Theories of Motivation: 8 Most Popular Theories You Must Know

Theories of Motivation

Whether you are striving to achieve your goals or looking to inspire your team to achieve their best, a solid understanding of the motivation theories can help you unlock your full potential.

Motivation is a complex and multi-faceted concept that has been studied extensively by psychologists and behavioral scientists for decades and they develop various theories of motivation over the years. 

These theories attempt to explain the underlying mechanisms that drive human behavior, particularly in relation to goal attainment and achievement. In this article, We will explore the 8 most popular theories of motivation that you must know. From Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to self-determination theory.

We will discuss the concepts, principles, and practical applications of each theory to help you better understand the psychology of motivation. So get ready to unlock the secrets of motivation and discover how to harness its power to achieve your goals and dreams.


What are Theories of Motivation and why it is important?

Motivation is the driving force behind everything you do and understanding what motivates you can help you reach your full potential in all aspects of life. It’s like having a personal cheerleader in your mind, cheering you on every step of the way.

But have you ever wondered what lies beneath the surface? what magical secrets unlock your inner drive and push you toward greatness? well, let me introduce you to the captivating world of theories of motivation.

Motivation theories are frameworks developed by psychologists to understand what drives and sustains human behavior. They seek to explain why individuals act in certain ways and what factors influence their choices, desires, and aspirations.

These theories act like treasure maps, guiding you to uncover the hidden motivations that lie within you and act as a trusty compass, guiding you through the highs and lows of this journey called life.

Understanding these theories is like having a superpower. It allows you to gain a deeper understanding of yourself and those around you. You become more aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, your dreams and ambitions.

This knowledge empowers you to set meaningful goals that align with your true desires and opens up a world of possibilities when it comes to personal growth. By understanding what drives you, you can tap into your inner potential and unlock the best version of yourself. 

Whether it is excelling in your career, pursuing your passions, or maintaining a healthy lifestyle, motivation theories provide you with valuable insights and strategies to keep pushing forward.


Why it is important to understand motivation theories:



By understanding these theories of motivation, you gain valuable insights into your own desires, strengths, and weaknesses. It’s like peering into a mirror that reveals your deepest aspirations and illuminates the path to personal growth. 

With this knowledge, you can align your goals with your values, make informed decisions, and create a life that truly reflects who you are.

Goal setting and achievement:

Motivation theories provide a roadmap for setting and achieving goals. They help you identify what motivates you, whether it’s the desire for success, the need for autonomy, or the joy of making a positive impact.

Armed with this understanding, you can set realistic and more meaningful goals, devise action plans, and stay committed even when faced with obstacles.

Enhancing performance:

Motivation theories shed light on the factors that drive peak performance. Whether you are an athlete, artist, student, or professional, understanding these theories can help you unleash your full potential.

By tapping into the right source of motivation, such as intrinsic motivation (doing something for its inherent satisfaction) you can experience a sense of flow, where time flies and you excel in your endeavors.

Building relationships:

Motivation is not limited to individual pursuits, it also plays a vital role in our interactions with others. By understanding these theories of motivation you can grasp what motivates those around you, including friends, family, and colleagues.

This knowledge allows you to support and inspire others effectively, fostering stronger relationships and creating a positive social environment.

Overcoming challenges:

Life is filled with challenges, setbacks, and moments of doubt. Understanding these theories of motivation equips you with the tools to navigate the tough times and difficult situations in life.

By recognizing your own motivational drivers and developing resilience you can bounce back from failures, maintain perseverance and stay focused on your long-term vision. (Check out – Is Motivation Important for Personal Growth?)


8 Most Popular Theories You Must Know

Now you know what is motivation theories and why it is important for you to understand these theories. It’s time to understand these 8 types of theories one by one with examples. So that you can apply these theories to your personal growth and development.


