The Psychology of Motivation

What is the psychology behind motivation? This article examines the research on motivation and reviews the implications. The conclusion reached is contrary to what you may believe.

By Cassie Jewell, LPC

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What is motivation? According to Merriam-Webster, to motivate is “to provide with a motive.” A motive is defined as “something (such as a need or desire) that causes a person to act.”

Motivation is highly sought after in today’s society; it’s the golden ticket to success. You would think achievement (as an end result) is motive enough, but this proves to be false. We desire success, but we’re unable to maintain our motivation. It dries up or fades away before the goal is reached. For example, a dieter is initially motivated by weight loss, improved sleep, and increased energy; these are all powerful motivators. But it’s not enough. Why?

If you look to Google, you’ll find countless sites claiming motivation “secrets” or hacks. How to Motivate Yourself in 10 Easy Steps. 7 Easy Ways to Motivate Yourself at Work. 5 Surprising Tips to Increase Your Motivation Immediately. Don’t be fooled. The shortcuts are appealing, but they’re not backed by research. Motivation is complex.

To learn what it is that drives us (and why that driving force is often short-lived), I reviewed the existing literature on motivation. (Hint: There are no secrets, tricks, or hacks.) As you read the following points, consider your goals and the role motivation plays.

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1. Motivation can be intrinsic (arise from within) or extrinsic (influenced by outside forces).

Intrinsic motivation is rewarded internally. An example of intrinsic motivation would be pursuing the study of archeology because it holds a strong appeal or attraction. The behavior of engaging is the reward. Research establishes a strong link between interest and intrinsic motivation. Alternatively, extrinsic motivation refers to externally rewarded motives, such as writing a paper for a grade or performing well at work for a raise.

Practical application: If you’re looking for the motivation to achieve a goal, but lack the drive, add an incentive. Be creative. Choose rewards that are meaningful.

2. The presence of dopamine is related to motivation.

Studies have found that dopamine, a neurotransmitter, plays a considerable role in motivation. More recently, researchers have speculated there are specific areas in the brain responsible for motivation.

To consider: A lack of motivation could indicate chemical imbalance, especially if paired with feelings of sadness or hopelessness, fatigue, or thoughts of suicide. If your lack of motivation is debilitating, you may be depressed. Seek professional help.

The Psychology of Motivation

3. Self-efficacy and perceived competence are positively related to motivation.

Research indicates that if you believe you can accomplish something, you’re more likely to achieve it than if you doubt yourself. This is a reoccurring theme in motivation literature. Self-efficacy is key.

Practical application: Evaluate your confidence. Do you view yourself as capable? On a scale from 1-10, how confidant are you that you can achieve [insert your goal here]? You won’t maintain the motivation to lose weight if you believe you’ll always be heavy. Self-doubt is a motivation trap. To cultivate self-efficacy, focus on your past accomplishments and successes. Reframe negative thoughts. (Instead of This is impossible, try This is difficult, but manageable.) Increase your self-efficacy by setting – and achieving – one or two easy goals.

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4. Having a sense of control leads to greater motivation.

If you believe that life “happens” to you or that you are powerless to circumstances, you have an external locus of control. (This is sometimes known as learned helplessness.) It’s difficult to sustain motivation with this view. We can’t control all the variables in life, but we can control our choices and reactions. We control who and what we allow to negatively impact us. This knowledge is empowering. It allows for motivation and can foster an increased sense of efficacy.

Practical application: List or think about some undesirable aspects of your life (rent, a car accident, a difficult colleague, etc.) Select one item from your list and then write ways you can exercise control. (For example, you can’t control a difficult co-worker, but you control what you say to them, how you respond to them, and so on.) Recognize that your decisions directly impact the quality of your life.

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5. Outcome value is related to motivation. 

The greater the perceived value of an outcome, the stronger the motivation. If you value living in a tidy home, you will be motivated to clean. For someone who doesn’t mind a mess, a clean house holds little value.

Practical application: You want to save money, but struggle to see the immediate benefits. Create a list of all the ways saving can improve your life, both now and in the future. Consider what’s currently important to you. If it’s spending time with family, link that to saving money. (Extra savings mean you can afford to dine out or take vacations with your family.) By increasing outcome value, you may increase your level of motivation. Apply this principle to all aspects of your life.

6. Goals and deadlines are motivating.

Define your outcome with a measurable goal and place a time limit on it. By defining exactly what you want (I want to lose 10 lbs.) and then giving yourself a deadline (in 3 months), you’re creating a blueprint. Having a goal map makes it easier to stay motivated by providing direction.

Practical application: When you need motivation, first consider the steps required to accomplish your goal. Be as specific as possible. And then create a deadline. (Note: Deadlines can be flexible. If you don’t meet your deadline, it’s easy to give up, leaving you the opposite of confident and effective. Instead, if a deadline isn’t met, push it back a week. Be reasonable. Revise your goal if needed. Remember to be solution-focused.)

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7. Money is a motivator.

