Are there any modern mechanistic theories of motivation?

Are there any modern mechanistic theories of motivation?

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I remember hearing about the old 'drive' theory of motivation in Psych 101, and despite continuing my cognitive science education for another 4 years, that's the last theory of motivation I've heard about.

Are there any modern theories of motivation at mechanistic level of explanation?

The only stuff on motivation I find these days are along the lines of Pink's book "Drive", which talks of "purpose" and "mastery" as motivators, but doesn't discuss the actual mechanisms underlying them.

Motivation is a massive topic, and it's difficult for me to know what would count as a 'theory' of motivation as it's currently construed. For instance, at one level, we might consider motivation to be the processing of incentive salience on perceived stimuli: you see a cheeseburger, something makes you want it, and so you pursue it. One way of talking about what it means to want this cheeseburger is called incentive salience; see Berridge 1998 for a great review on this topic with a focus on the contentious role of dopamine, and some pretty amazing experiments that pry apart wanting from liking.

Coming from the opposite direction, Carver and Scheier's cybernetic model has proved quite influential in describing motivation, and its hedonic consequences, in terms of progress during goal pursuit. This goal-centrality dovetails with some of the achievement goal theoretic constructs, one of which (mastery) you mentioned with regard to Pink's book; Andrew Elliot did a nice review here. For an even more meta computational formulation, Juergen Schmidhuber has for years been proposing an all-encompassing model that might be grand enough for your tastes, although it is woefully untested by empirical work and, from what I can tell, seems to be considered kind of fringe.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that theories of motivations -- or pieces of theories -- are nearly as numerous as the stars. The real trick is in unifying them in a coherent system that makes sense at multiple levels of abstraction and isn't just some hodgepodge collection.

I know this is an old question, but I just found it so…

My understanding is that Pink is explaining and expanding on the concepts of Self Determination Theory. SDT largely refuted the mechanistic explanations of motivation, and evidence has been gathering evidence for over 40 years now. It might be helpful to differentiate between motivation and behavior. You can get someone to color between the lines by giving them a marshmallow or cheeseburger, but you can't make them want to color between the lines when no marshmallow or cheeseburger is offered, behavior vs motivation.

So the only mechanistic explanations that are valid within SDT are the the ones describing what is happening to your brain when you feel like you are gaining mastery over a subject, feeling like what you're doing is purposeful or that you have autonomy in your decisions.

3. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

One of the most well-known motivational theories is American psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow’s theory of motivation, also known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which centers around the premise that humans are driven by needs that are hierarchically ranked. These needs are seen as necessary for human survival and development.

In the hierarchy of needs itself, Maslow believed that there were foundational needs upon which survival depended. Thus, if those needs are not satisfied, the higher-ranked needs are considered unimportant. In other words, if your basic survival needs are not satisfied, you cannot be driven to satisfy any further needs but rather will only be motivated by the most basic instinctual needs.

Here is the hierarchy of needs, beginning with the most basic and foundational:

  • Physiological: breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, excretion
  • Safety: security of body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, property
  • Love/belonging: friendship, family, sexual intimacy
  • Esteem: self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others
  • Self-actualization: morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts

Through Maslow’s theory of motivation, it is believed that if your physiological needs are not met, then there is no room for motivation resulting from your other needs. If you are not getting enough adequate sleep or have some sort of health issue, there is no room to be motivated by the desire for love or self-actualization your main driving behavioral factor would be the need to survive. As more elements of the hierarchy are solidified, you move up the hierarchy of need and become motivated by more factors.

Chapter 5 Theories of Motivation

After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following:

  1. Understand the role of motivation in determining employee performance.
  2. Classify the basic needs of employees.
  3. Describe how fairness perceptions are determined and consequences of these perceptions.
  4. Understand the importance of rewards and punishments.
  5. Apply motivation theories to analyze performance problems.

What inspires employees to provide excellent service, market a company’s products effectively, or achieve the goals set for them? Answering this question is of utmost importance if we are to understand and manage the work behavior of our peers, subordinates, and even supervisors. Put a different way, if someone is not performing well, what could be the reason?

Job performance is viewed as a function of three factors and is expressed with the equation below. Mitchell, T. R. (1982). Motivation: New directions for theory, research, and practice. Academy of Management Review, 7, 80–88 Porter, L. W., & Lawler, E. E. (1968). Managerial attitudes and performance. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press. According to this equation, motivation, ability, and environment are the major influences over employee performance.

Performance is a function of the interaction between an individual’s motivation, ability, and environment.

Motivation is one of the forces that lead to performance. Motivation The desire to achieve a goal or a certain performance level, leading to goal-directed behavior. is defined as the desire to achieve a goal or a certain performance level, leading to goal-directed behavior. When we refer to someone as being motivated, we mean that the person is trying hard to accomplish a certain task. Motivation is clearly important if someone is to perform well however, it is not sufficient. Ability Having the skills and knowledge required to perform the job. —or having the skills and knowledge required to perform the job—is also important and is sometimes the key determinant of effectiveness. Finally, environmental External factors that affect performance. factors such as having the resources, information, and support one needs to perform well are critical to determine performance. At different times, one of these three factors may be the key to high performance. For example, for an employee sweeping the floor, motivation may be the most important factor that determines performance. In contrast, even the most motivated individual would not be able to successfully design a house without the necessary talent involved in building quality homes. Being motivated is not the same as being a high performer and is not the sole reason why people perform well, but it is nevertheless a key influence over our performance level.

