31 Most Popular Motivation Theories (A to Z List)

31 Most Popular Motivation Theories (A to Z List)Reviewed by Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

motivation theories, explained below

Motivation theories are theories that explain the human drive to action. The major motivation theories are listed in the glossary below.

1. ABC Model of Attitude

Attitude is the spirit with which we approach a situation, a task, or just life in general. Attitudes are acquired through the experiences individuals have in life. The ABC model of attitude proposes that an individual’s attitude is made up of 3 components – affective, behavioral, and cognitive. 

  • Affective component – This component is made up of the feelings we have about an object, situation, place, etc.
  • Behavioral component – This component is a measure of how our attitude affects our behavior. 
  • Cognitive component – This component comprises an individual’s belief or the knowledge they possess about a situation, person, place, etc. This is in contrast to the affective component which was about feelings, rather than knowledge/beliefs.

> Read our full article on the ABC Model of Attitude

2. Adams’ equity theory of motivation

Adams’ equity theory of motivation states that to be motivated to perform a task, an individual needs two things – fair compensation for their efforts, and the conviction that the compensation is comparable to that being received by their peers for similar work (Adams, 1965).

The theory was proposed by the psychologist J. Stacey Adams in the 1960s in an attempt to formulate a model for the most optimal distribution of resources in an organization. 

Read Also: Equity vs Equality

3. Alderfer’s ERG theory

Alderfer’s ERG theory is a motivation theory that classifies the core needs of an individual into three groups – existence (E), relatedness (R ), and growth (G).

It was proposed by the American psychologist Clayton Alderfer (1940-2015). Alderfer built upon the well-known Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, further condensing Maslow’s 9-level hierarchy into 3 groups.

  • The existence group (E) categorizes all those needs that are fundamental for an individual’s physiological existence.
  • The relatedness group (R )combines the needs that concern the human need to socialize with, and relate to other human beings.
  • The growth group (G) categorizes the need for personal, social, and spiritual development. 

4. Argyris’s Theory of Adult Personality

Argyris’ theory of adult personality states that organizations that treat their employees as mature, adult individuals, and demonstrate this by giving them greater independence and responsibilities perform better than those that don’t.

As proposed by the American business theorist Chris Argyris ( 1923-2013), the theory proposes that organizations that rely too heavily on rules, regulations, and codes of conduct tend to stifle the development of their workers to maturity, by extension, stifling their own growth. 

5. Arousal-biased competition theory

The universe is infinite whereas the human capacity for perception is not. This means that our senses can only capture and process a fraction of all that we see, hear, feel, and sense around us.

In other words, the world around us is engaged in a competition to capture our attention.

The arousal-biased competition theory states that phenomena that tend to arouse us manage to capture our attention sooner, and retain it for longer. 

6. Behaviorism

Behaviorism uses rewards and punishments to control motivation. It is based on the works of B.F. Skinner who trained animals to complete tasks through repetition, reward, and punishment.

At the core of behaviorism is the idea that we are motivated by the expectation of external rewards and punishments. If historically we have received rewards for a behavior, we are more likely to do it again. Conversely, previous punishments will deter us from doing a task again.

  • Examples of positive reinforcements include stickers and treats
  • Examples of negative reinforcements include removing aversive things (e.g. taking vegetables away from a plate to stop a baby from crying)
  • Examples of punishments include getting time-out for bad behavior

This theory has a distinct weakness: it sees motivation as being controlled by external factors, eliminating thought processes and agency from our understanding of human behavior.

> Read our full article on behaviorism in education

7. Equity Theory

The equity theory is concerned with the equitable distribution of resources in an organization so as to optimize output. The theory states that when employees are under-compensated or overcompensated, they may feel either demotivated or stressed, impacting output.

Equity Theory posits that individuals are motivated to maintain a fair balance between their inputs (e.g., effort, skill) and outcomes (e.g., salary, recognition) in comparison to others.

When individuals perceive inequity, it creates a state of tension that motivates them to restore equity, either by adjusting their own inputs and outcomes or by influencing others’ inputs and outcomes.

The theory highlights the social comparisons individuals make, and how perceived fairness in the workplace can significantly affect motivation, job satisfaction, and organizational performance.

8. Expectancy-Value Theory

The expectancy-value theory states that the success of any individual in accomplishing a task is determined by two factors – how confident is the individual in successfully completing the task (expectancy), and how important, enjoyable, or satisfying the individual considers performing the task (value).

