Drive Theory Of Motivation Explained (With Examples)

Do you struggle with motivation? Whether it’s not having enough or having too much with no target to aim it at; understanding ‘motivation’ from an evolutionary and psychological point of view, could well be the key to help you with yours.

In this article we’re going to examine just what motivation is, from a ‘drive theory’ perspective. We’re then going to give you some practical advice to follow, that will help you to channel your motivation in service of a consciously chosen and desired goal.

A lot of this could fall under the banner of ‘alignment’. That is to say: choosing a goal that you truly desire, connecting that end goal with your inner power/talent/skillset and then taking actions that inexorably lead to said goal becoming part of your experience.

You may have never though of yourself this way, but you are a perfect manifesting machine. Just take a minute to think about your life up until this moment; all the good, bad and indifferent experiences. The sum of all that is who you are right now.

How powerful could you be in realising your goals/dreams, if you could channel that manifesting power and concentrate it at your desired outcomes? What if you could start to do this, simply by changing your thinking?

Here’s the thing: this isn’t just about finding new ways to forge ahead blindly with any old pursuit. This is about you being able to understand your emotional connection (drive) to your motivations and why there may be a disconnect.

Are your motivations actually aligned with who you want to be and are they really serving you…or someone else?

Let’s find out together!

What Is a Drive Theory?

First of all, let’s cover off exactly what we mean by a ‘Drive Theory’. The term ‘drive’ as it pertains to human behavior was thought to have been first used by R.S. Wordsworth in his 1918 book, Dynamic Psychology.[1]

In fact it was American philosophers J.B. Watson and J.J.B Morgan who published a paper in the April 1917 issue of the American Journal of Psychology entitled Emotional Reactions and Psychological Experimentation.

Nevertheless; in a letter that Wordsworth sent to Young, Young quoted him as saying:

“A machine has a mechanism such that if it is put in motion it operates in a certain way; but it must be driven in order to move. The “drive” of a machine is the supply of energy that puts it in motion” (Young, 1936, p. 71).

What he, Watson and Morgan we all talking about is the relationship between our fundamental emotional states and our motivation. They centered their thesis around three fundamental emotions: fear, rage, and love (using love in approximately the same sense that Freud uses sex).

It could really be any type of emotional charge. With regards to motivation, it is the emotional states that are built around an absence of something. These generate sufficient willingness (motivation) within us to take action in order to fill that absence.

So a ‘Drive Theory’ is really looking at the emotions that lie behind a specific human behavior, conducted in the service of an end goal. The drive theory of motivation is probably the most fundamental of all drive theories, because it lies at the heart of everything we do!

The Role of ‘Time’ in the Drive Theory of Motivation

Again: this may seem obvious on the face of it, but it’s important to talk about the importance of time when it comes to our motivations.

I’m sure you’ve heard the term ‘deferred gratification[2] before. It’s often used as a basic indicator of intelligence and marker for success in life. In essence, what that’s pointing to is an understanding that future payoffs can be greater, if we don’t seek immediate reward.

When it comes to our motivation, time is fundamental to how it all plays out. In fact; time is the problem, because you are starting in one place and want to end up somewhere else. The whole reason why you’re motivated to take action, is so that your future is different to your present.

What is behind this motivation? It could be about control: that you wish to build in a degree of certainty to your future, so that you know you will be financially or emotionally secure.

Say you are motivated to do a masters degree and pay into a pension, because you want to build better job prospects and have financial security when you get older. You’re taking action now, in order to reap assumed rewards in the future.

What is driving you here though? What’s the emotional engine that is turning the wheels? Fear. Fear that you will end up in a future space of lack.

We are going to park this scenario for now, but I want you to remember it, because we’re going to come back to it later.

The other role of time in what drives us, is of course that it’s finite. Being the only living creatures that recognize the inevitability of our eventual death, we know that we must take action now before death occurs, if we want to experience something in our lifetime.

Finding Your ‘Why’

In a lot of the early discussions of “drive” amongst philosophers, the term was often used in quotation marks. Suggestive of their desire to highlight its utilisation as a new term. This also implies that they considered it to be, in some way malleable and open to a degree of interpretation.

