How Does Motivation Work?

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:

As an addiction counselor, I have been fascinated by the psychology of motivation. I’ve always wondered what motivates human behavior, spending a significant amount of time researching our underlying drives, and how motivation works.

With recent scientific advances into the science of how motivation works, we are still failing to apply these lessons in our daily lives. In this article, I translate the science into a practical guide to understanding motivation. So how does motivation work?

Motivation works though a dopaminergic neural process whereby our brains reward us when we carry out a task that meets our internal human need for a sense of autonomy, competence, relatedness, or basic survival needs such as food, safety, or relief from pain. 

Let’s unpack what this means.

What is Motivation?

Motivation is the desire to engage in a particular behavior. This behavior may meet a specific psychological or physical need or avoid a specific harmful outcome.

Motivation is an adaptive mechanism, helping us survive. Without motivation, we would have no drive to eat, drink, procreate, or engage in any other kind of activity that would maintain our survival.

There are two general types of motivation: extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic Motivation

This is motivation based on an external reward. This type of motivation works through external rewards such as money, food, or possessions. For example, giving your child money for doing their homework is an extrinsic reward. If you take away the reward, the child no longer has the motivation to engage in the task. This is why this form of motivation is great for short-term tasks, but it does not maintain the long-term behavior.

Intrinsic Motivation

This type of motivation consists of behavior driven by one’s internal sense of reward for engaging in the task. A person may feel a sense of passion, engagement, and a sense of deep psychological satisfaction when engaging in the task, even without external reward. For example, a writer may have a passion for engaging in the task of writing, independent of praise or monetary gain.

At first, psychologists assumed extrinsic rewards could increase intrinsic motivation, but studies later confirmed this is not true. A 1971 study on The Effects of Externally Mediated Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation demonstrates that extrinsic rewards decrease intrinsic motivation.

For example, if your child enjoys practicing the piano and you introduce a monetary reward each time they practice, their internal motivation to practice decreases, making them less likely to practice when you take away the external reward. This is why getting paid for your passion can risk making the task begin to feel like work.

The Psychology of Motivation

Extrinsic motivation works through rewards and punishments. Rewards consist of pleasant external stimuli that evoke pleasure, like in laboratory models of operant conditioning. Early behavior modification techniques treated humans as if they were lab rats. This worked by reinforcing desired behaviors through rewards or extinguishing undesirable behaviors through punishment. Although this can work, it has it’s limitations, as stated above.

Intrinsic motivation works by meeting our fundamental human need for a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This is the basis of self-determination theory, an evidence-based model of intrinsic motivation. Autonomy is our need for a sense of independence and control over our lives. Competence is our need to feel like we are progressing in life. Lastly, relatedness is our need for a sense of social connection.

Although this is a highly simplified breakdown of the psychology of how extrinsic and intrinsic motivation works, it captures the aspects of motivation required for practical usage in everyday life.

How to Improve Motivation 

Understanding the basics of how motivation works allows you to apply these lessons to yourself or others. Here are a few practical tips for improving motivation:

Focus on Small Wins

Gaining small wins over time works to enhance motivation by fostering an internal sense of competence. The sense of incremental progression over time builds motivational momentum. Like rolling a snowball, the power of small wins compounds over time.

Get Clear on Your Values

Getting clear on your values works to build motivation by giving you a sense of purpose and autonomy. This means we feel in control of our lives, deciding to act in alignment with our chosen values, rather than feeling constrained and controlled by external forces.

Be Accountable to Others

Being accountable to others works to build motivation by fostering a sense of relatedness. This means our need to connect with others is met through holding ourselves accountable to them. For example, many people use personal trainers for the sense of motivation built into the accountability provided by the relationship.

Recall these same lessons when helping others build motivation. When helping someone, it is tempting to take the lead, telling them exactly what to do. This violates the principle of autonomy, taking away their sense of control over the process, decreasing motivation. Instead, it is more effective to engage with empathy, evoking their reasons for making the change, and collaborating with them on a plan.


Motivation works on many levels, neurologically and psychologically. In simple terms, it works through external rewards and punishments or our internal need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Focusing on intrinsic motivations rather than extrinsic motivations allows for sustained motivation that is not dependent on external rewards or punishments. It is also important to note that introducing external rewards to behaviors that are already intrinsically motivated can decrease intrinsic motivation. In other words, be careful when getting paid for your passions.

We can build our intrinsic motivation by focusing on small wins, getting clear on our values, and being accountable to others. When helping others develop their motivation, we can use these same lessons, taking a collaborative approach that keeps the other person feeling in control of the process.

If you are interested in learning more about helping others build their motivation, I wrote an in-depth article on Motivational Interviewing here. This is a powerful conversation style, designed to overcome resistance, helping someone develop their motivation for change.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

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  1. RecoveryWise

    I’d be interested in learning how punishment, and negative reinforcement, affect motivation. I think these are two powerful psychological factors that can have a tremendous affect on ones motivation.

    • Steve Rose

      Exactly! Punishment can be very powerful, but lack the long-term sustainability associated with intrinsic reward.


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