So what motivates people? Why do some employees try to reach their targets and pursue excellence while others merely show up at work and count the hours? As with many questions involving human beings, the answer is anything but simple. Instead, there are several theories explaining the concept of motivation. We will discuss motivation theories under two categories: need-based theories and process theories.

11 Types of Theories of Motivation

4 Early Theories of Motivation

Early theories are important as they represent a foundation from which contemporary theories have grown.

Practicing managers still regularly use these theories and their terminology in explaining employee motivation.

Early theories of motivation are

In the 1950s, three specific theories were formulated and are the best known. They are Hierarchy of Needs Theory by Maslow, Theory X and Theory Y by Mcgregor and Two-factor theory of Herzberg.

7 Modern or Contemporary Theories of Motivation

The following theories are considered contemporary or modern not only because they necessarily were developed recently, but because they represent the current state of the art in explaining employee motivation.

Modern or contemporary motivation theories are

    by McClelland’s. by Edwin Locke. by Albert Bandura. by B.F. Skinner and his associates, , by Victor H. Vroom, of J. Stacy Adams.

In a nutshell, we can say that motivation is a means of inspiring people to intensify their desire and willingness to discharge their duties efficiently and to co-operate for the achievement of common objectives.


Alderfer, C. P. (1969). An empirical test of a new theory of human needs. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 4, 142–175.

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497–529.

Cummings, L. L., & Elsalmi, A. M. (1968). Empirical research on the bases and correlates of managerial motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 70, 127–144.

Harrell, A. M., & Stahl, M. J. (1981). A behavioral decision theory approach for measuring McClelland’s trichotomy of needs. Journal of Applied Psychology, 66, 242–247.

Herzberg, F. (1965). The motivation to work among Finnish supervisors. Personnel Psychology, 18, 393–402.

Herzberg, F., Mausner, B., & Snyderman, B. (1959). The motivation to work. New York: Wiley.

House, R. J., & Wigdor, L. A. (1967). Herzberg’s dual-factor theory of job satisfaction and motivation: A review of the evidence and a criticism. Personnel Psychology, 20, 369–389.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.

McClelland, D. C., & Boyatzis, R. E. (1982). Leadership motive pattern and long-term success in management. Journal of Applied Psychology, 67, 737–743.

McClelland, D. C., & Burnham, D. H. (1976). Power is the great motivator. Harvard Business Review, 25, 159–166.

Spangler, W. D., & House, R. J. (1991). Presidential effectiveness and the leadership motive profile. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 439–455.

Spreier, S. W. (2006). Leadership run amok. Harvard Business Review, 84, 72–82.

Trevis, C. S., & Certo, S. C. (2005). Spotlight on entrepreneurship. Business Horizons, 48, 271–274.

Turban, D. B., & Keon, T. L. (1993). Organizational attractiveness: An interactionist perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 184–193.

Wong, M. M., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Affiliation motivation and daily experience: Some issues on gender differences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 154–164.

Maslow and Herzberg's Theory of Human Needs

Abraham Maslow and Frederick Irving Herzberg believed that psychological forces drive human behavior. Their theory postulated a graduated scale of human needs ranging from basic, physical ones such as hunger and thirst to higher level ones such as the need to be loved and the need for self-fulfillment. They believed employers would see better results from workers if they recognized the various needs of individual workers and if they varied the rewards offered to them.

Proposed by Victor H. Vroom in 1964, the Expectancy Theory explicates the behavioural process in which a person selects a behavioural option over another, and how this decision is made in relation to their aim of achieving their goal. In this theory, three variables were introduced by Vroom to explain the said behavioural process. These include “V" for valence, “E" for expectancy, and “I" for instrumentality.


Expectancy is a variable that represents the belief that the effort (E) of an individual is an outcome of a a need to attain the performance (P) goals that he desires. The theory states that there are three factors that influence the expectancy perception of a person, which include:

  1. Self efficacy – the individual’s belief regarding his own ability to perform a specific behaviour successfully.
  2. Goal difficulty – occurs when the desired performance goals are too high that might result to low expectancy perceptions.
  3. Control – the degree of a person’s perceived control over his performance.


Valence refers to the value that a person sets on the reinforcements or rewards. Setting values are usually based on an individual’s values, needs, goals and intrinsic or extrinsic sources of motivation. Valence include -1, which means the person is trying to avoid the outcome, 0, which means the person feels indifferent towards the results, and +1, which means that he welcomes the results.


Instrumentality refers to the notion that a person will get a reward upon the satisfaction of the expected performance. The reward may present in various forms – it can be intrinsic or extrinsic, monetary or non-monetary. If this reward is similar for all the activities that a person must perform, instrumentality is said to be low. There are three factors influencing instrumentality: policies, control and trust.

