Motives and Drives in Psychology


In psychology, a motive is generally defined as a state of physiological or psychological arousal which influences how we behave. For example, a physiological arousal, such as hunger or thirst, motivates us to eat or get something to drink.

A psychological arousal, such as the need for love and companionship, motivates us to seek the company of others and interact with them. Both physiological and psychological arousal can occur together in combination. For example, the desire for sex and the desire for love.

A motive is classified as an “intervening variable” because it is said to reside within a person and “intervene” between a stimulus and a response. As such, an intervening variable cannot be directly observed, and therefore, must be indirectly observed by studying behavior.

For example, if you see someone buying food in a shop, you may come to the conclusion that they are hungry and so they must be driven by physiological arousal.

However, this person could just as easily be buying food for their friend. So even though their behavior appeared to have been driven by physiological arousal, they were in fact being driven by psychological arousal.

food shopping
In order to understand what may be driving someone’s behavior we need to observe their actions. Sometimes, this can lead to misinterpretations.

As you can see from this example, understanding what truly motivates someone to do something can be very difficult and prone to error since we are not directly experiencing their motives for ourselves.

So it’s important to keep this mind and collect as much evidence as possible before coming to a firm conclusion as to the cause of someone’s behavior.

Biological Factors

Since we are all living organisms, it should come as no surprise to learn that our biology plays a big role in how we behave. The drives which stem from our biology are known are “biological drives” and their purpose is to keep us alive and out of danger.

human body
The many needs of the body create various biological drives that influence much of our everyday behavior.

Some examples of biological drives include hunger, thirst, sleep, temperature, pain and sex. All of these drives can act as a motive by changing our behavior in some way.

So, for example, if you are thirsty you become motivated to drink, if you are hungry you become motivated to eat and if you are tired you become motivated to sleep.

Note: Most of the biological drives that we experience drive us towards a stimulus, such as food. However, some drives, such as pain, drive us away from a stimulus.


woman balancing on one leg
Homeostasis helps to keep things in balance.

In order to keep the body alive, we need to satisfy our drives at the right time and stop when they are satisfied to an adequate level. The way the body does this is through a process known as homeostasis, which basically involves keeping the body in balance.

Let’s use the example of food to demonstrate how this process works.

When you haven’t eaten any food for a while, your blood sugar level drops which then makes you feel hungry. After you have eaten an adequate amount to satisfy your hunger, your blood sugar rises back up and you no longer feel hungry.

If however, you were to continue eating more food your blood sugar levels would start to rise and so your body would secrete insulin to return it back to a safe level. Without homeostasis, you would die just from eating food.


male hormones
Hormones, such as testosterone, can increase one’s sexual drive and make them more aggressive.

Hormones can have a big influence on regulating our biological drives. One obvious example of this occurs during puberty where various sex hormones increase our sexual drive.

Other hormones, such as melatonin, can influence when we sleep or how tired we feel throughout the day.

So whilst it is true that biological drives can affect the way we act, it is important to realize that biological drives can also be modified which can then result in a drive increasing (upregulate) or a decreasing (down regulate).

For example, increased levels of testosterone in men can increase their sex drive, but decreasing testosterone will lower their sex drive.

Drive Reduction Theory

Drive reduction theory states that when we do something which reduces the tension associated with a biological drive (that is in a state of arousal), then that action is reinforced. As a result, drive reduction theory states that our biological drives play a big role in how we learn.

A good example of this can be seen with B. F. Skinner and his work on operant conditioning. If a rat is hungry and by pressing the lever it gets food, then this action (lever pressing) is reinforced because it has satisfied a biological drive that was in a state of arousal (hunger).

Therefore, whenever we do something which is successful in satisfying a biological drive, that behavior is likely to become reinforced and so we will repeat it time and time again.

rat pushing lever
A behavior (e.g., lever pressing) is more likely to be repeated if it satisfies a biological drive (e.g., hunger).

For example, when you are hungry, you learn that by going to the shop you can buy food, and by doing so, are able to satisfy your drive for food. As a result, you will repeat that behavior the next time you are hungry and have no food.

If however, that store was to suddenly close down and you were unable to get any food, you would then have to learn a new way to satisfy your hunger such as by learning to hunt.

woman thinking about cake
Just like how a rats behavior is shaped by its biological drives, so too is human behavior.

Generally speaking, drive reduction applies to anything that involves satisfying biological needs associated with food, water, safety and sex. All of which are primitive animalistic drives.

This is why people will often act like animals when they are in danger or do not have a regular supply of food or water. Essentially, their brain puts them into survival mode so that they do whatever is needed to keep their body safe and alive.

General Drives in Psychology

Like biological drives, general drives are also innate drives. However, they differ from biological drives because they do not operate on the principle of homeostasis. Some of the main general drives include the curiosity drive, the activity drive and the affectional drive.


boy looking out window
Curiosity is a drive to experience new things, and is vital to the growth and development of the brain.

