-by Waleed Bin Khalid

Remember that time in the exam hall when you asked yourself “Do I really need to pass this exam?” When you just want to call it quits? Or a random Monday morning when getting out of bed seems like an impossible task? Something seems amiss; it’s as if we lack the fuel to carry out our routine sometimes. In fact we even begin to question the necessity of performing the simplest task, like changing out of a pair of comfortable pajamas.

The answer to all that is lack of motivation simply put the desire or willingness to do something. So what induces this desire and how strong is this phenomenon?

On April 26, 2003, Aron Ralston (The person on whom the movie 127 hours is based on) was hiking alone through the Blue John Canyon. During his descend, a part of the canyon boulder dislodged and crushed his right arm against the canyon wall. Aron had not informed anyone about his adventure thus dismissed the possibility of being rescued. In a course of five days he finished all the food he had, drank all the water and finally had to drink his own urine to keep hydrated. When he had finally lost all hope, Aron inscribed his name, date of birth and presumed date of death on the wall of the canyon and began recording his last goodbyes on his video recorder.

(You can watch one of these clips here:

On what Aron assumed to be his last night on earth, he was struck with a dreadful but ultimately life-saving idea. The next morning Aron broke the radius and ulna bones of his right arm. Using a dull pocket knife he amputated his right arm and was able to escape near certain death. Aron Ralston was saved by the power of motivation. The sudden urge to struggle to survive.

Psychologists have been trying hard to discern the phenomenon of motivation. As of now, there are four major theories that have been proposed. These include the “Evolutionary Perspective”, “The Drive Reduction Theory”, “The Optimal Arousal Theory” and “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”. Let us now examine these theories in detail.

Evolutionary theory

The early theories that sprung up were based on the notion that everything that happened was based on instincts (hence also called the instinct theory). From an evolutionary point of view, behaviors are not made consciously: they are instinctive, and based on what is most advantageous in terms of passing one’s genes on to the next generation. A baby learns to cry when taken away from its mother because signaling distress saves the infant from the predatory forces of the environment and hence helps the infant survive. Similarly, dogs know how to shake their bodies when wet. All these abilities are inherent by the living being not learnt over the passage of time.

Evidently, there were major problems with this theory. The undeniable role of learning and nurture was not taken into consideration. A lot of what we do is based on intellectual experience and so simply attributing everything to evolution was not going to do the job. Moreover just because something has a tendency to occur does not mean it will always occur, for example a cat has the tendency to chase a mouse but that does not necessarily mean that it will chase the mouse.

The drive reduction theory

The drive reduction theory is all about needs directing actions. Humans are motivated to satisfy their physiological needs in order to maintain homeostasis (the tendency to maintain a balance, or optimal level, within a biological system.) The theory was proposed by Clark Hull in 1943. According to Hull there were two kinds of drives: the primary drive and the secondary drive.

The primary drives consist of innate biological needs such as hunger, food and sex while the secondary drives indirectly satisfy the primary drives such as earning money to pay for food.

So when you feel hungry you have low blood sugar, which is a physiological need and this corresponds to the drive state hunger. Since eating will help you achieve homeostasis, you get up from your comfortable couch and go to the fridge. What motivated you to overcome your lethargy? Your hunger did. In essence this theory states that our drive or motivation springs from our desire as living beings to survive. We search for food because we need food to survive; we build houses because we need shelter to survive and we find mates and fall in love and have families because that is what’s required to keep the human race going.

This theory also has its limitations. We don’t always feel obligated to worship our needs and fulfill them. People often fast for religious or political causes and subdue their desire to eat. Many abandon shelters and go for a more nomadic life to satisfy some spiritual beliefs. Similarly certain religions require it’s believers to dispel their sexual urges entirely showing how we can overcome both our primary and secondary drives.

The “pleasure-seeking” behaviors also place hurdles in front of the drive reduction theory. For example, people do not eat only when they are hungry. Why would someone seek out fulfillment of their primary drive if that drive is already fulfilled? The optimal arousal theory explains this discrepancy.