1. Maslow’s Theory:

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who believed that humans have certain needs that drive our behavior and shape our lives. He developed a theory that suggests we have a natural tendency to fulfill these needs in a specific order forming a hierarchy.

This theory of motivation suggests that there are 5 different levels of human needs in the form of a pyramid, and these needs must be met in order for people to reach their full potential and live a fulfilling life. Let’s understand these 5 levels one by one.

Maslow's Theory

A. Physiological needs:

At the bottom of the pyramid, we have our physiological needs which are the most fundamental requirements for our survival. These include things like food, water, air, sleep, and shelter.

Without satisfying these needs, it’s challenging to focus on anything else. You have to satisfy these needs first and once it is satisfied then these needs no longer motivate you.

For example, people work to earn money to buy food, find a safe place to live, and ensure they have enough rest and sleep.

B. Safety needs:

Once our physiological needs are met, we seek safety and security. This level encompasses the need for physical safety, financial stability, a sense of order, and protection from harm or danger.

To meet these needs you need to work a lot and earn more money. It’s about feeling secure in our environment and having a stable foundation to build upon.

For example, People seek job security, save money for emergencies, protect themselves from uncertainty, and look for a stable living environment.

C. Social needs:

As social beings, we have a natural desire for connection, affection, and a sense of belonging. This level includes our need for friendship, family, intimate relationships, and a sense of community. We strive for acceptance and to be part of a group where we feel loved and valued.

For example, people join social clubs, form friendships, seek out romantic relationships, and actively participate in communities to fulfill their need for connection and belonging.

D. Esteem needs:

Once we have our basic social needs met, we move on to the need for esteem, both from others and ourselves. This level involves the desire for recognition, respect, status, and achievement. We seek to develop self-confidence, independence, and a positive self-image.

For example, people work hard to achieve recognition in their careers, pursue education or certifications, seek promotion, and set personal goals to boost their self-esteem.

E. Self-actualization needs:

This is the pinnacle of the pyramid, representing our highest level of fulfillment and personal growth. Self-actualization involves realizing our full potential, pursuing our passions, and finding meaning and purpose in life. It’s about personal development, creativity, & being in alignment with our core values.

For example, people engage in activities they are passionate about, such as hobbies, painting, writing, or volunteering to fulfill their need for personal growth and self-fulfillment. 


In a nutshell, Maslow’s theory is a reminder to take care of your basic needs, build strong relationships, cultivate self-esteem, and pursue your passion. By working on each level of the pyramid, you are on your way to reaching your full potential and living a truly fulfilling life.


2. Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory:

Imagine you are at work, or even pursuing your passion. You are doing your thing, pouring your heart and soul into it. But have you ever stopped to wonder what truly fuels your motivation and satisfaction in those situations? Well, that’s where Herzberg’s Two Factor theory comes into play.

Federick Herzberg a psychologist came up with this theory by diving deep into what makes people happy and fulfilled at work. He believed that our motivation and job satisfaction are influenced by two types of factors i.e. Hygiene factors and motivators. Let’s talk about them.

Hygiene factors:

Hygiene factors are the things that people need to have in place in order to be satisfied with their job or work, but they don’t actually motivate people to do the best work.

These basic foundation factors include things like your salary, job security, work environment, company policies, and your relationship with coworkers and supervisors.

These factors are essential for your well-being, but they don’t necessarily make you jump out of bed excited to tackle the day. When hygiene factors are lacking or unsatisfactory, they can cause dissatisfaction or make you feel unhappy.

But when they are met, they simply prevent dissatisfaction. They are like the must-haves that ensure you don’t feel miserable and unhappy at the workplace or in daily life.


Motivators are the things that actually drive people to do their best work. These are the factors that actually make you feel fulfilled, engaged, and eager to put in your best effort. They go beyond the basics and tap into your intrinsic motivation.

Motivators include things like challenging work, recognition, personal growth opportunities, achievement, responsibility, and the chance to make a meaningful impact.

