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Understanding Motivation in Physical Activity

Motivation plays a vital role in why people engage in different forms of physical activity – from sport and exercise to dance and yoga.

Understanding Motivation in Physical Activity

Motivation plays a vital role in why people engage in different forms of physical activity – from sport and exercise to dance and yoga. This article focuses on three aspects of motivation: definition of motivation, perspectives on motivation, and theories of motivation (in exercise and sport contexts).

What is Motivation?

Definition of Motivation

Motivation may be defined as the inner psychological drive that instigates and maintains action to achieve a desired goal.

Perspectives on Motivation

Let's first dive into the different perspectives on motivation that are popular in the field of psychology.

Psychodynamic Perspective on Motivation

Psychodynamic Perspective underscores the biological basis of behaviour. Freud argued that human beings are motivated by innate drives which he regarded as internal tension states that build up until they are satiated.

Freud proposed two elementary drives: sex and aggression. The sexual drive includes desires for love, lust, and intimacy, whereas the aggressive drive includes aggressive impulses and desires to control or master other people and environment.

Freud's conceptualisation of drives stemmed from his experience of World War I where he witnessed aggression on a large scale. And so, he reasoned that aggression must be an essential component of self-preservation and overall motivational force.

Modern psychodynamic theorists now highlight two additional motives: need for relatedness to others and need for self-esteem. Furthermore, they also advocate that these motives are closer to clinically observed concepts of wishes and fears.

A wish is an internal representation of a desired state that has an emotion or arousal associated with it. Wishes may include conscious desires such as wanting to get a new iPhone or obtaining a reward at work, and unconscious desires such as wanting to be accepted by friends or being wanted by a significant other. Once a wish is attained, it becomes less intense or activated.

A fear is an internal representation of an undesired state that has unpleasant emotions or feelings associated with it. Fears, just like wishes, range from conscious to unconscious, such as the fear of not being accepted, being punished, or unnecessary worries about the future.

One of the most unique aspects of the psychodynamic perspective of motivation is its distinction between conscious (explicit) vs unconscious (implicit) motives. For instance, an individual may claim to be "wanting to improve themselves" at work, when in reality they may be competing with others for a promotion. Or, a young woman, who witnessed abusive parents growing up, may want to avoid abusive friends but keeps 'falling' for abusive partners.

Behavioural Perspective on Motivation

The behavioural theory of operant conditioning purports that human beings are motivated to cause and repeat behaviours that are rewarded (and not punished) by the environment.

So, an organism is more likely to repeat a behaviour if it is rewarded or not repeat the behaviour if it is punished by/in the external environment. For instance, a dog may wag its tail and do a trick if this behaviour gets rewarded with food. Similarly, the dog is less likely to bark at home or scratch the couch if this behaviour is punished with detention.

Simply put, an animal that is hungry would be driven to source food and engage in behaviours that will likely produce that result. However, behavioural theorists do make the argument that the internal state of the organism would also influence reinforcement and final behaviour. That is, the same food may attract a hungry animal, but not a satiated one. And so, reinforcement also plays a role in behavioural outcomes.

Behavioural perspective argues that all organisms have innate needs, which when unmet, drives them to fulfill those needs. The drive-reduction theories postulate that motivation arises from a combination of drive and reinforcement. This is pivoted on the concept of homeostatis – the tendency of an organism to maintain a state of equilibrium.

Deprivation of basic needs disrupts the state of equilibrium, which forces the organism to act. If the organism is able to behave in a way that produces desired results (i.e., able to procure food without hassles), it will associate this behaviour with drive-reduction. Hence, this behaviour is reinforced (i.e., with food) and is likely to be repeated.

Behavioural theorists also make the distinction between primary and secondary drives. Primary drives include basic needs, such as hunger, thirst, and sex. All organisms are innately motivated to fulfill their primary drives. However, some organisms engage in primary drives to also fulfill other motives, that are referred to as secondary drives. For instance, many human beings seem to be motivated by the need to acquire more money. In this case, the acquisition of money (secondary drive) helps fulfill a range of primary and (other) secondary drives. A secondary drive may be learned via conditioning or modelling.

