The Psychology of Motivation: Why Is Motivation So Powerful?

Motivation is an important driving force in people’s lives. It can affect both minor and major aspects of your life. Oftentimes, one’s level of motivation—or lack thereof—can determine their level of success.

In this article, I will discuss the concepts of motivation and psychology and present six psychological motives that drive people. Moreover, I will present some tips on how you can get motivated and discuss reasons why motivation is so powerful. I will also add my thoughts from my world where motivation plays an important role: the world of athletics.

What Is Motivation?

Research indicates that motivation has many definitions. The Oxford Dictionary defines it in several ways:[1]

  • “The reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a certain way.”
  • “The general desire or willingness of someone to do something.”
  • “Motivation is the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behavior.”

We can conclude from these definitions that motivation is the driving force behind what we do and the key ingredient to accomplishing goals.

There are two primary types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is doing an activity to attain an outcome, usually a reward of some kind. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is “an internal drive for success or sense of purpose.” Research states that the more effective of the two—the motivation that leads to the best results—is intrinsic.[2]

Kevin Kruse validated the value of intrinsic motivation when he wrote,

“Life is about making an impact, not an income.”

Stephen Covey said it a different way,

“Motivation is a fire from within. If someone tries to light that fire, chances are it will burn very briefly.”

What Is Psychology?

American Psychology defines psychology as “the scientific study of the mind and behavior.”[3] There are six insights that psychology has brought to us regarding the forces behind motivation.

  1. Money and rewards – Some people are driven to make as much money as they can so they can flaunt their wealth in their community. Others see money as a necessity to take care of their families.
  2. Desire to be the best – I believe that the key factor to be the best stems from a willingness to prepare. Michael Jordan and Tom Brady are prime examples of the 5P’s—”Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.”
  3. Helping others –  Albert Einstein said it best when he wrote, “I can think of no reason why we are here but to help others.”
  4. Power and fame – I think a great number of people who attain fame do not pursue it. They simply go to work, roll up their sleeves, attain fame, and remain humble.
  5. Recognition – Take it with a grain of salt. It can vanish quickly and permanently!
  6. Passion – I am from the same town as Rudy Ruettiger from the movie, “Rudy.” I do know Rudy well and I can say without hesitation that it was his passion that got him admitted into Notre Dame, to play football there, and to get his outstanding movie to the public.

Why is Motivation So Powerful?

I believe that the goal of extrinsic motivation is to get people to reach intrinsic motivation, which is a very powerful driving force. Below are the five main reasons why intrinsic motivation is so powerful.[4]

1. It Leads to Better Persistence

I can think of no worthwhile endeavor that I was involved with that was easy. Most accomplishments face obstacles and failure along the way. Persistent people beat them.

Persistent people develop a strong Failure Quotient (FQ). Losing is a part—and often a big part—of an athletic season. According to Stan Kellner in his book, Taking it to the limit with basketball-cybernetics: A revolutionary mind-training program for winning performance, those who do succeed in developing a strong FQ approach losing in two ways: learn from it or move on. Moving on may be the tougher of the two to accomplish, but it is essential for future success. An oft-used refrain in athletics is that you need to have a short memory—forget the failure and move on now.

2. It Enhances Engagement

In their research, Kuvaas and Dysvik found that “intrinsically motivated employees were more likely to be highly engaged and more involved in their work, as well as display a greater readiness to step up and take responsibility.”[5] People who step up to the plate get things done!

All great athletes are motivated to work on their own. Very few people realize all the time they invest on their own. When Michael Jordan came back to the Chicago Bulls after his stint in baseball, he and the Bulls lost in the playoffs. He knew he had to get his basketball legs back, but he had signed to make the movie, Space Jam. So, he had an outdoor basketball court built on the movie property so he could practice between and after sets. Even the greatest basketball player ever still needed to practice on his own.

3. Intrinsically Motivated Learning Is More Effective

Hinton Zigler presented the power of learning succinctly when he wrote,

“If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you. If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.”

I have always believed great teachers do four things: they know their subject matter, they are organized, they teach with enthusiasm, and they care about their students in and out of the classroom. However, no matter how outstanding that teacher may be, if the student is not motivated to learn, he will not learn. In the last analysis, only one person is responsible for your body of work—you!

4. We Perform Better When Intrinsically Motivated

When we are intrinsically motivated, we strive for perfection in any task we take on. Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, stressed the efficacy of perfection when he wrote,[6]

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”

Motivated people do find excellence and find it often.

5. Intrinsically Motivated People Are More Likely to Stay

Motivated people stay with you through the tough times, but non-motivated people leave when times get tough.

When a new coach is hired to take over a program, they are often hired because the program has fallen on bad times—they are losing. There is a real possibility that it will take three to five years to turn the program around, and that is why new coaches are often given five-year contracts. Given this reality, the coach must recruit or draft talented players. However, that is not enough. They will also want to bring in players of character because they stick with you through the tough times.

