Conscious and Unconscious Motivations

Motivations are driving forces of behaviors for achieving and maintaining goals. Motivations include physiological requirements—such as food, drink, and sleep—as well as conscious and perhaps unconscious goals.

Some behaviors clearly require conscious motivation. Unconscious motivations can include the operations of the somatic motor system or involuntary nervous system and the lateral hypothalamus of the brain that may be necessary for survival. Unconscious motivations also include needs, instincts, and desires that may influence or drive behaviors without people being consciously aware of them. These motivations are more difficult to analyze and have been at the center of psychological debates for more than a century. Many psychologists—perhaps most—believe that behavior is directed by a combination of conscious and unconscious motivations that work together to meet physiological needs and satisfy goals.

Motivations are affected by many different factors, especially goals, but also values, emotions, character, and personality, which, in turn, influence goals. Goals may be conscious or unconscious and unrecognized. Because behaviors have intended, unintended, and irrelevant consequences, motivations cannot be identified solely by the consequences of behaviors, and the consequences of a behavior cannot be assumed to result from conscious motivation.

Because of the these inherent difficulties in studying motivation, psychologists have developed procedures for guessing at motivations. These may include:

The concept of unconscious human motivations dates back hundreds of years. The nineteenth-century psychologist William James (1842–1920) argued strongly against the existence of unconscious motivations. In contrast, Sigmund Freud's (1856–1939) theories of unconscious motivations became a cornerstone of early-twentieth-century psychoanalysis. Freud believed that unconscious motivations play a pivotal role in human behavior. According to Freud, the unconscious mind is as complex as the conscious mind, with its own motivations dependent on its own thoughts, desires, and goals, but based in instinct rather than in the open and logical conscious mind. He further believed that unacceptable thoughts, desires, emotions, and feelings are continually being forced or repressed into the unconscious mind. For Freudians, most human behavior results from unconscious memories, desires, and impulses that have been repressed; conscious motivations have a much smaller effect on behavior. Thus, a “Freudian slip” is the result of an unconscious motivation or children who fail at a previously mastered task might be unconsciously punishing their parents. Freud also believed that repressed memories and desires underlying unconscious motivations are the source of mental illness and that psychoanalysis can bring these unconscious motivations to awareness to help modify behaviors. With the rise of behaviorism in the twentieth century, analysis of motivations shifted from internal to external forces, but motivations remained in the realm of the unconscious.

In contrast to Freud, Abraham Maslow (1908– 1970) argued that humans have two distinct motivational systems: “deficiency motives,” which are the basic survival needs; and “growth motives” or “being motives” (B-motives), which are unique individual motivations for developing one's potential and achieving happiness and fulfillment. Nevertheless, Maslow believed that unconscious motivations play a major role in determining behavior. He described motivations as based on a “hierarchy of needs” :

Other theories of motivation

According to J. A. Ouellette, motivations can be described by the following basic principles:

Many twenty-first-century psychologists downplay the influence of unconscious motivations, in part, because it is difficult to scientifically study the unconscious mind. In contrast to Freud and his followers, many psychologists argue that motivations other than basic physiologic needs are based in conscious thoughts and choices that can be controlled. Other psychologists believe that unconscious motivations only drive behaviors during periods of anxiety or stress. Cognitive psychologists sometimes replace the terms “conscious” and “unconscious” motivations with terms such as “explicit” and “implicit,” respectively, while still emphasizing that motivations can exist without conscious awareness. Cognitive behavioral therapies are based on the theory that behaviors can be changed by altering conscious thought. Some research even suggests that belief in conscious motivation and control over behavior affects not only behavior, but may also be essential for mental health.

Neuroscience and free will

Advances in neuroscience threaten to reignite the debate over conscious and unconscious motivations. Scientists have been able to directly measure the firing of neurons in the unconscious or “preconscious” brain as a volitional or consciously motivated decision is made to perform a specific movement. Studies have found that specific brain activity precedes the conscious motivation to perform a voluntary movement, suggesting that the motivation to move was not conscious, since the unconscious brain activity occurred first. Further studies have shown that, not only the decision to make a voluntary movement, but the choice of a target for that movement can be predicted with some degree of accuracy even before the target is consciously chosen. These and other studies have led to the development of a “volitional behavior” model, in which motivations stem from unconscious activity in specific regions of the brain. This model has proved useful for studying disorders such as addiction and impulse control and even psychosis.


—A school of psychology that focuses on objective behavior in response to stimuli.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
—A type of “talk” therapy in which people learn to recognize and change negative and self-defeating patterns of thinking and behavior.
Free will
—The ability to behave according to conscious motivations and decisions.
—A structure on each side of the brain that controls the autonomic nervous system and regulates hormone production by the adjacent pituitary gland.
Somatic motor system
—The nervous system that operates skeletal muscles.
Volitional behavior
—Behavior that is motivated by the brain.

Volitional behavior models have resurrected debates about the existence of free will. Most people believe that they consciously control their behaviors and, thus, exercise free will; but can free will exist if motivations are primarily unconscious? Nevertheless, there is little question that unconscious motivations can be overridden by conscious motivations. In fact, studies have indicated that there are significant neural differences between people who can consciously control their behavior, such as deferring gratification, and people who appear to be less able to consciously control their behavior.

See also Maslow, Abraham; Cognitive behavioral therapy ; Freud, Sigmund.



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