The optimal arousal theory

This theory focuses more on the neurologically transmitted dopamine as the motivator of the body. The idea is that our brains reward us every time we do something of its pleasing and so a goal-driven body seeks out things that will achieve arousal (the state of being awake or reactive to stimuli). However too much arousal is also bad for the body and so we seek the optimal level of arousal that would help us perform the most efficiently.

To show how the reward system works, Peter Milner and James Olds conducted an experiment in the early 1950s in


which a rat had an electrode implanted in its brain so that its brain could be locally stimulated at any time. The rat was put in a box that contained two levers: one lever released food and water, and another lever delivered a brief stimulus to the reward center of the brain. At the beginning the rat wandered around the box and stepped on the levers by accident, but before long it was pressing the lever for the brief stimulus repeatedly. This behavior is called electrical self-stimulation. Sometimes, rats would become so involved in pressing the lever that they would forget about food and water, stopping only after collapsing from exhaustion. Electrical self-stimulation apparently provided a reward that reinforced the habit to press the lever. This study provided evidence that animals are motivated to perform behaviors that stimulate dopamine release in the reward center of the brain. Our brains also function the very same way. They seek arousal in the form of stimulus.

It is important to note that everyone has a different level of optimal arousal. For example adrenaline junkies jump off planes and cliffs to get their dopamine rewards where as others might be satiated by nothing more than a good movie or a book. This suggests that we merely want to avoid both boredom and stress.

Now that we have established some of the concrete motivators it should be evident that not all needs are of equal importance.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Figure 2

The priority of motivators was proposed by Abraham Maslow. Maslow was a professor
of psychology at the Alliant International University, Brandeis University, Brooklyn College, New School for Social Research and Columbia University. In his 1954 book Motivation and Personality, Maslow proposed his theory on human needs and summed it into a pyramid. The idea was that in order to attain happiness humans had to climb the pyramid Maslow had created. Each landing of the pyramid was a motivator that belonged to certain needs.

Woody Allen explains this climb beautifully in his film Stardust Memories. He says: “…obviously if you don’t have enough to eat that becomes your major problem, but what happens when you’re living in a situation where you don’t need to worry about that, then your problems become, how can I fall in love? Or why can’t I fall in love? Why do I age and die? And what meaning can my life possibly have? The issues become very complex for you.”

Basically first you have to satisfy all the needs that are required to help you to survive. Eat food, drink water, sleep. Next you must achieve security in the world, where you can earn for yourself and live without the fear of death. After that what you require are fulfilling relationships. Relationships that help prosper and make you feel loved. Such relationships are established with your parents, friends or lover. Once you have made it this far you must achieve self-respect and respect for others. Become a good caring human being who is respected by the society. Finally, we reach the pinnacle of the pyramid which calls for self-actualization, i.e. achieving your truest and highest potential.

The Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has also received its fair share of critics. The hierarchy fails to take into consideration the differences between the people who belong to different societies. The needs and drives of those in individualistic societies tend to be more self-centered than the needs and drives of those in collectivist societies, focusing on improvement of the self, with self-actualization being the apex of self-improvement. In collectivist societies, the needs of acceptance and community will outweigh the needs for freedom and individuality. Moreover the pyramid varies from culture to culture and has many terms with ambiguous definitions. The theory generalizes different types of people. However, it is still one of the best portrayals of human motivators and drivers.

This illustrates the complicated nature of humans and also explains why so many of us find ourselves unhappy even though we may be blessed with many necessities that other individuals may only dream of. This also explains why different people are motivated by different things.

Our thirst for improvement is never quenched. Had we not had this drive to be better than we currently are, we would never have progressed. People say we should be content with what we have and sure we should be thankful for whatever we have but we can hardly ever be satisfied with the status quo. This very naturally stems from our continuous drive that urges us to improve our condition. In doing so many of us become dissatisfied with our lives but here John Stuart Mill comes to our .

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1863)

PS watch Stardust Memories and DFTBA.





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