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Theories of Motivation

The topic of human motivation is highly complex so I will touch upon it only very briefly here. Theories of motivation generally broken down into three categories: content theories, process theories, and cognitive theories. Content theories explain what motivation is, process theories describe how motivation occurs, and numerous cognitive theories explain aspects of how our thinking can influence our motives. Contemporary science also points to a marco-theory of motivation, the self-determination theory, which is described at the end.

Content Theories of Motivation

Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs

Maslow's theory explains that human beings are motivated by a hierarchy of needs (as seen above) in which:

(a) basic needs must be mostly met before fulfilling the higher needs.

(b) the order of needs may be flexible based on circumstances or individual differences.

(c) most behavior is multi-motivated, or simultaneously determined by more than one basic need.

This 5-tier hierarchy of needs was expanded in the 60's and 70's to also include:

  • Cognitive needs - knowledge and understanding, curiosity, exploration, need for meaning and predictability.

  • Aesthetic needs - appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.

  • Transcendence needs - "A person is motivated by values which transcend beyond the personal self (e.g., mystical experiences and certain experiences with nature, aesthetic experiences, sexual experiences, service to others, the pursuit of science, religious faith, etc.)."

Alderfer’s ERG theory

Alderfer’s ERG theory aligns with Maslow's theory but divides core needs into three groups: existence (E), relatedness (R), and growth (G).

  • Existence: our basic survival needs (air, food, water, and shelter, health, secure employment, and property).

  • Relatedness: interpersonal relationships (friendship, family, and sexual intimacy, respect)

  • Growth: our intrinsic desire for personal development as well as self-actualization (self-esteem, self-confidence, and achievement, morality, creativity, problem-solving, and discovery).

When a certain category of needs isn’t being met, Alderfer says that people will redouble their efforts to fulfill needs in a lower category.

McClelland’s achievement motivation theory

In this motivational theory, needs for achievement, power, and affiliation are seen to significantly influence the behavior of an individual. This theory is useful particularly in a managerial/ work context.

Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory

Also related to employees, Herzberg's findings revealed that certain characteristics of a job are consistently related to job satisfaction (achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, advancement, growth), while different factors are associated with job dissatisfaction (company policies, supervision, relationships with supervisor and peers, work conditions, salary, status, security).

Herzberg emphasizes eliminating job dissatisfaction and creating conditions for job satisfaction.

Process Theories of Motivation

Reinforcement theory

Reinforcement theory is based on B. F. Skinner's work in the field of operant conditioning. The theory relies on the following four aspects of operant conditioning from the external environment: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.

Adams’ equity theory of motivation

Similar to the more prevalent motivation theories (Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and Herzberg's Two-Factor Theory), Adams' Equity Theory acknowledges that subtle and variable factors affect an employee's assessment and perception of their relationship with their work and their employer. The theory is built-on the belief that employees become de-motivated, both in relation to their job and their employer, if they feel as though their inputs (hard work, skill level, acceptance, enthusiasm, and so on) are greater than the outputs (salary, benefits, intangibles such as recognition).

Vroom’s expectancy theory

In this theory, Vroom states that people are motivated by anticipated results or consequences. Individuals make choices based on how well the expected results of a given behavior will match up with or eventually lead to the desired results. This theory has three components: expectancy (the belief that one's effort will lead to the intended performance goals), instrumentality (the belief that the individual will receive a desired outcome if the performance expectation is met), and valence (the unique value placed on a particular outcome).

Locke’s goal-setting theory

This theory refers to the effects of setting goals on subsequent performance. Locke found that individuals who set specific, difficult goals performed better than those who set general, easy goals. There are five basic principles of goal-setting: clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback, and task complexity.

Cognitive Theories of Motivation

Some cognitive theories help us understand motivation by addressing specific cognitive phenomena. Some examples of cognitive theories are listed below (found on

  • Plans (Carver, Scheier, & Weintraub, 1998)

  • Goals (Locke & Latham, 2002)

  • Implementation intentions (Gollwitzer, 1999)

  • Deliberative versus implementation mindsets (Gollwitzer & Kinney, 1989)

  • Promotion versus prevention orientations (Higgins, 1997)

  • Growth versus fixed mindsets (Dweck, 2006)

  • Dissonance (Festinger, 1957; Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999)

  • Self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986)

  • Perceived control (Skinner, 1996)

  • Reactance theory (Brehm, 1966)

  • Learned helplessness theory (Miller & Seligman, 1975)

  • Mastery beliefs (Diener & Dweck, 1978)

  • Attributions (Wiener, 1986)

  • Values (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002)

  • Self-concept (Markus, 1977)

  • Possible selves (Oyserman, Bybee, & Terry, 2006)

  • Identity (Eccles, 2009)

  • Self-regulation (Zimmerman, 2000)

  • Self-control (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011)

Self-Determination Theory

Unlike Maslow's pyramid of needs, this theory points to three basic and foundational universal psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

Autonomy is the need for people to perceive they have choices, are doing things of their own free will, and are the source of their own actions.

Relatedness is people's need to care about others, be cared about by others, feel connected to others with no ulterior motives, and feel that they are contributing to something greater than themselves.

Competence is the need for people to feel effective at meeting every-day challenges and opportunities, demonstrate skill over time, and feel a sense of growth and flourishing.

Unlike Maslow's theory, these needs are not hierarchical or sequential, but are considered foundational in our ability to flourish. Self-determination theory suggests that human beings are motivated to grow and change by these three innate and universal psychological needs.


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