What drives human behaviour has been a question of much debate and hypothesising over the centuries. Many theories of human motivation have been proposed, from scientific, philosophical and religious perspectives.

If you want a quick and dirty overview of some of the different approaches people have taken to motivation over the years, check out the Wikipedia page on Motivation. Just don’t quote it in an exam.

In a basic sense we can think about where the motivation is coming from, and what the motivation is for.

On one level, we can look at whether the motivation is intrinsic (coming from within) or extrinsic (generated from something external to the person, like incentives or rewards).

We can also think about whether we are motivated to approach something (feeling drawn toward something appealing) or avoid something (a desire not to experience something negative).

For example, why might a young person be motivated to stop using drugs?

  Instrinsic Extrinsic
  • To feel in control
  • To have more energy
  • To feel better about themselves
  • To improve a relationship
  • To get a job
  • To show someone they can do it
  • Not to feel shame
  • Not to feel scattered
  • Not to risk death or lasting harm
  • Not to breach a court order
  • Not to let someone else down
  • Not to lose housing

While we often say things like “you can’t do it for someone else, you’ve got to do it for yourself” or “the carrot is better than the stick”, extrinsic and avoidance motivations have their place. For example, they may be particularly helpful for getting change started.

Extrinsic and avoidance drives may also provide useful clues about more intrinsic or positive motivations are important for that person. For example, quitting drugs for a partner suggests that the quality of personal relationships is important. Not wanting to breach a court order may suggest that freedom and independence matter.

We can also think about more specific kinds of motivation. For example, hierarchical theories propose that some needs (e.g. survival or safety) take priority over other needs (e.g. personal growth). Higher order needs may only become relevant when more basic needs have been satisfied. The most famous theory is Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs:

  1. Physiology (includes biological needs)
  2. Safety-Security (includes shelter, health)
  3. Social (includes love and friendship)
  4. Self esteem (includes recognition and achievement)
  5. Self actualisation (includes personal growth, striving to fulfill potential)

Hierarchies of needs can be helpful to check in with where to best direct energy, and that achieving the lower order needs may give the person a better chance of fulfilling higher order needs.

Another approach to motivation is to try to identify the necessary or optimal conditions for growth. Self Determination Theory, for example, proposes that we are most likely to thrive when we meet three core needs:

  1. Relatedness (feeling a sense of belonging, attachment and shared experience)
  2. Autonomy (feeling in control and experiencing freedom of choice)
  3. Competence (feeling skilled or a sense of mastery in tasks).

Always, our guiding question is “what matters to this person?” rather than how a person may fit into a particular theory of motivation. Given the diversity of theories of motivation out there, they may be best seen as guides to curiosity, rather than blueprints for change. We can use the frameworks to:

  1. Check in: What is motivating this person right now?
  2. Explore: What happens when we look at motivations rather than goals or solutions?
  3. Assess: What might be missing or contributing to the person feeling stuck?
  4. Move forward: What might open up possible sources of energy and momentum?

"Anything that just costs money is cheap."

John Steinbeck