Understanding Motivation

The Science Behind Motivation

In order for understanding motivation and how the brain works with motivation, we need to look at what two related fields of neuroscience and psychology have discovered.

Recently, neuroscientists and psychologists have established that we typically experience motivation when the neurotransmitter dopamine is released and travels to the nucleus accumbens (NAc). The nucleus accumbens is an area of the brain that is believed to mediate reward behavior. Meaning, that when dopamine reaches the nucleus accumbens, it solicits feedback as to whether a positive thing (desired outcome) or a negative thing (undesired outcome) is expected to happen. This answer often comes from our beliefs about the event.

As Kimberly Schaufenbuel, program director of UNC Executive Development, explains, this prediction prompts us to respond in ways that either “minimize a predicted threat (the undesired) or maximize a predicted reward (the desired).”

For instance, if you get an email from your boss with a new assignment, dopamine hits up the nucleus accumbens. You then form a prediction based on your beliefs about what will happen if you do the assignment or not, or if you do it well or poorly. With that prediction in place, you’ll either act to increase the probability of reward (payment, praise, sense of accomplishment) or decrease the probability of punishment (demotion, yelling, sense of failure). Understanding motivation does not need to be complicated.

Be Sure to Read This Related Blog: The Motivation Master Key

The Two Forms of Motivation

So, we’re motivated by the promise of reward or punishment. But those are not the only types of motivation. We can also separate motivation into two more forms: extrinsic and intrinsic.


This type of motivation comes from within. This means that intrinsic motivation is internal to the person. For instance, a person who loves to read may be intrinsically motivated to pick up a book each night and read for 30 minutes. They do it for themselves and they enjoy it, simply for its own sake.

Intrinsic motivation does not require anything from outside the person or act to elicit joy. The act itself is its own reward. A feeling of accomplishment and pride from doing something without any outside encouragement is thought to be intrinsically motivated.


This type of motivation comes from without. This means that there is an outside factor that influences the person. This could be money or anything. Using the example of a person who loves to read. If they were somehow rewarded for reading it could undermine their intrinsic motivation, they felt. If for reading for 45 minutes they were given a point and after 5 points were saved, they could trade the points for a reward such as bookmarks, a pizza coupon, or small reading light. This could strip the reader of their joy for reading- that is… as soon as the point rewards are ceased.

The Two Categories of Motivation

Understanding motivation requires a little insight into what it is and isn’t. There are in my opinion two distinct categories of motivation. They work in direct opposition to one another. I also believe that we are all constantly motivated.

Very often I hear people say that they “don’t have any motivation”, or they “don’t have the motivation to do something.” This is where I think there is a misunderstanding of what motivation is and isn’t. Motivation isn’t a magic pill that makes us feel like doing something. We are plenty capable of doing or accomplishing whatever we want with or without motivation. That being said, I think we are always filled with motivation. We just often have the wrong category of motivation for the thing we wish we were doing.

Let me explain, first let me give you the two categories of motivation:

  1. Initiative: motivation for beginning change.
  2. Inertial: motivation to continue without change.

Category 1 Initiative Motivation

When we are looking to start doing something we want initiative motivation. This is so we can start doing something we want to do. This is also the category we want if we desire to stop doing something that we do not want to do. Because initiative motivation is the motivation to change what we are doing. For instance, if you want to begin going to the gym to get into shape and feel better, it is the motivation to get you up and through the door of the gym on the first day.

When we do not understand that we need a different type of motivation to start something and to keep doing something we get frustrated.

Category 2 Inertial Motivation

Inertial motivation is the motivation to continue doing what you are doing without change. Inertial motivation is the motivation to not change what we are doing. It’s the motivation to continue doing the thing we want to keep doing. For instance, if you have been going to the gym to get into shape, it is the motivation to continue going, day after day, week after week.

But, here’s the rub. This is the category of motivation we have before we start going to the gym. We are motivated to not change our routine and start going to the gym. It is not that we have no motivation, it is that we are actually motivated to not start going to the gym at all.

The best part is that inertial motivation is the easiest to maintain. Meaning if you can get yourself through the door to the gym and begin working out, it is easier to keep going than it is to stop. But remember if you stop for illness or injury, it is just as likely that you will be motivated to stay stopped. Understanding motivation also takes some knowledge on how to minimize it as well as increase it.

Get the FREE Guide to Overcome Your Lack of Motivation

How to Minimize Motivation

Oh, I’m sure you imagine a hundred ways to minimize motivation but here are a few sure-fire ways to ensure to deflate any motivated person or group.

Unfairly distribute rewards

When someone overlooked believes they are working harder than someone who is being rewarded, they will lose all motivation to keep trying.

Give and then discontinue rewards

After someone has been doing a thing and being rewarded for doing it, they will likely cease to find the motivation after the reward is removed or ceased.

Show no gratitude for anything

When people believe that what they are doing is not appreciated and that the recipient is not grateful, it generally kills their motivation.

How to Maximize Motivation

For this section, we need to revisit the reward and punishment theory. This is a bit more in-depth than previously stated, so hang on.

Rewards: there are two types of rewards that can be used to motivate. Positive rewards and negative rewards.

