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What motivates people's behaviour? Why is this person so keen on mountain bike riding?

The study of motivation is concerned with understanding processes that drive and direct behaviour. Psychologists study motivational forces to help explain observed patterns and changes in individual human behaviour. Motivational concepts serve several functions, including:

  1. helping to explain pathways between biology and behaviour,
  2. accounting for behavioural variability,
  3. making inferences about private states from public acts,
  4. assigning responsibility for actions, and
  5. explaining perseverance despite adversity.[1]

Understanding motivation is also important for understanding individual differences more generally. According to motivational theorists, motivation and emotion together govern human behaviour. Much empirical attention has been given to determining different aspects, or factors, of motivation.

What is motivation?[edit]

Motivation is a theoretical psychological construct about:

  1. that which moves one into action (Deckers, 2005[2])
  2. the force within individuals that energises, maintains and controls their behaviour (Westen, Burton, & Kowalski, 2006)
  3. that which arouses, directs, and causes persistence of behaviour
  4. “the driving force behind behaviour that leads us to pursue some things and avoid others” (Westen et al., 2006[3]).
  5. goal-directed behaviour (desire to achieve an objective, combined with the energy to work towards that goal)

The term "motivation" derives from the Latin verb movere (to move).

See also: What is motivation? (Motivation and emotion textbook)

Questions about motivation[edit]

Here are some scenarios or questions which motivational psychology could help to understand and explain. Feel free to add questions or theories of your own:

  1. Why do some people try to climb Mount Everest or cross the Atlantic in a balloon? (See sensation-seeking?)
  2. Why are some people obsessed with gambling while others rarely if ever place a bet? (See risk taking)
  3. Why do most of us (or all of us?) fall in love? (See social motivation)
  4. Why are some people heterosexual, some bisexual, and some homosexual? (See sexual motivation)
  5. Why do some people attend university? (See educational motivation)
  6. Why do some strive so hard at work whilst others seem to be motivated to work as little as possible? (See achievement motivation)
  7. Why do some people volunteer to help others, seemingly without reward? (See volunteer motivation)

Motivational theories[edit]

Historical perspectives[edit]

Learning theories[edit]

Cognitive theories[edit]

Positive theories[edit]


  1. Gerrig, R. J., Zimbardo, P. G., Campbell, A. J., Cumming, S. R., & Wilkes, F. J. (2008). Psychology and life (Australian edition). Sydney: Pearson Education Australia (pp. 370-371)
  2. Deckers, L. (2005). Motivation: Biological, psychological, and environmental (2nd ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.
  3. Westen, D., Burton, L., & Kowalski, R. (2006). Psychology (Australian and New Zealand Edition). Milton, Queensland: John Wiley & Sons, p. 370

See also[edit]