When you have motivators in your life or in your career, they can spark a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and a drive to excel personally as well as professionally.


The fascinating thing about Herzberg’s theory of motivation is that it believes that motivators have a more significant impact on our happiness and fulfillment than hygiene factors. Motivators really drive us to do our best work.

In other words, once our hygiene factors are met, it’s the motivators that truly ignite our passion and make us thrive in what we do. So if you want to lead a truly fulfilling life, find a career that lights up your soul, and focus on motivators for long-term satisfaction.


3. Expectancy Theory:

Imagine you have a dream, a goal, or something you really want to achieve in your life. You might be thinking, how can I make it happen? how can I increase my chances of actually reaching my goal? well, that’s where expectancy theory comes into play.

Victor Vroom’s Expectancy theory is all about how we perceive the link between our actions and the results we expect to achieve it. It suggests that we are motivated to put effort into something when we believe that our efforts will lead to a desired outcome.

It’s like having a clear vision of the treasure at the end of the journey and being confident that our actions will get us there. This theory basically suggests that individuals are motivated to act based on their beliefs about the future outcomes of their actions.

Expectancy Theory

Let’s break down the three key components of this theory:


Expectancy is all about your belief in your ability to succeed and achieve your goal. It’s like having confidence in yourself. For example, if you want to learn a new skill, like playing the guitar, your expectancy is the belief that you actually become a skilled guitarist.

If you genuinely believe in yourself and your ability to learn and practice, your expectancy is high and you will be more motivated to put in the effort and take the necessary actions to become a great guitarist. The higher your expectancy, the more motivated you are to take action.


This component focuses on the belief that your efforts will definitely lead to the desired outcomes. It’s like understanding that your actions have a direct impact on your results.

Going back to our guitar example, Instrumentality is the belief that if you put in the time and effort to practice regularly, you will eventually become a skilled guitarist.

If you strongly believe that your efforts will pay off and lead to the desired outcome, your instrumentality is high, and you will be motivated to keep practicing and pushing forward.


Valence is all about the value or attractiveness you assign to the outcome or reward you are expecting to receive. It’s like asking yourself, how much do I really want this? how important is this goal to me? 

Continuing with the guitar example, if becoming a skilled guitarist is something you are truly passionate about and you find great joy and fulfillment in playing music then the valence of the outcome is high for you.

The more you value and desire the outcome, the more motivated you will be to put in the necessary effort and overcome any obstacles along the way to achieve the end goal.


So in a nutshell, expectancy theory tells us that our motivation to achieve a goal depends on three things: our belief in our ability to succeed (expectancy), our belief that our efforts will lead to the desired outcome (instrumentality), and the value we assign to that outcome(valence).

When you believe in your abilities, see a clear connection between your actions and outcomes, and highly value the rewards, your motivation skyrockets. And you approach any goal or challenge with a clear focus and determination.

So the key to leveraging this theory of motivation is to boost your belief in yourself, understand how your actions contribute to your goals, and find great value in the rewards you are striving for.


4. Goal-Setting Theory:

Imagine you are playing a video game without any clear objectives. It might be fun for a little while, but soon enough, you will lose interest and motivation because there is no target to aim for.

However, if the game presents you with specific missions and challenges, it becomes much more engaging and exciting. The same principle applies to life and there comes the Goal-Setting theory.

Edwin Loke a renowned psychologist believed that having specific and challenging goals can greatly enhance motivation and performance. That’s how he created a goal-setting theory which is all about setting goals to achieve success.

Goal-setting theory emphasizes the importance of setting clear and measurable goals. By defining what you want to achieve and breaking it down into smaller, manageable tasks, you can create a roadmap that guides your actions.

By having a target to work towards, you give yourself a sense of direction and purpose. This approach not only fuels your motivation but also helps you stay focused and determined along the way.

This is one of the most powerful theories of motivation one can apply to achieve success in personal as well as professional life.

