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Motivation refers to the forces within an individual that affect the direction, intensity and persistence of voluntary behaviour. Theories of motivation are based in interpretations of human needs, which then result in behaviours to meet those needs. In general, motivation is considered to be what drives an individual to meet a particular goal, be it to resolve negative situations or for additional reward.

Theories of motivation are used in practice within human resources departments in businesses in order to improve the productivity, commitment and retention of staff, and very prominently with sports psychology, exercise psychology, and rehabilitation.

Studies on motivation make a distinction between needs and drives. Needs are deficiences (physiological or psychological) that may trigger a voluntary behavior to reduce those deficiencies or satisfy those needs. Drives have been defined as instinctive tendencies to seek particular goals, or maintain internal stability.[1]

Motivational theory originates from Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, developed in the 1940's. Although use of the needs hierarchy has been widespread in many fields since publication, further developments in motivational psychology act to address criticisms and assumptions in Maslow's original theory.

Theories of motivation

Maslow’s needs hierarchy

Developed in the 1940's, Abraham Maslow's needs hierarchy is at the basis of studies into motivation and is the most well-known.

Maslow's approach to need fulfillment is to place the human needs into a hierarchy of five basic categories: physiological, safety, belongingness, esteem, and self-actualisation. The theory posits that while we are motivated by several needs simultaneously, the strongest motivator will be the lowest unsatisfied needs at the time. Once these lower-level needs are satisfied, the individual would then be motivated to fulfil the next level of needs in the hierarchy, and would continue to be so, even if this was never fulfilled.[2][3][4]

However, this theory has not found much scientific support.[5][6] Subsequent theories of motivation sought to address criticisms of this theory, yet it has continued to be very influential.

ERG theory

ERG theory recategorised Maslow's needs hierarchy into three basic needs: existence, relatedness and growth.

Existence needs address physiological concerns, such as hunger, shelter and self-defence. Relatedness addresses social concerns, such as developing networks and identifying with social groups. Growth needs, in this theory reached when existence and relatedness were already addressed, include further learning and self-actualisation.

The main development of the ERG theory from Maslow was that whilst the individual would continue to develop higher needs once lower needs were met, they could also regress back to needing to being motivated by their lower needs if unable to fulfil higher ones.[7].

Four-drive theory

Four-drive theory is a holistic and humanistic theory of motivation by Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria. It organises drives into four categories: the drive to acquire, to bond, to learn and to defend. These drives are considered innate and universal, independent of one another and are "proactive", in that the individual regularly tries to fulfil them.[8]

The drive to acquire is the drive to seek, take, control and retain objects and personal experiences. Four-drive theory states that the drive to acquire is insatiable, theorising that the purpose of human motivation is not just for psychological fulfilment but also to achieve a higher position than others. This drive fuels competitive behaviours.

The drive to bond is the social factor, the intention to form relationship with others and develop mutual caring commitments. This component of the theory aligns with social identity theory, explaining why an individual chooses to form their social identity by aligning their self image with that of various social groups. It motivates cooperation.

The drive to learn is the drive to satisfy curiosity and to understand ourselves and the world around us. It occurs when observing something which is unknown or inconsistent with the individual's existing knowledge set, creating a knowledge gap which they will then seek to fill. The result of this drive to learn fulfils the needs of growth and self-actualisation.

The drive to defend is a self-protective drive both physically and socially. It originates from the 'fight-or-flight' response when responding to dangerous situations but also involves defending relationships, acquisitions and belief systems. Unlike the other three drives, which are proactive, the drive to defend is reactive and is triggered by perceived threats.

While the four-drive theory incorporates much solid evidence of the existence of the four innate drives and the interaction of emotions and cognitions, this is still a theory in development. Whilst it accommodates the idea of learned needs, it does not fully explain them.

Theory of learned needs

David McClelland developed his theorry of learned needs based on the concept that needs can be strengthened through reinforcement. His research found that there are three learned needs: achievement, power and affiliation.

  • Need for Achievement (nAch)
Individuals with a high nAch seek to achieve reasonably challenging goals through their own efforts, such as succeeding in competitions. They also desire clear feedback and recognition for their work. Money is a weak motivator for high nAch individuals. In contrast, individuals with a low nAch score perform better when money is used as an incentive.[9]
  • Need for Affiliation (nAff)
A high nAff score indicates that the individual is strongly motivated by approval from others, meeting external expectations, and avoiding conflict and confrontation. In practical terms, they serve as good mediators and in building long-term relationships. However, it has been found that individuals with a low nAff are more suitable for decision-making positions as their choices and actions in allocating resources are not biased by a personal desire to avoid conflict or to earn approval.[10]
  • Need for Power (nPow)
People with a high nPow seek to exercise control over other individuals, and aim to gain and maintain leadership positions. There are two types of nPow: personalised power, in which individuals want to attain power for its own sake and for status, and socialised power, where the desire for power is in order to use it to help others.[11]

Expectancy theory of motivation

Motivation in practice

Motivation in sports psychology

Motivation in organisational behaviour


  1. Berridge, K.C. 'Motivation Concepts in Behavioural Neuroscience', Physiology & Behavior 81, no. 2 (2004) 179-209.
  2. A.H. Maslow, 'A Preface to Motivation Theory, Psychosomatic Medicine 5 (1943), 85-92.
  3. A.H. Maslow, 'A Theory of Human Motivation', Psychological Review 50 (1943), 370-96
  4. A.H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality (New York: Harper & Row, 1954)
  5. E.L. Betz, 'Two Tests of Maslow's Theory of Need Fulfillment', Journal of Vocational Behaviour 23, no 2. (1984), 204-20.
  6. P.A. Corning, 'Biological Adaptation in Human Societies: A "Basic Needs" Approach', Journal of Bioeconomics 2, no 1 (2000), 41-86.
  7. C. P. Alderfer, Existence, Relatedness and Growth (New York: Free Press, 1972)
  8. P.R. Lawrence, N. Nohria, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002).
  9. D.C. McClelland, The Achieving Society (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1961)
  10. D.C. McClelland and D.H. Burnham, 'Power is the Great Motivator', Harvard Business Review 73 January-February 1995, 126-39.
  11. D Vredenburgh and Y. Brender, 'The Hierarchical Abuse of Power in Work Organizations', Journal of Business Ethics 17 (September 1998), 1337-47.