Motivation is a process that initiates, guides, and maintains purposeful behavior. It is the stimulus, whether conscious or unconscious, for action aimed in the direction of achieving a desired goal (whether biological or social in nature). Motivation is everything that gives purpose to a behavior.

In psychology we speak of primary motivations to indicate those motivations that play the role of satisfying primary needs such as hunger, thirst, sleep, etc. and secondary motivations, motivations acquired or learned from the context and environment of life, which are not necessarily related to practical motivations (think of the need to make friends or self-affirmation).

In general, it can be said that the highly analytical distinctions between different types of motivation tend to be reduced and simplified. However, internal and external motives are traditionally distinguished. Internal motives include needs, drives, and instincts. Needs would be constituted by natural manifestations resulting from a state of deficit of biological origin; among them we have the state of hunger, thirst, sleep, lack of oxygen, etc.. The drives would be instead constituted by internal stimuli, derived from the excitation of certain structures on the basis of conditions of need; they also indicate the intensity of the corresponding motivated behaviors. Instincts are innate psychophysical dispositions, specific to different species, that lead organismia respond in a differentiated way and selectively perceive objects of a certain class.

The concept of instinct, particularly developed in psychology by W. McDougall, has been taken up, after some years of low popularity, by scholars of the school of comparative ethology. The external motives (particularly studied by the Objectivist schools, such as American behaviorism and Russian reflexology) would essentially be learned motives and derived from primary needs. We talk about “secondary needs”, which, according to some authors, should be distinguished in social needs (functional to interpersonal relationships) and integrative needs of the ego (functional to the maintenance of self-esteem).

Among the first should be placed, for example, the need for affiliation or gregariousness, among the latter the need for achievement or realization. In general, the primary needs would be related to the survival of the individual (hunger, thirst, sleep, oxygen) or of the species (sex), while all needs not related to survival problems would be learned. This is not true, however, because some needs such as exploratory or maternal, not related to survival, do not seem to be learned. According to Maslow, needs should be considered in a hierarchical order; in the first place there would be physiological needs, followed by those of security, belonging and love, esteem, achievement, cognitive and finally aesthetic. Only the satisfaction of the first would allow the emergence of the others.

Authors such as Darwin, Ekman, Bowlby, Panksepp and Gilbert share the central thesis that, in view of the achievement of certain adaptive goals, there are psychobiological systems resulting from evolution, homologous in humans and animals, which regulate both behaviors but also emotions useful to achieve the desired goal. These systems are called motivational systems.

Motivational systems

Motivational systems can be influenced by learning and cognition; they often operate outside of consciousness, although there is a reciprocal influence between conscious operations and innate dispositions. Innate dispositions to social relationships, in particular, become conscious in the form of emotional experiences. The adaptive significance, in the evolutionary sense, of motivational systems is to enable the survival and spread not of the individual but of the entire species to which he or she belongs.

A motivational system is therefore a cerebral and mental system that regulates behavior and emotions in view of a well-defined goal. It is a complex functional system, conceived as similar to physiological systems, therefore not “mechanical” like instinct, nor “hydraulic” like “drive” but, like instinct and drive, it is “universal” and “natural”, that is present in all members of the same species.

Motivational systems are based on innate dispositions, selected during evolutionary processes. These are tendencies, propensities to act towards specific goals, invitations to pursue particular forms of interaction between organism and environment.

Each behavior is therefore the result of a comparison between the innate tendencies to pursue specific survival goals and the memories of previous interactions between individual and environment. However, each behavior contains a motivational element directed to a goal aimed at achieving an evolutionary value of adaptation.

Motivational systems are:

  • Systems of innate rules, biologically oriented to organize behavior leading to the survival of the individual and the species.
  • Systems that predispose the individual to action and behaviors capable of modifying the relationship between self and the physical and relational environment.
  • Systems with cognitive, emotional, and behavioral components.
  • Forms of adaptation to specific aspects of the ecological niche in which a species evolves.
  • Systems capable of “deactivating” if and when the goal is achieved.

The greatest impetus for the study of motivation and motivational systems is found in ethology. Ethology shows how in animals are identifiable behaviors, some often complex, common to all individuals of the same species and that mostly do not need learning. These behaviors are triggered by a stimulus (internal or environmental), work with feedback control mechanism, and cease once the goal is reached, also show a continuity between species, with a greater modifiability depending on the environment in the most evolved species.

Bowlby, starting from ethological studies, identifies in predispositions or innate tendencies (as distinct from instincts) those elements that determine the psychic functioning. These predispositions, which direct mental activity and behavior, are the result of the long history of evolution of primates. Bowlby calls these innate tendencies “motivational systems”: they are conceived as systems not too different from the physiological mechanisms that regulate biological homeostasis, which regulate behavior in response to bodily needs, reproduction and social interactions. For Bowlby, the most important of the motivational systems is that of attachment, the evolutionary significance of which is that it enabled the survival of human pups in the adverse prehistoric environmental conditions.

