Major Theories of Motivation

Major Theories of Motivation

Researchers in the field of psychology, as well as in the areas of leadership and management, have explored and explained the reasons behind the motivations of individuals or more specifically the factors that influence their behaviors, actions, willingness or initiative, drive, and goals or objectives. Nonetheless, their works have produced a body of literature about the different theories of motivation.

The Major Theories of Motivation

Content or Needs Theories of Motivation

Theories that focus on the needs of individuals as the driving force behind their behaviors or actions are collectively referred to as content or needs theories. To be specific, they identify human needs and how such relate to motivation. The following are the specific theories:

• Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: First proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper, the hierarchy of needs provides a model or framework that describe the pattern through which human motivation moves. A pyramid represents the model with the more basic needs at the bottom, thus starting from physiological and safety needs to the need for belongingness, esteem, and self-actualization.

• Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory: Frederick Herzberg introduced the motivation-hygiene theory during the 1960s as a two-factor model that considers the dual nature of job satisfaction. The theory states that there is a set of factors that leads to satisfaction. These are motivation factors. On the other hand, there is another set of factors that leads to dissatisfaction. These are hygiene factors.

• The ERG Theory: Derived from the hierarchy of needs of Maslow, Clayton Alderfer categorized needs into three: existence, relatedness, and growth. Existence pertains to basic material existence requirements. Relatedness includes the desires for building and maintaining personal and social relationships, while growth involves the intrinsic desire of individuals for personal development.

• Self-Determination Theory: Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci proposed that there are three innate needs that must be satisfied first to allow optimal function and growth. These are competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Their theory essentially states that humans have an inherent tendency toward growth or development and integrated functioning, but they do not happen automatically.

Drive-Reduction Theory

First proposed by Clark Hull and developed further by Kenneth Space, Drive-Reduction Theory is based on the fact that humans have certain biological drives that need to be satisfied. Examples of these drives include thirst and hunger. The strength of a particular drive increases with the passage of time, particularly if it remained unsatisfied. However, once satisfied, the strength of the drive decreases. The theory suggests that an individual do what he or she does to reduce the internal tension caused by unsatisfied needs.

The theory became popular during the 1940s and the 1950s. However, with modern understanding of human motivation, it now has become problematic. One problem is that it does not explain why people still pursue certain actions or behaviors even when they are not facing any natural drive. For instance, there are individuals who eat even when they are not hungry.

Incentive Based on Motivation Salience

Motivational salience is a cognitive process that drives an individual toward or away from a specific object, perceived event, or outcome. This process regulates the intensity of behaviors, the amount of time and energy an individual is willing to expend, and the amount of risk an individual is willing to accept.

Within this cognitive process is another specific type of cognitive process called incentive salience. It provides a “desire” or “want” attitude to a rewarding stimulus. Note that the reward is the attractive property and motivational component of a particular stimulus. Hence, a rewarding stimulus induces appetitive behavior or a desire to satisfy a need or want.

Both the concepts of motivational salience and the more specific incentive salience help explain phenomena such as psychological or emotional dependence, physical dependence, substance addiction, and addictive behavior, substance use disorder. Nevertheless, it provides some sort of neurological basis for understanding motivation as it is linked to the pursuant of rewards.

Cognitive Theories of Motivation

The cognitive theories of motivation explore and define motivation in terms of how individuals think about situations. Collectively, these theories assume that behavior stems from the active processing and interpretation of information. In addition, it considers motivation not as a mechanical or set of processes but as a set of behaviors purposively and persistently manifested by an individual based on the available information.

• Goal-Setting Theory: This theory is based on a belief that people sometimes have the tendency to act or behavior toward a certain direction because of a clearly defined end state. Hence, in applying this theory, the development of an action plan helps in motivating an individual, or group toward defined goals and objectives. The study of Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham revealed that more specific and ambitious goals produce better performance than simplistic and general goals.

• Expectancy Theory: Proposed in 1964 by Victor H. Vroom, the Expectancy Theory or Expectancy-Value Theory considers behavior as a function of the expectancies of an individual and the value of the goal he or she is working on. It predicts that among an option of behaviors, the behavior with the largest combination of expected success and value would be chosen.

• Cognitive Dissonance: In his 1957 book, Leon Festinger introduced the theory of cognitive dissonance. He argued that individuals strive to achieve internal psychological consistency for them to function mentally in the real world. When applied as a theory of motivation, it explains that people attempt to maintain consistency among their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

Learned Motives

Within the learned motives framework, motivation has been studied in accordance with its relationship with learning and the behaviors that influence learning or the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Under this framework, there are three learning techniques: classical conditioning, instrumental learning or operant condition, and observational learning or modeling.

• Classical Conditioning: A model that illustrates how a neutral stimulus can elicit a response by being paired with another stimulus that is already causing the same response.

• Operant Conditioning: This model is another learning technique that involves attaching a consequence to a response to either increase or lessen its future probability.

• Observational Learning: Another model asserting that individuals can learn new behavior by merely watching someone else behave or by learning from their experience.

Theory X and Theory Y

Douglas McGregor developed the Theory X and Theory Y of human work motivation in the 1950s and further in the 1960s while he was working at the MIT Sloan School of Management. These two theories provide two contrasting models of workforce motivation.

According to Theory X, individuals inherently dislike working. Thus, when given the opportunity, they are more likely to avoid responsibilities related to their jobs. The theory also perceives employees as individuals with little to no ambition. Their only motivation is to earn and make a living.

Theory Y is the complete opposite of Theory X. It asserts that individuals have inherent internal or personal motivations. They are driven to work or perform at their best because of their passion. They see their jobs as their callings and are committed to becoming better employees without a direct reward in return.

Push and Pull Theories of Motivational Direction

Widely used in the tourism sector to understand and explain the consumer behavior of tourists, the concept of push and pull also pertains to motivational direction based on the two types of motivation.

Push motivations involve people pushing themselves toward the fulfillment of a desire or the achievement of goals and objectives. Hence, it explains that every action individuals perform comes from the drive to attain a certain result.

On the other hand, pull motivations can mean two different things. The first is seen as an action performed by individuals due to the need to avoid an unwanted result, thus pulling themselves away from an undesirable end. The second is seen as something that involves people having desires strong enough to make it seems that they are being pulled toward it.


  • Alderfer, C. P. 1969. “An Empirical Test of a New Theory of Human Needs.” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance. 4(2): 142-175. DOI: 10.1016/0030-5073(69)90004-X
  • Festinger, L. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press. ISBN: 978-0804709118
  • Herzberg, F. 1966. Work and the Nature of Man. 3rd Printing Ed. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co. ISBN: 978-0690003710
  • Locke, E. A. and Latham, G. P. 2006. “New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory.” Current Directions in Psychological Science. 15(5): 265-268. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00449.x
  • Maslow, A. H. 1943. “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychology Review. 50(4): 370-396. DOI: 10.1037/h0054346
  • Ryan, R. M. and Deci, E. L. 2000. “Self Determination Theory and Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.” American Psychologist. 55(1): 68-78. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68