What motivates people?
February 17, 2019 7:17 PM   Subscribe

What motivates people to do anything at all, beyond the necessities of life like eating, drinking, and sleeping? Why does a person read a book, or paint a picture, or call a friend, or buy something on an infomercial, or go to a protest? I'm interested in a very broad perspective on this question, so anything from personal anecdotes, to self-help books, to studies on the effectiveness of advertising, and to treatises on propaganda are all welcome answers.
posted by J.K. Seazer to Human Relations (28 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
In my younger days, the answer mostly would be "procrastination".
Doing something else instead of what I was supposed to be doing.
posted by Calvin and the Duplicators at 7:28 PM on February 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is just such a huge question, and an endlessly interesting one (for some, but not for others, right?)

One of the most useful concepts here is Self-Determination Theory from Deci and Ryan. It's a set of academic theories which are applicable to any aspect of choice of motivation, and there is tons of serious, published research, but it is also pretty accessible. It comes down to humans' need for autonomy, feelings of competence, and relatedness. I find this framework really helps me understand my own motivations and those others better. Wikipedia.
posted by Gotanda at 7:31 PM on February 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not to threadsit or abuse the edit window, but I had a chance to meet Ryan last year and talk with him. Super nice guy and a good speaker who can explain these ideas well. He's got a huge evidence base of decades of careful research but can also sum it up quite well. Some YT vids that are actually worth the time. Very short. And, longer.
posted by Gotanda at 7:39 PM on February 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

A love of learning, adventure, and connection!
posted by smorgasbord at 7:55 PM on February 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Might be interested in decision theory?
posted by praemunire at 7:58 PM on February 17, 2019

Boredom, new experiences, need for income/job, sustenance, and a livable environment; ... reads like what kept us moving when we were all um, cavemen?
posted by Afghan Stan at 8:03 PM on February 17, 2019

Maslow says that we are motivated to get our needs met - starting with basic needs for food and shelter and moving on through belonging to self-actualization.
posted by metahawk at 8:04 PM on February 17, 2019 [7 favorites]

Best answer: This book, Behave, by neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, answers this question in a thorough, even magisterial, way.
posted by smoke at 8:42 PM on February 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

At my best I'm motivated by the pleasure of finding things out.
posted by poe at 10:30 PM on February 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding Maslow, in particular his book Motivation and Personality (a very accessible/engaging textbook)
posted by hotcoroner at 10:53 PM on February 17, 2019

The answer, very simply, is sex. Or perhaps
posted by spitbull at 11:05 PM on February 17, 2019

Self-expression is a strong motivating force. From simple efforts to externalise and/codify thoughts, ideas and feelings we get a huge range of behaviours.
posted by freya_lamb at 11:27 PM on February 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Protecting Earth is an increasing motivator - and fits in well with loving to learn.

It's really about holding something to be sacred eh.
posted by unearthed at 11:41 PM on February 17, 2019

Having a creative idea and wanting to express it in visual art or a short story/poem.

Wanting to make the world a better, fairer place.

Wanting to stop species going extinct.

Wanting to stop climate change.
posted by Murderbot at 12:14 AM on February 18, 2019

Boredom's a good motivator. You get bored enough, you'll do damn near anything to alleviate it.

A desire for self-improvement is a big one. I read the encyclopedia when I was 6 because I thought if I knew everything, I could do anything. I do things like exercising, reading, meditating, and studying because I want to know more so I can do more. (I especially read and study more so I can help my clients better; I'm a mindset and motivation coach.)

A desire for self-expression is huge. I've been a musician my entire life. If I don't sing, my day is less joyful. I also compose music. I write, too; blog posts, essays, and I'm working on a short story. And ever since my therapist suggested an artistic endeavor with a tangible output to help manage my bipolar and anxiety, I've been doing origami, adult coloring books, collages, and hand-sewn quilting.

Wanting to improve the world around you is big. Find your social cause and go to town on it. The environment, politics, LGBTQ+ rights, BLM, foster kids, town beautification, Habitat for Humanity, the Peace Corps, whatever it is you are passionate about.

Wanting to improve the quality of your life. You have to eat. But you could eat steak and roasted veggies instead of Hamburger Helper. You have to drink. But you could drink fancypants mixed fruit juices or Dom Peringon instead of tap water and Natty Light. You have to sleep, but you could sleep in a four-poster bed with 280-thread-count Pima Cotton Percale Sheets and a down comforter, or on a cot or an air mattress on the floor.

Then there's external motivators. Parental pressure to get an education or a good job. Economic pressure to be able to pay your rent or buy groceries. Societal pressure to grow or remove hair, wait your turn in line, and be nice to other people.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 12:46 AM on February 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is a question you will see addressed in both psychology and philosophy. The fundamental motivational drivers will be the basic homeostatic preserving systems that keep you alive- where these systems get associated both through evolution and through learning with all kinds of different things. An important distinction is between things that are finally valuable (valuable independently of further consequences) and things that are instrumentally valuable (valuable because they lead to something finally valuable). Some things are both of course. Final values include the various pleasures, but also relief from pain (in the sense that pain is finally disvaluable), and I think social attachment and the sense of power. Excitement might be finally valuable, or it might reduce to one or more of the others.

What I find interesting is the 'will to live'. Is this a fundamental drive or just something we get from different person-level desires? One of the books that speaks to this is the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's book 'Man's Search for Meaning' which is largely an account of how he endured the Auschwitz concentration camp. You can read the whole thing in a hour or two and it's amazing. I think Frankl is a good counterpoint to Maslow as well.
posted by leibniz at 1:40 AM on February 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

Said it before and I'll say it again: the single most important motivator for the overwhelming bulk of the activity performed by any human being is habit. Plain old habit. Doing stuff you've done before and don't have to think too hard about how to do is just the easiest thing, and therefore the most frequently done thing.