Relationship between goals and motivation:

Goals and motivation are like a dynamic duo that goes hand in hand. Let’s say you have a goal in mind, like completing a challenging project or running a marathon. This goal acts as a powerful motivator.

It gives you something to strive for, ignites your passion, and fuels your determination to take action. When you set a goal, it triggers your brain’s reward system.

As you progress towards your goal, you experience a sense of accomplishment, which releases feel-good chemicals in your brain like dopamine. This creates a positive feedback loop, making you more motivated to continue working toward your goal.

On the other hand, without clear goals, you may feel lost or uncertain about what you are trying to achieve. This lack of direction can lead to a decrease in motivation, as there is no specific target to focus on.

That means the goal provides clarity and fuels your motivation to keep going. Motivation gives you the energy and determination to stay committed to your goals, even when faced with obstacles or setbacks.

Effective strategies to boost motivation using goal-setting theory:

  1. Be clear about what you want to achieve and ensure your goals are measurable and specific so that you can track your progress. For example – instead of saying “I want to exercise more”, set a goal like “I will go to the gym 5 times a week for 45 min each day.”
  2. Aim for goals that stretch you out of your comfort zone but are still realistic. Setting challenging goals can ignite your motivation and inspire you to push yourself.
  3. Break your big goals into smaller, manageable tasks. This way you can tackle them step by step, which helps you stay focused and prevents overwhelm.
  4. Give yourself a timeframe to complete your goals. Deadlines create a sense of urgency and prevent procrastination.
  5. Share your goals with someone you trust or find an accountability partner. This way you have someone who can support and motivate you and you will feel a sense of responsibility to follow your goals.
  6. When you achieve a milestone or make progress toward your goal, take a moment to celebrate and reward yourself. Celebrating your achievements reinforces your motivation and boosts your confidence.


5. Self-Determination Theory:

Imagine you are sitting in a room and you have a choice between two activities. One is something you genuinely enjoy, like playing video games or painting. The other is something you are forced to do like cleaning the house or doing paperwork.

Which one you would choose? I am sure you would go for the activity that you enjoy, right? That is where Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s Self-determination theory comes into play. This is again one of the most powerful theories of motivation because it is based on intrinsic motivation.

Edward and Richard believe that when it comes to motivation and personal growth, we are driven by something called intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is all about doing things that we find inherently enjoyable, interesting, or meaningful.

It’s like a fire that burns within us, pushing us to pursue activities that bring us joy and fulfillment. Asper this theory there are 3 psychological needs that play a vital role in fueling our intrinsic motivation.

Let’s understand 3 psychological needs:


Picture yourself as the captain of your own ship, steering it in the direction you want to go. Autonomy is all about having a sense of control and choice in your life. It means being able to make decisions and take actions that align with your values and interest.

When you feel autonomous, you are more motivated and likely to engage in activities you are doing because you believe they are important and valuable to you.


Imagine the feeling of mastering a new skill or accomplishing a challenging task, That’s nothing but competence. We all have an innate desire to feel competent and capable in what we do.

When we engage in activities that allow us to grow and develop our skills, it boosts our self-confidence and motivates us to keep pushing forward.


Humans are social beings and our connections with others matter. Relatedness is all about feeling a sense of belonging and connection to others. When we have healthy relationships with friends, family, or community, it creates a supportive environment that fuels our motivation.

We are more likely to engage in activities when we feel connected to others who share similar interests or values. This boosts our motivation as well as overall well-being.


When these 3 psychological needs are satisfied, we experience intrinsic motivation. It’s like having a personal cheerleader inside us who constantly encourage us to pursue activities that bring us joy and fulfillment.

Self-determination theory also recognizes extrinsic motivation, which is driven by external factors like rewards or pressures from others. Extrinsic motivation is useful in some situations but it is not long-lasting as intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation helps us keep going when extrinsic motivation fades away. So as per self-determination theory, if you want to lead a truly fulfilling life, seek activities that align with your values and interests.


