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Two theories of motivation Essay

The subject of motivation can be approached from a number of perspectives. Some theories approach motivation as coming from within a person (Drive Theory), whereas other theories approach motivation as coming from within the person (Incentive Theory). Compare and contrast two theories of motivation explaining how the two approaches may differ and how they may be similar. Does one theory seem to explain motivation better than the other? Support your argument with examples from each theory.

Motives are reasons people hold for initiating and performing voluntary behaviour. They indicate the meaning of human behaviour, and they may reveal a person’s values. Motives often affect a person’s perception, cognition, emotion and behaviour. A person who is highly motivated to gain social status, for example, may be observant of marks of social distinction, may think often about issues that pertain to wealth, may especially enjoy the feeling of self-importance, and may behave in ways associated with upper-class status . By defining motives as reasons, we do not imply that motives are primarily cognitive; any more than establishing a motive for crime in a court of law requires conscious premeditation. A person can have a reason to behave, and thus a motive, without necessarily being aware of it.

Aristotle (330BCE/1953) divided motives into ends versus means on the basis of the individual’s purpose for performing the behaviour. Ends are indicated when a person engages in a behaviour for no apparent reason other than that is what the person desires to do. Examples include a child playing with a ball for physical exercise and a student reading a book out of curiosity. In each of these examples, the goal is desired for its own sake. In contrast, means are indicated when a person performs an act for its instrumental value. Examples include a professional athlete who plays football for a salary and a student who studies to improve a grade. In each of these examples, the goal (salary, grade) is desired because it produces something else. A person might seek a salary, for example, as a means of enhancing social status, or high grades as a means of pleasing a parent.

An analysis of a person’s behaviour may identify a series of instrumental acts followed by one or more end goals that complete a “behaviour chain”. For example, a person may take a second job for the extra salary (instrumental motive), desire the extra salary to purchase health insurance (instrumental motive), and desire the health insurance to benefit their family (end goal). This example of a behaviour chain shows three behaviours, two motivated by instrumental goals and a third by an end goal. Logically, only goals that are desired for their own sake can serve as the “end” of a purposeful explanation of a series of human acts (Reiss, 2003).

The number of instrumental motives is, for all practical purposes, unlimited. Only imagination limits how may different ways individuals can pursue the end goal of, say, power. In contrast, the number of ends is limited by human nature (Reiss, 2003).

Two theoretical perspectives have been advanced concerning end goals. Multifaceted theory holds that the various end goals are largely unrelated to each other, perhaps to the point where they are genetically distant sources of motivation with different evolutionary histories. Multifaceted theorist include philosophers who have suggested lists of the most fundamental motives of human nature (Eg Spinoza, 1675/1949), psychologists who have put forth evolutionary theories of motivation (Eg McDougall, 1926) and psychologists who have suggested theories of human needs (Eg Murray, 1938).

In contrast, unitary or global theorists hold that end goals can be profitably reduced to a small number of categories based on common characteristics. Unitary theorists seek the underlying psychological principles that are expressed by diverse motivational events. The ancient Greek philosophers, for example, reduced end goals into categories expressing the needs of the body, mind and soul (Eg Plato, 375 BCE/1966). Hedonists distinguished between end goals associated with the pleasures enhanced and those related to pain reduction (Russell, 1945). Freud (1916/1963) reduced motives to sexual and aggressive instincts.

Today, some social psychologists classify end goals into two global categories, called drives (or extrinsic motivation) and intrinsic motives (IMs). The distinction has been influential – 1,921 scholarly publications on intrinsic motivation (IM) appeared during January 1967 and the present day (source: PsycINFO). IM has been investigated in social psychology (eg Ryan & Deci, 2000), developmental psychology (eg, Harter, 1981), clinical psychology (eg Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996), organisational psychology (eg, Houkes, Janssen, de Jonge, & Nijhuis, 2001), and eduational psychology (eg, Kohn, 1993).

Drive Theory

Thorndike’s (1911) law of effect reduced human motivation to categories of reward and punishment. This law holds that responses are strengthened when they lead to satisfaction and weakened when they lead to punishment. Psychologists studying learning soon realised Thorndike’s law is a tautology or a proposition that is circular (true by definition). The following statements, for example, are circular with respect to each other: “Rewards strengthen behaviour” and “Any event that strengthens behaviour is a reward.”

The concept of drive was introduced to escape from the circularity of the law of effect (Brown, 1961). Instead of identifying reward as any stimulus or satisfying event that strengthens behaviour, drive theorists defined it as a reduction in a state of deprivation. The statements “Drive reduction strengthens behaviour” and “Drive reduction occurs when a state of deprivation is lessened” are not circular to each other.

Hull (1943) recognised four types of drives: hunger, thirst, sex and escape from pain. In many animal learning experiments, investigators have induced drives by depriving animals of an important need prior to the experiment. The deprivation of food, for example, establishes food as a powerful reward, increasing the animal’s motivation to learn responses that produce food (Skinner, 1938). Much of animal learning theory is based on the results of psychological studies with food-deprived or water-deprived animals.

Unitary Intrinsic Motivation Theory

The unitary construct of IM was put forth as an alternative to drive theory. The initial insight was that many of the motives not explained well by drive theory – motives such as exploration (curiosity), autonomy, and play – have common properties. To a large extent, unitary IM theory initially represented an attempt to show the essential differences between drives and what psychodynamic theorists have called ego motives.

In the past, the distinction between drives and IMs has been thought to have a physiological basis, at least according to some published remarks. The general idea was that drives such as hunger and thirst arise from “tissue needs” involving “peripheral” components of the nervous system, where as IMs arise from psychological or cognitive processes involving primary central neural activity. Deci (1975), for example, wrote that the primary effects of IM “are in the tissues of the central nervous system rather than in the non-nervous system tissues” (pg 61).

The physiological paradigm for distinguishing drives from IMs always lacked scientific support; indeed, we now know that it is physiological nonsense. Motives such as hunger and thirst, for example, involve significant central nervous system or cognitive activity (Berntson & Cacioppo, 2000). Both the behaviourist concept of drive and the concept of IM as nondrive have no precise physiological meaning and originally were put forth at a time when little was know about the physiology of motivation.


Since antiquity, scholars have debated whether human motives can be reduced to a few global categories. Ancient Greek philosophers, for example, distinguish between motives associated with the body (such as hunger and thirst) and those associated with the intellect (such as curiosity, morality and friendship). In the early part of the 20th century, Freud (1916/1963) argued that all motives are ultimately linked to sex. Hedonists, on the other hand, reduced all motives to pleasure seeking versus pain avoidance.

The concept of IM can be viewed as a modern example of the effort in motivation reductionism. IM theorists divide motives into two global categories: drives (as called extrinsic motivation) and intrinsic motivation. Drives are about biologic survival needs, whereas IMs pertain to what some have called ego motives. Hunger, thirst, and pain avoidance are paradigm examples of drives, whereas curiosity, autonomy, and play are paradigm examples of IMs.

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