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Theories of motivation

Motivational theories can be divided into two main camps based on different assumptions about human nature.

Behavioural theories consider our actions to be reflexive and instinctive, governed by a 'stimulus-response' mechanism. All motivation is believed to come from basic drives, instincts or emotions. Behavioural theories have been popular due to their apparently easy applications. The 'carrot and stick' theory shows a deeply held assumption and popular idea that motivation is about providing rewards and punishments. According to this theory, when you motivate you are applying a stimulus, such as a reward or a threat of punishment or a combination of both.

The past 25 years has led to major changes in how motivation is defined and in the constructs that are assumed to underlie it. The most significant change has been the focus on mental processes rather than environmental factors.  Beliefs about the self now play a major role in theories of motivation for all age groups. 

Current theories increasingly recognise the significance of the self and self-determining aspects of behaviour. We are highly attuned and sensitive to messages about the self throughout life.  The greatest output of the human mind is the sense of self, the sense of who we are. Our current understanding of the self however is fast evolving and it is a great challenge to grasp its complexities.  

Individuals are no longer seen as responding to and being manipulated by external stimuli. They are seen as being motivated by personal goals, competency beliefs and personal evaluations of their worth. The most important source of motivation is seen as something inside the person. Learning and growth are seen as intrinsic parts of human nature that need to be nurtured. Motivation is generated from inside while being heavily influenced from outside. It is the interaction of individuals and their environment that determines motivation.

The self has a key task of self-enhancement, a basic law of human behaviour driven by what Deci and Ryan in their influential 'Self Determination Theory' identify as our key needs to feel competent, autonomous and connected to others. This is achieved by seeking out areas that offer a high chance of success; discounting the importance of, and withdrawing from, areas that produce failure; making sense of events to present the self in the best light; taking credit for success and treating any failure as a learning experience.

Thinking about motivation has shifted from operant learning to a cognitive approach concerned with how incoming stimulation is used. In this model people are seen as active seekers and processors of information rather than passive recipients of information from others and the environment. Our beliefs, thoughts, feelings and values are seen as the main influences on our behaviour.  This has major implications for the role of people such as managers, coaches and teachers in motivating others.

Copyright: Alan McLean, 2006

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