What is the psychology behind motivation?

August 15, 2018
Life-Sweat

So we all know what motivation is in the sense of we know when we have it and we simply don't, but what's the science and psychology behind this, why do some people have more if it than others….? What is the psychology behind motivation?

Why is it some mornings we jump out of bed ready for the day and others we drag ourselves out thinking why oh why? Why is it some days we head to the gym and put in an amazing workout and hit a personal best and other days we are clock watching and scrolling through our Instagram thinking how much longer before I can do a runner?

So we all know what motivation is in the sense of we know when we have it and we simply don't, but what's the science and psychology behind this, why do some people have more if it than others….? 

Olivia Pettifer, from Xtrafit London, explains:

What is the psychology behind motivation? | GoSweat

Motivation is defined as the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviors.

Motivation involves the biological, emotional, social, and cognitive forces that activate our behaviour.

Psychologists have proposed different theories of motivation, including drive theory, instinct theory, and humanistic theory. The reality is that there are many different forces that guide and direct our motivations, we are all different and have different wants and needs.

Components of Motivation

Anyone who has ever had a goal (like wanting to lose 5 kilos or run a marathon) probably immediately realizes that simply having the desire to accomplish something is not enough. Achieving such a goal requires the ability to persist through obstaclesand endurance to keep going in spite of difficulties.

There are three major components to motivation: activation, persistence, and intensity.

Activation involves the decision to initiate a behaviorPersistence is the continued effort toward a goal even though obstacles may exist. Intensity can be seen in the concentration and vigor that goes into pursuing a goal.

Theories of Motivation

What are the things that actually motivate us to act? 

Instincts: The instinct theory of motivation suggests that behaviors are motivated by instincts, which are fixed and inborn patterns of behavior. Such instincts might include biological instincts that are important for survival such as fear, cleanliness, and love.

Drives and Needs: Many of your behaviors such as eating, drinking, and sleeping are motivated by biology. You have a biological need for food, water, and sleep. Therefore, you are motivated to eat, drink, and sleep. Drive theory suggests that people have basic biological drives and that your behaviors are motivated by the need to fulfill these drives.

Arousal Levels: The arousal theory of motivation suggests that people are motivated to engage in behaviors that help them maintain their optimal level of arousal. A person with low arousal needs might pursue relaxing activities such as reading a book, while those with high arousal needs might be motivated to engage in exciting, thrill-seeking behaviors, such as motorcycle racing.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

Different types of motivation are frequently described as being either extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic motivations are those that arise from outside of the individual and often involve rewards such as trophies, money, social recognition, or praise. Intrinsic motivations are those that arise from within the individual, such as completing a race purely for personal gratification. 

But what is actually happening in our brain?

To trace the source of motivation, let’s begin in the brain where, neurotransmitters spark chemical messages to keep us alert and on task. Neurotransmitters carry chemical messages that play out in your brain and affect the rest of your body.

One neurotransmitter that plays a role in the science of motivation is dopamine. Dopamine’s chemical signal gets passed from one neuron to the next, and between those two neurons, dopamine interacts with various receptors inside the synapse.

This arrangement becomes much more complicated when you multiply the effect through the entire brain. Consider: there are different types of receptors, neurons, and pathways that neurotransmitters can take. Things get complicated fast.

For motivation specifically, it matters which pathway dopamine takes. The mesolimbic pathway, which comes from the middle of the brain and branches to various places like the cerebral cortex, is the most important reward pathway in the brain. 

One of the mesolimbic stops is the nucleus accumbens. When there’s an increased amount of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, it triggers feedback for predicting rewards. Essentially, your brain recognizes that something important is about to happen, so dopamine kicks in.

What causes your dopamine to spike

Dopamine performs its tasks before we obtain rewards, meaning that its real job is to encourage us to act, either to achieve something good or to avoid something bad.

Most people thought dopamine was the neurotransmitter for pleasure, but when researchers looked more closely, they began to notice strange phenomena. Spikes in dopamine occurred in moments of high stress — like when soldiers with PTSD heard gunfire. Those are hardly pleasurable phenomena, but their dopamine was.

In another study, a team of scientists mapped the brains of “go-getters” and “slackers.” They found that people willing to work hard had higher dopamine levels in the striatum and prefrontal cortex — two areas known to impact motivation and reward. Among slackers, dopamine was present in the anterior insula, an area of the brain involved in emotion and risk perception.

So…… if your still with me 

Dopamine has a biological connection to our motivation to achieve. You can increase your dopamine via positive feedback, and that happens by tracking incremental progress.

But ultimately, the effort’s a big part of that equation. Sometimes the cure for low motivation may simply be old-school determination and perseverance, sticking with doing things even when we don’t want to.

You can hack your dopamine, but without the extra effort, it can only take you so far. Through this lens, motivation can’t just be about increasing dopamine — it needs to be about digging deep and being diligent.

“Don't limit your challenges, challenge your limits”

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Olivia Pettifer is the owner of Xtrafit London, a bespoke Personal Training company covering the whole of South West London. Our motto is "Make The Commitment" it's never too late to start.

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