The five types of motivation to understand

    Published: 20 August 2021. Written by: Sophy Grimshaw

    A psychologist explains the real reasons that we are stirred into action – or not… Have you found your motivation levels are all over the place at the moment, especially when it comes to tasks that you previously found easy? 

    Many of us have been affected by ongoing lockdowns with a resultant lack of focus or ‘pandemic brain’ becoming a well-documented and scientifically proven aspect of the crisis. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, generally, many of us are less motivated and effective at setting and achieving goals in our working lives than we are in our personal lives – which doesn’t sound like a winning strategy, given that the two are usually interlinked. 

    This all makes perfect sense, according to psychologist and psychotherapist Charlotte Armitage. ‘This lack of motivation might be because where we were pre-pandemic is not where we are now,’ she explains. ‘The pandemic has changed everything and destabilised us. Many people are evaluating what their priorities are. And if you have changed through this pandemic, then what motivates you might have changed too.’

    You may be familiar with the difference between ‘intrinsic motivation’, which relates to enjoying or feeling engaged with a task or an activity, and ‘extrinsic motivation’, whereby we perform a task because we’re motivated by the consequences or rewards that we expect to result from it.  

    Here, Armitage helps us to break down five other types of motivations, including those which can be toxic, and how to get our motivation mojo back.


    1. Social motivation 

    There’s nothing like enforced social distancing from friends and loved ones for months on end to make you keenly aware that we humans are inherently social animals. Social motivation is the idea that we are driven to seek out social contact with others.

    ‘Social motivation matters because being able to form healthy and meaningful relationships is the key to a long life,’ says Armitage. Ultimately, social motivation goes far beyond socialising, with our work and personal lives all relying to some degree on the emotional intelligence that we cultivate when we spend time with others. ‘If you’re functioning healthily occupationally, meaning that you’re able to maintain and hold down a job, that also comes back to relationships,’ she emphasises, ‘because you will need an ability to build interpersonal relationships at work.’ 


    2. Fear motivation

    ‘Ultimately, on some level, a lot of motivation does come out of fear,’ says Armitage. Doing something because you’re afraid of the consequences if you don’t can make good sense – swallowing your pride and making amends with a friend because you’re afraid of losing the friendship, for example. But fear motivation can also be a red flag. 

    Armitage also points out that ‘we can be motivated [to do something] by fear of an outcome that’s real or imagined’. She gives the example of not going out for the evening with friends, because you fear your partner would resent you doing so. Is that because they’ve said anything to that effect, or purely an assumption that you’ve made about how they could feel? A good question to ask yourself, says Armitage, is ‘Is your fear founded?’ 


    3. Power motivation

    Being strongly motivated to become more powerful at work can help you to push through with some of the harder tasks required to achieve a more senior position. However, it’s worth giving some thought to the underlying reasons that are motivating you to move up the ladder. People who crave power for its own sake, says Armitage, ‘have often had a period in their life where they haven’t had power, and so it serves as a defence’. 

    So, are you passionate about taking what you do to the next level, or craving seniority to try to solve a control issue? Because if your underlying motivation is never feeling out of control, no amount of promotions will ever do the trick. 

    When examining your motivations, Armitage recommends giving some thought to what achieving higher status in the workplace would mean for you in practice. It could be richly rewarding, but will also bring new challenges. ‘With power comes people management and hard decision-making,’ she points out. Give some thought to which level of seniority or status you are truly motivated to achieve. 


    4. Competence motivation 

    Mastering a new skill of some kind relates to what’s called competence motivation – but it might go far deeper than the logical benefits of, for example, learning a new language. ‘Having goals where there is a tangible outcome at the end can be strongly motivational,’ says Armitage, ‘but there will also be underlying factors. Why does the person want to gain that skill, what are they trying to prove, and to whom? There could be deeper drivers about what that signifies. When someone has had a deficit of one thing, they are often driven to have mastery of the opposite.’

    This can work very well for some people, but it’s worth unpacking whether any unconscious forces are at play. ‘When you talk to people about their childhood, you will quite often find an opposition there,’ she says. ‘For example, some people who are personal trainers now were overweight or unfit as children. The drive of not wanting to be where you were as a child, if that was painful or unhelpful for you at the time, is a real force to be reckoned with.’


    5. Incentive motivation 

    Incentive motivation is essentially an ‘If I do x, I will get y’ exchange, whether the reward is your child filling up their potty-training sticker-chart, or earning a high salary for a job you may or may not like. ‘We’re always working towards seeking rewards,’ says Armitage. ‘We might work in a job and not feel like it, but think about the fact that we can buy a nice holiday if we do.’  

    Ultimately, though, this will only ever get us so far. ‘When you truly enjoy what you do, you do better at it,’ says Armitage, and that can be the driver to achieving greater things. 

    Here’s how to be OK with not planning ahead.

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