The theory was developed in the 1960s by the pioneering American psychologist John William Atkinson (1923-2003). 

> Read our full article on the Expectancy-Value Theory

9. Fixed vs Growth Mindsets

The theory of fixed vs growth mindsets was advanced by the American psychologist Carol Dweck (b. 1946). Dweck proposed that people with growth mindsets lead less stressful lives than those with fixed mindsets: 

  • Fixed mindset is the belief that a person’s abilities and talents are innate. People with fixed mindsets are likely to abandon a task after an initial setback, believing that they are just not “good at it”.
  • Growth mindset is the belief that abilities and skills can be acquired at any stage of life. People with growth mindsets are likely to view an initial setback as an opportunity to learn and improve.

10. Flow Theory

Flow in psychology is the feeling of being fully immersed in the task in hand leading to greater output, higher energy levels, enhanced creativity, and an increased feeling of satisfaction from performing the task. This state is colloquially known by several other names such as “being in the zone”

Although a phenomenon commonly experienced by almost all individuals, it was defined in its present form by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975. 

11. Herzberg’s Two Factor (Motivation-Hygiene) Theory

Herzberg’s two-factor theory states that satisfaction and dissatisfaction at work are unipolar phenomena, which is to say that they are not two sides of the same coin (or like two opposite poles of a magnet or electric charge).

Rather, each is rooted in an entirely different set of circumstances unrelated to the other.

The theory was formulated by the American psychologist Frederick Herzberg (1923-2000) in a study of over 200 workers in the American city of Pittsburgh known for its steel industry, and hence being a central node in the American industrial economy. 

Herzberg observed that the factors that the respondents reported as contributing to their job satisfaction had little role to play in job dissatisfaction, and conversely, the factors that contributed to job dissatisfaction had little impact on job satisfaction. 

12. Hull–Spence drive theory

The Hull-Spence theory, also called the Drive Reduction Theory, states that individual actions are motivated by a psychological or physiological need, and the need to “reduce” or sate the drive. 

The theory was propounded by the American psychologists Clark Hull (1884-1952) and Kenneth Spence (1907-1967) in 1943 and is named after them. 

The theory has been utilized extensively in studies involving weight reduction, exercise, substance addiction, etc. 

13. Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

Motivation can be of two types – intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivations are the drives that urge us to take actions solely for our benefit or satisfaction. For instance, pursuing a hobby that gives us creative satisfaction (the ‘intrinsic reward‘), or engaging in meditation to find inner peace.

Extrinsic motivation comprises external forces that compel us to act. These can further be of two types – reward or punishment. Reward is when we act in the hope of gaining some form of external benefits, such as money or recognition by others. Punishment is when we act from fear of suffering a punishment, incurring a loss, or facing criticism. 

In therapy, counselors use strategies like motivational interviewing questions to help people align their goals and motivations to move toward a more intrinsic motivation orientation.

> Read our full article on intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation for students

14. Keller’s ARCS Model of Motivation

Keller’s ARCS model of motivation explains the factors that motivate learners to perform better when being instructed. It proposes that there are a number of factors behind learner motivation that can be classified into 4 key clusters  – attention (A), relevance (R ), confidence (C ), and satisfaction (S). (Keller, 2012)

The model was proposed by the American psychologist John M. Keller (b. 1938)  A study of the ARCS model helps in designing motivational strategies to enhance learning outcomes, and it thus finds prominent application in the field of instructional design.

> Read our full article on the ARCS Model of Motivation

15. Learned Helplessness Theory

The learned helplessness theory states that repeated failure leads individuals to a state of mind where they feel powerless and display a lack of will to control their own actions.

This in turn can be a trigger for conditions such as depression. The theory holds that such lack of will and control are behaviors that are learned by individuals after repeated negative stimuli, rather than being manifestations of an actual state of powerlessness. 

The theory was outlined by the influential American psychologist Martin Seligman (b. 1942) 

16. Locke’s Goal-Setting Theory

The goal-setting theory states that setting clear, challenging, and deadline-bound goals with a proper feedback mechanism leads to demonstrable improvements towards attaining those goals. The theory was propounded by the American psychologist Edwin A. Locke (b. 1938) in 1968.

Locke believed that the reason most people fail to achieve their goals was that they failed to set specific goals that were challenging, bound by time limits. Setting vaguely defined goals, or goals, or goals that do not push the individual to test their limits was a major reason for poor goal completion rate. 