5 Ways to Get Motivated

According to Kendra Cherry, there are certain psychological factors regarding motivation that you can use to your advantage. She claims that these psychological techniques can help you feel more motivated in life.[7] Below are five ways to get motivated.

1. Use Incentives Carefully

Be cautious with rewards. She emphasized that we should not compliment someone for being smart or athletic—instead, compliment them for the effort they make to be smart or athletic.

In addition to complimenting someone for their effort, we took it one step further. We found that a good number of people could give great effort on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday but could not reach down and find that same effort on Thursday and Friday. So, we told our athletes that effort is not enough and that the difference between good and great is the consistency of effort. The great ones can find the best they have to give daily. None of us have our “A Game” every day, but the great ones consistently find their best.

2. Introduce Challenges

It often seems to me that the challenges I have been most apprehensive about have been the best things I have ever done. I have traveled overseas to present basketball camps and speak at clinics. I certainly found this work challenging. I wanted to give presentations that would be valuable to the players and coaches, and I was nervous. The one thing I found that helped me get through nervousness was preparation. I spent a great deal of time preparing for these challenges.

3. Don’t Visualize Success

This goes against the modern theory of visualization. The usual concept is to see yourself doing the activity successfully. Instead, Cherry believes that you should visualize the steps it will take to achieve success.

I do not necessarily agree with her on this premise for motivation. I believe in visualization—you should see the goal, the end result. Shooting free throws in basketball is a great time to visualize. I believe seeing the ball going through the net is more important than trying to break down all the steps to get to that objective. Visualize the success.

4. Take Control

Cherry does not promote trying to dominate a project. She does, however, promote ascertaining how you can contribute to the success of the project.

Most projects you undertake necessitate teamwork, and it is important to understand that you are part of a team and that your main goal is to contribute to the team’s success. In athletics, we look at this concept a little differently. We want the team to develop the “Disposition to Dominate.” It is still about the team, but we want the team to dominate.

5. Focus on the Journey, Not the Outcome

In athletic competition, you want the outcome to be victory, but your focus cannot be on the victory. Your focus must be on the process it will take to get the victorious outcome. If you fail to concentrate on the things you must do to achieve success, you will never arrive at a successful conclusion.

Final Thoughts

The psychology of motivation gives us insights into the kind of mindset we need for us to excel in life. Those who pursue perfection leading to excellence are the most powerful and productive people in any organization. They don’t need extrinsic motivation because they are driven internally—it’s in their DNA.

More Tips on Gaining Motivation

  • What Is Motivation And How To Get Motivated (Your Ultimate Guide)
  • 9 Types of Motivation That Make It Possible to Reach Your Dreams

Reference

Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries: Motivation
ScienceDirect: Intrinsic Motivation
SimplyPsychology: What is Psychology?
workstars: Five studies highlighting the power of intrinsic motivation
ResearchGate: Do Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation relate differently to Employee Outcomes?
ESPN: Lombardi turned Packers into winners
verywellmind: 5 Surprising Ways to Get Motivated

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We’ve all needed a bit of inspiration at some time in our lives. In the past year or two, that need most likely has grown. Who hasn’t been trying to shed those extra pounds we put on during the pandemic? Who hasn’t felt the need to fake a little enthusiasm at joining yet another Zoom call? Who hasn’t been trying to get excited about trekking back into the office for a 9 to 5 (longer if you add in the commute)? Feeling “meh” is a sign of our times. So, too, is incentive motivation, a way to get back our spark, our drive, and our pursuit of the things we say we want most.

In this article, I’ll talk about what incentive motivation is and how it works.

What Is Incentive Motivation?

Incentive motivation is an area of study in psychology focused on human motivation. What is it that gets us to go from couch potato to running a marathon? What spurs us to get the Covid vaccine—or to forgo it? What is it that influences us to think or act in a certain way? Incentive motivation is concerned with the way goals influence behavior.[1] By all accounts, it works if the incentive being used holds significance for the person.

The Roots of Incentive Motivation

Incentive motivation’s roots can be traced back to when we were children. I’m sure many of us have similar memories of being told to “eat all our veggies” so that we would “grow up to be big and strong,” and if we did eat those veggies, we would be rewarded with a weekend trip to a carnival or amusement park or playground of choice. The incentive of that outing was something we wanted enough to have it influence our behavior.

Growing up, incentive motivation continues to play a major role in what we choose to do. For example, while we may not have relished the idea of spending years studying, getting good grades, pursuing advanced degrees, and graduating with sizeable debt from student loans, a great many of us decided to do just that. Why? Because the end goal of a career, a coveted title, and the associated incentives of financial reward and joy in doing something we love were powerful motivators.

One researcher who believes in the power of incentive motivation is weight management expert, co-author of the book State of Slim, and co-founder of the transformational weight loss program of the same name, Dr. Holly Wyatt. Her work with her clients has proven time and again that when motivation fizzles, incentives can reignite those motivational fires.

