Understanding The Psychology Behind Motivation

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated August 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The term "motivation" is used in many fields but may have a different definition in psychology. Motivation is often defined as an internal voice or sensation that prompts action toward goals. Understanding motivation and its driving forces has long interested psychologists and businesspeople alike. 

To gain knowledge about motivation, consider how psychologists define the term and explore the different types of motivation that can be used.

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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."  Achievement motivation guides individuals to accomplish a goal through goal-directed behavior. 

Psychologists have several theories on what forces can cause an individual to act. Some theories are based on need, while others are based on instinct and arousal. Motivation is not often narrowed down to a single driving force and can be personal to each individual. 

Types Of Motivation

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

Intrinsic Motivation 

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. When you are intrinsically motivated, you are striving for personal gratification instead of being motivated by external incentives. Instead of expecting external rewards for your behavior, the behavior itself is the reward.  Consequently, intrinsic motivation may not require as much effort because it arises within and does not require external motives.

Below are a few examples of intrinsic motivation in action:

  • You complete a puzzle because you enjoy mental challenges.
  • You help a person carry their groceries without expecting rewards or recognition.
  • You exercise because you enjoy it, not because you want to gain muscle. 
  • You play a game because you find it enjoyable.
  • You spend time with someone because you like them and not because they offer you anything.

Extrinsic Motivation 

Extrinsic motivation is a drive to complete a task to get rewards or avoid punishment. In this case, motivation comes from stimuli outside of yourself, such as external awards or recognition. Though you can enjoy the process of achieving a goal, extrinsic motivation means that your motives are primarily external. External factors motivate you to act – 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 an intelligent student 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 humans 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

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

Arousal Theory

The arousal theory suggests that people engage in certain behaviors to remain emotionally, intellectually, and physically stimulated. For example, a person with high arousal needs may engage in high-risk behaviors like 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 themselves possible.

How To Find Your Motivation

It might seem that some people are born with a ton of motivation and don't have to try to improve it. However, motivation can take effort for anyone. As outlined in Maslow's theory, people with significant intrinsic motivation often take care of themselves and have all their needs met. Whether your needs are met or not, however, there are ways to become more motivated, including the following: 

  • Remind yourself of why you work hard. 
  • Take care of your body.
  • Make sure all your physical needs are met.
  • Let go of all-or-nothing thinking.
  • Find additional external factors that can motivate you.
  • Find interest and joy in the present moment. 
  • Utilize mindfulness and journaling to reflect upon what you want in life.

Set Realistic Goals

Goals can be tricky. Some people may find that they are only motivated when their goals are meaningful enough to inspire them but realistic enough to accomplish. Set attainable yet challenging goals, giving direction to your schedule.

Keep A Journal

Writing in a journal helps you connect with the inner voice 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!


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

Sleep Well 

Quality sleep can make a difference in your motivation, as sleep deprivation has been proven to alter the systems involved in motivational processes.

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Connect With A Therapist 

Some people find 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 valuable to turn to a professional for support. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is based on humanistic theory, designed to challenge your existing thought patterns. CBT can help clients grow motivation by changing their beliefs and teaching healthy behavioral patterns. If you are uncertain about attending counseling in person or if such resources are unavailable in your area, you can also connect with a provider through an online therapy platform like BetterHelp.

Online counselors are available via phone, video, or live chat sessions and messaging throughout the week. Additionally, many platforms offer the option to be matched with a therapist that meets your client profile. If you don't click with one provider, you can often switch providers quickly and easily. 

A 2020 study evaluated the efficacy of online motivational interventions and online CBT. The authors found that internet-delivered CBT (ICBT) can be a practical approach to treating mental health conditions with results 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. 


Motivation helps individuals accomplish goals. However, building motivation can be difficult, especially if you're experiencing a mental health challenge. In these cases, working with a motivational therapist may be beneficial. You're not alone, and support is available.

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