Understanding Internal Motivation and Feelings

image of a man with emotion symbols

Very often, people don’t fully understand why they do or think things. Are thoughts, feelings, and actions driven by internal motivation or external motivation?

Let’s look at feelings and how internal and external factors affect them. Most people have a hard time untangling the sources of various positive and negative feelings and are prone to misunderstand their causes. In a classic demonstration of this, the current day’s weather affected how people being interviewed rated how well their entire life had been up to that point. They were more likely to characterize their whole existence as sunny when the weather was nice. Conscious awareness of this reaction, however, brought about an immediate change. When the interviewers called attention to the weather outside, the feelings colored by the presence of either sun or clouds no longer had an effect.

Nonconscious Thoughts and Feelings and Internal Motivation

Nonconscious thoughts and feelings influence not only the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us but also our everyday actions. The effect the nonconscious has on behavior has provoked debate among psychologists for decades.

For a good part of the 20th century, B. F. Skinner and the behaviorist school of psychology argued forcefully that our actions were entirely under the control of what we saw, heard, and touched in our surroundings AND THAT CONSCIOUS THOUGHT PLAYED NO ROLE. This idea was embodied in the classic experiment in which a rat learns through trial and error that pressing a bar results each time in the rodent’s receiving a food pellet. In the Skinnerian view, most of what we do translates into a more sophisticated variation on the same theme of pressing the bar to get what we want (external motivation). Research in the 1960’s debunked Skinner’s behaviorism.

The opposite extreme, that everything happens due to internal motivation, is equally false. Merely watching or listening to someone else can prompt us to behave in ways that we do not even realize.

The Hierarchy of Social Development and Internal Motivation

The Hierarchy of Social Development clarifies these concepts by explaining the difference between external and internal motivation. Once people can articulate the difference between these two types of motivation, their understanding and learning significantly increases.

Tip: Review The Hierarchy of Social Development to fully understand the difference between external and internal motivation.

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