The curiosity drive causes us to seek new information and experiences from the world around us. This drive is first evident in young infants who are continually exploring their surroundings with their eyes, hands and mouth.

The curiosity drive is very important for keeping the brain healthy, as the brain relies on exposure to new stimuli in order to grow and develop. If we were not curious, the brain would not get enough stimulation and would eventually begin to atrophy.

This is exactly what happens in certain mental disorders such as depression or neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Triggering curiosity

The curiosity drive is triggered by a change of stimulation, such as when we are exposed to something which we have never seen before in our lifetime. If we are exposed to the same thing over and over, we become bored with it very quickly because familiar things are not good at stimulating the brain.

A good example of the curiosity drive can be found with “freak shows” where people pay money to see other people with strange deformities. What you will notice in these people is that upon first seeing the “freak”, they will stare with their eyes and mouth wide open as though they were fixed in trance.

man with facial piercings
Our attention is naturally drawn to things that are strange or unusual.

It’s almost like the brain is opening up the senses to their maximum capacity so that it receives as much information about this novel stimulus as possible. Some people may become fixed in this trance so deeply that they do not even hear you when you try speaking to them.

Sensory deprivation

The need of the brain to be stimulated by information and experiences is so dramatic, that in some cases, it can cause you to see or hear things which do not really exist.

One way to demonstrate this is in a sensory deprivation tank, also called an isolation chamber, which serves to minimize or eliminate information entering the brain via your senses.

People who have been in sensory deprivation tanks have reported experiencing both visual and auditory hallucinations. It’s almost like the brain is trying to keep itself stimulated by literally making reality up. The same sort of effect occurs when people are locked in solitary confinement for punishment or torture.

sensory deprivation chamber
A sensory deprivation tank minimizes the information that you receive via your senses. This can often lead to hallucinations and out-of-body experiences.

Note: My personal view is that when the brain does not receive enough new stimulation from the surrounding environment, it may cause someone to experience what we classify as a mental disorder.

This will be most likely to occur in people who live their lives with very little variation, meaning that they are exposed to the same things day in day out.

In order to stimulate itself, I believe that in some cases, the brain can cause a person to hear things, see things, feel paranoid and create delusions of grandeur.

All of these things serve to stimulate the brain by introducing something new to a person’s life, something in which they are the focus of attention.

Risk taking behavior

Risk taking behavior is defined as any sort of  behavior which puts you in an unnecessary risk of physical injury.

Some examples could include rock climbing, mountain climbing, high-speed racing and sky diving. One possible explanation for such risky behaviors is the curiosity drive in action.

Some people may live such boring and mentally unstimulated lives, that their brain begins to crave for some stimulation. As a result, the brain gets a massive dose of stimulation by engaging in a risky behavior which seems to satisfy it for a certain period of time.

man jumping off cliff
When a person gets bored with the regular routine of everyday life, they will often do something extreme to make themselves feel alive again.

Some people call the sense of satisfaction they get from such activities a “rush”, which is interesting because it literally is a rush of information to the brain.

An alternative explanation for risk taking behavior may be due to a gradual process of desensitization, whereby a person gradual performs increasingly risky activities and wants to “up” the challenge by doing something a bit more dangerous.

Again, this is a logical explanation, as eventually the brain becomes weakly stimulated by familiar tasks no matter how complex or simple they may be.


The activity drive causes us to physically move even when our biological drives are satisfied. For example, if a well fed rat is placed into a cage with a running wheel, it will run for no apparent reason other than to run.

In humans, the activity drive can be seen in infants who at times appear to be restless and move just for the sake of moving.

rat running on wheel
Both humans and animals have a natural urge to be active.

Another example could include watching a person who is sitting still for a prolonged period of time, such as when reading or studying. If you watch them long enough, you will see their arms and legs moving every so often. The same can also occur when a person is lying in bed.

Although this movement appears to occur for no other reason than for the sake of movement, it may in fact be related to a biological drive.

It is known for example, that if you don’t move your body occasionally when you are still and without motion, that blood flow becomes impaired.

This may eventually lead to a blood clot, that could, under extreme cases, kill you. So the activity drive may help to keep our blood circulation working in good order by ensuring that the body moves when it needs to.


The affectional drive causes us to seek love and companionship from other people. The importance of having such contact with those around us was demonstrated in an experiment by psychologist Harry Harlow.

Harlow separated a group of monkeys from their mothers and raised each monkey in social isolation. He found that many of the monkeys displayed a behavior similar to infantile autism, which is characterized by a lack of interest in others and self-destructive behavior.

Harry Harlow
Harry Harlow raised monkeys in social isolation which resulted in them developing mental disorders.

