October 19th, 2010


Motivations Part I: Basic Instincts

Motivation, simply defined, is the biological, emotional, cognitive, or social forces that activate and direct behavior.  It tells us the WHY behind behavior.  It is often inferred.  Yes, even you make inferences about your motivations.  Huh?  Haven’t you ever found yourself doing something that is counter to how you view yourself?  Sure you have.  And when you did, didn’t you scratch your chin and say, “What the hell was I thinking?  Why did I do that?”  We often examine our feelings or the first thought that comes to mind to infer the WHY. (I won’t even go into how this approach can be flawed.  That’s another post.)


As writers, we talk a lot about showing a character’s motivation(s).  And we work hard to show those motivations, make them real and logical.  Here’s the rub.  Motivation is complex and not easily understood.  Some people just get up and go. Yet, others . . . well you can light a fire under them and they still can’t be bothered to get out of harms way.  See? Complex.  But I will share what psychologists know about motivation over a few posts in the upcoming weeks.  First, the theories.  There are five major theories and today I will talk about Instinct Theory, which says people are motivated to engage in certain behaviors because of evolutionary programming (i.e., eating for survival).  William James, in Principles in Psychology (1890) said, “no other mammal, not even the monkey, shows so large an array of instincts as humans.”


Here’s a list of what he considered to be the major instincts that activate our behaviors.



Over time this theory has fallen out of favor due to lack of explanatory power.  Huh?  This theory does not explain why a marathon runner CHOOSES to run.  I mean, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I am programmed to run 27 miles.  Now, some may argue that marathons honor a cause that typically involves saving lives.  In that regard, our instinct to survive is a worthy explanation.  Nonetheless, this theory has been relegated to helping us understand eating habits and emotional expressivity.


Let me bring this back to what matters to you and me, (because it is all about us) I see this theory alive and well in many books.  I think of Katnis  Everdeen from Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.  Katnis entered the games to save her sister, an act of LOVE.  Shucks, over half the instincts on the list above play out over the trilogy.  There were also other motivating factors, which I will talk about at another time. (How’s that for a cliffhanger?) 


So, it’s your turn. 

Which of the instincts do you see (or infer) most often in characters? 


Which do you think is the most powerful?