Motivational Force

The product of the three aforementioned variables – expectancy, valence and instrumentality – is called the motivational force. This is the proper formula for motivational force:

Motivational Force (MF) = Expectancy x Instrumentality x Valence

If these three variables are “high" or strong in an individual, then his motivation is also greater.

Different Types of Motivation Theories

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy Theory

Abraham Maslow first postulated that motivation of employees at the workplace generally depends on the satisfaction of their needs in order of hierarchy i.e. from the lower level to higher level of needs.

The hierarchy is shown below:

Douglas Mc Gergor’s X & Y Theory

Mc Gergor’s espoused his famous X-Theory which conceives of the following:

  1. People are inherently idle, they don’t like work
  2. They are irresponsible and lack ambition
  3. So they need to be coerced, controlled & punished so that that they work
  4. Thus management function is to control, punish and have work done

His famous Y-Theory which conceives of the following:

  1. General people consider work as natural as recreation, rest and play
  2. People become responsible & ambitious in right condition
  3. An average person has a large potential & ability which are exhibited in right condition
  4. Management function is to create congenial environment to have employees motivated at work place

Motivation Hygiene Theory

Fredrich Herzberg claimed that completely different factors satisfy or dissatisfy employees. Some factors satisfy employees while completely different factors dissatisfy them. Generally, the absence of hygiene factors dissatisfies employees. But the removal of dissatisfying factors can only pacify them but doesn’t lead to satisfaction. Only factors of satisfaction can fully satisfy them.

Factors of satisfaction are:

  1. Achievements
  2. Recognition
  3. Type of work
  4. Responsibility
  5. Advancement
  6. Growth

Factors of dissatisfaction or hygiene factors:

  1. Company policy
  2. Administration
  3. Supervision
  4. Interpersonal relations
  5. Work environment
  6. Salary etc.

These hygiene factors lead to loyalty, commitment, positive attitude to organization & reduce turn-over, migration, etc.

Motivation Theories: ERG (Existence, Recognition, Growth) Theory

Professor Erderfer refined Maslow’s 5 needs hierarchy theory& grouped them into 3 groups of needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory argues that needs should be satisfied from lower to a higher level & the hierarchy is very rigi d. ERG Theory argues that people may have different groups of needs to be satisfied simultaneously & satisfaction of higher level of needs may decrease demand for lower-level needs & vice versa.

Content Theories vs. Process Theories

As we’ve already discussed, there are many different theories of motivation in existence, and each of them is different. However, they can be categorized into two groups, known as Content Theories and Process Theories.

1. Content Theories

Content theories are also sometimes called needs theories. They look at motivation from the perspective of our needs and aspirations. The theories then discuss motivation in terms of filling these needs.

You can think of content theories of motivation as focusing on WHAT will motivate us.

The main content theories of motivation are – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Alderfer’s ERG Theory, McClelland’s Three Needs Theory, Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory, and McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y.

2. Process Theories

Process theories look at how people are motivated. They are concerned with the process by which motivation occurs, and how we can adjust our processes to alter motivation levels.

You can think of process theories of motivation as focusing on HOW motivation occurs.

The main process theories of motivation are – Skinner’s Reinforcement Theory, Vroom’s Expectancy Theory, Adam’s Equity Theory, and Locke’s Goal Setting Theory.

The diagram below shows how the different motivation theories fit within the scheme of things.

Let’s now give a brief overview of each of these theories of motivation. If you’d like to dig deeper, then we have provided links to an article covering the theory in greater depth.

Descartes and Newton

Ideas are shaped by the paradigm within which they are developed. ‘Paradigm’ is a rather ugly word that simply means the fundamental, deep-rooted, underlying beliefs dominating a particular culture. These are usually so deep that they are rarely challenged. When they are, and new ones put in their place, a different paradigm appears. The paradigm in which modern psychology has evolved was established by two men above all: Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton.

Descartes was a French philosopher, born in 1596 and dying in 1650. He argued that mind and body belong to different realms. The body is part of the material world (what Descartes called the ‘extended thing’) and is governed by the same laws that govern the movement of planets, stars, birds, trees, and so on. But mind is composed of a fundamentally different substance (the ‘thinking thing’) and exists in a parallel but separate world. This idea has been nicknamed the ‘ghost in the machine’ and has often been ridiculed, but it has nevertheless shaped both the course and nature of modern psychology.

Isaac Newton was an Englishman and Cambridge University graduate (the same university Charles Darwin was to graduate from two centuries later). Newton discovered the physical laws governing the movements of Descartes’ ‘extended thing.’ Newton and Descartes, along with others like Francis Bacon, established what is known as the ‘mechanistic paradigm.’ Those who read Newton ceased to understand the Universe as a strange, mystical place inhabited by spirits and animated by powers beyond human understanding. Instead, the universe now resembled a great machine governed by precise mathematical laws.

Watch the video: Έλεγχος του στρες και Επικούρεια φιλοσοφία, Γιώργος Χρούσος (August 2022).