How Do Psychologists Define Motivation?

By Jessica Saxena|Updated April 20, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Laura Angers, NCC, LPC

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 the driving forces behind motivation has long been of interest to psychologists and businessmen alike. If you want to dive a little deeper and explore your motivation, start by looking at how psychologists define the term.

A Psychologist’s Definition of Motivation

Psychologists define 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 is what guides us to accomplish a goal.

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

Motivation is The Drive That Helps Us Take Action to Better Ourselves

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. An example of intrinsic motivation is completing a puzzle because you find it challenging.

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

Motivation has three main components: activation, persistence, and intensity:

  • Activation is the decision to start doing a certain behavior.
  • Persistence is continuing to put in the effort to achieve a goal even when obstacles appear.
  • Intensity is the concentration and energy that someone puts into accomplishing his or her goal.

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 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.

Arousal Theory

The Arousal 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.


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

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, 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. 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 benefits of working toward them may increase. 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 this a motivating factor. 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.

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!


Motivation is The Drive That Helps Us Take Action to Better Ourselves

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

Connect with a Pro

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is 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 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.

Counselor Reviews

“Sabrina is so helpful! She always listens and is able to offer advice and support. I mainly enjoy talking to her to work through things I don’t feel comfortable talking about necessarily with known people in my life. I highly recommend chatting with her if you need that little extra push or support to chase your dreams and feel confident. I also really enjoy the weekly inspiration as it gets me motivated and ready for the week ahead!”

“Diane gets right to understanding the problem so we can find solutions. She’s not judgmental or harsh, but she says what I need to hear. I feel like she understands my issues and is attentive and puts as much effort as I am into therapy. I enjoy her approach which is gentle yet assertive and I feel confident in her suggestions. She offers a fresh perspective and I end the session feeling hopeful and motivated.”

Lasting Motivation

While it’s normal to have periods where your motivation is high and others where your motivation is practically nonexistent, you can minimize the low periods with a little effort. A few simple changes in daily habits can naturally start to improve your motivation, and working with a counselor to challenge you can take your motivation to new levels. So if you’re ready to achieve your goals, take the first step today.

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