When I was in high school my Mom would always tell me to focus on my studies because that was the most important part of my life.  So I went up to my room with my books and talked to my girlfriend for three hours every night (what we talked about I have no freakin idea).  When I was in college I remember I had a date with a girl named Lara but my roommate, Skippy, brought a 100 box of spicy chicken wings and challenged me to eat them all.  I skipped out on the date to eat.  Today, I have a beautiful wife and a fridge full of good food, but yet I sit here writing this.  It seems that my wants, needs and desires have shifted often in my life.  What kind of forces play a part in these changes that psychologists would label motivation.

I have seen literally dozens of different definitions for motivation.  Let’s define motivation as feelings or ideas that cause us to act towards a goal.  Some motivations are obvious, while others are quite subtle.  First, I am going to introduce some basic motivational theories.  Then I will break down the three major motivators in our lives; food, sex and achievement.

Instinct Theory

Instinct theory is one of the first theories of motivation and finds it’s roots in Darwin’s theory of evolution.  An instinct is a unlearned behavior that is passed down generation to generation.  Every year salmon travel hundreds of miles upstream, lay down some eggs and sperm, then die.  Their dead carcasses help feed their young when they hatch.

Do you think the salmon learn this complex set of behaviors?  Do they get together and say “Yo dude, I am bored around here.  Let’s swim a marathon, then get it on.  What do you say?”.  The salmon’s mating behaviors are purely instinctual; they are unlearned.  I have a teacup Pomeranian named Chica.


  Chica is constantly humping my foot.  Did Chica learn to hump by watching late night Skinamax channels.  Nope, she was born to hump (that sounds kind of weird).  Instinct theory sound good on the surface and does explain some human behaviors.  But in reality most of our behaviors are not unlearned and thus we are not purely motivated by our instincts.

Drive Reduction Theory

Another early motivational theory, drive reduction theory, is based on the idea that we are driven by basic biological needs (food, water, shelter etc..).  Needs drive our behavior to seek homeostasis (balance) in our bodies.  If we skip breakfast, we feel hungry.  The hunger need drives us to find food to get rid of the hunger (thus bringing us back to a homeostatic state).  These drives can either be primary (biological needs like hunger) or secondary (learned needs like money).  However, drive reduction theory cannot explain all of our motivations.  Sometimes we are motivated to perform behaviors that do not seem with any need or drive, primary or secondary.  I have a friend who likes skydiving.

He loves to throw himself out of planes for fun.  Obviously, jumping from high places goes against our instincts, but it also does not seem to satisfy and basic biological need.  Thus neither instinct of drive reduction theory can explain this behavior.  Nor can they explain why people have the (as Tom Cruise said in Top Gun) “need for speed”.  Why go on a roller coaster?  Why play football?  Where do these motivations come from?

Arousal Theory

Arousal theory states that we seek an optimum level of excitement or arousal.  People with high optimum levels of arousal will be drawn to high excitement behaviors, like bungee jumping.  While the rest of us are satisfied with less exciting and less risky activities.  In general, most  perform best with an optimum level of arousal, although this varies with different activities.  We might perform well at an easy task with a high level of arousal, but the same high level of arousal would prevent us from performing well on a difficult task.  In general we perform better perform best at moderate levels of arousal.  This concept is called the Yerkes-Dodson law.  Think about getting ready for the SATs.  If you are too pumped up, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and it is hard to concentrate.  If you are not aroused at all, you just won’t put your all in and still will not perform well.  The Yerkes-Dodson law basically states that their is a middle, or moderate, level or arousal in which we all perform best.

Incentive Theory

Sometimes, behavior is not pushed by a need, it is pulled by a desire.  Incentives are stimuli that we are drawn to due to learning.  We learn to associate some stimuli with rewards and others with punishment, and we are motivated to seek the rewards.  For example,  you may learn that studying with friends is fun but does not produce the desired results around test time, so you are motivated to study alone to get the reward of a good test score.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

You should already now this from the Humanistic Chapter.  Maslow believed that all of our motivation comes from needs.  We are motivated to satisfy our needs.   Here is a quick refresher on Maslow.

Maslow said that all needs are not created equal.  He described a hierarchy of needs that predicts which needs we will be motivated to satisfy first.  Maslow predicted that will will act to satisfy our basic biological needs first, like food and water, and then work our way up the pyramid (see below).

Maslow believed that we must satisfy the lower needs first before moving on to the higher ones.

Now that we have some sort of understanding of basic motivational theories, let’s examine some of the biggest motivators of our lives; hunger, sex and achievement.

Hunger Motivation
Sexual Motivation
Achievement Motivation