In psychology, motivation is the driving force behind all actions of an organism. Motivation is based on emotions, specifically, on the search for positive emotional experiences and the avoidance of negative ones, where positive and negative are defined by the individual brain state, not by social norms: a person may be driven to self-injury or violence because their brain is conditioned to create a positive response to these actions.

Table of contents
1 Types of motivation
2 Controlling motivation

Types of motivation

Tissue needs

The easiest kinds of motivation to analyse, at least superficially, are those based upon obvious physiological needs. These include
hunger, thirst, and escape from pain. The analysis of the processes underlying such motivations can make use of research on animals, in ethology, comparative psychology, and physiological psychology, and the hormonal and brain processes involved in them seem to have much in common at least across all mammals and probably across all vertebrates. However in humans even these basic motivations are modified and mediated through social and cultural influences of various kinds: for example no analysis of hunger in humans could ignore the issues of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and obesity, for which the parallels in other animals are unclear. Even in animals, it is clear that the earlier homeostatic "depletion-repletion" models of such motivations are no longer adequate, since many animals feed on a precautionary rather than a reactive basis, most obviously when preparing for hibernation.

Other biological motivations

At the next level are motivations that have an obvious biological basis but are not required for the immediate survival of the organism. These include the powerful motivations for sex, parental care and aggression: again, the physiological bases of these are similar in humans and other animals, but the social complexities are greater in humans (or perhaps we just understand them better in our own species). In these areas insights from behavioral ecology and sociobiology have offered new analyses of both animal and human behaviour in the last decades of the twentieth century, though the extension of sociobiological analyses to humans remains highly controversial. Perhaps similar, but perhaps at a rather different level, is the motivation for new stimulation - variously called exploration, curiosity, or arousal-seeking. A crucial issue in the analysis of such motivations is whether they have a homeostatic component, so that they build up over time if not discharged; this idea was a key component of early twentieth century analyses of sex and aggression by, for example, Freud and Konrad Lorenz, and is a feature of much popular psychology of motivation. The more informed biological analyses of recent decades, however, imply that such motivations are situational, arising when they are (or seem to be) needed to ensure an animal's fitness, and subsiding without consequences when the occasion for them passes.

Secondary goals

These important biological needs tend to generate more powerful
emotions and thus more powerful motivation than secondary goals. This is described in models like Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. A distinction can also be made between direct and indirect motivation: In direct motivation, the action satisfies the need, in indirect motivation, the action satisfies an intermediate goal, which can in turn lead to the satisfaction of a need. In work environments, money is typically viewed as a powerful indirect motivation, whereas job satisfaction and a pleasant social environment are more direct motivations. However, this example highlights well that an indirect motivational factor (money) towards an important goal (having food, clothes etc.) may well be more powerful than the direct motivation provided by an enjoyable workplace.


The most obvious form of motivation is coercion, where the avoidance of pain or other negative consequences has an immediate effect. When such coercion is permanent, it is considered slavery. While coercion is considered morally reprehensible in many philosophies, it is widely practiced on prisoners or in the form of conscription. Critics of modern capitalism charge that without social safety networks, wage slavery is inevitable. Successful coercion naturally takes priority over other types of motivation.

Self control

The self-control of motivation is increasingly understood as a subset of
emotional intelligence; a person may be highly intelligent according to a more conservative definition (as measured by many intelligence tests), yet unmotivated to dedicate this intelligence to certain tasks.

Controlling motivation

The control of motivation is only understood to a limited extent. There are many different approaches of motivation training, but many of these are considered pseudoscientific by critics. To understand how to control motivation it is first necessary to understand why many people lack motivation.

In recent years, non-work related activities like Internet surfing have become an increasing concern for employers in industralized nations. Some companies have used prohibitive tactics to counter this perceived threat, others try to define certain limits, and many merely take action in extreme cases. Even for home users, Internet addiction is increasingly perceived as a risk. Similar concerns accompany the use of video games and television. It is true that for many people, these activities have reached the point of psychological addiction.

This can be explained with a positive feedback loop. The aforementioned activities can generate quick, positive emotional responses of different types -- the humor of sitcoms, the ersatz family of soap operas, the endorphine release from action movies and video games, or the curiosity satisfied by visiting news sites. It is known that connections in the human brain's neural network are intensified by repeated activity, which means that it is often easier to continue to do what one is doing than to do something else. This is how a daily habit can, over time, turn into a psychological addiction that is hard to break.

The key question for motivation is then: Which activities generate a positive emotional response, and which ones do not? The answers to this question are increasingly explored by neuropsychology. It is known that, for most people, activities that involve powerful audiovisual input have a stronger emotional effect. Purely text-based information, on the other hand, is usually not very motivating. This seems intuitive given the fact that reading is a trained higher cortical skill, whereas large brain areals are congenitally devoted to processing audiovisual input. For this class of information, there are simply more connections from the processing areals of the brain's cortex to the lower emotional centers of the limbic system. It therefore seems logical to assume that motivation can be created easier through multimedia input.

