What Is This Thing Called Motivation And Where Can I Get It?
Margaret E. Woltjer, Ph.D. | February 2006

I’ve wanted to write about motivation for a long time, but I guess you could say that I lacked the motivation to do so until now. All of us are intimately acquainted with this push-pull phenomenon as we struggle to formulate goals for ourselves and then see them through to completion. Whether this involves starting an exercise plan, changing eating habits, or even beginning a new career, we encounter the driving force of wanting something desperately...and then not going after it. As I encounter this frustrating condition both personally and in the clients I see in my practice, there are certain commonalities that seem to run through all goal-directed behavior regardless of how large or complex the goal may be. Chief among these is attribution.

Attribution describes the way we explain our experience to ourselves and others. It’s how we make sense of what happens to us and to those around us. Generally speaking, I’ve noticed that when we succeed at accomplishing a goal, we are more likely to credit internal forces such as hard work and determination in explaining the outcome. When we see someone else show delight in completing an equally difficult task, we are inclined to minimize his effort by attributing his success to external forces such as luck, having an easier task, or receiving help on the task. The same is true of motivation, only in reverse. Our failure to successfully complete a task is attributed to external forces that prevented us from a positive outcome (e.g., people failed to meet deadlines, the weather was too ugly for us to go for a scheduled walk, or we couldn’t begin the diet until the rest of the chocolate-fudge Sticky Goo-Goos was gone). However, our neighbor’s failure to start the diet or go for a walk is due to an internal force: he lacks motivation.

What Is Motivation?
Motivation is the driving force behind all actions of human beings, animals, and lower organisms. It is an internal state that is guided and driven by emotions. The two factors which dictate the strength and direction of the behavioral response are fear and desire. However, when it comes to fear and desire, there are “different strokes for different folks.” In general though, we all tend to seek out positive emotional experiences and avoid the negative ones.

Motivation is comprised of various degrees of need and desire. For researchers, the easiest types to analyze are based upon obvious physical needs: hunger, thirst, and escape from pain. The next level includes drives that are biologically based but not required for immediate survival of the organism. Examples are sex, nurturing, and aggression. Other levels include the need for stimulation such as exploration, curiosity, creativity, and arousal-seeking behaviors and the need for homeostasis including behaviors that help maintain a degree of comfort and stability at the physiological and psychological levels.

In general, biological needs generate the strongest emotions, and therefore, the most powerful motivation within organisms. What makes this more complicated for humans is the introduction of direct and indirect motivation. For example, we eat to remove the uncomfortable state called hunger (the direct motivation), but we work at a job to ensure that we get enough money (the indirect motivational factor) to buy the food. In indirect motivation, the action (work) satisfies the intermediate goal (money), which in turn can satisfy the need (food to relieve hunger). To further understand the picture, we would need to throw in the powerful social needs we have for acceptance, inclusion, respect, and a sense of purpose (e.g., where we shop, what foods we eat).

Where Does Motivation Come From?
What motivates us (or doesn’t motivate us) ultimately derives from our personal experience. But, to a great extent, the form that our behavior takes depends upon conditions within our environment and how we choose to relate to those conditions. For example, at a very basic level, a response that enables a hungry person to find food will be rewarded while a response that does not relieve hunger will not be rewarded (or reinforced). But as we all know, what feels rewarding at one time may not be so the next. If we eat when we are hungry, food acts as a reinforcer by relieving hunger when we eat (i.e., food removes the aversive experience of hunger). However, eating food when we are not hungry is a less powerful reinforcer. In fact, continuing to eat past the point of feeling satisfied can sometimes feel like an aversive event when it results in pain and discomfort. We know that food and drink in and of themselves do not derive their reinforcing status from reducing aversive drives such as hunger and thirst. So, what else is there?

Early in the 1970s researchers found that stimulation of certain parts of the brain in particular acted to reinforce behavior. Neurons in the limbic system were most responsive to stimulation, but the best and most reliable location was in the medial forebrain bundle (MFB). Made up of a bundle of axons that extends from the midbrain to the forebrain and passing through the hypothalamus, the MFB also contains numerous shorter axons that project into adjacent areas and appear to be equally important in what makes something reinforcing to us. By electrically stimulating the MFB, the researchers found that behaviors such as eating, drinking, nest building, etc. (called appetitive responses) were in themselves rewarding enough to stimulate more of the same behavior or associated behaviors. This may help us understand why some people are inclined to continue eating or drinking past the point of no longer feeling hungry.

