Motivation: The Why’s of Behavior | Psychology Today

Why : Cognitive Theory.  Moving from simple conditioning to the realm of behavior controlled by thoughts, the cognitive theory of motivation proposes that our expectations guide our behavior. You’ll behave in ways that you think will produce a desirable outcome. Cognitive theory, the creation of University of Rochester psychologists Ed Deci and Richard Ryan, proposed that we have two types of motivation: Intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is what drives us to fulfill our inner potential and interests. Your intrinsic motivation is your desire to express your true self in your behavior, whether it’s work or leisure. What’s more, when you are driven by intrinsic motivation, you feel that you are determining the outcomes of your efforts. Extrinsic motivation, by contrast, is your desire to achieve tangible rewards such as money or the glory that come with status and recognition.  Deci and Ryan developed the counter-intuitive proposal that people who receive extrinsic rewards for behaviors that they find intrinsically satisfying become less creative and productive. This has the picturesque name of “motivational crowding out.” The extrinsic rewards of money, fame, and recognition crowd out the intrinsic satisfaction that you experience from doing something because you really like to do it. The motivational crowding out idea has some obvious flaws.  Managers could use this theory to pay workers less or deny them promotions. “Why should we pay you more (or at all)?”  You’ll be less creative and productive! This problem led to a revision in the theory which is called …


Why : Incentive Theory.  Our behavior may also be determined by forces that propel us to do something we otherwise would not. Incentive theory is the basic principle behind marketing.  A good marketing strategy will cause you to want something you neither have nor think you need. You expect that by having this “thing,” you will be better off than you are without it (Beckmann & Heckhausen, 2008). It’s like those catalogs that fall out of your mailbox during the holiday season and the emails that clutter up your inbox offering unbelievable “deals.” Retailers are hoping that you will go after the products that they put out in front of you. Similarly, grocery, convenience, and large-scale retail clothing stores place their little but often expensive temptations where they are bound to have the most impact– namely, while you’re waiting to check out. An item that you would have given no thought to now becomes a handy little impulse purchase that you toss into your bag or cart. Adding to the draw of the impulse purchase is the fact that you may feel you deserve a treat, having practiced extreme self-restraint throughout the rest of your shopping expedition (a phenomenon called “ego depletion”).


Why : Arousal Theory.  At the opposite pole of drive reduction, arousal theory proposes that we seek to increase, not decrease, our level of stimulation.  We want the high that accompanies a rush of endorphins when we push ourselves physically or mentally.  Animals as well as humans get bored from too much homeostasis. However, too much arousal can also thwart our ability to achieve our goals. A variant of arousal theory, called the “Yerkes-Dodson Law,” takes this fact into account. The Yerkes-Dodson law proposed in 1908 but still used today (Smith et al., 2007), proposes that we each function according to an optimum level of arousal. You might consider this the “Goldilocks” principle of motivation. If you’re too sleepy or too nervous, you’ll invariably perform poorly, whether giving a speech or shooting a basketball. Each individual, and each task, has its own peak between arousal that is too low and arousal that is too intense. Once you find your optimum level of arousal, your performance will be both flawless and enjoyable.


Why : Drive Reduction Theory. This next approach to motivation proposes that organisms large and small, simple to complex, prefer the state of homeostasis in which all of their needs are fulfilled. Their “drives,” in other words (the need states that propel behavior) must be “reduced.” Everyone might have a different definition of homeostasis-perhaps yours is sleeping late on a weekend morning, or just enjoying a relaxing drink in a cozy chair. Drive reduction theory’s critics agree that it’s great to have your needs met at least some of the time. However, if the theory were true, no one would ever seek out excitement. No one would go bungee jumping or seek comparable mental challenges.


Why : Instinct Theory. According to the oldest motivational theory on the books, organisms behave as they do because they are following a set of biologically pre-programmed instinctual urges.  Like the birds and the bees, humans are enacting a set of behaviors hardwired into our neural circuitry.  This theory is undoubtedly too simple to apply to humans, much less birds and bees. However, inner needs must certainly be part of the equation in understanding our behavior.



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