The Difference Between Motives and Motivation

Motivation and motives aren’t the same things. Nevertheless, both have significant power over our behavior. Do you want to know more? Keep reading!
The Difference Between Motives and Motivation
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Written and verified by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 08 November, 2023

Why do you do what you do? What are your motives? What motivates you to act a certain way? Are motives and motivation the same things?

Motives and motivation are two related terms, but they don’t have the same meaning. Instead, they’re complementary. Understanding the difference between both concepts is the key to understanding human behavior in general. It can also be useful to try to understand why people decide to either do one thing or another.

You could say that motive, in and of itself, provokes action. Motivation, on the other hand, is the force that drives an individual to take said action. Having a motive and a reason to do it isn’t enough. You have to have internal strength and need the motivation to put things in motion. In the same way, it’s pointless to be motivated if you don’t have a motive or a reason for taking action.

Motives and motivation

In other words, motivation is the psychological process that refers to general behavior. Motive, on the other hand, is the concrete cause of said behavior. Thus, motivation is the process itself and the motive is the concrete reason for taking action.

Primary motives and secondary motives

Danish psychologist K.B. Madsen divides motives into two categories:

  • Primary motives (innate or biological).
  • Secondary motives (acquired or social).

Understanding the difference between primary and secondary motives is essential to understanding motivation. This is because although all species have primary motives, secondary motives are exclusive to human beings.

Primary motives are related to survival. Hunger, thirst, sleep, and sex are some of the primary motives. These are essential processes that ensure an individual’s survival and the survival of the species as a whole. Other primary motives are fleeing from danger, looking for protective shelter, and fighting to defend yourself.

Secondary motives are related to people’s general growth after a learning experience. They develop through the interaction between individuals. Just like primary motives, they activate and direct behavior. They aren’t necessary for human survival, but they play an important role in emotional development and are unique to human beings. Achievement, belonging, and power are examples of secondary motives.

A woman in front of a wall.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

  • Extrinsic motivation is when you do something as a means to an end. In other words, extrinsic motivation is when external stimuli determine your behavior. In other words, it refers to environmental factors that lead you to give a particular response, repeat it, and finally acquire it.
  • Intrinsic motivation is when you do something for someone else. In other words, when our behavior isn’t determined by an external stimulus.

Intrinsic motivation implies creativity and curiosity. It also refers to the psychological need to be involved in something without external rewards. The task itself is the reward. Intrinsic motivation isn’t determined by the motivating factors, but by the active and intentional way that you test your own competency, driven by personal goals and objectives.

In conclusion, we can say that motives are the reasons why people engage in a particular behavior. Motivation, on the other hand, refers to the basic psychological processes that explain why different motives act on motivated behavior. In other words, why and how motives motivate us.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Maslow, A. H. (1991). Motivación y personalidad. Ediciones Díaz de Santos.
  • McClelland, D. C. (1989). Estudio de la motivación humana (Vol. 52). Narcea Ediciones.
  • Rivas, J. I. V. (1996). Motivos y Motivación en la Empresa. Ediciones diaz de santos.
  • Vadillo, M. T. P. (2013). Liderazgo y motivación de equipos de trabajo. ESIC Editorial.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.