The secrets behind motivation

It takes a lot of focus and ambition to keep seeking victories. Take Graded’s athletics program. Having been a Graded athlete for four years, I’ve seen and participated in my fair share of wins and losses. What never ceases to amaze me is Graded’s spirit. At tournaments I’ve seen teams playing to place in third, fourth or fifth with the same intensity and perseverance as if they were in the final. But where does this motivation come from? Well, from a lot of places, as it turns out. As a social science, psychology presents many schools of thoughts with a variety of theories to explain and understand human behavior. Yes, that’s right, you have an avalanche of psychobabble coming your way.

One of the first theories presented on how motivation works was the “Instinct Theory.” According to this theory, humans (as well as other animals) are motivated to behave in certain ways because we are all “programmed” to do so in our genes. This evolution-based behavior is the reason why some animals participate in seasonal migrations—they are never taught to do this, yet they somehow know that they must in order to survive. In humans, this theory can explain many of our instincts, such as attachment, fear, shyness, love, shame and many more. But I know what you must be thinking: motivation can’t all be related to instinct! And you’re right, it isn’t… which is why this particular theory was set aside in the 1920s.

This brings me to the next theory, “The Arousal Theory of Motivation,” which states that humans are always seeking to maintain an optimum level of psychological arousal, or excitement.  This optimum level doesn’t have a set value; rather, it changes depending on the person. For example, if you are a person that has a relatively low optimum excitement level, you might just need to watch TV or go out to lunch with friends to stay engaged. If you have a higher optimum level, though, you may need to participate in thrill-seeking activities like skydiving to keep yourself satisfied. What this means for motivation is that some people might be innately more motivated. It’s kind of an elitist theory, but if it’s valid it means that many humans only physically have enough willpower to watch TV.

That’s a bit extreme, though. More importantly, these levels of arousal can have a huge impact on success. For example, have you ever studied “too much” for a test and done badly on it? Some psychologists believe that this is related to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which states that an increased level of psychological arousal can improve performance, but only up to a point. That is why if you study well for a test and feel prepared, your increased motivation will help you stay focused. But if you study too hard, you lose the benefits of that motivation and lose focus.

The last main theory regarding motivation is known as the “Incentive Theory.” According to this theory, we are motivated do things because we want reinforcements and rewards. There are two main types of this kind of motivation: intrinsic (natural motivation) and extrinsic (man-made motivation). These two concepts explain why we feel a different type of drive when engaging in our hobbies or doing chores. When we are intrinsically motivated, we are actually excited about doing a particular activity, such as reading, playing an instrument, creating art, or playing a particular sport. On the other hand, when we are extrinsically motivated, we are not naturally encouraged to do something. We engage in a particular activity because of a reward, be it a grade, money or fame. Experimentation has proven that extrinsic motivators only work for boring tasks. For problems that require creativity, the solver has to actually want to achieve something.

There you have it: a very brief tour of the study of motivation. Normally, I would apologize for possibly causing you any headaches, but I’m intrinsically motivated to learn about these kinds of things. Of course, individually none of these theories can completely explain the phenomenon of motivation. As the years go by, psychology and neuroscience will hopefully present us with even more theories to help demystify this concept. Until that happens, we will just have to suffer through long hours of tedium, and use whatever time we have left to do what we love.