6. McClelland’s Theory of Needs:

Imagine you are on a quest to unlock your full potential and achieve great things in life. McClelland’s theory of needs can be your best guide on this journey.

McClelland’s theory suggests that there are 3 core needs that guide our actions and desires. These needs are like 3 superpowers and each person has a different combination of them, just like unique fingerprints.

These 3 needs are deep within us like our internal desires that shape our behavior and these needs can have a big impact on how we approach life, work, and relationships. 

Let’s understand these 3 needs:

Need for achievement:

This need is all about the thrill of setting and reaching goals. If you are someone who craves challenges, loves to excel, and feels incredibly satisfied when you accomplish something meaningful, then you have got a strong need for achievement.

People with a high need for achievement are those who always strive to excel, setting challenging goals, and pushing themselves to reach new heights. They have a strong thirst for accomplishments and personal victories. They love overcoming obstacles and achieving their goals.

Need for affiliation:

This need is all about building strong connections and relationships with others. If you are someone who thrives on building relationships, enjoys being part of a team, and feels happiest when you are surrounded by friends and loved ones, then you have got a strong need for affiliation.

People with a high need for affiliation thrive on social interactions and enjoy being part of a supportive community. They are great team players and love to collaborate. Building and maintaining meaningful relationships is what fuels their happiness.

Need for power:

The need for power is all about having an impact and influencing others in a positive way. If you are someone who seeks authority, enjoys taking charge, and feels empowered when you can make a difference in the world, then you have got a strong need for power.

People with a high need for power are natural leaders who enjoy taking charge, making decisions, and guiding others. They seek positions of authority and are driven by the desire to make a difference in the world around them.


Everyone has unique combinations of these needs that can change over time. Some people have a strong need for achievement and affiliation, while others have a high need for power and affiliation. It’s like having your own personal identity.

Understanding your dominant needs can be incredibly powerful because it helps you align your goals and activities with what truly drives you and guide you toward a life filled with fulfillment and happiness.


7. Reinforcement Theory:

Imagine you are training a pet dog. You want that dog to learn how to sit on command. So, every time a dog sits down when you say ‘sit’, you give him a delicious treat.  What do you think happens next?

Well, the dog starts associating sitting with tasty treats, and the dog is more likely to sit in the future because he wants those treats. That’s basically the essence of Skinner’s reinforcement theory.

Skinner’s theory is all about how rewards and punishments affect behavior. According to B.F. Skinner, the psychologist who developed this theory, when we receive a reward for a particular behavior, we are more likely to repeat that behavior in the future.

It’s like our brains say, “Hey, that felt good! Let’s do it again.” Similarly, if we face a negative consequence or punishment for a certain behavior, we are less likely to repeat it. Our brains go, “Hmm, that didn’t turn out so well. Let’s avoid that in the future.”

Let’s talk about two reinforcement:

Positive reinforcement:

Positive reinforcement is like adding a sprinkle of sweetness to our lives. It happens when we receive something pleasurable, reward, or desirable as a result of our behavior.

When we receive positive reinforcement, we are more likely to continue the behavior that led to it. It’s like a little pat on the back for doing something well.

Negative reinforcement:

Negative reinforcement involves the removal of something unpleasant or undesirable. Let’s say you have a noisy alarm clock that wakes you up every morning. You hit the snooze button to make it stop.

In this case, the annoying sound is the negative stimulus, and when you hit snooze, it goes away. As a result, you are more likely to hit snooze again in the future because it helps you avoid the unpleasant noise.

Both positive and negative reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behavior happening again. They are like rewards or incentives that motivate us to continue certain actions.

Reinforcement theory teaches us two more concepts:


Extinction occurs when a behavior is no longer reinforced. Let’s say you used to get a reward for cleaning your room, but suddenly your parents stop giving you that reward. Without reinforcement, you might stop cleaning your room because you don’t see the point anymore.


