Motivation is a term we all use, and we believe everybody understands. We think we know what it means and that others do too—but do we really know what motivation is?
Motivation is a difficult term beginning with its definition. For the present purpose, let me define motivation as what compels an animal to do what it does, as the sum of all factors (internal and external) which cause an organism to behave in a goal-seeking way. At least, now you know what I’m talking about (and what I’m not talking about).
The traditional view of motivation builds upon a single feedback principle. The brain senses a change in the animal’s internal state, which leads to a build-up of drive for the animal to perform the appropriate behavior. The drive gives rise to appetitive and consummatory behavior including a search for suitable external stimuli. When the animal encounters these, some activity like eating or drinking takes place. This is all too oversimplified and includes terms in themselves difficult to define, e.g. drive—but it will do as a starting point.
There is not one single theory of motivation, but the general tendency is apparent. Some researchers have been keen to stress that motivation aims at reducing stimulation to its lowest possible level. Thus, an organism seeks the behavior most likely to cause a state of no stimulation. Recent theories of motivation, however, picture animals seeking to optimize, rather than minimize (or maximize) stimulation. These theories account for exploratory behavior, variety-seeking behavior, and curiosity.
The concept of motivation is relevant to communication patterns. There is no behavior without motivation, except for strict Pavlovian reflexes, and even this is arguable. Motivation is decisive in the various behaviors animals use as communication means and in learning processes.
The instinct theory states that motivation depends on an organism’s biological make-up. Animals are born with specific, preprogrammed innate knowledge about how to survive and reproducing. Darwin explained the survival of an organism as resulting from the instinct for survival. The first behaviorists recurred also to instincts to explain motivation.
Ethology, including the contributions of Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinbergen, Karl von Frisch, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt defined instincts as unlearned behaviors and responses. The drive reduction theory assumes that animals have needs, which motivate them to behave in specific ways. Drives are internal states of arousal, e.g. hunger and thirst, which the organism attempts at reducing. The organism seeks to reestablish homeostasis. The approach of the early ethologists, though not any longer fully satisfactory, is still useful to understand behavior at a particular level.
Explaining behavior in terms of instincts proved unsustainable because we could always coin a new instinct to explain an unexplained behavior. Sociobiology attempted to remedy that. Evolving from the instinct theories of ethology, it added a crucial genetic component to motivation.
The theory of physiological regulation explains motivation in terms of complex processes of the nervous system.
The consensus, these days, seem to be, that though we know more or less what we mean by motivation, we cannot really account exhaustively for all the factors determining it. Prudent judgment and open-mindedness seem, therefore, advisable in this matter, at this moment.
If animal behavior and learning fascinates you, you will enjoy "Animal Learning," the book and course by ethologist Roger Abrantes. This is an indispensable course for all animal trainers as well as responsible pet owners.