Researchers discovered that cash is a driving force. Money is a classic example of an extrinsic motivator – and it’s effective. So how can you use this information?

Practical application: There are apps and programs that pay you to stay on track. An example is the Achievement app; you earn points for exercising, drinking water, sleeping, and doing other health-related activities. Once you earn 10,000, you receive $10. Additionally, the weight loss program HealthyWage pays you to lose weight. (Be careful – there’s also a chance you’ll lose money!) If you dread going to work, think about your paycheck. Lastly, to motivate employees, offer small bonuses or other cash incentives linked to performance.

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8. Working together on a task enhances motivation. 

Working toward a common goal with a partner or a group seems to enhance motivation.

Practical application: This practice can be applied in the workplace or at school. Don’t work on projects alone; find someone who shares your enthusiasm. If you want to start an exercise routine, ask a friend (who also wants to get in shape) to hit the gym with you. It seems we’re able to inspire and motivate each other; when one person’s motivation wanes, the other’s kicks in.

9. The source of motivation changes as we pursue our goals.

There’s something called “promotion” motivation. We’re good at setting goals and feeling motivated. Initially. Then, somewhere along the way, our motivation switches. It becomes “prevention” motivation. For example, the promotion motivation for losing weight may be fitting into a certain pair of jeans. When the jeans fit, the motivation becomes prevention motivation. Prevention motivation is harder to sustain.

To consider: Have a variety of motivational strategies. Recognize that motivation will change as you pursue your goals.

10. Once something becomes a habit, it persists long after motivation is gone.

This may be the most valuable finding of all. With motivation, there are variables: Self-efficacy, deadlines, money, etc. A habit supersedes the variables. There will be times we lack motivation, no matter how effective we feel or how much we value the outcome. If we act out of habit, we don’t have to rely on motivation. Of course, the tricky part is creating a new habit. Habits, which are formed by repetition, reorganize information in your brain so that an action becomes automatic and is no longer tied to a motivational cue.

To consider: Researchers assert it can take anywhere from 15 to 254 days to form a habit. In addition to repetition, you must remove cues that trigger habits you’re trying to quit while adding cues that trigger desired behaviors.

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In conclusion, there are many factors related to motivation including self-efficacy, outcome value, and financial incentive. Our motivation changes as we pursue goals, indicating the need for a variety of motivational strategies. We know that dopamine plays an important role and that there are structural regions in the brain responsible for motivation.

A friend of mine recently asked how I motivate myself to go to the gym when I get off work. “It has nothing to do with motivation,” I responded. “I just do it; it’s not optional.”

I’m fully aware I lack motivation. However, I recognize that motivation, while advantageous, is not a prerequisite for success. It’s too fickle; it lacks the staying power of habit and the might of determination.

Don’t rely on motivation to achieve your goals. Instead, invest in the determination it takes to form a habit.

References 

Society for Personality and Social Psychology. (2014, August 8). How we form habits, change existing ones. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 8, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140808111931.htm

Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(3), 586-598.

Bullard, O., & Manchanda, R. (2017). How goal progress influences regulatory focus in goal pursuit. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 27, 302–317.

Carr, P., & Walton, M. (2014). Cues of working together fuel intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 169-184.

Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: The psychology of “habit-formation” and general practice. The British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 664–666.

Hsu, Y., Wang, S. D., Wang, S., Morton, G., Zariwala, H., de la Iglesia, H., & Turner, E. (2014). Role of the dorsal medial habenula in the regulation of voluntary activity, motor function, hedonic state, and primary reinforcement. The Journal of Neuroscience, 34(34), 11366 –11384.

Judge, T., & Ilies, R. (2002). Relationship of personality to performance motivation: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(4), 797–807.

Lai, E. (2011). Motivation: A literature review. https://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/Motivation_Review_final.pdf

Landry, A., Gagné, M., Forest, J., Guerrero, S., Séguin , M., & Papachristopoulos, K. (2017). The relation between financial incentives, motivation, and performance: An integrative SDT-based investigation. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 16, 61-76.

Lunenburg, F. (2011). Goal-setting theory of motivation. International Journal Of Management, Business, and Administration, 15(1), 1-6.

Margolis, H., & McCabe, P. (2006). Improving self-efficacy and motivation: What to do, what to say. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41(4), 218-227.

Pajares, F. (2010). Self-efficacy beliefs, motivation, and achievement in writing: A review of the literature. Published online, 139-158.

Pintrich, P. (2003). A motivational science perspective on the role of student motivation in learning and teaching contexts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 667-686.

Salamone, J. et al. (2012). The mysterious motivational functions of mesolimbic dopamine. Neuron, 76(3), 470-485.

Zimmerman, B., Bandura, A., & Martinez-Pons, M. (1992). Self-motivation for academic attainment: The role of self-efficacy beliefs and personal goal setting. American Educational Research Journal, 29(3), 663-676.

Author: Cassie Jewell

Cassie Jewell, introvert and avid reader, is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and licensed substance abuse treatment practitioner with a Master's Degree in Community Counseling.

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