If you are struggling with motivation at work or in your personal life, you might find it easier to package all of this up as your ‘why’.

You have doubtlessly encountered the kid who replies, obnoxiously and robot-like to ever answer they’re given with “why?” It may be annoying, but they have actually stumbled upon something: our relationship with truth!

As adults it is very easy to get lost in the short-hand. It is a product of our subconscious programming that we seek efficiencies. This makes perfect sense, of course. If you had to remember to take every breath and how to walk each time you got up, you’d never get anything done.

This relentless automation and corner-cutting can catch us out though. We can get lost on paths, dictated by motivations that we don’t actually want anymore and that are not serving us.

A lot of psychology seeks to route out childhood trauma, and for good reason! Our subconscious mind is programmed using the language of emotional energy. In our formative years, this is all the more prevalent since we have not yet developed an intellect. It is therefore very easy for trauma to become stuck, dictating our behavior long into adulthood without us even realizing it.

Really interrogating why we want (or don’t want) something, is the vital first step in finding your ‘why’. It could well be that the reason for your lack of motivation, tendency towards procrastination and apparent self-sabotage: is that you don’t really want it!

The Drive Theory of Motivation and a Midlife Crisis

Coming back to that scenario from earlier – being motivated by the fear that you will end up in a future space of lack. This is what lies at the heart of most midlife crises. It’s the realization, whether by deliberate thought or not, that you have been living your life motivated by someone else’s drive.

The scales of time have tipped against you and you’ve spent most of your life dancing to the tune of someone else! Possibly not even a real person, but an assumed one. We can avoid this though, if we do the work of consciously engaging with what’s driving us now.

Quite often the mid-life crisis is the truth no longer able to be tempered by our narrative, breaking through. Once the illusion that there will always be enough time breaks down, what we really knew all along bursts out.

Most people know; working in a job that will enable them to jump through societal hoops (mortgage, pension, savings account etc…) isn’t satisfying. They do it because they want it to pay off in ‘the future’, but of course they don’t really consider that it will mean spending most of their lives in service of their final few years.

When the drive theory behind their motivations is exposed and breaks down, that’s where things are thrown into disarray. They realize that they’ve been driven by the fear that they will not meet the standards of someone else, and it is devastating.

How to Understand Your ‘Drive’ And Start Taking Back Control of Your Motivation

The first thing to recognize, own and accept; is that you have never failed at anything! You are a manifesting machine, operating 24/7 with flawless execution. Failure doesn’t exist, but incorrect belief systems do!

You need to start thinking of yourself as the creator of your reality. Not God-like or anything like that; you’re not able to dictate external forces per se, but you absolutely can dictate your response to them!

A simple (to understand, harder to implement) life hack is to practice gratitude. By simply looking for all of the things to be grateful for in our lives, we begin to train our subconscious to start seeing more to be grateful for. This starts feeding our reticular activating system (RAC) and creates one of those handy, corner-cutting short-hands in our subconscious.

Pretty soon all you will see in any given situation is what you can be grateful for, and in doing so: you will have reclaimed your power as the architect of your reality.

In accepting that fundamental truth though, you have to also own it all. Everything that has led to this point and all of the experiences you’ve had in your life…are on you! Of course: disasters may have befallen you in your time and probably will again, but how you choose to respond to them is entirely up to you.

This is not about blame or judgement. Don’t use this as an excuse for self-flagellation. You simply need to recognize that who you are today and the makeup of the world around you was as a result of choice.

Once you’re armed with that fundamental truth and power, you can go about making new choices for new outcomes. If indeed: you want new outcomes. You might find that, in delving into what your drive has been up until now and what you thought your motivations were, you are actually happy with where you’re at. If so: celebrate that!

The Role of Environment in Drive and Motivation

This is just to briefly touch on the role that our environment, both societal and geographic, plays in what motivates us.

From a geographic perspective it is quite obvious that, where seasonal changes are most severe; people have had to cultivate a motivation to shore themselves up during the less extreme periods, in order to weather the more extreme ones. “Make hay while the sun shines” and all that. The drive here is clearly a simple fear for survival.

