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Unravelling the Enigma of Motivation

Have you ever wondered why some people seem to effortlessly climb up the ladder of success while others, despite their best efforts, struggle to take even the first step? Why does a child willingly devote hours mastering a musical instrument while shirking homework with all their might? At the heart of these intriguing questions lies a force that fuels our actions and propels us forward: motivation.

Motivation, that mysterious inner drive that prompts us to take action, is an integral part of our lives, intricately woven into our daily behaviors and long-term goals. This invisible force is the spark that lights the fire of inspiration, the tether that pulls us towards our desires, and the catalyst that drives human achievement. But what fuels motivation? Is it the pursuit of a reward, or the drive to fulfill an inherent need? Delving into the psychology of motivation, we uncover the fascinating processes that spur us into action and shed light on how this understanding can be harnessed to drive personal and professional growth. From the first rays of dawn that rouse us from sleep to the daily tasks that fill our waking hours and the dreams that occupy our minds, motivation is the core element powering our actions and our pursuits. The study of this invisible, yet powerful force, has captured the fascination of psychologists, researchers, and enthusiasts alike, leading to an intricate web of theories and insights that continue to shape our understanding of human behavior.

Figure 1: Motivation (iEduNote, 2020)

Understanding Motivation

At its most basic level, motivation is the desire or willingness to do something. It's the internal drive that propels us towards our goals, whether they're as monumental as landing a dream job or as mundane as completing a household chore. Human motivation is complex and multifaceted, influenced by a myriad of biological, psychological, and social factors. Two major categories of motivation have been broadly accepted by psychologists: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (Schunk et al., 2008). Intrinsic motivation is an internal drive, where an activity is done for its inherent satisfaction rather than some separable outcome. This type of motivation is typically sparked by curiosity, enjoyment, or a sense of challenge. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is driven by external rewards such as money, grades, or praise (Lepper et al., 1973). Understanding the interplay between these types of motivation can offer valuable insights into human behavior and performance.


Dopamine is a crucial neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure and reward system of the brain, playing a significant role in motivating behavior. This chemical messenger is involved in numerous brain functions, including learning, mood, attention, and the regulation of both movement and pleasure. When you achieve a goal, dopamine is released, which gives you a feeling of reward and pleasure, thus reinforcing the action that helped you fulfill your aim. This reinforcement makes you want to repeat the action, driving motivation and goal-directed behavior. An essential body of research underlining the link between dopamine and motivation was conducted by Wolfram Schultz, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge. In a 2007 review published in "Nature," Schultz highlights how dopamine neurons are activated when rewards exceed expectations, leading to an increase in motivational drive. This suggests that our motivation to act is strongly influenced by our expectation of the reward rather than the reward itself. Furthermore, in a study published in "Neuron" in 2012, researchers from Vanderbilt University discovered that individuals with high levels of motivation have greater amounts of dopamine in two key areas of the brain: the striatum, a region involved in reward and action, and the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision making and long-term planning. Thus, it's clear that dopamine is not only a "feel-good" hormone but also a critical factor in driving our motivation, shaping our decisions, and prompting us to take action.

Figure 2: Motivation Pyramid (Boogaard, 2022)

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow, a well-known psychologist of the 20th century, proposed the concept of the hierarchy of needs in his 1943 paper, "A Theory of Human Motivation." The hierarchy is often depicted as a pyramid and has become a staple in psychology, sociology, and business management courses alike. Delving into the human psyche, one cannot overlook the influence of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. This classic theory, presented as a five-tiered pyramid, outlines the path that humans ideally follow in their pursuit of fulfillment. The pyramid's five levels include physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization. At the bottom of the pyramid are our most basic, physiological needs. These include the need for food, water, sleep, and warmth. We are fundamentally driven to satisfy these needs; failure to do so results in dire consequences for survival. Once our physiological needs are met, we can focus on the next level of needs in the hierarchy—safety needs. This stage encompasses our desire for security in various aspects of our lives, such as health, employment, property, and family. We are motivated to create a safe, stable environment where we're free from the threat of danger or deprivation. Next comes the need for love and belonging. Humans are social creatures—we yearn for relationships, friendships, family, and a sense of connection with others. This level of the hierarchy addresses our motivation to form and maintain emotional relationships and a sense of belonging. The fourth level involves esteem needs. Once we feel a strong sense of belonging, we seek respect and recognition. This level is about fulfilling our need for self-esteem and for the esteem from others. We want to be recognized for our accomplishments, we want status, reputation, and we also have a need for strength, competence, and mastery. At the very top of the pyramid is self-actualization. This is the apex of human motivation according to Maslow. It involves the desire to fulfill our personal potential, to seek personal growth, self-fulfillment, and experiences that allow us to reach our potential as individuals (Maslow, 1954).

Figure 3: Maslow's hierarchy on needs (Verma, 2021)

Understanding the progression through the hierarchy according to Maslow, each level of needs must be substantially met before we are motivated to pursue the needs on the next level. For example, someone who is severely deprived of food and water (physiological needs) is unlikely to prioritize their need for respect and recognition (esteem needs). However, it's essential to note that this does not mean lower needs must be 100% satisfied before moving onto higher needs. Instead, the hierarchy represents a general pattern that human motivation usually follows. Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory provides us with a valuable framework to understand what drives us, why our priorities change over time, and how our behaviors are linked to the underlying needs. This knowledge can be a powerful tool in various fields, from personal development to education, management, and beyond.

