The psychology of human motivation

Updated: May 18

Out of all the issues that students face at school, demotivation may be one of the most prominent ones. Children, often perfectly capable, are failing classes just because they aren’t interested, and cannot find the motivation to do their coursework and study for tests. How does this happen? And, most importantly, how can this issue be addressed?



It may be tempting to think that the student has a fixed set of natural interests, and that we should just accept the situation. But over the past years, research has increasingly found that human motivation is much more malleable than we might think. These findings give us reason to be hopeful: it seems that we can, with the right approach, turn demotivated students into motivated ones.


To understand how this is possible, we must have a deeper look at how human motivation works. For ages, this has been a central question in psychology: if we want to understand human behaviour, we must understand human motivation. When I do something, how did that happen? What lead me to do that? In general, we can distinguish between two different psychological explanations of human behaviour: mechanistic and organismic explanations. Roughly speaking, mechanistic approaches try to explain human behaviour by pointing at “external” cues. These approaches, in other words, explain human behaviour in terms of responses. When I act, I do so in response to a certain driving factor: I eat an apple in response to a hungry feeling, or I hit the brakes as I see a red traffic light. (A famous mechanistic approach can be found in the behaviourism of B.F. Skinner.)


But can mechanistic explanations really explain all forms of human behaviour? Surely, sometimes, we act just because we feel like it. For example, I may start drawing just for the sake of it. My behaviour is not always determined by external cues: sometimes, I can be the cause of my own actions. This brings us to the second approach to human behaviour: the organismic approach. On this approach, we are not just determined by external factors, but also capable of self-determination. In the organismic tradition, some behaviours are determined by nothing else but ourselves. Such behaviours are referred to as intrinsically motivated. Behaviours which are determined by observable cues, in contrast, are extrinsically motivated.


Importantly, organismic approaches do not assume that all our actions are intrinsically motivated. All too often, we act on extrinsic motivations: we do something just because we are afraid of the consequences, for example, or because we are subject to an authority. I wash the dishes because my mother told me to, not because I want to. Throughout our lives, a large portion of our actions is instrumental: we undertake them not for their own sake, but because of external elements such as internal pressure, societal rewards, and the like. But even so, we must not forget that we can also be self-determining in our actions. On the mechanistic picture, we may seem more like machines than human beings. But on the organismic picture, our reasons for acting can also come from within. It thus offers a more complete picture of human motivation.


So what can we learn from this distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? One important lesson is that intrinsic motivation seems to be more powerful, and long-lasting, than extrinsic motivation. In a classical study, researchers found that offering monetary rewards to participants actually decreased their motivation to perform a task out of free will (see Deci et al. 1999). All participants were asked to solve a puzzle; but only some of the participants were promised a money prize if they could solve it. Interestingly, participants who were not offered a reward spent more time on the puzzle than those who were promised money. This teaches us a valuable lesson: when we do something because we want to, and not because of extrinsic motivations, we seem to be more motivated to do it.


This relates back to the problem of student motivation. When we look at our educational system, we can see that it is built around extrinsic motivations: grades, tests, and diplomas are all extrinsic reasons for learning. Students are told they must study to get a good score, or if they want to avoid a fail. As a result, they often struggle to find any motivation within.


Clearly, the key to motivating students is to encourage their intrinsic motivation. We must not increase the amount of rewards or punishments, but help them find internal reasons to study. Of course, this can be very difficult. The point of intrinsic motivation is precisely that it cannot come from another person. It is something that needs to come from within. Nevertheless, another person may be able to facilitate intrinsic motivation in another. Several studies have examined how intrinsic motivation can be supported in students.


Black & Deci (2000) for example, discuss how an instructor’s teaching style can either support or thwart students’ intrinsic motivation. The authors demonstrate how a teaching style which is controlling will undermine intrinsic motivation. Controlling teaching styles are precisely those which focus heavily on extrinsic reasons for studying, such as assessments and evaluations. There is a strong emphasis on the imperative: you have to do this or that! Students, as a result, are mostly extrinsically motivated, and often their motivation will be slacking as a result. The only reason they have to study is because they have to, and that isn’t usually a very powerful motivation.


But when a teaching style is autonomy supportive rather than controlling, something else happens. Students become more intrinsically motivated to engage with course materials. Teaching styles which are autonomy supportive focus, well, on students’ autonomy: they trust the student to be actively, rather than passively, involved. This can be achieved in various ways: letting students ask questions, giving them interactive tasks, or giving students the opportunity to decide how they would like to process new materials. Giving students their own voice gives them a sense of autonomy, which increases their intrinsic motivation.


In sum, by creating a supportive learning environment, teachers and tutors can have a valuable and significant impact on students’ motivations. The psychology of human motivation thus shows us that there is hope for demotivated students. With the right support, their interest in their schoolwork can be renewed and revived. Finding a private tutor which helps the student find their inner motivation can therefore greatly benefit a demotivated student.


1. Deci, E. L. (1971). ‘Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105–115.
2. Black, A. E., & Deci, E. L. (2000). ‘The effects of instructors’ autonomy support and students’ autonomous motivation on learning organic chemistry: A self-determination theory perspective’. Science Education, 84, 740–756. See also Reeve, J. (2012) ‘A Self-determination Theory Perspective on Student Engagement’. In: Christenson S., Reschly A., Wylie C. (eds) Handbook of Research on Student Engagement. Springer, Boston, MA.
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