What is Motivation? - Theories & Examples

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  • 0:01 Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
  • 1:26 Human Drives & Drive Reduction
  • 2:50 Intrinsic & Extrinsic
  • 4:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Lavoie

Sarah has taught Psychology at the college level and has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology.

Why do we do what we do? Motivation is the term that we use to describe why people move towards certain actions and goals but not others. Learn about the concept of motivation and a few important theories psychologists have developed to try and explain our behavior.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

What do you think is motivating you to read this lesson at this very moment? Motivation refers to the reasons that we act towards a goal. Psychologists understand that motivation can only be understood through behavior. Although only you can fully explain the many factors that have you reading this lesson right now, psychologists have created theories to try to understand and explain behavior.

From these theories we can make a few educated guesses about your present situation:

  • You are not worried about being hit by a car. Most likely you are at home or in another location where you feel safe.
  • You are probably not hungry to the point of starving. Perhaps you are even snacking while you read this!
  • You are not outside in freezing weather or a hurricane or sitting in a desert without water.

These are just a few of the guesses we can make based on a theory of motivation developed by famous behavioral psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow believed that basic needs must be met before we can satisfy our other, less basic needs.

This was structured as hierarchy of needs that is often shown in a pyramid and referred to as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Just as the ancient Egyptians built a pyramid from the bottom up, we must satisfy our needs from the bottom up, fulfilling the most important needs first. Who would build the top of the pyramid before its foundation?

Human Drives and Drive Reduction

Although Maslow's pyramid mostly speaks to human motivation, all organisms act on drives, which are essentially motivator stimuli. We all have a drive to eat every day. Our bodies tell us when we are hungry with an empty feeling in our stomachs. When we are confronted by a feeling of hunger, what is our most common reaction? Eating! This reduces the drive for food, a motivation called drive reduction. The hungrier we get, the more likely we are to stop whatever else we are doing and find food. Other human drives include the need for water, air to breathe, elimination of waste and the biological need to have sex. Often without conscious thought, these drives are fulfilled before any other drives, such as hanging out with friends or achieving educational goals.

An excellent example of drives and drive reduction at work can be found in watching a dog that is both hungry and tired. Imagine the dog is resting but sees his owner bring food to his bowl. This dog is left to fulfill one need: sleeping or eating. Trying to do both would be funny but ultimately impossible. If the dog is too tired, he will ignore the food and go to sleep. Alternately, if the dog is more hungry than tired, he will get up and walk to the food.

Another example is a plant moving towards the sunlight. In satisfying it's need for sun, (food) it is operating on drive reduction.

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