Self-Determination Theory

The Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a broad framework for the study of human motivation and personality. Developed by psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, SDT proposes that people are driven by a set of innate, universal psychological needs (1971). SDT identifies three fundamental psychological needs that are universally essential for people's wellbeing, growth, and intrinsic motivation. These are competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Competence refers to our inherent desire to be effective in dealing with our environment or, in other words, our need to experience mastery and gain a sense of accomplishment. It's about feeling that we have the ability to influence the outcome of our actions. When we feel competent, we are more likely to feel motivated to take on challenges and seek opportunities for growth. The next need, relatedness, refers to our desire to interact, connect with others, and experience a sense of belonging. It's about feeling cared for and being cared about by others, feeling connected to others without concerns about ulterior motives. Relatedness is about our need to love and care, and to be loved and cared for. Finally, autonomy is the need and our desire to be the authors of our lives. Autonomy is not about being independent or isolated from others, but about having a sense of free will when carrying out our actions. In fact, having a partner that you take important decisions together, encourages the feelings of autonomy.

Figure 3: Motivation (Cardone, 2023)

Understanding the implications of SDT According to Deci and Ryan, these needs are innate and universal, applicable regardless of culture, gender, or age (2000). For optimal motivation, personal growth, and emotional well-being, these three needs must be fulfilled. When these needs are thwarted, it can lead to decreased motivation and lower psychological wellness. Interestingly, SDT distinguishes between different types of motivation based on the different reasons or goals that give rise to an action. The most basic distinction is between intrinsic motivation, which refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, and extrinsic motivation, which refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome. In applying SDT to real-world situations, it can help identify ways to increase motivation, productivity, and wellness in various settings. By creating environments that support people's basic psychological needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy, we can foster greater engagement, performance, and overall life satisfaction.

Edward Deci's 1971 study is a seminal work in the understanding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In this study, participants were presented with an interesting puzzle to solve. They were divided into two groups: one group was told they would be paid for each puzzle they solved (the 'reward' group), while the other group was not offered any external rewards (the 'no-reward' group). In the middle of the task, Deci announced a break and left some puzzles in the room. He then covertly observed what participants chose to do during their free time. The key finding was that those in the 'no-reward' group were more likely to continue working on the puzzles, whereas those in the 'reward' group were less likely to do so. This observation led to the counterintuitive conclusion that the promise of external rewards might actually undermine intrinsic motivation, that is, the motivation to engage in a task for its own sake, out of interest or enjoyment. This phenomenon is known as the "overjustification effect," where an external reward is seen to "overjustify" the behavior, leading individuals to attribute their actions to the reward rather than to their own intrinsic interest in the task. When the reward is no longer available, individuals are less likely to engage in the behavior, as their perceived source of motivation (the reward) has been removed (Ryan & Deci, 2017). Deci's research also suggests that there is a delicate interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. While extrinsic rewards (like money) can be effective in motivating individuals to perform certain tasks, they may not foster long-term engagement or enhance the inherent satisfaction derived from the task itself. Deci's findings have profound implications for fields such as education, business, and psychology. For instance, in educational settings, relying solely on grades (an external reward) might not foster a love of learning (an intrinsic motivation) in students. Similarly, in a business context, while salary and bonuses are important, they may not be enough to motivate employees for innovation, creativity, or long-term job satisfaction.

Figure 4: Motivation (Sergeev, 2020)


Understanding the psychology of motivation is more than an intellectual pursuit—it's a tool that can profoundly impact our personal and professional lives. For educators, promoting intrinsic motivation in students can enhance learning and engagement. Business leaders can foster employee motivation to increase productivity and satisfaction. And on a personal level, understanding what truly drives us can help us set meaningful goals and pursue them with vigor. In the labyrinth of human cognition and behavior, motivation acts as a compass, directing our desires and actions. As we continue to explore this fascinating terrain, we equip ourselves with valuable insights that have the potential to ignite the spark of potential within us, empowering us to reach the zenith of personal and collective achievement. As we conclude this journey into the intriguing world of motivation, let us remember that the key to unlocking our potential and achieving our dreams lies within us—in the power of motivation. Whether you're an entrepreneur, a student, or a curious reader, understanding the psychology of motivation is an investment that promises invaluable returns. So, ignite the spark, harness your drive, and unlock the boundless potential that lies within you.

Bibliographical References

Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18(1), 105–115.

Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children's intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the "overjustification" hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28(1), 129-137.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. Harper.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications.

Schultz, W. (2007). Behavioral dopamine signals. Trends in Neurosciences, 30(5), 203–210.

Schunk, D. H., Pintrich, P. R., & Meece, J. L. (2008). Motivation in Education: Theory, Research, and Applications. Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.

Treadway, M. T., Buckholtz, J. W., Schwartzman, A. N., Lambert, W. E., & Zald, D. H. (2009). Worth the 'EEfRT'? The effort expenditure for rewards task as an objective measure of motivation and anhedonia. PLoS ONE, 4(8), e6598.

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