Human motivation has long been considered the result of evolutionary processes. In other words, we tend to be motivated by things that help us survive (food, sex, water) and things that are associated with these essentials (money that can be used to buy food, and so on). However, motivation is not quite so simple. We now have a number of theories that attempt to accurately describe why certain states may motivate some people but not others. This idea can be extrapolated at the level of culture and society as well. For example, the state of hunger might cause us to be highly motivated by food. However, hunger itself may be under strict cultural control. In fact, most aspects of our eating habits are linked in some way to culture. As such, motivators are also, in some way, linked to our culture. This unit touches on the universal theories of motivation and examines how certain approaches to culture can better determine what will be a motivating factor versus what will not.


THEORIES OF MOTIVATION Theories of Motivation 5.1.1 Social Darwinism and Natural Selection – Reading: Loyola Marymount University: Department of Psychology: L. C. Bernard, M. E. Mills, L. Swenson, and R. P. Walsh’s “An Evolutionary Theory of Human Motivation” Link: Loyola Marymount University: Department of Psychology: L. C. Bernard, M. E. Mills, L. Swenson, and R. P. Walsh’s “An Evolutionary Theory of Human Motivation” (PDF)


Bernard, L. C., Mills, M. E., Swenson, L., & Walsh, R. P. (2005). An evolutionary theory of human motivation. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 131, 129-184


Instructions: Please click on the provided link. Scroll down to the “Recent publications” category of “Evolutionary Psychology” and select the corresponding title as noted above in order to retrieve the article. Please read the article in its entirety to review the theory of evolution as it is linked to human motivation.


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Humanistic: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – Web Media: YouTube: Psychetruth Target Public Media’s “Expanded Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Human Needs, Self-Actualization, Humanistic Psychology” Link: YouTube: Psychetruth Target Public Media’s “Expanded Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Human Needs, SelfActualization, Humanistic Psychology” (YouTube)


Instructions: Please watch the corresponding video to learn about Maslow’s initial hierarchy theory and its most recently expanded elements.

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Common sense suggests that human motivations originate from some sort of inner “need.” We all think of ourselves as having various “needs,” a need for food, for example, or a need for companionship—that influences our choices and activities. This same idea also forms part of some theoretical accounts of motivation, though the theories differ in the needs that they emphasize or recognize. For example, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as an example of motivations that function like needs that influence long- term personal development. According to Maslow, individuals must satisfy physical survival needs before they seek to satisfy needs of belonging, they satisfy belonging needs before esteem needs, and so on. In theory, too, people have both deficit needs and growth needs, and the deficit needs must be satisfied before growth needs can influence behavior (Maslow, 1970). In Maslow’s theory, as in others that use the concept, a need is a relatively lasting condition or feeling that requires relief or satisfaction and that tends to influence action over the long term. Some needs may decrease when satisfied (like hunger), but others may not (like curiosity). Either way, needs differ from the selfefficacy beliefs discussed earlier, which are relatively specific and cognitive, and affect particular tasks and behaviors fairly directly.

A recent theory of motivation based on the idea of needs is self-determination theory, proposed by the psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (2000), among others. The theory proposes that understanding motivation requires taking into account three basic human needs:

  • autonomy—the need to feel free of external constraints on behavior
  • competence—the need to feel capable orskilled
  • relatedness—the need to feel connected or involved with others

Note that these needs are all psychological, not physical; hunger and sex, for example, are not on the list. They are also about personal growth or development, not about deficits that a person tries to reduce or eliminate. Unlike food (in behaviorism) or safety (in Maslow’s hierarchy), you can never get enough of autonomy, competence, or relatedness. You (and your students) will seek to enhance these continually throughout life.

The key idea of self-determination theory is that when persons (such as you or one of your students) feel that these basic needs are reasonably well met, they tend to perceive their actions and choices to be intrinsically motivated or “self-determined.” In that case they can turn their attention to a variety of activities that they find attractive or important, but that do not relate directly to their basic needs.

Among your students, for example, some individuals might read books that you have suggested, and others might listen attentively when you explain key concepts from the unit that you happen to be teaching. If one or more basic needs are not met well, however, people will tend to feel coerced by outside pressures or external incentives. They may become preoccupied, in fact, with satisfying whatever need has not been met and thus exclude or avoid activities that might otherwise be interesting, educational, or important. If the persons are students, their learning will suffer.


In proposing the importance of needs, then, self-determination theory is asserting the importance of intrinsic motivation. The self-determination version of intrinsic motivation, however, emphasizes a person’s perception of freedom, rather than the presence or absence of “real” constraints on action.

Self-determination means a person feels free, even if the person is also operating within certain external constraints. In principle, a student can experience self-determination even if the student must, for example, live within externally imposed rules of appropriate classroom behavior. To achieve a feeling of self-determination, however, the student’s basic needs must be met—needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.


