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Water Cooler: Where does motivation come from?

UPDATED: Sat., May 1, 2021

Optimal arousal theory argues that humans are motivated by a desire to maintain the optimal amount of stimulation in their lives.  (Pixabay)
Optimal arousal theory argues that humans are motivated by a desire to maintain the optimal amount of stimulation in their lives. (Pixabay)

Human motivation is so complex that there is an entire, multidisciplinary, emerging field devoted to it called motivation science.

Learning a bit about the basics, however, can provide you with a better understanding of how motivation is tied to our overall well being and vice-versa. There are a lot of varied ideas about motivation, but many fall under the umbrellas of four major theories.

The evolutionary theory of motivation argues behaviors are motivated by an innate drive to maximize genetic fitness and species survival. This theory does not view behavior as a conscious action, but as pure instinct. This thinking was popular in the early 20th century, but even then psychologists and biologists debated over the exact definition of instinct. It also seems evident to us now that human behavior does not always seem to make sense in these terms. For instance, yelling or rioting at a sporting event doesn’t seem to have an evolutionary advantage, yet it is a somewhat universal human instinct.

Another theory of motivation is drive-reduction. This refers to an individual’s desire to satiate a need which is brought to our attention by some form of drive. For example, a human need is food. Hunger is the drive that motivates us to fulfill that need. One could reduce this drive by ordering pizza. Our minds and bodies are also attuned to incentives behind these drives, such as the smell of cooking food stirring our appetite and the smell of rotten food repelling us from consuming something unsafe.

Optimal arousal theory argues that humans are motivated by a desire to maintain the optimal amount of stimulation in their lives. For example, all this quarantining at home is understimulating, leading many to feel depressed, lonely and sometimes panicked. The ideal level of arousal or stimulation, however, varies between individuals. Hardcore introverts might feel down about quarantine, but they were probably content for a bit longer than the extroverts. Adrenaline junkies seem to find heightened stimulation to be optimal compared to the average person who usually doesn’t seek out frightening experiences.

Another popular theory of motivation is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Physiological needs, such as shelter, food, air, water and moderate temperature form the base of the hierarchy. Next comes safety, such as personally security, economic stability and resources. After that follows love and belonging such as friendship, intimacy and community, and then comes esteem, such as gaining respect and status. At the top is self-actualization or meeting one’s potential. Research doesn’t explicitly back up this theory as the hierarchy seems to shift between cultures and individuals, but it brings up interesting ways of thinking about the ties between needs and motivation.

Although these theories differ on why humans have a sense of motivation, they tend to overlap and agree on at least three significant human motivators – sex for social recreation or reproduction, a need to belong and hunger. Of those three, hunger is probably the strongest and most perceptible. One ethically questionable psychological experiment serves as a testament to this.

During World War II, the University of Minnesota conducted the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. This medical research was offered as an alternative to military service to conscientious objectors. The participants were studied over three phases. The first 12 weeks were an observational period for control, followed by 24 weeks of starvation phase to simulate living through severe famine, ended by recovery periods. Unsurprisingly, the participants became obsessed with food. The interesting aspect is that starvation drove them to become socially isolated and it significantly reduced their drive for sexual activity. Emotional distress was also common.

Whatever the drive, it’s evident motivation is a profound and complex force affecting more areas of our life than we sometimes realize.

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