17. Locus of Control Theory

The locus of control theory is concerned with the degree to which different individuals believe they have control over the consequences of their actions. Some individuals might believe that the events in their lives are controlled by factors external to them, such as socio-economic structural factors, predestination, or a divine will. Others might believe that they solely are responsible for all their actions. In each case, the locus of control is said to be external or internal respectively.

For more see:

18. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a psychological model that arranges in a hierarchy the various human needs that drive us to action:

maslows hierarchy of needs

At the bottom of the hierarchy are placed the most basic, biological needs such as the need for food, shelter, and sexual reproduction.

As one moves up the hierarchy, the needs become more abstract and refined in nature, with the need for self-actualization, spiritual and creative needs located at the top of the hierarchy. 

The model was proposed by the influential American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) in 193 and is named after him. 

19. McClelland’s Achievement Motivation Theory

McClelland’s achievement motivation theory (also called the Three Needs Theory) states that all human action is motivated by three needs – achievement, affiliation, and power.

It further states that these needs are not innate, but result from the socialization and cultural conditioning we acquire from our surroundings. 

The theory was propounded by the American psychologist David McClelland (1917-1998) McClelland proposed that in most people either one or more of these needs were dominant.

He further suggested that individuals in leadership positions had a greater need for power than for affiliation (McClelland, 1998).

20. Optimal Functioning Hypothesis

A certain amount of stress is required to force any object into action. This applies to human action as well. At the same time, it is common knowledge that too much stress or anxiety can lead to psychological breakdowns. 

The optimal functioning hypothesis attempts to delineate the optimum level of state anxiety (anxiety related to a particular event, as opposed to chronic anxiety) under which the output of an individual would be optimal. This is known as the zone of optimal functioning (ZOF)

21. Processing efficiency theory

The processing efficiency theory holds that worry and anxiety take up significant cognitive resources of an individual, thereby impacting the performance of other tasks.

Cognitive resources have two main components – storage and processing. Worry impacts both, impairing the performance of complex tasks.

The theory further makes a distinction between efficiency and effectiveness. The former is linked to processing, while the latter to the performance of specific tasks. The theory states that worry and anxiety impact efficiency more than effectiveness. (Eysenck & Calvo, 1992)

22. Reinforcement Theory

The reinforcement theory states that the behavioral biases of individuals are reinforced by the consequences of their actions. In other words, rewards or punishments that result from certain actions loop back into individual cognition to reinforce pre-existing beliefs. 

For instance, studies on voting patterns in democracies have revealed that most voters have pre-existing opinions of their choice of candidates which is impacted little by campaigning and debates (Johnson-Cartee & Copeland, 1997).

23. Self-Determination Theory

Ryan and Deci explored how our motivations are shaped by two fundamental human factors: our capacity for intrinsic motivation and our desire for growth.

Within this theory, motivations can be placed on a spectrum from non-regulation and external motivation on one end and intrinsic motivation on the other. Along this spectrum, various motivations are placed, such as the motivations for ego, self-satisfaction, and extrinsic rewards.

> For more, read our full explanation and analysis of the self-determination continuum

24. Thayer’s Theory of Psychological Arousal

The psychologist Robert E. Thayer proposed that the wide spectrum of human moods is a function of a continuum of psychological states that can be broadly classified into two groupings –  energy and tension.

Thayer called these activation dimensions, or arousal dimensions, and proposed a relation between the two such that the two states are positively correlated in states when energy expenditure is low, and negatively correlated when energy expenditure is high (Thayer, 1978).

So for instance after intense bouts of physical activity (high energy expenditure), a person experiences low energy-vigor and becomes more vulnerable to tension.

25. The Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne effect is the commonplace phenomenon of people behaving differently when conscious of being observed by others.

The effect is named after the Hawthorne Works electrical factory in Illinois, US, where a study was conducted on the workers between 1924 to 1927 to measure the changes in their productivity in response to the change in the lighting of the work area. 

26. Theory X and Theory Y

Theory X and Theory Y are two theories of workplace motivation that suggest that employee productivity is stifled when they are placed under increased supervision and subjected to rigorous controls and disciplinary measures (theory X).

Conversely, employee productivity increases when they are trusted to make their own decisions, provided a measure of autonomy, and tasked with challenging projects (theory Y).

