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Theories of Motivation

No single theory can account for all aspects of biological motivation, but each of the major approaches contributes something to our understanding of motivation, so we need to understand their strengths and weaknesses

Instinctual Theory

Assumption: An innate biological force causes the organism to act in a certain way

These "forces" are automatic, involuntary, and unlearned behavior patterns (reflexive) that are elicited when certain stimuli are present

Examples of instincts:

Pregnant mother rat building a nest with cotton and straw

Cat arching its back and hissing in the presence of a threat

A hamster will accept a mouse that smells like a baby hamster

There are personality theorists who say that personality traits are only the result of genetic influences


Modesty is an instinct

Freud said that the two motivating forces of the human--libido and thanatos--were innate and instinctual

Problems with instinctual theories:

While the instinctual theory was adequate for some aspects of animal behavior, it was inadequate to explain human behavior

There are a number of reasons for this:

Nothing-buttery has difficulty explaining the complexity of human behavior;

Example: jealousy, modesty, altruism, selfishness

Furthermore, cross-cultural research showed that not all instincts that had been identified in one culture existed in other cultures

In addition, instinctual theories failed to explain the role of learning in human behavior

Finally, instinctual theories became a circular argument

Essentially these theories are descriptive and not explanatory

When theorists attempted to explain behavior using these theories, the result was that the list of human instincts at one point grew to 10,000

Trying to explain human behavior this way was meaningless

As a result of these problems, instinctual theories were modified and became need and drive or homeostatic theories

Homeostatic Theories


Organisms attempt to maintain homeostasis--a balanced physiological state or equilibrium--by constantly adjusting themselves to the demands of the environment

Every living thing has certain biological needs--sex, hunger, thirst--that are caused by imbalance

The Process of Homeostasis:

Changes in the environment activate a physiological need (a biological requirement for survival)

This pushes or pulls the organism out of homeostasis

This imbalance then causes a psychological state of arousal which is uncomfortable and is called a drive

To get back into homeostasis, which is the preferred state, the organism engages in behaviors that are designed to reduce the drive and thereby reduce the need

This process is shown below:

It was believed that there were 2 types of drives

Primary drives--Innate drive that are the result of biological needs

Secondary drives--Learned drives that are the result of operant conditioning and association with primary reinforcers

Problems with Homeostatic Theories:

Sometimes people seem to seek drive-arousal by

engaging in dangerous situations or sports


sexual intercourse--is arousing

In addition, people and animals are curious, and they will often explore and manipulate the environment even though these activities do not lead to drive reduction, as we know it

Finally, homeostatic theory only focuses on the maintenance of the internal physiological environment and the internal influences on homeostasis, but for humans, there are external influences that can cause need states

Example: we can become hungry by looking at or smelling something good even though we've just eaten

Arousal Theory


Although the homeostatic theories didn't work so well with specific drives, some theorists thought that the idea of arousal still had merit

Rather than all organisms being motivated to seek to reduce arousal, they seek to maintain an optimal level of arousal and this optimal level varies from organism to organism

For example, the extroversion/introversion distinction can be seen as distinguishing between different levels of arousal

It is believed that extroverts have a lower lever of cortical arousal so they are more likely to seek arousal

Evidence: Extroverts are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, have frequent sex, like loud music, eat spicy foods and engage in activities that are novel and risky

In contrast, introverts are believed to have a higher level of cortical arousal, so they don't need as much external stimulation

Evidence: Introverts are less likely to do the things that extroverts do

Other evidence supporting arousal theory:

People perform best when they are moderately aroused--moderately excited or anxious

So if one is very relaxed about a test, he or she is not very likely to do well

This is also true if the person is too anxious about the test

Problems with Arousal Theory:

Again, there can be external influences that cause need states, but arousal theory cannot explain this; it can only account for internal influences on behavior

Incentive Theory


Rather than assume that people or animals are pushed to do things, incentive theorists assume that people and animals are pulled toward certain goals

People and animals will perform the behaviors necessary to accomplish those goals

People and animals are motivated by hedonism

They try to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain

So people attempt to attain goals that are pleasurable and they try to avoid goals that are painful

Problems with Incentive Theories:

Many behaviors and goals require behaviors that are painful, even though the ultimate accomplishment of the goal itself is pleasurable

Some examples:

Altruistic behavior--behavior that helps others and involves some sacrifice on the part of the individual (pain)

Success in school or job or relationship--These goals often involve hard work which may be painful

Spirituality--being what God wants us to be often involves giving up pleasure and may be painful, either physically or psychologically, and yet, again, people remain committed to this goal

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow hypothesized that our needs are prioritized from physiological, to biological, to social, to spiritual

He believed that the needs at the lower levels had to be satisfied before one could focus on satisfying needs at the higher levels

From the bottom of the pyramid to the top, our needs are ordered thus:

Biological Needs--need for food, water, oxygen, and rest; also sexual expression and release from tension (BI)

Safety Needs--Need for security, comfort, and tranquillity; freedom from fear (SAF)

Attachment--Need to belong, affiliate; to love and be loved (AT)

Esteem--Need for confidence in one's abilities, sense of worth, competence, self-esteem; respect of others (ES)

Cognitive--Need for knowledge and understanding, for novelty (CO)

Aesthetic--Need for order and beauty (AE)

Self-Actualization--Need to develop and fulfill one's potential; to have meaningful goals (SA)

Transcendence--Need for spirituality; identification with the cosmos (TR)

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