According to behavioural theorists, an important factor that regulates behaviour is incentive. An incentive is an external stimulus that entices the organism to engage in a particular behaviour. For instance, a person who was not particularly hungry may still choose to enter an eatery because of the smell of the bakery or photos depicting delicious dishes outside a restaurant.

Cognitive Perspective on Motivation

Cognitive perspective focuses on rational approaches to motivation. For instance, expectancy-value theories view motivation as a combination of the value people place on an outcome and the extent to which they believe they can achieve it. According to cognitive theorists, human beings are driven to achieve goals that matter a lot to them but that they also believe can be reasonably accomplished.

People's belief in their abilities seem to influence their motivation and subsequent achievement. That is, an individual's perception of their abilities to a large extent can determine their success. Similarly, it has been found that for unemployed people, the likelihood of succeeding in job hunting, along with the value they put on the actual job, predicts the probability of them successfully finding a job in the future.

Cognitive approaches to motivation often focus on goals. Goals depict desired end-states that are functionally different from an individual's current state. Goal-setting theory argues that by formulating and working through a sequence of SMART (i.e., specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) action plan, an individual may perform better and achieve a (previously) desired state.

Another approach, self-determination theory, proposes that individuals are driven to act based on the intrinsic-extrinsic dichotomy. For example, individuals who are intrinsically motivated to participate in an activity (i.e., who are motivated by factors that are about the activity, such as enjoyment or skill development and mastery), tend to participate over a longer period of time, as compared to extrinsically motivated individuals, who engage in an activity due to factors that are not related to the activity itself, such as rewards or acceptance/praise by others. Self-determination theorists argue that people have three innate needs – competence, autonomy, and relatedness – and that intrinsic motivation flourishes when these needs are fulfilled.

Humanistic Perspective on Motivation

Humanistic approach to motivation places a premium on values that lead to personal growth. Maslow argued that human beings were motivated by the need to grow and that they would often attempt to overcome barriers to achieve it. Consequently, he developed the Hierarchy of Needs and proposed that human beings were motivated to self-actualise.

According to his theory, lower-level needs are concerned with basic survival and include physiological requirements (such as hunger and thirst). Needs at the next level concern safety and security. Once the basic needs are met, people are assumed to be motivated to pursue a sense of belongingness and intimacy. The next level in the hierarchy is esteem needs which includes self-esteem and esteem of others. And at the highest level are self-actualisation needs which are characterised by the need to express oneself and grow in order to reach one's true potential.

Maslow's self-actualisation theory focuses on the gradual progression from basic needs to growth needs that are believed to expand the motivational continuum and help individuals develop their skills and abilities.

Evolutionary Perspective on Motivation

Evolutionary theorists hold the view that motivational systems have been pre-selected by nature for their ability to maximise success in two areas: survival and reproduction. That is, organisms are believed to be motivated to engage in behaviours that would increase the likelihood of their survival and reproduction. Conversely, organisms who do not engage in such behaviours are likely to perish and not reproduce. Therefore, nature is said to have designed organisms that seek out life-supporting processes.

It is believed that evolution selects organisms that maximise their inclusive fitness – the ability of an organism to maintain evolutionary success by transmitting genes to the next generation. For instance, the gene of an individual, who actively protects his/her child, is also available in the gene pool for the next generation (because the child shares half of the parent's genes). This effect compounds as the parent protects his children, other cousins, and their children. Across many generations, this effect becomes substantially large.

These processes are believed to guide motivational systems that ultimately dictate behaviour. Maximising inclusive fitness involves a range of motives, such as choosing and competing for mates, protecting off-springs, caring about and supporting other kindred (genetically related) individuals, developing deep and meaningful alliances with significant others, and engaging in activities that would increase the likelihood of survival.