Since humans are social animals, it also appears natural that social connections play a crucial role in motivation. Not much is known about the way the human brain deals with social relationships, but for the sake of the argument, it can be assumed that social connections are merely very powerful, emotionally encoded memories connected to others. An idea which is connected to these memories thus triggers the emotions. It follows logically, then, that negative social relationships are likely to decrease motivation, and that intrinsic desire to act has to be substituted within these relationships with coercion. For teachers and managers alike, it then seems desirable to maintain such positive relationships in order to provide a motivating atmosphere -- however, personal reasons may stand in the way of this goal. This is why many motivation control programs try to teach managers to find outlets for their personal feelings other than their employees.

Early programming

Modern tomography has provided solid empirical support for the psychological theory that emotional programming is largely defined in childhood. Harold Chugani, Medical Director of the PET Clinic at the Children's Hospital of Michigan and professor of pediatrics, neurology and radiology at Wayne State University School of Medicine, has found that children's brains are much more capable of consuming new information (linked to emotions) than those of adults. Brain activity in cortical regions is about twice as high in children as in adults from the third to the ninth year of life. After that period, it declines constantly to the low levels of adulthood. Brain volume, on the other hand, is already at about 95% of adult levels in the ninth year of life.

Data by Harold Chugani on brain activity, 1996 (click image for source details). The red dots show activity in the frontal cortex, the "youngest" region in the human brain from an evolutionary perspective. It is important for analysis and creativity. The blue curve, copied from another diagram of the same source, shows the development of brain volume through childhood. As can be seen from the data, brain activity in children is much higher than in adults, making early influences critical for motivation in later life.

This is crucial to the understanding of motivation as well. Different people can generate positive emotional responses from different actions. Mathematicians may be able to enjoy dealing with complex formulas, programmers feel the same way about computer code, musicians may feel "in tune with themselves" when composing or playing, and so forth. Given the above knowledge about the early programming of the human brain, and given that memories are encoded together with emotions, it must be concluded that at least part of these different emotional responses are generated during childhood. A child who grows up watching television but not reading any books may find it difficult in later life to be motivated by purely textual information; a child neglected by its parents may be unable to make motivating social connections later.

A more controversial conclusion is that exposing children to too much simplistic, emotionally driven entertainment will "dull" their brains and make them incapable of acting far outside the narrow boundaries of indirect motivation to satisfy primary needs (money to survive) and quick positive emotional response (TV, games etc.). If this view is correct, it would be very difficult to fix these problems in adult life.

The education systems of most countries do take little of the above discussion into account, to the disdain of many scientists who study them. Learning is frequently equated with memorizing, and negative conditioning (in some countries to the point of corporal punishment) is common. Positive experiences, on the other hand, are often deliberately prohibited. Many schools (especially in the United States) have bans against public displays of affection, such as hugging and kissing, and teenage sexuality is frequently considered highly problematic, countered with severe punishment and sexual abstinence campaigns. While these actions are taken out of the belief that they are necessary to prevent negative consequences such as teenage pregnancies, groups like the Coalition for Positive Sexuality argue that this kind of social control harms teenagers while failing to accomplish any useful goal. Whether physical experiences are counted as part of a positive environment or not, it is quite probable that such an environment is necessary for a positive learning atmosphere.


Besides the very direct approaches to motivation, beginning in early life, there are solutions which are more abstract but perhaps nevertheless more practical for self-motivation. Virtually every motivation guidebook includes at least one chapter about the proper organization of one's tasks and goals. It is usually suggested that it is critical to maintain a list of tasks, with a distinction between those which are completed and those which are not, thereby moving some of the required motivation for their completion from the tasks themselves into a "meta-task", namely the processing of the tasks in the task list, which can become a routine. The viewing of the list of completed tasks may also be considered motivating, as it can create a satisfying sense of accomplishment.

Most electronic to-do lists have this basic functionality, although the distinction between completed and non-completed tasks is not always clear (completed tasks are sometimes simply deleted, instead of kept in a separate list).

Other forms of information organization may also be motivational, such as the use of mindmaps to organize one's ideas, and thereby "train" the neural network that is the human brain to focus on the given task. More simpler forms of idea notation such as simple bullet-point style lists may also be sufficient, or even more useful to less visually oriented persons.

One interesting aspect that has been somewhat neglected by sociology is the addictive nature of role playing games, which work with a system of experience points and "levels" to motivate the player to keep going; when he has gained enough points, he can advance to the next level, thereby getting new abilities and a higher status in the community, if any. While many electronic motivation systems have a basic concept of priorities, few explore the possibility of using actual scores as a motivational factor. However, some online communities that have nothing to do with gaming use similar systems; notably, the Everything2 collaborative writing community employs a complex voting/experience system. Perhaps such systems can also be used on a smaller scale.


Some authors, especially in the transhumanist movement, have suggested the use of "smart drugs", also known as nootropics, as "motivation-enhancers". The effects of many of these drugs on the brain are not well understood, and their legal status often makes open experimentation difficult. It is a fact that some of history's most productive artists have also been drug users, although it is not clear whether this correlation is also of a causative nature.

See also preference.