We are all familiar with how difficult it is to eat only one peanut or potato chip. Investigators studying the appetitive response discovered that the aftereffect of tasting and swallowing food and drink strengthened the likelihood that a research subject would engage in more behaviors associated with ingesting food and drink. In other words, not only does the food and drink itself become a powerful reinforcer, but such things as where we are when we eat, who we are with, what we do prior to or following a meal, and the sensation of tasting and swallowing all become “attached” to the actual food and drink, becoming reinforcers in their own right. One bite leads to the next…and the next…past the point of relieving hunger because other, equally important, urges and needs are being addressed even when our survival does not depend on this.

Research also shows that when these needs are attended to on a sporadic basis rather that on a consistent basis, termed intermittent reinforcement, the urges become stronger and the behavior more pronounced. This is one reason why it is so important to regulate portion size in a proactive way for every meal rather than to assume that we can accurately determine how much to eat once the food is in front of us. Not only are we poor at estimating portion size in the first place, but self-talk such as “It won’t hurt if I take an extra portion just this once” is likely to skew our estimation of just how large that extra portions actually is. Consequently, the use of food as an intermittent reinforcer is more likely to lead to excessive eating in terms of both quantity and frequency.

Through the use of modern imaging techniques, we now know that children’s brains are much more capable of taking in new information linked to emotion than those of adults. We also know that, for most people, activities that involve powerful audiovisual input have a stronger emotional effect than information obtained via reading. Advertisers are expert at this, tempting us with billboards and menus they know will make us purchase what we may not need or even want. Additionally, different people are motivated by different stimuli and different actions.

Given the knowledge that the programming of the human brain begins at such an early age, we can assume that the child who finds reinforcement primarily through watching television and eating snacks will be motivated in a different way than a child who reads and enjoys physical activity. And because we are social beings, emotionally encoded memories of our connection to others play a very powerful role in motivation. The child who grows up in front of a television or a computer may find it difficult to be motivated as an adult by information presented in written form and, instead, benefit more from information presented through audio/visual means. People who derive reinforcement from being with other people may prefer and benefit more from joining a support group while changing eating behaviors. Still others may be motivated by the picture of a slender person or a swimsuit taped to the fridge. Approach to physical activity may reflect these same reinforcement links. Clearly, some people prefer exercising in a group, while others prefer the treadmill at home.

Why Do Some People Have More Motivation Than Others?
Here is where we run the risk of casting people into one of two categories: Motivated versus unmotivated. In order to avoid the problem of mislabeling based on applying the wrong attribution, let’s look at individual differences based on what we have discussed so far.

All people are motivated. It’s just that people are motivated by different things and behave in different ways, based upon learned patterns of behavior.

During their exploration of reinforcement, researchers discovered that the stimulation of some bundles of neurons in particular led to reinforcing effects. Not only were these bundles found to secrete norepinephrine (1) and dopamine (2), but regardless of where in the brain they originated, all the major bundles passed through the MFB on their way to the forebrain. Serotonin also seems to play a role in the abnormal regulation of mood and food intake underlying diet failure or weight gain in some individuals (3, 4). According to Wurtman, “Recent studies have shown that dietary and pharmacological interventions which increase serotoninergic activity normalize food intake and diminish depressed mood.”

We also know that when people respond to stress by turning to food (AKA comfort foods), they don’t necessarily eat more food, they eat more unhealthy foods. When under chronic stress, this can lead to a deeply-entrenched habit that provides only temporary benefits. Research indicates that some foods have seemingly addictive qualities for many people, in part because the body releases trace amounts of mood-elevating opiates. Those foods then become closely associated with specific feelings, and even to specific people with whom we eat these foods.