Theories of Motivation (in exercise and sport)

In the following sections, I present four theories of motivation that are relevant for sport and exercise psychology – Attribution Theory, Social Cognitive and Self-Efficacy Theory, Achievement Goal Theory, and Self-Determination Theory.

Attribution Theory

Exercise and sport participants are always attempting to understand their behaviours, especially those that relate to their performance. On most occasions, they try to differentiate good performances from bad ones.

On certain occasions, they make lame excuses for not succeeding or making the right decisions. And on other occasions, they are reticent or humble in the face of success or failure, citing good luck or support from others (e.g., coaching team), rather than their own actions for their success. Some individuals hold themselves responsible for their success or failure, while some others regard their opponents as the cause. In all of these circumstances, individuals are making attributions for their successes and failures.

Attribution theory was first proposed by Heider (1958) who argued that people behaved as 'naive scientists' and tried to make sense of outcomes by attributing causality to observed behaviours. Heider believed that people made attributions based on a combination of perceived dispositional (internal) and situational (external) cause(s).

Dispositional (internal) causes were believed to lie within an individual's own sphere of influence (known as locus of causality) and hence controllable. This included skill, knowledge, ability, and effort. On the other hand, situational (external) causes were believed to lie outside an individual's own sphere of influence. This included luck, weather, and opponent's ability. It should be noted that these attributions are based on the individual's own perception which may be real and true or unreal and imagined.

Attribution theory was further developed by Weiner and his colleagues (Weiner, 1972; Weiner, Heck-hausen, Meyer, & Cook, 1972) who proposed that attributions for success or failure can be described on three bipolar dimensions:

  • locus of causality (internal or external),
  • the stability of the cause (stable or unstable), and
  • whether the cause is controllable by the individual making the attribution (controllable or uncontrollable).

It was theorized that after performance events (e.g., a competition or race), individuals assess whether they succeeded or failed based on attributions they make. The individuals are then likely to experience adaptive or maladaptive emotions based on the outcome of those attributions. That is, they are more likely to experience satisfaction and happiness if they attribute success to their own ability, and despair and dejection if they attribute failure to their own ability.

Social Cognitive Theory and Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy has been one of the most researched concepts in psychology and originates from Bandura's (1986) influential social cognitive theory. Self-efficacy is conceptualised as an individual's personal estimate of confidence in their ability to accomplish a certain level of performance.

According to Bandura (1994, p. 71), "Perceived self-efficacy is defined as people's beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives". Therefore, self-efficacy reflects personal beliefs regarding capacity or ability to perform an upcoming behaviour or action.

Self-efficacy is related to outcome evaluations, which are beliefs that completing a behaviour or action will result in desirable outcomes. It also tends to be situation-specific and reflects judgements that are personally defined by individuals themselves. Because self-efficacy relates to specific actions and behaviours, it is modifiable through situational, environmental, or contextual factors.

Self-efficacy has been found to significantly influence motivation. A person with a high-self efficacy is more likely to believe in their abilities to achieve a particular task, put committed efforts and immerse themselves whole-heartedly to attain desirable goals, tackle adversities with confidence, and persist until the goals have been achieved.

Self-efficacy has been found to predict a number of key psycho-behavioural processes, such as thought considerations, goal choice and formulation, attribution behaviours, and effort investments.

Bandura (1977) believed that individuals not only hold beliefs about their ability to perform a given behaviour, but also that the behaviour will result in certain outcomes. He argued that these (belief-behaviour-outcome) interact to produce a behavioural response. Therefore, high self-efficacy to perform an exercise/sport task and achieve a desirable outcome will have a pervasive influence on an individual's actual performance if she/he also has a high expectation that performing the task will produce the desired outcome. This action-outcome link is understood to be a synergistic process that influences approach behaviours, effort, and persistence.

Achievement Goal Theory

The proponents of achievement goal theory focus on how individuals judge their own ability (i.e., perceptions of competence) and define successful accomplishments, in order to understand their underlying motivational processes.

Theorists, such as Dweck (1986), Elliot (1999), and Nicholls (1984, 1989) made the distinction between two goal perspectives that arise in achievement situations and influence perceptions of competence: a task (or mastery) orientation and an ego (or performance) orientation.

