Motivation Research Paper

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Motivation Research Paper Outline

I. Introduction

II. Intensity of Motivation

III. Complex Relationships between Behavior and Motivation

IV. Fear and Anxiety

V. Bibliography


Motivation refers to the energizing states of animals and humans. Motivation leads to the instigation, persistence, energy or arousal, and direction of behavior. Motivation may involve biological survival, as in hunger or thirst, and it involves a wide range of learned processes. Environmental cues and goals are key in the study of motivation. Motivation may involve approach, such as seeking success on a task, or it may involve avoidance, such as seeking to avoid failure on a task. Many events are motivating, and motivation disposition differs from motivation arousal. One may become fearful or anxious as a motivational disposition, but this differs from being actually aroused, that is, motivated, in a given moment or situation.

Internal states of motivation, such as hunger, are experienced by species other than humans. However, some motivations appear to be uniquely human, such as the striving for excellence in achievement. Motivation plays a major role in psychodynamic theories of personality, like those of Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud, and the literature in psychopathology addresses problems of disturbance in motivation, such as depression and anxiety. Many internal variables, including emotion, learning, cognition, problem solving, and information processing, are closely related to motivation, especially in the case of humans. Although these internal variables are interrelated, they are independently defined and scientifically investigated (Ferguson, 2000). Motivation has been studied in terms of social and cultural processes as well as from an evolutionary perspective.

Humans have many cognitive representations as goals, such as seeking new friends or striving to get a new job. Motivation, although influenced by external factors, refers to processes internal to the individual. Thus, others can set goals for an individual (Locke & Latham, 1990), as is done when a parent sets a standard for a child’s school achievements or an employee’s supervisor sets goals for work accomplishment. Often such an external goal is not motivating because the individual internally fails to self-set such a goal.

Intensity of Motivation

Motivation differs not only in kind, such as an individual’s being thirsty rather than hungry, but also in intensity. One can be more or less thirsty, more or less hungry. Intensity may be described by a word such as arousing, which refers to the energizing aspect of motivation. The energizing effect of heightened motivation can be observed by means of physiological measures as well as by overt responses. Measures of brain waves, skin conductance, heart rate, and muscle tension can identify the intensity dimension of motivation. Under conditions of drowsiness and low excitation, electroencephalographic recordings generally show slow and large brain waves with a regular pattern, while under excited alertness the pattern is one of fast, low, irregular waves. When aroused or excited, individuals also tend to show an increase in muscle potential, as measured by electromyographic recordings, and a decrease in skin resistance. Individual differences lead to variation in physiological responses under arousal.

Animals generally run, turn wheels, and press bars at a faster rate when they have an increased level of motivation. For many species, including humans, heightened motivation tends to increase effort, persistence, responsiveness, and alertness. Some contemporary theorists (e.g., Steriade, 1996) have found cortical desynchronization to be associated with the firing of specific neurons and with signs of behavioral arousal, but a full understanding of arousal processes is not yet available. Physiological, neurochemical, and psychological processes are involved in motivation. Motivation has been shown by health psychologists to affect immunological functioning (Cohen & Herbert, 1996), and in many ways, motivational states have a strong impact on the total health of the individual.

Complex Relationships between Behavior and Motivation

One cannot infer the existence of a motivation merely by the presence of certain behaviors. For example, aggressive behavior does not presuppose a motivation or drive for aggression. Behavior is due to many factors. This complexity is illustrated by eating disorders such as obesity or bulimia, as well as in everyday life when people who are not food deprived nevertheless crave food when bored or anxious. Likewise, individuals can find food aversive and abstain from eating even when there is a strong tissue need for nourishment (Capaldi, 1996). People may eat when feeling unloved, and individuals may refrain from eating when motivated to seek social approval, obtain a job, or participate in a political hunger strike. Similarly, sexual behavior may occur when individuals seek power, prestige, or social approval rather than sexual gratification related to sexual arousal (McClelland, 1973). Although physiological needs may be powerful sources of motivation, they are neither necessary nor sufficient as the basis for motivation.

External rewards and reward pathways in the brain affect motivation and behavior, especially in addiction. Incentives of all types have been shown to affect motivation. For humans, intrinsic motivation that is internally generated differs from extrinsic motivation that is imposed by external sources (Deci, Kostner, & Ryan, 2001). Adlerian psychologists have found that children trained with encouragement and self-reliance rather than with praise and rewards are more likely to maintain socially constructive behaviors (Dreikurs, Grunwald, & Pepper, 1999; Dreikurs & Soltz, 2001).

Fear and Anxiety

Learning of all kinds, including early life experiences, shapes the way animals and humans respond to stressful and fear-arousing events. Different situations arouse motivation of fear and anxiety for different species and for different individual prior experiences. Stimuli associated with pain come to evoke fear, such that fear occurs when painful stimulation is anticipated. In humans, painful events are often symbolic and not merely physical, such as fear of failure (Atkinson, 1964).