One way to understand differences between people and how motivated they seem is to know what motivates them. Some activities produce a quick, positive emotional response, and the type of activity chosen is based on what emotional response is desired. We also know that the neuronal connections in the brain are intensified by repeated activity. Practice makes perfect…correct? That means that with repetition of the same response, it becomes easier to make the same response the next time rather than to change the behavior. Habits are hard to break; addictions are harder.

How Can I Exchange My Motivators For Different Ones?
The best way to control motivation is to understand how your present motivators reward you. The best way to exchange motivators depends upon finding the right alternatives and then practicing them.

a.) Our ultimate goal is to live a healthy life for as long as we are alive, and to find satisfaction as we do so. Choose your personal goal and write it down. Then keep it in a place where you will read it every day. A person who responds better to visual goals would probably choose a picture that represents as aspect of the “healthy life” goal. Another person may be motivated by reading motivational materials or listening to speakers. Select the strategy that best suits you.

b.) Become better acquainted with how your body functions. Find out why you need proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, and what happens to them once you eat them. Become consciously aware of how you feel when you are hungry, and then in what ways that changes as you eat a meal. At what point is the feeling of hunger gone? How much do you really need to eat to feel satisfied? That is what we need for survival. Think of your body being like a finely-tuned engine and take care of it accordingly.

c.) Recognize that eating just for survival isn’t going to satisfy us for long; we could also discover new ways to work with food. Get creative. Explore cookbooks and recipes; dare to introduce unfamiliar foods into your meals. And let’s face it, you have to get physical. Exercise not only gets us more physically fit, it helps keep us there once the weight comes off. It also affects how our body works, in many cases helping to reduce blood pressure, and decrease the likelihood that we will suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and many other diseases later in life. We really don’t have to exercise very long each day in order to feel the physical and psychological benefits early on. Although the exact mechanism for how this happens isn’t altogether clear yet, ongoing research suggests that exercise boosts the neurotransmitters responsible for us to feel good. Get curious about how that finely tuned engine works. I guarantee that the more you find out about it, the more protective you will become about what goes into it.

d.) We all give in to emotional eating sometimes. But now we need to think of this as the exception rather than the rule. In other words, it helps a lot to begin to think about ourselves in a more positive way. Maybe you already have some idea of where you will have the most difficulty. Instead of starting over next January 1, or next week, or tomorrow, how about starting over this minute. There is no perfect time to begin when it will get easier. When we try to change a habit, the initial few days and weeks are usually the hardest because we tend to fall back on old, familiar behaviors even when we aren’t stressed. Remember, the payoff for all the hard work comes gradually when you feel better, look better, and are acting like you deserve to own that finely tuned engine. Once you have it, you will be more inclined to make sure it stays that way.

e.) Here is where you find out find out who can hang in there with you, both when you have weak moments and when you succeed. After all, relationships sometimes change when behaviors change, and we may not always find support where we expect to get it. Just as it takes time to change our body and attitude, we need to give the people around us time to adjust to those changes. It helps to have a strong initial commitment to your goal and to remind yourself of how important it is to you on a daily basis.

As mentioned earlier, these five factors related to motivation take place as our internal state and environment condition constantly changes. It may help by tipping the balance in your favor by keeping those things predictable that you have control over. For example, learn the habit of becoming physically active if you feel a little depressed or anxious. Or, take time to prepare some healthy snacks to have on hand at home or at work. Or, learn positive, nurturing self-talk so that when you feel discouraged about your progress you talk to yourself lovingly, yet firmly. If you are a “people person”, find at least one person who is able to give you a boost when you need it. Set reasonable goals. You cannot become a completely changed person; just one who discovers a new set of behaviors that makes you look and feel like one of those motivated people you thought you could never be.

  1. Stein, L. Chemistry of reward and punishment. In Psychopharmacology: A Review of Progress, edited by DH Efron. Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1968.

  2. Routtenberg, A and Malsbury, C. Brainstem pathways of reward. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 1969, 68, 22-30.

  3. Wurtman, JJ. Depression and weight gain: The serotonin connection. J. Affect Disorders, 1993; 29(2-3):183-92.

  4. Wurtman, JJ. Carbohydrate craving. Relationship between carbohydrate intake and disorders of mood. Drugs, 1990; 39 Suppl 3:49-52.
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