Self-determination theory recognizes this reality by suggesting that the “intrinsic-ness” of motivation is really a matter of degree, extending from highly extrinsic, through various mixtures of intrinsic and extrinsic, to highly intrinsic (Koestner & Losier, 2004). At the extrinsic end of the scale is learning that is regulated primarily by external rewards and constraints, whereas at the intrinsic end is learning regulated primarily by learners themselves. Table 1 summarizes and gives examples of the various levels and their effects on motivation. By assuming that motivation is often a mix of the intrinsic and extrinsic, the job is not to expect purely intrinsic motivation from students all the time, but simply to arrange and encourage motivations that are as intrinsic as possible.

source of regulation of action Description example
“Pure” extrinsic motivation person lacks the intention to take any action, regardless of pressures or incentives student completes no work even when pressured or when incentives are offered
Very external to person actions regulated only by outside pressures and incentives, and controls student completes assignment only if reminded explicitly of the incentive of grades and/ or negative consequences of failing
Somewhat external specific actions regulated internally, but without reflection or connection to personal needs student completes assignment in dependently, but only because of fear of shaming self or because of guilt about consequences of not completing assignment
Somewhat internal actions recognized by individual as important or as valuable as a means to a more valued goal student generally completes schoolwork independently, but only because of its value in gaining admission to college
Very internal actions adopted by individual as integral to self-concept and to person’s major personal values student generally completes schoolwork independently, because being well educated is part of the student’s concept of themself
“Pure” intrinsic regulation actions practice solely because they are enjoyable and valued for their own sake student enjoys every topic, concept, an assignment that every teacher ever signs, and complete school work solely because of his enjoyment



In certain ways self-determination theory provides a sensible way to think about students’ intrinsic motivation and therefore to think about how to get them to manage their own learning. A particular strength of the theory is that it recognizes degrees of self-determination and bases many ideas on this reality. Most people recognize combinations of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation guiding particular activities in their own lives. To its credit, self determination theory also relies on a list of basic human needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—that relate comfortably with some of the larger purposes of education.



One way motives vary is by the kind of goals that students set for themselves, and by how the goals support students’ academic achievement. As you might suspect, some goals encourage academic achievement more than others, but even motives that do not concern academics explicitly tend to affect learning indirectly.


What kinds of achievement goals do students hold? Imagine three individuals, Maria, Sara, and Lindsay, who are taking algebra together. Maria’s main concern is to learn the material as well as possible because she finds it interesting and because she believes it will be useful to her in later courses, perhaps at college. Hers is a mastery goal because she wants primarily to learn or master the material. Sara, however, is concerned less about algebra than about getting top marks on the exams and in the course. Hers is a performance goal because she is focused primarily on looking successful; learning algebra is merely a vehicle for performing well in the eyes of peers and teachers. Lindsay, for her part, is primarily concerned about avoiding a poor or failing mark. Hers is a performance-avoidance goal or failure- avoidance goal because she is not really as concerned about learning algebra, as Maria is, or about competitive success, as Sara is; she is simply intending to avoid failure.


As you might imagine, mastery, performance, and performance-avoidance goals often are not experienced in pure form, but in combinations. If you play the clarinet in the school band, you might want to improve your technique simply because you enjoy playing as well as possible—essentially a mastery orientation. But you might also want to look talented in the eyes of classmates—a performance orientation. Another part of what you may wish, at least privately, is to avoid looking like a complete failure at playing the clarinet. One of these motives may predominate over the others, but they all may be present.


Mastery goals tend to be associated with enjoyment of learning the material at hand, and in this sense represent an outcome that teachers often seek for students. By definition therefore they are a form of intrinsic motivation. As such mastery goals have been found to be better than performance goals at sustaining students’ interest in a subject. In one review of research about learning goals, for example, students with primarily mastery orientations toward a course they were taking not only tended to express greater interest in the course, but also continued to express interest well beyond the official end of the course, and to enroll in further courses in the same subject (Harackiewicz, et al., 2002; Wolters, 2004).

Performance goals, on the other hand, imply extrinsic motivation, and tend to show the mixed effects of this orientation. A positive effect is that students with a performance orientation do tend to get higher grades than those who express primarily a mastery orientation. The advantage in grades occurs both in the short term (with individual assignments) and in the long term (with overall grade point average when graduating). But there is evidence that performance oriented students do not actually learn material as deeply or permanently as students who are more mastery oriented (Midgley, Kaplan, & Middleton, 2001). A possible reason is that measures of performance—such as test scores—often reward relatively shallow memorization of information and therefore guide performance-oriented students away from processing the information thoughtfully or deeply. Another possible reason is that a performance orientation, by focusing on gaining recognition as the best among peers, encourages competition among peers. Giving and receiving help from classmates is thus not in the self-interest of a performance-oriented student, and the resulting isolation limits the student’s learning.

Source: College of the Canyons Student Success COUNS150 Version 3 CC BY 4.0


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