What is motivation and how do we behave in response to this human behaviour?

In this article I will quote Edward Deci, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, and director of the human motivation programme, as he compiled several decades of research on motivation. He became well known for his theories on motivation.

Find out more about motivation and how we behave in response to this human behaviour
Graciela Ares

Graciela Ares

Reading time: 8 min

In them, motivation is divided into two theories: Intrinsic and Extrinsic, this distinction made by Edward Deci is to know whether behaviours are autonomous or controlled. That is to say, to differentiate whether one feels free in a given action or interprets a pressure to act in a certain way.

If the person is “pressured or controlled”, his or her behaviour will not be an expression of the “I”, because the “I” has been absorbed into the domains of control.

The word motivation derives from the Latin motivus or motus, meaning ’cause of movement’.

  • Motivated behaviours can be divided into three stages:
  • Appetitive: characterised by the search for and approach to the resources needed to satiate the need.
  • Consummatory: focused on interacting with those resources and reaching the goal or objective that triggered the behaviour.
  • Homeostasis: State of equilibrium, once the physiological deficit that triggered the motivation has been reduced, the activation of the search system ends.

From this we can deduce the brain systems associated with motivation.

The brain systems associated with motivation

The main search system is the dopaminergic pathway, which extends from the ventral tegmental area. Its point of origin, where dopaminergic cells are located, to the nucleus accumbens, which plays an important role in functions associated with the sensation of pleasure and addiction, a connection known as the mesolimbic pathway.

The ventral tegmental area also has extensions to the frontal cortex (a brain region involved in planning cognitively complex behaviour, personality expression, decision-making and social behavioural appropriateness), called the mesocortical.

Both mesolimbic and mesocortical circuits are related to the feelings of arousal and engagement we have as we seek those resources we need to achieve what we want.

It is important to realise that the mesolimbic system, when faced with a homeostatic imbalance, activates the motivational process.

Without dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in decision-making and many other brain functions such as memory, pleasurable sensations, sleep, mood, attention and motor activity, without it, appetitive actions disappear, since there is no fuel to feed the engine that motivates action.

Conversely, high levels of dopamine cloud our reasoning and make us feel capable of doing anything to achieve the desired goal. This feeling of splendour and ecstasy that we feel when we have elevated dopamine levels makes it coherent to think that human beings will seek to return to these states of pleasure repeatedly. It is no coincidence that there is addiction to alcohol, cocaine, nicotine, heroin, amphetamines and many other substances, as they positively stimulate the mesolimbic pathway.

The most relevant aspect of understanding this process is that the most intense pleasure does not derive from the consummatory behaviour, but comes from the anticipation of the culmination of that which satisfies the initial need. The instant prior to consummation is much more delightful. The cyclical drive to seek and satisfy is a function of the mesolimbic pathway, basic to survival, whether it is feeding, drinking or reproducing. It is a constant seesaw of appetitive and consummatory phases. That is precisely why it is regulated by brain structures that precede reasoning, so here are two types of motivation that give energy and direction to our behaviour, and are the cause of our behaviour:

Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is based on internal factors such as self-determination, curiosity, challenge and effort, which emerges spontaneously from internal tendencies and psychological needs that promote behaviour without extrinsic rewards. Intrinsic motivation will decrease if one’s own feelings of competence and self-determination are reduced, leading to two types of intrinsically motivated behaviour, which occurs when the person is comfortable but bored and therefore more motivated to find stimulation and on the other hand what this implies in wanting to master new challenges.

On the other hand, in extrinsic motivation: it changes in relation to the autonomy that the subject has, categorised from less to more self-determined, which allows a distinction to be made between external, introjected, identified and integrated.

I would like to detail that a person is extrinsically motivated towards an activity when there is a benefit to be gained from it.

An example of how intrinsic and extrinsic motivation differ is a series of studies where Edward Deci (1995) examined how much those involved in a task continued to participate after the supposed “experiment” had ended.

Control groups were simply given the task and allowed to participate as much or as little as they wished, while those in the experimental groups were paid a token amount for solving the puzzle in various ways. Both groups had alternative entertainment in the room, such as magazines, with which to interact. The idea was to see how long each group continued to engage in the puzzles after the experimenter finished, presumably to “enter data into a computer and obtain a questionnaire”. In reality, the experimenter left for exactly eight minutes and the participants were observed through a Gesell camera.