When it comes to societal factors; it is first important to recognize why we are social creatures in the first place. A lot of it stems from the necessity for care as infants. Whereas a foal or calf can stand and walk unaided in a matter of hours after birth, human children require years of dependency in order to develop complex motor skills.

So we are born with an innate understanding of our frailties and need for help from others, and this motivates us to cultivate a support group. Whether that’s in the form of family, friends or mentors; we know that we need help. That fear of not receiving the requisite nurture and guidance in order to survive is what drives us to form bonds with others.

Quite a lot is made of the ‘evils’ of capitalism and money being the route of all evil etc… the implication being that these are the wrong kinds of things to be driven by.

No doubt, people feel pressured into ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ – but the drive behind that again is fear. The fear of missing out, being judged or left behind and therefore not having a support group. It stems from the same place as our need for nurture and inclusion; we want to keep growing!

Money is nothing more than the representation of a collectively agreed aggregation of value. It’s a totem. We can attach any meaning to money we want. Seeking more of it, in order to fulfill our true desires, instead of someone else’s: doesn’t change the outcome or even the motivation, on the face of it.

What does change is the intention – and that is where the really important drive lies.

Creating a New Drive

How can we take back control of what drives us, in order to maintain motivation in the areas that serve us the most?

We spoke about time earlier and how it relates to our motivations in a fundamental way: we don’t have something in the present, so we’re driven to attain it at some point in the future. That’s pretty easy to understand, but what if you were to act as though you do have it now?

This is not about ‘fake it till you make it’. What we’re talking about here is creating an energetic alignment with who you want to be, not what you want to attain. If you can truly understand and feel the emotional state you’ll be in on an average day in your dream life, you can start to feel that way now. By living in those energetic states now, you’re calling that reality in and making it an inevitable part of your future.

Energy has a frequency and emotions are ‘energy in motion’. By holding on to the frequency of the emotions we want to have (i.e. simply by imagining our future and then allowing ourselves to feel the emotions associated with it) we are connecting with the future we want in an expansive way, rather than a contractive way.

Again: it all comes down to intention. If you sit around thinking about being a millionaire, living on a yacht and driving a Bugatti – but do so from the premise that you don’t have that life now; you’re simply holding the frequency of lack. By doing so, you’ll just attract more luck!

If however you sit around, still thinking about the yacht, the money and the Bugatti – but this time you’re thinking about how great it will feel, how blessed you’ll be and all of the wonderful things you’ll be able to do with your life; you are expanding. Your whole intention is geared towards expansion and thinking expansively.

Your intention makes all the difference and is what will ultimately maintain your motivation, long after the ‘honeymoon’ period in any given endeavor.

Conclusion

The drive theory of motivation is both complex and simple. It’s something innately understood by most everyone, but in order to bring it fully within the control of our intellect – we have to do a lot of complex thinking.

In many ways, it represents the battle ground between our prehistoric ‘lizard’ brain and our evolved, conscious mind.

So if you are finding that your motivation for something is requiring more and more conscious effort to maintain, or you are questioning whether or not you really want something anymore, try following these steps:

  1. Breakdown and understand precisely what’s behind your ‘drive’
    • Are you acting out of fear, rage or love?
    • Are you driven to achieve someone else’s goal?
    • Recognize and acknowledge the truth, without judgement.
  2. Understand your ‘why’ and set your intentions from a space of expansion.
    • Make sure your goals encourage you to grow, rather than represent the unachievable and offer you an excuse for not trying.
  3. Practice holding the emotional frequency associated with your desired future, and witness the changes in you as they occur in the present.
    • Spend time really envisioning your desired future as though it’s an average day for you. Witness the physical feelings (butterflies in your stomach, quickening heartbeat etc…) and recognize them as they begin to show up in your daily life now.

Featured photo credit: Louis Hansel – Restaurant Photographer via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society: J. B. Watson and J. J. B. Morgan: The original drive theory of motivation
[2] James Clear: Delayed Gratification

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