The Components of Motivation: Psychology in Action

Motivation plays an important role in people’s lives – it motivates them to strive for success, keep up their health, and even do things they do not understand. Huffman et al. (2017) define motivation as “a set of factors that activate, direct, and maintain behavior, usually toward some goal” (p. 388). There are many theories explaining the purpose and components of motivation. The most common explanations are the biological, psychological, and biopsychological theories. The theories differ in the type of motive, which usually includes factors such as fulfilling bodily needs– hunger and sleep, and social needs for love, acceptance, and success. The ladder needs vary depending on culture and social expectations.

The biological theory depends on the principles of instinct, drive reduction, and optimal arousal. Instinct is perhaps the hardest to explain because it derives from the evolutionary needs of a species. Humans do not have a rational explanation for birds’ need to weave nests, salmon to swim upstream, and other animal behaviors. The same is true for people – such acts as competition and aggression are inherent. Because humans are social creatures, evolution favored those who could be able to compete for natural resources and defend their territory and families from invaders. This theory was prominent during the early twentieth century until it was replaced by the drive reduction theory.

Drive reduction theory suggests that when physical needs are not met – food, water, and oxygen, drive motivation occurs. This state is the instinct to return to homeostasis, the optimal condition when the body is in equilibrium (Huffman et al., 2017). Humans strive to maintain the best conditions for functioning – hunger, blood glucose levels, comfortable temperatures, and proper air conditioning. For example, air humidifiers and conditioners are integral to the home because people in a drive state cannot relax and wish to restore equilibrium in their bodies.

The optimal arousal aspect of the biological theory of motivation describes the natural curiosity many species have. They require a certain level of complexity and novelty in their environment (Huffman et al., 2017). However, there is a degree to which arousal may hinder performance. If the degree of arousal is too low, then that state is described as deep sleep or boredom. If it is too high, it is deemed heightened anxiety, meaning the optimal level of arousal is somewhere in the middle, depending on the person.

Biological theories explain why people strive to fulfill their physical needs, but other aspects of motivation are not covered. Psychological theories suggest that there are social needs that require to be met. Incentive theory describes how humans can be socially motivated to commit certain actions, such as overeating, overachieving, and others. If biological drives internally push towards actions, then psychological drives pull. Incentives at work often motivate people to push themselves to receive a promotion or a raise. Peer pressure and societal expectations fall under the category of expectancies – the anticipation of praise or punishment. Expectancies motivate people to commit or abstain from certain actions in accordance if they receive social credit. These motivations are subjective and vary depending on social expectations, cultural norms, and a person’s tendencies to conform to them.

The biopsychological theory depends on the connection between biological and psychological theories. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs incorporates aspects from both theories to best explain motivation (Huffman et al., 2017). He established the degree of importance of every bodily and social need and explained that they build on top of each other, creating a pyramid. Survival needs are essential because people cannot function as biological creatures without them. Such needs are hunger, thirst, sleep, blood glucose, and others. The next section discusses safety needs, which are both psychological and physical. The basics of fulfilling a person’s safety needs are the desire to feel safe, avoid pain and seek pleasure.

Belonging and love are incredibly important to build self-esteem and reduce anxiety about ones future. Family members from a young age must fulfill this need. For example, acceptance and unconditional love a person receives from their parents is the foundation for success later in life. Esteem needs are connected to a persons ego and describe the strive for success and appreciation from others. The demand for these needs to be met the drive for most people to excel in education and work. The top of the pyramid represents the need for self-actualization, which is the desire to realize ones potential.

The theory is highly deemed by most, but there are some criticisms. For example, the pyramid suggests that if lower-level needs are not met, higher-level social needs will not be fulfilled. However, people can achieve self-actualization without more basic needs being met. A person can gain approval and self-fulfillment without even receiving love or affection. People may also feel fulfilled without fulfilling basic needs such as safety or hunger. This theory only reflects the Western view of a persons social needs, which is highly individualistic.

While researching this topic, I found myself understanding my motivations better. For example, the need for love and acceptance plays an incredibly important role in how I behave. The strongest motivation for my social interactions is not gaining approval but rather love and genuine connection from others. It pushes me to open up t people, help others and provide emotional support because I crave to form a deep bond with others.


Huffman, K., Dowdell, K., & Sanderson, C. A. (2017). Psychology in Action (12th ed.). Wiley Global Education US. Web.

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PsychologyWriting. "The Components of Motivation: Psychology in Action." September 13, 2023.