In this research, it was found that participants who were paid to solve the puzzle quickly lost interest once the experimenter left, while control participants continued to engage in the puzzle. The vast majority of participants found the puzzle attractive in itself, at least initially. However, once a performance reward was offered, intrinsic motivation to participate in the puzzle decreased, as evidenced by the loss of interest once the experimenter left the room. But if a reward was never offered, participants continued to participate in the puzzle, demonstrating that their intrinsic motivation persisted.

If intrinsic motivation was initially the same with both groups, why did offering rewards stifle it after the rewards were removed? One might imagine that offering a reward in addition to an already engaging activity would only promote engagement, but the research contradicts this.

The explanation for this is that, offering a reward had the effect of removing the participant’s perceived locus of control, making subsequent effort dependent on that reward. If the effort was directed towards that end, the participant would feel controlled by the situation or the people controlling the research. If the reward is removed, the person loses motivation because he or she feels conditioned by the reward and controlled.

In other words, if he is promised a reward for performing a task, his attitude towards the task will change: instead of seeing it as something valuable in itself, he will see it as an obstacle to overcome in order to obtain his reward. Therefore, environments that use performance reward schemes have the effect of discouraging creative thinking and risk-taking.

Another relevant point I would like to highlight is the development of self-efficacy in individuals: self-efficacy is defined as the belief “in one’s abilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce particular achievements“.

A person’s level of self-efficacy can have a dramatic impact on what they choose to do, how long they persist in the face of challenges or failures, how they react to praise and criticism, and the expectation of success or failure in future endeavours. In fact, perceived self-efficacy can affect everything from small decisions to major ones, such as one’s occupational interests and consideration of one’s career. In this case, one may pursue a second-choice career, due to a lack of efficacy to succeed, in a preferred option. Self-efficacy is sometimes confused with self-concept, self-esteem or confidence. While these concepts may have similarities in some cases, at their core they address different details:

  • Self-concept refers to the integrated view of attributes, abilities, and attitudes that make us who we are “Self-concept is a composite view of oneself that is presumed and formed through direct experience and adopted evaluations of others who are important to one.”
  • Perceived self-efficacy refers to judgements of personal capability. Understanding perceived self-efficacy can be a valuable tool for self-reflection and decision-making, given the significant impact that self-efficacy can have on an individual’s intrinsic motivation, performance, retention, attributions and choices.
  • Self-esteem refers to judgements of self-esteem. There is no fixed relationship between beliefs about one’s capabilities, whether or not one “likes” oneself. Such distinctions are important in identifying predictions and causes of behaviour. It is entirely possible to have high self-efficacy in one area, but have low self-esteem in the same area; in other words, one can be an expert in something one finds useless or meaningless.

The dimensions of motivation in human behaviour

If a person is not motivated and also does not feel confident, he or she is in a zone of apathy, unwillingness and lack of confidence to do anything. It could also happen that a person feels very secure and confident in the “place” he occupies or the way he performs, but systematically avoids taking certain risks because he is not motivated; he has no interest or commitment to the team’s objective, and for this reason he is in what is called the comfort zone.

There is another scenario, which occurs when the combination is that there are highly motivated people, with great intentions, enthusiasm and commitment to the team’s progress, but they do not feel secure. This instance generates a lot of anxiety and stress. Because the person has energy that cannot be channelled into something productive due to a lack of confidence or psychological security. This is the anxiety zone.

The purpose is for people to be willing to take certain risks, to feel secure, committed and confident. This is the learning zone, where people are very enthusiastic, and probably care a lot about the outcome. But they are not afraid to make certain mistakes and are therefore motivated to work towards the goal. Risk-taking by definition implies that some things will go right, but some things may go wrong. Paradoxically, “being so afraid of making mistakes” is a variable that needs to be reduced in order to optimise high individual performance.

We have seen then that the importance of staying motivated is very relevant to the understanding of our individual performance, and also that of a team. By approaching the aforementioned learning zone, where our “psychological safety” is emphasised, we are allowed to develop in that which does motivate and challenge us, to achieve goals and enhance our personal and professional growth.


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