Sigmund Freud postulated that human neurosis has its roots in anxiety. Clinical, field, and laboratory findings have demonstrated that defensive motivations like fear and anxiety are likely to lead to behaviors that interfere with effective task performance and creative problem solving. Task-oriented anxiety can be beneficial when the individual exerts effort toward task mastery, but self-oriented anxiety is likely to engender thoughts that indicate preoccupation with self-worth or personal safety, which interfere with problem solving and limit the amount of attention given to task demands. Fear of failure often leads to behaviors directed toward preventing failure rather than behaviors directed toward attaining success (Covington, 2000; Dweck, 1999).

Anxiety can be measured as both a trait and a state. Usually, but not always, the two show a strong positive correlation. In certain situations persons who have a disposition to be anxious (high trait anxiety) may have low state anxiety, and likewise, under specific circumstances persons of low trait anxiety may be very high in state anxiety. Anxiety can lead to stress-induced illness and lower immune system activity and is associated with lowered productive energy (Thayer, 1989). Memory, attentional control, and retrieval efficiency tend to suffer when an individual is anxious. High trait anxious people are more pessimistic and more prone to take note of threatening information than are persons with low anxiety (Eysenck, 1991).

Anxiety and fear in human beings can relate to actual threats but can also be self-generated. According to Adlerian theory and clinical evidence (Adler, 1927/1959; Dreikurs, 1967), emotions are linked with motivation. For example, a child may develop strong anxiety to get her parents to cater to her whims, or a husband may display marked anxiety as a means of getting his wife to pamper him and provide him service. The complexity of human motivation is well illustrated by anxiety, which can be facilitating as well as debilitating, can alter performance as well as be altered by it, and can serve a variety of interpersonal goals.

Anxiety tends not to lead to effective functioning. Rather, people function effectively when they believe positive outcomes are possible, and when they have self-confidence and confidence in others. When a person feels belonging, bonds with others, and contributes to the welfare of others, the individual functions effectively in many spheres of living. Contemporary writers have written about the need to belong, to feel competent, and to be self-determining, ideas that were formulated by Alfred Adler many decades ago (Adler, 1927/1959).

For humans, self-direction and symbolic processes are fundamental in determining motivation and its effects on behavior. Altruism and prosocial motivation enable humans to establish long-term emotional bonding, to overcome adversity, and to engage in cooperation and creative problem solving. Situational factors as well as intrinsic motivation shape people’s cooperative or competitive actions and attitudes. Organismic and species variables are important in studying motivation in a wide range of animals. Additionally, for humans, societal and personal values, cultural and personal experiences, and many situational variables shape motivation and its effect on behavior.


  1. Adler, A. (1959). The practice and theory of individual psychology. Paterson, NJ: Littlefield, Adams. (Originally published 1927)
  2. Atkinson, J. W. (1964). An introduction to motivation. New York: Van Nostrand.
  3. Capaldi, E. D. (1996). Introduction. In E. D. Capaldi (Ed.), Why we eat what we eat: The psychology of eating (pp. 3–9). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  4. Cohen, S., & Herbert, T. B. (1996). Health Psychology: Psychological factors and physical disease from the perspective of human psychoneuroimmunology. Annual Review of Psychology, 47, 113–142.
  5. Covington, M. V. (2000). Goal theory, motivation, and school achievement: An integrative review. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 171–2002.
  6. Deci, E. L., Kostner, R., & Ryan, R. R. (2001). Extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation in education: Reconsidered once again. Review of Educational Research, 71, 1–27.
  7. Dreikurs, R. (1967). The function of emotions. In R. Dreikurs (Ed.), Psychodynamics, psychotherapy, and counseling (pp. 205–217). Chicago: Adler School of Professional Psychology.
  8. Dreikurs, R., Grunwald, B. B., & Pepper, F. C. (1999). Maintaining sanity in the classroom: Classroom management techniques. (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis.
  9. Dreikurs, R. & Soltz, V. (2001). Children: The challenge. New York: Penguin.
  10. Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
  11. Eysenck, M. W. (1991). Trait anxiety and cognition. In C. D. Spielberger, I. G. Sarason, Z. Kulcsar, & G. L. Van Heck (Eds.), Stress and emotion: Anxiety, anger and curiosity (Vol. 14, pp. 77–84). New York: Hemisphere.
  12. Ferguson, E. D. (2000). Motivation: A biosocial and cognitive integration of motivation and emotion. New York: Oxford University Press.
  13. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  14. McClelland, D. C. (1973). The two faces of power. In D. C. McClelland & R. S. Steele (Eds.), Human motivation: A book of readings (pp. 300–316). Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.
  15. Steriade, M. (1996). Arousal: Revisiting the reticular activating system. Science, 272(5259), 225–226.
  16. Thayer, R. E. (1989). The biopsychology of mood and arousal. New York: Oxford University Press.

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