A task or mastery orientation reflects the tendency to view success in achievement contexts through the demonstration of competence by achieving task-related successes such as hard work, effort, and achieving personally-relevant goals.

An ego or performance orientation is the tendency to view winning, exceeding a normatively referenced standard, or gaining some sort of external reward or approval, as indicators of success.

These goals are not mutually exclusive, in that an individual could exhibit high levels of both task-orientation and ego-orientation or any high-low combination of these perspectives.

In competitive contexts, a task-oriented athlete is likely to interpret success as establishing competence by accomplishing task-relevant goals. For instance, a cricket player may interpret success by the number of runs she has scored relative to her own highest score.

On the other hand, an athlete with an ego-orientation is likely to view success as winning or outranking their opponent. For example, a tennis player who views success as defeating other players in a tournament.

Of course, it is possible for an individual to hold both task- and ego-orientations simultaneously, such that competence is demonstrated from both self- and other-referenced perspectives.

An individual with a high ego-orientation and low task-orientation is likely to view success only in terms of demonstrating competence through winning. Such an individual would be unable to demonstrate competence if they lose or experience failure, which in turn would undermine their motivation to engage or continue in that behaviour.

However, if this individual is high on task-orientation as well, then they are likely to view success, at least in part, by focusing on how competently they executed task-related goals, even in failure. That is, they may have lost a competition, but they were at least able to demonstrate competence through their own goals regardless of the final outcome.

And therefore, a task-orientation alone (or in combination with ego-orientation) is deemed to be motivationally adaptive. Overall, task-orientation tends to be more strongly related to adaptive motivational constructs (such as confidence, goal attainment, belief in one's own self, effort, and enjoyment), whereas ego-orientation tends to be more strongly related to maladaptive motivational constructs (such as anxiety, social comparison and approval, and uncontrollable attributions).

Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination theory is a meta-theory comprising four distinct theories that aim to explain the interpersonal and environmental conditions that influence human motivation.

Self-determination theory hones in on the concept of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is a motivational state in which individuals engage in activities and tasks for the inherent fun and satisfaction, and not external contingency or reinforcement (as in the case of extrinsic motivation).

Individuals who are intrinsically motivated to engage in an activity do so out of their own internal choices and not because of external demands. They engage in such behaviours because they seem to derive a sense of contentment, competence, and fulfilment, which further encourages them to continue to engage in that activity, thereby creating a sustainable and long-lasting loop.

Intrinsic motivation is vital for exercise and sport participants. Intrinsic motivation is not only important for individuals to partake in exercise and sport activities, but also crucial for adherence and continued participation.

Considering the prevalence of physical inactivity in the society, getting people to self-regulate their behaviours so that they participate in any given physical activity without any external reinforcement and/or punishment is of vital importance.

Each sub-theory of self-determination theory provides explanations for key motivational phenomena. These sub-theories include:

  • Cognitive Evaluation Theory is concerned with the environmental contingencies that either promote or thwart intrinsically-motivated behaviour.
  • General Causality Orientation Theory suggests that people have individual differences in the degree to which they endorse either self-determined or non-self-determined (controlling) forms of motivation.
  • Organismic Integration Theory explains how people internalize and integrate external contingencies into their repertoire of self-determined behaviours.
  • Basic Psychological Needs Theory suggests that people have a generalized tendency to seek behaviours that are self-determined to fulfil their psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Overall, self-determination theory serves as a general explanatory framework to explain the origins of intrinsic motivation and self-determined behaviour, and the interpersonal and environmental factors that encourage or discourage intrinsically motivated behaviours.

Further reading

Roychowdhury, D. (2023). Motivation in physical activity. In Routledge Encyclopedia of Psychology in the Real World. Routledge.

Morris, T., & Roychowdhury, D. (2020). Physical activity for health and wellbeing: The role of motives for participation. Health Psychology Report, 8(4), 391 – 407.

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