Next most important motivator is boredom. Boredom is totally underrated, in my view. It can push a person in all kinds of new and unexpected directions.

Next, though a long way down the frequency-of-actions-driven table from the other two for almost everybody, is curiosity.

I think you'll find that these three cover damn near everything, one way or another.
posted by flabdablet at 2:16 AM on February 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's a while since I read it but I think The Denial of Death covers this pretty well.
posted by night_train at 2:55 AM on February 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Daniel Pink has made a career out of writing and speaking about this question. His most famous book is Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 4:20 AM on February 18, 2019

Excerpt from Wikipedia on The Denial of Death:
Becker argues that a basic duality in human life exists between the physical world of objects and a symbolic world of human meaning. Thus, since humanity has a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, we are able to transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism, by focusing our attention mainly on our symbolic selves. This symbolic self-focus takes the form of an individual's "immortality project" (or "causa sui project"), which is essentially a symbolic belief-system that ensures oneself is believed superior to physical reality. By successfully living under the terms of the immortality project, people feel they can become heroic and, henceforth, part of something eternal: something that will never die as compared to their physical body. This, in turn, gives people the feeling that their lives have meaning, a purpose, and are significant in the grand scheme of things.
If that is an accurate precis of Becker's position, I agree with him that fear and denial of death does indeed appear to drive a tremendous amount of human activity. I disagree with him that living in such a craven state of denial is in any sense heroic, or even terribly sensible.

Because there's another perfectly feasible and rather less elaborate means for transcending the dilemma of mortality. If one chooses to accept one's own death as an inevitable consequence of being alive, and works on becoming completely comfortable with that acceptance, one can simply give up any need for one's life to have a meaning and a purpose, decide to defer deciding what those might have been until very near the end of it, and thereby give oneself the freedom to experience the actual grandeur of the grand scheme of things instead of trying to jam it into the Procrustean conceptual bed that one would have to employ in order to render any single human life significant by comparison.

The desire to organize some kind of civilization, it seems to me, follows in a straightforward fashion from a shared desire not to have the shit beaten out of us on a regular basis. I'm unconvinced that a conceptual tower built on a foundational denial of death, as opposed to a foundational distaste for a life of physical pain and suffering, has actually got much explanatory power.
posted by flabdablet at 4:41 AM on February 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

If the people in my company are anything to go by, the answer is "How much will I get paid?"
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:51 AM on February 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Terror Management Theory

....proposes that a basic psychological conflict results from having a self-preservation instinct while realizing that death is inevitable and to some extent unpredictable. This conflict produces terror, and the terror is then managed by embracing cultural beliefs, or symbolic systems that act to counter biological reality with more durable forms of meaning and value.

edit; this is an updated version of the "Denial Of Death" stuff posted above. Becker is cited in the wiki I linked to about TMT.
posted by lalochezia at 7:04 AM on February 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Because there's another perfectly feasible and rather less elaborate means for transcending the dilemma of mortality

I suppose this is a tenet of Buddhism - and slightly related, Pascal wrote "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone"
posted by night_train at 7:45 AM on February 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

For me this is some combination of getting needs met, having a drive to do a particular thing, and not being able to tolerate boredom.

Reading has always offered me an escape from both boredom and whatever is going on around me.

In junior high, I found that if I played music, I didn't have to hear my parents fighting or deal with the boredom in the downtime of my classes or my horrible classmates.

I started protesting because I didn't have another way to be heard, and cared about making changes in the world. I can't go to protests now because it's hard to walk that much, so I've built myself a career that's basically a paid activism job.

I make art for reasons that are probably best described as a compulsion, or a set of compulsions - it's how I understand myself and the world around me, and I have a strong drive to do this. Alan Moore has described art as the fourth drive - people want to be able to eat, shit, and sleep safely, and when those needs are met at least some chunk of the group will start making art.
posted by bile and syntax at 9:48 AM on February 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

A university where I served had an executive who would trot out Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs whenever advising faculty, staff, or students on how to succeed. I found that amusing. A college is possibly the best place to find Maslow's priorities turned upside down. Frat boys ignore safety to gain the esteem of their peers. Researchers regularly must be reeled in as they jettison health, love, quicker wealth, and a social life in order to pursue Truth, Beauty, Science, and Art. "No, you can't live in your office."

To some extent it is a good thing that motivation can be unpredictable and uncontrollable. Consider what would happen if advertisers or tyrants mastered control of motivation. Consider what has happened when they've come close.
posted by gregoreo at 11:53 AM on February 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

I suppose this is a tenet of Buddhism

More Taoist, I suspect. I'd file personal reincarnation every bit as squarely under superfluous death-denying conceptual baggage as heaven, hell and resurrection.
posted by flabdablet at 5:03 PM on February 18, 2019

I've been thinking about this a lot since it was posted, and I do think this is yet another example of how psychology fails as a stand alone field of study for human behavior.
Theories on motivation appear to solely focus upon what enables people to act upon their motivations rather than what motives itself.
One can have all aspects present, be fully motivated, and yet still be unable to act, and psychology theories fail to address that.
If you apply social psychology theories, you'll get an additional layer of what's known as "barriers," which block motivated action from otherwise occuring.
Further, forensic psychology can tell us that true motives are actually rather difficult to determine even under the best and clearest circumstances.
Lastly, there is a yet undetermined factor present as in, while we assume the basis of behavioral motivation is fully understood and covered by these theories, we still can only theorize what the hell might be going on with other animal species under study that appear to have given up on themselves like the pandas.
posted by OnefortheLast at 8:32 PM on March 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

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