Theories of Motivation


Motivation is a commonly used terminology which if understood as a psychological phenomena, can lead to the solution of many problems. Scholars have studied human behaviour and propounded various theories of motivation.

In simple terms ; any goal seeking behaviour which tends to persist is called motivation. Behaviour is driven and pulled towards goals. One important component while discussing motivation is the motive or goals. 

Motives are powerful tools to explain a behaviour or predict behaviour. Motives can also be identified by taking inferences from behaviour of a person. Behaviour of a person is sometimes also directed by unconscious motivation.

For Example

Motive behind going to college can be getting a good job. Motive behind  hard work in college can be academic achievement.

Some of the theories of motivation are explained in the following section which will help you understand human behaviour in a better way.

Drive Theory

This is also called the “push theory of motivation” in which the motivation revolves around the drives. Drives are inborn sexual and aggressive urges which gives momentum to behaviour. When internal drives are aroused an individual is pushed to engage in such behaviours which would lead to its goal that will reduce the intensity of the drive .

There are 4 main components of this theory: 

  1. A driving state
  2. The goal directed behaviour initiated by driving the driving state
  3. The attainment of an appropriate goal 
  4. The reduction of the driving state and subjective satisfaction and relief when the goal is reached. 

There are also learned drives which a person acquires through training or past experience.

Incentive theory

It is also called the “pull theory” of motivation since the person is pulled towards an external stimulus. As per this theory often the motive or the goal itself can start a behaviour. The goal provides a stimulus and the characteristics of the stimulus determines the behaviour of the individual.


The wage at a particular company (incentive) might give a positive stimulus to an individual to apply for a vacancy and go through the interview process (behaviour). 

The extra wages can be a goal which motivates an employee to work overtime.

Opponent process theory

This is also called the theory of emotions. As the name suggests two opposite emotions are involved here. According to this theory the individual wants to feel pleasure but for that has to indulge in such behaviours which would initially give the opposite feeling like fear or anger but later on lead to pleasure. 

This theory is the basis to understand learned motives as the person learns different ways to seek pleasure.


Bungee jumpers undergo a feeling of fear before the actual feeling of pleasure. 

Optimal level theory

As per this theory the person exhibits certain behaviour which is directed towards maintaining an optimal level of arousal within the individual. In this case the motive is to maintain a state of mind which is balanced. 


If the person is in a state of too much stress or anxiety he/she will do certain activities to reduce the stress or if a person is feeling bored then would take up activities which would excite him. 

Types of motives

Biological motives

Biological Motives like  thirst, hunger etc. direct behaviour which will maintain homeostasis in the body. An inner stimulus produces the drive and the person takes action to satisfy physical needs.

Social motives

These motives are learned motives which a person acquires in a social group. Motives like need for achievement, need for affiliation, need for power etc. 

If there occurs a challenge or blockages in achieving motivational goals then it leads to frustration and conflict. 

If  a person has to choose between two motives it may lead to a conflict within the individual. There are 4 types of conflict

  1. Approach-approach conflict: when a person has two motives and both are positive but the person has to choose one. eg. A person gets a job offer from two good companies.
  2. Approach-avoidance: When there is a motive but two opposite feelings are associated with it. One factor is an incentive and another factor is, when a person gets a job offer but in a different city where he/she would have to leave the family.
  3. Avoidance-avoidance: when there  is a motive which creates a situation where negative factors are associated with achieving the motive and also by leaving the motive. E.g if the person gets a job in a different city. Denying the offer would lead to financial instability and accepting it would mean leaving the family behind.
  4. Double approach-avoidance: when there are two motives and both  have attractive and unattractive stimuli associated with it. E.g, in the above example if the person’s job is a night shift but is getting double the pay.


The explanation above was with psychological perspective, however other theories have also been propounded by scholars of other disciplines.

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