… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

Concept description

Motivation is defined as the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviours.

Motivation is what causes us to act, whether it is getting a glass of water to reduce thirst or reading a book to gain knowledge. Motivation involves the biological, emotional, social and cognitive forces that activate behavior. In everyday usage, the term motivation is frequently used to describe why a person does something.

Different types of motivation are frequently described as being either extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic motivations are those that arise from outside of the individual and often involve rewards such as trophies, money, social recognition or praise. Intrinsic motivations are those that arise from within the individual, such as doing a complicated cross-word puzzle purely for the personal gratification of solving a problem.

Components of motivation

Anyone who has ever had a goal (like wanting to lose ten pounds or wanting to run a marathon) probably immediately realizes that simply having the desire to accomplish something is not enough. Achieving such a goal requires the ability to persist through obstacles and endurance to keep going in spite of difficulties.

There are three major components to motivation: activation, persistence and intensity.

  1. Activation involves the decision to initiate a behavior, such as enrolling in a psychology class.
  2. Persistence is the continued effort toward a goal even though obstacles may exist. An example of persistence would be taking more psychology courses in order to earn a degree although it requires a significant investment of time, energy and resources.
  3. Intensity can be seen in the concentration and vigor that goes into pursuing a goal. For example, one student might coast by without much effort, while another student will study regularly, participate in discussions and take advantage of research opportunities outside of class. The first student lacks intensity, while the second pursues his educational goals with much greater intensity.
Theories of motivation

So what are the things that actually motivate us to act? Psychologists have proposed a number of different theories to explain motivation:

  • Instincts: The instinct theory of motivation suggests that behaviours are motivated by instincts. An instinct is a fixed and inborn pattern of behavior. Psychologists including William James, Sigmund Freud and William McDougal have proposed a number of basic human drives that motivate behaviour. Such instincts might include biological instincts that are important for an organisms survival such as fear, cleanliness and love.
  • Drives and needs: Many of our behaviors such as eating, drinking and sleeping are motivated by biology. We have a biological need for food, water and sleep, therefore we are motivated to eat, drink and sleep. Drive theory suggests that people have basic biological drives and that our behaviors are motivated by the need to fulfill these drives.
  • Arousal Levels: The arousal theory of motivation suggests that people are motivated to engage in behaviours that help them maintain their optimal level of arousal. A person with low arousal needs might pursue relaxing activities while those with high arousal needs might be motivated to engage in exciting, thrill-seeking behaviors.

Drawn from Cherry, K. A. (2015). What is Motivation, at, accessed 31 December 2015.

Atlas topic, subject and course

Recognizing Values (core topic) in Leadership Skills and Atlas109.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 10 January 2016.

Image: Allan Williams at, accessed 10 January 2016.