Innate Motivations & How They Drive Our Aspirations

One of the most intricate and difficult to understand aspects of life is human behavior and what drives it. For years, researchers have developed new concepts, ways of thinking, and theories that definitively explain how human needs and wants are manifested into our actions and behaviors (Burns, 2003, p. 148). Freud first theorized that humans had three basic drives – sexuality, aggression, and our ego, with our behavior controlled by the id, ego, and superego (Burns, 2003, p. 148). Later, Behaviorists argued that our motivating drive was to reduce tension caused by survival-based needs like hunger, shelter, safety (Burns, 2003, p. 148). Then, Erikson described motivations through a series of stages throughout the lifecycle in which we reconcile different emotional, relational, intellectual, and physical needs (Burns, 2003, p. 148). Finally, Maslow optimistically and hopefully explained motivation in terms of self-actualization, realization, determination, and esteem (Burns, 2003, p. 149). He theorized that humans must satisfy higher needs such as love, belonging and esteem. In like manner, Bandura said success in meaningful activities helps us feel in control, negates feelings of despair and powerlessness, and develops our self-concept (Burns, 2003, p. 149). From this, we see that our motivations, wants, needs and drives inform and transform us, the world, and our situations, helping us feel more empowered in the process (Burns, 2003, p.150).

Interrelated to this is intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and locus of control. According to Psychology, humans are either motivated by internal factors – as in we personally derive meaning and value in what we do, or by external factors – as in we perform and follow-through on tasks because of the outcome, rewards, or recognition we will derive from these (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Similarly, our locus of control – whether we believe we are autonomous in shaping our destinies and actions, or that these are controlled by extenuating circumstances wholly out of our hands, informs our motivations, behaviors, and aspirations (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Having an internal locus of control entails we feel competent and confident in how we make decisions and live our lives (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Research indicates that an internal locus of control diminishes with external or extrinsic motivation, showing that our ability to feel confident and empowered in what we do decreases if others offer us a system of external rewards as motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Our focus and behaviors shift from deriving personal meaning, value, and passion for our actions and pursuits as motivations, to pursuing and attaining success and external rewards (Ryan & Deci, 2000). However, fostering autonomy in ourselves and those around us develops creativity and curiosity, further helping us find meaning and value in all that we do, work towards, and the needs and wants we strive to satisfy (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Thus, being passionate about what we do, embracing creativity and curiosity in our pursuits, causes us to be more confident, feel more competent, and shapes the way we live our lives, perceive and understand the world, and how we lead.

In my leadership, I often think about how I can motivate others to do something via external rewards. More often than not, what we can gain from others or our experiences is more appealing if it is in the form of a reward or prize. Incentives for participation in something important tends to fall along the lines of giving away a $50 Target gift card or new iPad Mini to a few randomly selected participants. I wonder how often this works as an incentive or ploy for recruiting others to do something. I would guess the answer is fairly often, judging by the flurry of emails and notifications my inbox receives about how many big prizes I could win if I just did one little survey. I think what is missing from society today is the ability to be intrinsically motivated and use this to develop creativity and curiosity about something meaningful and worthwhile. Maybe if we marketed things differently, we would not need such grandiose incentives to lure others in to care about what we are doing – if we told others “Here’s why what I am doing matters to you and benefits you in the longrun.” While I want others to care about what I do, I want to be mindful about how we approach what drives our motivations and behaviors. I believe it is more impactful if we are to understand and deeply care about a topic and have a few strong supporters than to have many more care only for the prizes we give and not about the topic or issue inspiring what we do. In my personal leadership, then, I want to help others see value, potential, and worth in things for real, valid, and meaningful reasons, as well as help us to care more deeply about our world and how we influence others in our behaviors, motivations, and drives.

Regarding the Christian faith and following the example of Christ, we can see that in His Ministry, it was common practice in society to operate on a patronage system (Keller, 2012, p. 43). This meant that political figures would give rewards to their supporters, as a means of keeping them and recruiting others, essentially, to do what they wanted them to do (Keller, 2012, p. 43). However, Jesus calls us to find deeper meaning in what we do (Keller, 2012, p. 43). It is easy to participate and attend things for the rewards, gifts, and accolades we will receive, and less so when we must work harder, do things that are uncomfortable or actively search and engage with our endeavors. In this, Christ calls believers to realign our actions, behaviors, and motivations such that they elevate those around us – the poor in spirit, the meek, and the suffering, rather than solely advancing ourselves (Keller, 2012, p. 43). This work is much more challenging and negates extrinsic motivations, creating within ourselves a desire to know more deeply, engage, and derive meaning and satisfaction internally and in our relationship with God (Keller, 2012, p. 43).


Burns, J. M. (2003). Transforming leadership: A new pursuit of happiness (Vol. 213). Grove Press.

Keller, T. (2012). Generous justice: How God’s grace makes us just. Riverhead Books.

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

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