The names “X” and “Y” are derived from mnemonic codes made by human arms in positions of refusal to work (arms crossed in a sulky, defiant X position), and in a position of celebration ( both arms raised in a gesture of exultation, resembling a Y). 

27. Theory Z

Theory Z refers to a set of motivational theories that build on the theories X and Y of Douglas McGregor as well as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model. One formulation of theory Z by William Ouchi states that firms must provide employees the safety net of guaranteed lifetime employment, and facilities such as healthcare to increase their motivational levels and hence their productivity. 

28. Two Memory Systems Theory

The two memory systems theory holds that the brain has two ways of processing and storing information. One is an intuitive, unconscious way of processing information, and the second is a more controlled, conscious way guided by reason and logic. The latter can be shaped and influenced through external influences such as education, social and cultural conditioning etc. The former however, is harder to change. 

29. Vroom’s Expectancy Theory

Vroom’s expectancy theory states that individual behavior is shaped by their expectation of the outcome of an action.

The theory presupposes that in most situations, individuals will choose pleasure over pain, and thus behavior is determined by the expectation of a reward.

The behavioral course from expectancy to reward takes place via a three-step mechanism  – putting in effort and improved performance, achieving the desired outcome as a result of performance, and claiming the reward accrues to the favored outcome. 

The theory was outlined by the Canadian professor Victor H. Vroom (b. 1932) and is named after him.

30. Theory of Planned Behavior

The theory of planned behavior believes that behaviors can be predicted by looking at three key factors.

The three key factors that are said to predict people’s behaviors are:

  • Personal attitudes – If we want to predict a person’s future behaviors, we need to look at their personal attitudes. For example, if a person has a positive attitude toward exercising, then they’re more likely to go to the gym.
  • Subjective norms If we want to predict a person’s future behavior, we need to look at the social and cultural norms they adhere to. For example, if someone’s culture glorifies and celebrates soccer, then the person may be more likely to play soccer.
  • Perceived behavioral control If we want to predict a person’s future behavior, we need to look at how much they believe they can control their own behavior and whether they can achieve change through effort

> Read our full article on the theory of planned behavior

31. Protection Motivation Theory

Protection Motivation Theory (PMT) is a psychological framework that explains how people are motivated to react in a self-protective way towards perceived threats.

The theory proposes two main components: threat appraisal and coping appraisal.

  • Threat appraisal refers to an individual’s evaluation of the seriousness and likelihood of a threat, including the severity of potential harm and their vulnerability to it.
  • Coping appraisal involves the assessment of one’s ability to respond effectively to the threat, taking into consideration the efficacy of the proposed protective behavior and one’s self-efficacy or confidence in performing this behavior.

The interaction between these two components determines whether an individual will be motivated to engage in a behavior to protect themselves against a perceived threat.

> Read our full article on protection motivation theory


Motivation theories attempt to explain how humans are driven to action, and are thus an integral part of the fields of psychology and sociology.

As can be seen from the preceding discussion, a lion’s share of the work in the study of human motivation was done in the 1960s and 70s – a period marked by a remarkable flowering of scholarship aimed at understanding the human mind and its interactions with human society.

Several of these theories were also developed in response to the need of growing business and commerce to increase the productivity of their employees or to find ways to increase their satisfaction with their work.

Whatever be their source of origin, most of these theories continue to remain relevant today and inform our understanding of the human mind and the forces that drive it to action.


Adams, J.S. (1965). Inequality in social exchange. Advanced Experimental Psychology, 62(1): 335–343. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60108-2

Eysenck, M.W.  & Calvo, M.G.  (1992). Anxiety and performance: The Processing Efficiency Theory. Cognition and Emotion, 6(6): 409-434. doi: 10.1080/02699939208409696

Johnson-Cartee, K. & Copeland, G. (1997). Inside political campaigns: Theory and practice. New York: Praeger.

Keller J.M. (2012) ARCS Model of Motivation. In: Seel N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-1428-6_217 

McClelland, D (1998) Human Motivation. Cambridge University Press.
Thayer, R. E. (1978). Toward a Psychological Theory of Multidimensional Activation (Arousal). Motivation and Emotion, 2(1), 1–34. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00992729

This article was co-authored by Kamalpreet Gill Singh, PhD. Dr. Gill has a PhD in Sociology and has published academic articles in reputed international peer-reviewed journals. He holds a Master’s degree in Politics and International Relations and a Bachelor’s in Computer Science.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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