Positive rewards are any reward that is given (positive) to the person for doing the act. This can motivate people to act when they may not particularly want to.

For instance: going to work and working hard to receive a paycheck.

Negative rewards are a little different. This is where a reward is removed (negative) for noncompliance or incompletion.

For example: Let’s say that the company you work for pays for the coffee machine and coffee. But because everyone hits their targets the company also pays for the flavored creamers. But they can remove a reward for employees not hitting their goals.

Or a teenage driver having to give up their keys and driving privileges for breaking curfew.

The next section is punishments.

Punishments: there are two types of punishments as well. Positive punishments and negative punishments.

Positive punishments are exactly what you think a punishment is given (positive) for not doing something or doing the wrong thing.

An example of this would be getting a speeding ticket for driving too fast on the freeway.

Getting grounded for hitting your little sister.

Negative Punishments are where a negative thing is removed (negative) for doing something right.

The best example of this is when you get into your car and the buzzer continually buzzes nonstop until you click on your safety belt.

It has been found that longer-lasting motivation comes from the use of positive rewards and negative punishment. Use these to increase the motivation of yourself and others.

Mindsets and Motivation

Mindset plays a large role in the level and likelihood of motivation. There are two distinct types of mindsets that influence motivation. They are a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.

Growth mindset: A growth mindset allows the person a higher chance of being or feeling motivated because they believe they are able to change and grow. This creates space for motivation.

Fixed mindset: A fixed mindset is a belief that they do not possess the ability to change, learn, or grow. They feel fixed in their position and become unmotivated to try anything else.

Locus of Control and Motivation

Are Thoughts Real?

One’s locus of control will influence their depth of motivation because if they believe they have control over their situation they are more easily motivated to try. Understanding motivation through the lens of our belief in personal or impersonal control.

Internal locus of control: the belief that the person has an ability to instill change in the situation they believe themselves to be in.

Example: A worker believes they have the ability to impress the supervisor and earn a raise and promotion.

External locus of control: the belief that the situation is outside of their control, that they cannot affect the outcome.

An example: An employee believes they have no ability to move into a position of authority or earn a raise within the family-run business. Due to the addition of a family member each time a position opens up at the company.

The Motivation Master Key

There is a master concept when it comes to motivation, and it sums up the concept of motivation. I call it the motivation master key. It is this; “people do what they feel like doing more.” What this means is this. If people want something, they will do it. They naturally find the motivation. It wells up inside them as excitement, anticipation, or desire.

An example of this theory is: If you want what money buys, you will find the motivation to go to work even when you do not want to. Because you feel like earning the money -more than skipping work. When you fully grasp this concept, you will discover it is the magic master key to motivating anyone to do anything. You simply need to find a way to decide they want what you are suggesting more than they do not want it. Understanding motivation is different for each of us is crucial. We are not the same and want different things for varying reasons.

The Nine Types of Motivation

These types of motivation are varied and do not necessarily apply to everyone. In many cases, there are opposite types and you may find yourself or others switching from type to type at different times in your life.


This motivation is a desire for safety and security. It compels us to do things, even uncomfortable things if it will increase our feelings of security and safety.


When doing something is its own reward. It confirms the beliefs you have about yourself because you were able to accomplish it.


When the reason for doing the thing becomes irresistible, the incentive is reason enough.


Power motivates people like nothing else. This motivation may be to maintain power or to increase it.


Fear is a motivator that propels us to an instinctual level. We are even motivated by the fear of loss and even of missing out.


Being a part of something can create motivation to maintain affiliation and connectedness.


Our attitudes about something can motivate us to act. We feel the need to stay consistent with our attitudes.


When we expect the outcome to be something desirable, we can become very motivated to act or not act.


When we feel we are competent in an area we are far more likely to act in that type of situation.

Understanding Motivation and How to Use It

Learning to use motivation for yourself or others can be a very rewarding undertaking. Here are a few things to get you a little further along your journey.

Create Goals

One of the best things you can do to stay motivated is to create goals. I think this is so important that I created an entire mini-course on goal setting and achievement to assist you.

Tell People Your Goals

This brings into the idea of accountability. With people rooting for you and keeping you from getting lazy, you are far more likely to succeed.

Measure Your Progress

Be sure to measure your progress as you accomplish your goals. The best thing to remember is to always measure the progress, not the distance left to go. More on that here: Goal Achievement Resources.

Reward Yourself

This is the best advice for staying motivated. Remember to reward yourself. Because you are worth it.

Understanding Motivation for Yourself

You know you, you know how to push your own buttons. If you want something, you know what it takes to get yourself excited about it. Use those techniques to help you. But remember each of us is different. What works for you may not work as readily for others. Do not get frustrated when others are motivated differently than you. Just take it as a challenge to find their motivation buttons. Understanding motivation can be both fun and rewarding.


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Aaron Jarrels

I am focused on helping anyone who wants to expand their reach. I help people overcome their limiting beliefs and show them how to gain the confidence to eliminate imposter syndrome that hinders success. I specialize in assisting people with shifting their mindsets and help them master the skills necessary to achieve professional and personal success.