Motivation Theories

One technique I use when working towards a goal, and I’m getting nowhere, is to do research on that topic. I just google related ideas and see what comes up. I don’t know. Somehow it inspires me. In all the random junk will be an idea or two that moves me forward. Research is my personal trainer.

Here’s some useful stuff I found on Motivation  

Expectancy theory. Proposes the following equation:

Motivation = 

Perceived Probability of Success (Expectancy) *

Connection of Success and Reward (Instrumentality) * 

Value of Obtaining Goal (Valance, Value).


I have found that Expectancy Theory helps with framing my thoughts:

  • Is my problem with low motivation due to low expectancy (I don’t think I can do it)? 
  • Or is it due to low value (I don’t really believe in my goal?)





Attribution theory.  How we explain success or failure to ourselves, is called “attributions”. Either:

  • Control is either internal or external, and is either
  • Under control or not under control. 

Attribution drives “expectancy“. If the person has an external attribution, then the person will have a belief that nothing the person can do will help.

  Internal External
No Control Ability Luck
Control Effort Task Difficulty

Generally I think I’m pretty lucky, so planning my life seems to me to be a waste of time. Why plan when I can’t control it anyway? All the best things in life have happened to me by chance.

Even where my expectancy and value are high, my instrumentality and hence my motivation is low.

Eureka! Finally an answer!

Other theories that came up in my “research” and that interested me (captured here for future reference).

In the area of achievement motivation, the work on goal-theory (Pintrich, 2000) has differentiated three separate types of goals: 

  • mastery goals (also called learning goals) which focus on gaining competence or mastering a new set of knowledge or skills; 
  • performance goals (also called ego-involvement goals) which focus on achieving normative-based standards, doing better than others, or doing well without a lot of effort; and 
  • social goals which focus on relationships among people (see Ames, 1992; Dweck, 1986; Urdan & Maehr, 1995). 

In the context of school learning, which involves operating in a relatively structured environment, students with mastery goals outperform students with either performance or social goals.

However, in life success, it seems critical that individuals have all three types of goals in order to be very successful.

Which is why I think school so ill-prepares kids for life.


Drive reduction theory. Suggests that people act in order to reduce unmet needs. 

Intrinsic motivation is the motivation to act for the sake of the activity alone. For example,… People write poetry ….simply because they enjoy it.

Extrinsic motivation. To act for external rewards. For example…., being famous, or making money.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

  • The basics. Food, water, safety, and security. 
  • Social interaction, such as the need to belong. 
  • Esteem, which include the need for respect from oneself and others. 
  • Self-actualization, or realizing one’s full potential.

Maslow’s work lead to additional attempts to develop a grand theory of motivation, a theory that would put all of the factors influencing motivation into one model. For example:

Level Introversion Extroversion
Growth Self-Actualization (development of competencies [knowledge, attitudes, and skills] and character) Transcendence (assisting in the development of others’ competencies and character; relationships to the unknown, unknowable)
Personal identification with group, significant others (Belongingness) Value of person by group (Esteem)
Physiological, biological (including basic emotional needs) Connectedness,  security

The problem, though, is that motivation isn’t straightforward. It gets messy.

  • A motivation may be intrinsic, extrinsic, or both
  • Higher needs often motivate people even when lower needs are unsatisfied.
  • Learned needs, including needs for achievement, autonomy, and power….are determined by values, or people’s perceptions of what is important in life.
  • Cognitive dissonance theory. When there is a discrepancy between two beliefs, two actions, or between a belief and an action, individuals will act to resolve conflict and discrepancies.

From Spark Notes.