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Pull & Push Theories of Motivation

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Instructor: Maria Airth

Maria has taught University level psychology and mathematics courses for over 20 years. They have a Doctorate in Education from Nova Southeastern University, a Master of Arts in Human Factors Psychology from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Flagler College.

Motivation is, figuratively, a powerful force that can come from two directions. Examine and compare the differences between the push and pull theories of motivation. Updated: 01/11/2022

Motivational Direction

Have you ever felt drawn to something? What about feeling like you'd do anything to avoid something else?

These two feelings, being drawn to and avoidance of events, are the two motivations in the push and pull theories of motivation. Every motivation we have, every action we perform, is driven by either a desire to attain a certain result (pull) or a need to avoid an unwanted result (push). While these are two distinct motivations, they can be visualized as opposite sides of the same coin: two motivations acting in one theory.

Motivation is that which gives us a desire to behave in certain ways or the reason we do things. What is interesting here is that sometimes the reason for acting is positive, in that we want the outcome, and sometimes it is negative, in that we are trying to get away from an outcome. Let's take a closer look at these two motivational directions, defining them more clearly as we give examples of each.

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  • 0:03 Motivational Direction
  • 1:02 Push and Motivation
  • 2:20 Pull and Incentive
  • 3:34 Push and Pull
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Push and Motivation

Consider the life of a toddler, and you can see just how closely the concept of pushing is related to a motivation to avoid an unwanted result. If you put broccoli on a toddler's plate, you may find it pushed off the plate quickly. If Great Aunt Scary Lady tries to get a kiss from the toddler, she is likely to find herself being physically pushed away as the toddler tries to escape the embrace.

Pushing away things we don't want is a natural behavior for humans (and animals alike). The push side of this motivational theory is defined by the term motivation. We are motivated to make a change away from a painful or undesired state. People can be highly motivated to make huge efforts in an effort to avoid or reduce painfully unwanted scenarios.

A student who has been told he is failing a required course and may not graduate will be highly motivated to begin to study hard for that course. He may spend hours every day studying. He may cancel outings with friends in order to study. The constant threat of failing looms over him. However, as soon as he has passed a test or two and is out of failing danger, he is likely to return to his previously lacking study habits. In other words, as soon as the motivational push is gone, his behaviors change.

Pull and Incentive

While push is defined by the term motivation, the pull side of the push/pull theory of motivation is defined by the word incentive and incorporates a desire for an end result. Again, you can see how this makes logical sense.

We want incentives; they make our lives better. We move toward incentives of our own accord, not being forced (or pushed) towards them. The closer we get to an incentive, the more we want it and try to get it, as if it is pulling us to the end goal.

Things that are incentives pull us towards them because the desire for them comes from within ourselves. This is the main difference between push and pull motivation; push motivators are external forces, while pull incentives stem from internal forces.

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