about attending counseling in person, or if such resources are not available in your area, online therapy may be a great option. 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 an effective approach to treating mental health concerns in a manner comparable to going to traditional therapy. Participants who were 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 that are ready to help you find the motivation that is buried deep within. Counselors are available via phone or video calls, messages, or live chat-whatever is convenient for you. Additionally, a little bit of research can help you find specific counselors whose backgrounds can help your situation. With online counseling, there’s no need to attend one counselor’s session in person, especially if you are more comfortable staying at home. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.

Commonly Asked Questions:

What is motivation in psychology and example?

What is the general definition of motivation?

What are the 3 types of motivation?

What is Maslow's theory of motivation?

What is a good example of motivation?

What three words define motivation?

What is motivation and types of motivation?

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.