“Eat more veggies, exercise, keep track of my weight: These things and more DO work, but bottom line, you gotta keep doing them. Setting up rituals and routines to put your efforts on auto-pilot is one way. And along the way, the use of both external and internal motivators helps keep people on track. External motivation sources are those things outside of ourselves that help to motivate us. They’re powerful, like pouring gasoline on a fire. But they may not last very long. Internal motivators are more tied into the reasons WHY we want to reach our goals. In my State of Slim weight loss program, we spend a lot of time on what I call ‘peeling back the onion’ to find the WHY. I think the internal motivators are more powerful, especially for the long-term, but they may take longer to build. They’re the hot coals that keep our motivational fires burning.”

Examples of Incentive Motivation

In the way of incentive motivation, specific to the external motivators, Dr. Wyatt challenges her clients to commit to changing just one behavior that will help them reach their weight loss goals. Clients must then agree to a “carrot” or a “stick” as either their reward for accomplishing what they say they will do or as their punishment for falling short. Those incentives might be something like enjoying a spa day if they do the thing they said they would do or sweating it out while running up and down the stairwell of their apartment building a certain number of times as punishment for not following through.

Whatever they choose, the goal must be something they really want, and the incentive must be something that matters to them enough to influence their behaviors in reaching those goals. Some people are more motivated by some sort of meaningful reward (a carrot) whereas, other people are more motivated by some sort of negative consequence or the taking away of a privilege (the stick).

Another example of incentive motivation is playing out currently with companies and government entities offering perks to people who get the Covid vaccine. Nationwide, offers are being made in the way of lottery tickets, cash prizes, concert seats, free admission to events and discounts for food, and even free drink at local restaurants and bars. The list of incentives being offered to the public to increase vaccination rates is pretty extensive and quite creative.[2]  These incentives are financial, social, and even hit on moral sensibilities. But is this particular incentive motivation working?

Remember that a key to incentive motivation working is if the individual puts importance on the reward being received on the ultimate goal. So, not all incentives will motivate people in the same way. According to Stephen L. Franzoi, “The value of an incentive can change over time and in different situations.”[3]

How Does Incentive Motivation Differ from Other Types of Motivators?

Incentive motivation is just one type of motivating force that relies on external factors. While rewards are powerful tools in influencing behaviors, a few other options may be more aligned with who you are and what gets you moving toward your goals.

Fear Motivation

In many ways, being motivated by fear is the very opposite of being motivated by incentives. Rather than pursuing some reward, it’s the avoidance of some consequence or painful punishment that sparks someone into action. For example, married couples may “forsake all others” not out of love or commitment but out of a fear that they may be “taken to the cleaners” by their spouses if their infidelities are revealed.

Another example wherein fear becomes the great motivator is one we’re hearing about more and more as we’re coming out of this pandemic—the fear of being poor. The fear of being poor has kept many people in jobs they hate. It’s only now that we see a reversal as headlines are shining a light on just how many workers are quitting and refusing to go back to the way things were.

Social Motivation

Human beings are social creatures. The desire to belong is a powerful motivator. This type of social motivation sparks one’s behavior in ways that, hopefully, result in an individual being accepted by a certain group or other individuals.

The rise of the Internet and the explosion of social media engagement has been both positive and negative in its power to motivate us to be included among what during our school days would be called “the cool kids” or “cliques” (jocks, nerds, artsy, gamers, etc.). We probably all have experienced at one time or another the feelings associated with “not being chosen”—whether to be on a team to play some game or as the winning candidate for some job or competition. Social rejection can make or break us.

Before You Get Up and Go…

Know that, especially during these challenging times, it’s “normal” and very much “okay” to feel a lack of motivation. Know, too, that external motivators, such as those we’ve talked about in this article, can be great tools to get your spark back. We’ve only touched on a few here. There are many more—both external and internal.

Remember that these external motivators, such as incentive motivations, are only as powerful as the importance placed on the reward by the individual. It’s also important to note that if there isn’t an aligned internal motivation, the results will more than likely be short-lived.

For example, losing a certain amount of weight because you want to fit into some outfit you intend to wear at some public event may get you to where you want to be. But will it hold up after your party? Or will those pounds find their way back to you? If you want to be rewarded at work with that trip to the islands because you’ve topped the charts in sales and hustle to make your numbers, will you be motivated again and again for that same incentive? Or will you need more and more to stay motivated?

Viktor Frankl, the 20th-century psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of the best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is quoted as having said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” As important as external motivators like incentives may be in influencing behaviors, the key is always to align them with one’s internal “why”—only then will the results be long-lived.

So, how might incentive motivation influence you and your behavior toward goals? Knowing your answer might keep you energized no matter what your journey and help to further your successes.

  • What Is Motivation And How To Get Motivated (Your Ultimate Guide)
  • 9 Types of Motivation That Make It Possible to Reach Your Dreams
  • Do You Know Your Motivation Style?

Reference

Britannica: Incentive motivation
National Governors Association: COVID-19 Vaccine Incentives
verywellmind: The Incentive Theory of Motivation

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