Attachment theory is the first application to clinical psychology of the discovery of innate motivational systems that drive the establishment of inter-subjective bonds in view of superordinate survival goals such as, in the case of attachment, protection from predators. The element of attachment theory that most allowed to expand the theoretical and clinical horizons of subsequent psychotherapy, particularly cognitive psychotherapy, is precisely the conceptualization of innate motivations that drive the construction of interpersonal bonds and that guide the construction of personal meanings in order to adapt to the environment through intersubjective relationships.

Lorenz was the first to understand that, even in simple species such as wild geese, there are innate motivations to form bonds and that they are equipped with open cognitive systems, i.e. capable of learning from concrete experience, to regulate their behavior and expectations and to better adapt to the interpersonal environment.

It is possible to say that the need, for the evolution of species, to build open cognitive systems, capable of learning and diversifying their responses (and therefore different from pre-cabled and rigid instincts), arises from the need to adapt to an environment not uniform and predictable as that of the world of objects, but complex and changing as that of individuals.

Bowlby, thanks to his ethological and evolutionary culture and sensitivity, deeply understood and extended to humans the insights of Lorenz and data from comparative ethological observation, hypothesizing and demonstrating even in our species the presence of an innate disposition to seek care, help and comfort from a member of their social group when there is a situation of danger, loneliness or physical or mental pain.

The hierarchical organization of motivational systems

The knowledge accumulated on the evolution of the human brain converge in outlining the validity of a hierarchical evolutionary vision organized on three levels: reptilian, limbic and neo-cortical. The architecture of motivational systems follows this tripartition, increasing its environmental influenceability as the hierarchical level rises.

The evolutionarily most archaic level of motivational organization is connected to neural activity located in the reptilian brain, in the brainstem and in the basal ganglia. This level is composed of the systems that regulate non-social conduct directed at physiological regulation, predation and food gathering, defense against danger, territoriality, and sexual reproduction (without pair formation).

On these non-social systems rest those belonging to the most recent evolutionary history that control the social interaction characteristic of mammals. This second level corresponds to the activity of neural networks located in the limbic area of the brain that includes the amygdala and cingulate gyrus. The systems that make up this level are aimed at the attachment to the other with the purpose of being protected from dangers; to the care and to the offer of care to more defenseless members of the species; to the couple coupling; to the definition of rank and roles of dominance-submission; to the social game and cooperation (made of joint and shared attention).

The third level, a prerogative of the human species, is located in the neo-cortex, and concerns the cognitive dimension of intersubjectivity and the construction of meanings. It is responsible for combinations and individual variations of their expression, depending on the culture of belonging. This level motivates to create shared memory structures (language), starting from the intersubjective understanding of intentions/emotions. It also opens to conscious experience of self over time, and cultural evolution. It influences “underlying” systems, linking verbalizable (explicit) conceptual structures to (implicit) memories of occasions when they directed behaviors and emotions.

The system of intersubjectivity, as evolutionarily more recent, exerts a regulatory function on the underlying systems from which it emerges, while an abnormal activation of the latter can lead to a more or less protracted dissolution of intersubjective motivation. It follows that no cultural influence on the contents of consciousness can cancel the evolutionary and therefore universal foundation on which the higher order consciousness rests. It follows that every human emotion presupposes the intervention of higher cognitive processes of man: the physiological components of emotions are transformed into emotions proper only through the intervention of neocortical and “cognitive” regions of the human brain.


It is possible to make an initial distinction between biological motivations, innate, which refer to physiological elements, and motivational elements of a psychological-cognitive type, the deployment of which occurred during the experience. The motivational mechanism is expressed as a continuous interaction of these two elements. Another fundamental distinction is made through the concept of intrinsic motivation, or motive, not always or fully aware to the consciousness of the subject, and extrinsic motivation, that which the subject verbally declares.

Motivation is defined as an internal state that activates, directs and maintains an individual’s behavior over time. Motivation is a very broad concept that is divided into three main strands:

  1. Extrinsic motivation: extrinsic motivation occurs when a person engages in an activity for purposes that are extrinsic to the activity itself, such as, for example, to receive praise, recognition, good grades or to avoid unpleasant situations, such as mockery, punishment or bad behavior.
  2. Intrinsic motivation: Intrinsic motivation occurs when a person engages in an activity because he or she finds it stimulating and rewarding in itself, and feels satisfaction in feeling increasingly competent. Intrinsic motivation is based on curiosity, which is activated when an individual encounters strange, surprising, new environmental features; in such a situation the person experiences uncertainty, conceptual conflict, and feels the need to explore the environment in search of new information and solutions. Also important for intrinsic motivation is mastery, i.e. the need to feel increasingly competent (as mentioned above). According to the multifaceted theory of intrinsic motivation, it is possible to distinguish 16 fundamental desires that underlie intrinsic motivation. Starting from the consideration that each of the 16 basic desires is independent, and that the satisfaction of each of the desires produces an intrinsic feeling of joy, it can be hypothesized that each person has a different attribution of priority based on social context, reference values and past personal experiences.
  3. Motivational orientation: motivational orientation is to underline the evolution of studies: from the term “motivation” we have come to evaluate “motivational orientation” as more appropriate, since, according to the cognitivist approach, a person actively builds his motivational orientation. This happens thanks to the representation of the objectives that the individual wants to reach or avoid; he perceives his own means and limits, through self-esteem and causal attribution, that is, attributing his successes/successes to internal/external, stable/unstable, controllable/uncontrollable causes (where internal-stable-controllable means ability-commitment-use of appropriate strategies; external-instable-uncontrollable means luck-temporary discomfort-activity that is too difficult-other people’s prejudices). Children tend to experience emotions in social and educational contexts in a very open and spontaneous way. Helping in childhood and development to recognize the emotional states that are triggered, and knowing how to deal with them, gives an intellectual construct that helps the evolution of the personality by laying the foundations for a more stable future. Emotions, whatever they may be, experienced correctly within the context of the classroom shape inner growth and stimulate experiential awareness, an indispensable tool for healthy and conscious growth.

Ethology: phases and drives

Both the intensity of an animal’s response to a stimulus and whether or not a given response takes place depend on a number of variables, such as the degree of fatigue, maturation, learning, and motivation. If the influence of the first three factors can be ruled out, the animal’s behavior can be attributed to the animal’s internal motivation. Along with a general motivation, controlled by the reticular formation of the brain, which is expressed as an increased disposition to respond to any stimulus, there are specific motivations, or drives, which manifest an animal’s disposition to respond to particular stimuli, resulting in behaviors designed to achieve specific goals.

For example, a starving animal will go out of its way to satisfy its hunger, reacting very selectively to any stimulus related to its food. Motivation-based behavior is also called finalistic, because all of its components appear to be aimed at the satisfaction of a particular need. In motivated behaviors three phases are generally identified, in chronological sequence: a search phase, a consumption phase and a quiescent phase.

The first phase is called appetitive behavior, is of variable duration, often modified by learning and shows rather generic behavioral patterns: if an animal is driven by sexual motivation, appetitive behavior is identified in the search for a partner, including movements, path marking, search for olfactory signals left by animals of opposite sex, etc..

The second phase, called consummatory act or completion, takes place in the presence of specific stimuli and represents the satisfaction of the animal’s need; consummatory acts are often stereotyped behaviors; the animal that has reached a potential partner will mate with it according to motor patterns typical of its species. The quiescent phase represents a period in which the animal does not search for the stimuli that determined its previous behavior and does not react to them.

The above scheme can sometimes be modified: for example, grassland herbivores usually live in contact with their food, so that in this case the search phase may not even exist and an insectivorous bird may search and consume its prey many times before the quiescent phase intervenes in its behavior.

The most generally recognized drives and which show fluctuations similarly to what has been said above are hunger, thirst and sexual drive, also called biogenic drives, but ethologists attribute the quality of drive also to attack and escape, to sleep (which is recognized as nervous activity and not as inactivity), to exploratory behavior and parental behavior (care of offspring), for which, however, appetence is not always evident.

Ethology: measuring a motivation

Generally, it is not easy to measure a drive, but it is possible to quantify the behavior of the animal responding to certain stimuli and deduce the respective degree of motivation; for example, the intensity of the motivation to feed, in an animal kept fasting for a certain period of time, has been evaluated from time to time by the amount of food ingested, by the degree of inappetibility of the food that the animal is willing to accept (inappetibility generally obtained by adding quinine or other bitter substances to the food), by the voltage and intensity of an electric current running through a metal grating that the animal is forced to pass through to reach the food, by the pulling force towards the food exerted by the animal on a measuring device, and, in Skinner’s cage, by the frequency with which the animal operates the lever of a food dispenser if the reward is given to it “at variable intervals” (i.e., not every time the lever is operated; in these cases at least some animals operate the lever very regularly).

Systems for measuring the intensity of motivation are not all equally valid since appetitive behavior can be expressed with different intensities, frequencies and durations; moreover, for example, the amount of food ingested by an animal has a limit in the capacity of its stomach; therefore it is often appropriate to use more than one measurement system.

A fundamental role in the control of motivation has been recognized in the hypothalamus; this is the seat of nerve centers sensitive to changes in the internal environment, is connected with the pituitary gland, the internally secreting gland that controls the entire hormonal system of the body, and is linked to many homeostatic reactions both purely physiological and behavioral. Appropriate stimulation of the hypothalamus can trigger drinking, eating and sleeping behaviors, aggression and escape, sexual behavior and resting (sleep) behavior.

Other brain centers implicated in the control of motivation are the limbic system and the more anterior areas of the cerebral cortex. Other areas of the cerebral hemispheres probably influence “secondary” or “acquired” motivations, i.e., those that show dependence on learning, in humans and other animals (e.g., feeling hungry at certain times of the day because of a habit of eating at those times).

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