Punishment is when an unpleasant consequence is given to decrease the likelihood of a behavior. Let’s say you break a rule and your parents ground you for a week. This punishment makes you think twice before breaking the rule again because you don’t want to go through that unpleasant experience.


This is one of the most powerful theories of motivation which can help you shape your own behavior and even influence others positively. If you want to develop good habits, like going to the gym regularly, you can use positive reinforcement by rewarding yourself with something you enjoy after each successful gym session.

This will make you more likely to keep going because your brain loves those rewards. If you want to break a bad habit, you can use punishment by creating an unpleasant consequence for yourself whenever you engage in that behavior.

For example, if you are trying to quit spending too much time on social media, you could make a rule that for every hour you spend scrolling, you have to do an extra hour of studying. (Check out – 20 Bad habits you need to Quit now)

So reinforcement theory is understanding the effects of rewards and punishment on your behavior. By using it, you can develop good habits, break bad ones, and create a positive impact on your own life. (Check out – 70 Good habits that can change your life forever)


8. Equity Theory:

Adam’s equity theory helps you understand the motivation and fairness in your life. Imagine, you are sitting in a room with your friend, and each of you is given a piece of cake. But you notice that your friend’s cake piece is twice as big as yours.

How would you feel? probably a bit unfair, right? That is where Adam’s equity theory comes into play. It suggests that we all have an innate sense of fairness and equality. We all strive for fairness in our relationships and interactions.

According to this theory, we constantly compare the ratio of our inputs (like effort, time, and skills) to the outcomes (rewards, recognition) we receive and also compare these inputs and outcomes to the people around us.

In simple words, if you feel that the ratio of your inputs to outcomes is balanced and similar to others around us, you likely feel satisfied and motivated. This is applicable in personal as well as professional situations.

On the other hand, if you perceive an imbalance, like someone else getting more rewards for the same amount of effort, it creates a sense of unfairness and can lead to demotivation, frustration, or even resentment.

Importance of perceived fairness in motivation:

Equity theory emphasizes that ensuring perceived fairness in our personal and professional lives is important for maintaining high levels of motivation and satisfaction.

Let’s say you are working at a company, and you see that your colleague, who puts in the same effort as you, is getting promoted while you are left behind. How would that make you feel? Not great, right?

Perceived fairness plays a significant role in how motivated we are to give out best. When we believe that the rewards and recognition we receive are fair and just, it creates a positive motivational environment.

We feel valued and appreciated which encourages us to continue putting in effort and striving for success. This is super useful to leaders and higher-level managers. (Check out – Psychology of Motivation)

On the other hand, when we perceive unfairness, it can have the opposite effect. If we see someone receiving more rewards and benefits without deserving them, it can down our motivation and make us question the worth of our efforts. 

We might start feeling demotivated, and unappreciated. In personal relationships, equity is about ensuring a fair distribution of efforts and rewards between partners, family members, or friends. It means both parties should contribute to the relationship in a way that feels equal and satisfying to the individual.

Similarly, in professional settings, equity is crucial for maintaining a motivated and productive workforce. Leaders or managers need to ensure that employees or team members’ efforts are recognized and rewarded fairly.

Ultimately Adam’s equity theory reminds us that fairness matters in relationships, both personal and professional. It highlights the importance of open communication, transparency, and ensuring that everyone feels valued and respected for their contributions.



Understanding the theories of motivation is like holding a key to unlock the door to personal and professional success. Throughout this article, we have explored the 8 most popular theories in detail that shed light on what truly drives human behavior.

From Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to the self-determination theory, each theory offers valuable insights into the complex mechanisms behind motivation. By delving into these motivation theories, you can gain a deeper understanding of yourself and those around you.

So whether you seek to inspire others, ignite your own inner fire, or unravel the mysteries of human behavior, delve into these motivation theories and unleash the untapped potential within you.

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