The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson also believed in the importance of the affectional drive. He proposed that the first stage of psychological and social (psychosocial) development is trust versus mistrust.

If during the first two years of life an infant develops a sense of trust (by having their needs for attention met), it will have a beneficial impact on their future. If however, the infant senses distrust, it will have a negative impact on their life.

The importance of companionship can also be seen in prisoners who are locked up in a cell or in solitary confinement. Some of these prisoners will try to keep insects or small animals such as birds or rats for company.

A well-known example of this was the “Bird Man” from Alcatraz who kept a bird as a pet, and then later began to care for more birds and study them.

Acquired Motives in Psychology

Acquired motives are shaped through experience, and as a result, are unique to an individual. Acquired motives are also called social motives because they affect how we interact with other people.

Below we shall look at several different types of acquired motives:


reaching towards sky
The level of achievement that you hope to obtain will determine how high you stretch to get it.

The need for achievement is a motive to reach the goals you set for yourself in life. People who have a high need for achievement are likely to be ambitious and do whatever it takes to reach the top.

People who have a low need for achievement are likely not to set goals for themselves, or if they do, they will be fairly unambitious goals. They are also likely to be content with their lives and not expect too much from it.


fishing getting food
Autonomy is the ability to do things by yourself-to become self reliant.

The need for autonomy is the need to do what you want without interference from others. A person with a high need for autonomy is likely to be self-reliant, do their own things in life and lead other people.

A person with a low need for autonomy is often dependant on others, follows other people and feels as though they have little control over their life.


woman cleaning
People with a high need for order like to keep things as neat and tidy as possible.

This motive determines whether you like to have things organized in your life. A person with a high need for order is likely to keep important documents organized and their workspace and home tidy.

A person with a low need for order does not keep track of important information and often lives in a messy environment.


Affiliation is a desire to be with other people, some are more motivated by this desire than others.

The need for affiliation is a motive to be with other people. A person with a high need for affiliation is likely to have lots of friends and be an outgoing person. A person with a low need for affiliation usually does not have many friends and likes to be alone for most of the time.


road rage
A dominant person wants to establish their authority over others and control them. This can often lead to aggressive behavior.

This is a motive to dominate other people by controlling their behavior. A person with a high need for dominance is likely to be aggressive and argumentative. This type of person is usually found in positions of authority.

A person with a low need for dominance is likely to be overly agreeable and will try too hard to please others. They are usually also very submissive.


girl twisting body
If you have a high need for exhibition you will do things to attract the attention of others.

The need for exhibition is a motive to be noticed by others. People with a high need for exhibition are likely to speak loudly, dress differently or behave unusually in an attempt to gain attention from others.

A person with a low need for exhibition is likely to talk and behave in a way that does not draw attention to themselves.


two men arguing
People with a high need for aggression have a tendency to argue and start fights.

The need for aggression is a motive to argue with other people or hurt them in some way. People with a high need for aggression are likely to start arguments, be physically violent and become spiteful or resentful towards others.

People with a low need for aggression prefer to try to keep the peace and find a solution with which everyone is happy with.

Unconscious Motives

Sigmund Freud believed that many of our motives are unconscious and operate outside of our conscious control (the ego).

These unconscious motives form whenever certain information or experiences pose a threat to the ego and then become repressed in the unconscious mind.

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud believed that much of our behavior is motivated by unconscious desires.

This may explain the phenomenon known as self sabotage, where people unknowingly prevent themselves from experiencing certain levels of success or happiness or destroy it when they do experience success or happiness.

Forbidden desires and urges

From Freud’s perspective, there are two kinds of motives which tend to get repressed: forbidden sexual desires and forbidden aggressive urges.

The word forbidden refers to things which you would like to do, but you know that you shouldn’t do because that behavior is considered to be socially unacceptable. For example, if a person wanted to have sex with a relative, then that would be classified as a forbidden sexual desire.

Or, if a person dislikes their boss and wants to punch them in the face, but restrains themselves from doing so, then this would also be classified as a forbidden aggressive urge.

Forbidden urges are the things that you would like to do, but prevent yourself from doing because of a perceived undesirable consequence.

In order to protect ourselves from acting out these forbidden desires and urges, Freud believed that we form a self-defence mechanism which he referred to as a “reaction formation“.

So for example, if a person wants to have sex with a relative, then they may try to keep their distance from that person by deliberately being nasty to them. Often, this will leave the other person confused as to why they are being treated in such a way.

This reaction formation then helps to reinforce the repression of their forbidden sexual desire by driving it further into the unconscious.

Freud also believed, that in some cases, repressed desires and urges can “act out” and overcome the defence mechanism of repression. For example, if a person becomes drunk, they may act out their previously repressed sexual desires.

Reviewed – 1st April 2016