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The Real Meaning of Motivation

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Motivation has been defined in numerous ways. One of the best is “motivation is the forces acting either on or within a person to initiate behaviour.” In the field of psychology, human motivation has long been studied as a way to explain an individual’s behaviour. In reality, motivation is inferred rather than measured. The inference is made due to behavioural changes that result from external stimuli. It is also a performance variable because changes in a person’s motivation are frequently of a temporary nature; with many people, what is high priority today may become singularly unimportant tomorrow.


An individual’s motives can be described as primary, or basic and secondary, or learned from experience. Primary motives are not learned, but are common to animals and human beings. Some readily-definable primary motives would include hunger, sex, pain avoidance and thirst. Secondary motives include the desire to achieve, lust for power and many other conscious drives.


Motivation has two pre-requisites: the desire and the determination to achieve something notwithstanding any obstacles you might meet along the way. We all know people who started out committed to an idea only to abandon it in mid-stream because it was too difficult to handle. In this example, the person had the desire but lacked the necessary determination to see it through. Conversely, there are those who had the determination but lacked the true desire to achieve the objective. (Sparknotes “Motivation” 2007).


In the drive reduction theory of motivation, it is postulated that people act mainly to reduce their needs and sustain a constant physiological state of being. In other words, people drink in order to lessen their need for water. However, this theory fails in select situations where individuals are not motivated by internal needs. In addition, people often continue to be motivated even when internal needs have been satisfied due to the fact that they are also being motivated by external influences.


Psychologist Abraham Maslow had another theory. He suggested, in the 1970s, that people have a hierarchy of needs. Here, the basic level included physiological needs such as food, water, safety and security. The second level, which he postulated are not heeded until basic needs have been met, included a need for social interaction. Maslow defined the third level as the need for esteem such as respect from oneself and others and the fourth and final level as th need to realise one’s own full potential. Again, this theory doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in situations where higher needs motivate even when the lower levels remain unsatisfied. Maslow’s critics were also quick to point out that his theory also fails because people are frequently motivated by needs from several levels simultaneously.


These theories can be reduced to a simple belief that people have both innate and learned needs and that they are both influenced by cultural and sociological effects. The innate needs are fairly limited, being sustenance, drink, the need to breathe and eliminate waste products. The others, which would comprise a long list that includes the need for achievement, autonomy and power, are determined by values and perceptions of what matters in life. (Ezine Articles, 2007).


We all understand what motivation is, when we have it and when we don’t. We don’t always understand why.




Sparknotes (2006) ‘Motivation Study Guide’ [on-line]

Available from: psych101/motivation/

Accessed: 10-16-07


Gee, Alan (2007) “So What Is Motivation? How To Find It, Keep It And Use It”

Available from: How-To-Find-It-Keep-It-And-Use-It

Accessed: 10-16-07


Bolton, Lisa (2007)  Information Technology & Management “What Is Motivation?”[on-line]

Available from:

Accessed: 10-16-07


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