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Motivation - Why Do We Do What We Do, When We Do?
By Brian Fernandes

January 12, 2013

During the winter session of Parliament, it was stalled for a week over the holding of a debate on FDI in retail issue. Motives of both sides of the political divide were questioned by the other side.

There have been a number of suicides in the recent past from 13 year old children committing suicide after being scolded at school, to a young girl that jumped of the 2nd floor of the St. Joseph’s college in Bangalore during a pre university exam after being caught copying, and the recent famous case of Nurse Jacinta. Did they have a motivation to die? Or did they lose the motivation to live? Difficult question to answer.

We have the case of Amanat, who was brutally beaten, raped and murdered in a moving bus in Delhi. What was the motive for the crime? While discovering the motive may not be important for a conviction, intent is, and motive is a very important ingredient of intent.

Lastly I want to ask each one of you to reflect deeply on why you behave as you do in any given situation - what propels / compels your actions or behavior (they are one and the same)? Do you realize and understand your motivation?

Rarely do we reflect on the causes of our behavior or actions, and because we don’t do that often enough, we are forced to reflect on effects of our actions.

How does Motivation contribute to our lives?

What does motivation do for us?  It provides us with direction (we become goal driven) Intensity (We generate a passion for what we do) and Persistence (Perseverance) in what we do.

Most of all it inculcates positivity as opposed to negativity and activity as opposed to apathy in our lives. Ultimately it helps us fulfill our needs, whatever they may be. I would therefore call it as they do in the CIA, RAW and ISI, actionable Intelligence.

What is Motivation?

Motivation is an idea, belief, or emotion that impels us to act in accordance with that state of mind. To put it simply, Motives drive intent, and intent drives action. Motivation is the answer to the question “Why we do what we do?”

The word motivation is coined from the Latin word "movere", which means to move.   It’s a driver. Like the printer driver, display driver, or even the bus driver - it helps convert need into intent and intent into action.

Our actions and behavior will tell another, all he needs to know about us and except what motivated those actions.  He can imagine and empathize, sympathize and understand all he wants, all he can, but he will never really know, because like our conscience, motivation resides in us and is not visible. What is visible, is the possible intent and the action.

Whom can we call motivated?

Observe an individual’s action and behavior.  A motivated individual willingly wants to do what he does, and while doing so, gives it his best shot. He has a definite sense of belonging and pride in the task at hand and the organization / institution that mandates that task.  He also contributes to the improvement of task / institutional performance. A live example is Sachem Tendulkar or a Leander Paes playing for the country in their respective sport.

Motivation is Dynamic

But motivation is not static; it’s dynamic and complex in the extreme.  It adapts to situations and often most of us are not aware of our motivation at that moment as you are unaware now as to why you are reading this article! – until you dwell on it.

Motivation Theory – the complex explanation

Like all known psychological aspects of our being and existence, theories abound, some scholarly, some pedestrian, and some commonsensical. These theories can be classified broadly from two different perspectives: Content and Process theories. Content Theories deal with “what” motivates people and it is concerned with individual needs and goals. Maslow, Alderfer, Herzberg and McCelland studied motivation from a “content” perspective. Process Theories deal with the “process” of motivation and is concerned with “how” motivation occurs.  Vroom, Porter & Lawler, Adams and Locke studied motivation from a “process” perspective, basically the relationship between actions and rewards.

In the end, both these theories provide us with pointers as to why we do what we do, when we do it.  These theories demonstrate that there are many explanations for motivation, but none that is universally accepted.

Motivation – a simple explanation

Having gone through the various theories, reflected on how they affect our behavior and decision making process, I have come to this simple explanation which is combination of the what and how of motivation, which can be easily understood and applied to every moment of our life – Why we do what we do, is a fine balancing act between hope of a benefit and the fear of a consequence.

Hope of a benefit stems from satisfaction of needs – Its intrinsic. Physiological, Safety, and  the three Psycho Emotional / Social needs – the three A’s - Acceptance (of self and by others), Affiliation, and Achievement – the satisfaction of overcoming challenges to ones abilities and attaining the Power to influence and control others. These are intrinsic needs and are connected extrinsically to a benefit structure – satisfaction of needs and external status and reward.

Oh, the satisfaction we get, when our status or photograph is “Liked” and commented favorably upon on Face book – We are accepted into the fold.  The more no. of friends we have, the greater our affiliation, and a happy picture or an updated status is an achievement!  And the corollary to these higher needs satisfaction – Rejection, Loneliness, Submissiveness and subjugation, if we fail to get the benefit we hoped for (satisfy our needs, be they physiological, safety or psycho social needs). Be prepared for it. That’s when the depression and addiction kicks in.  It may seem like a very simple explanation, but believe me, it is a very effective one.

What about the fear of consequences? – What are the consequences of our actions to fulfill our needs?  Do they outweigh the benefits thereto? They are extrinsic and are the negatives – mostly related to punishment and the negative aspects of life like disease, death, social boycott, or similar such negative reactions to actions undertaken to fulfill needs. Why do people talk about deterrence? Strong laws and harsher punishments.  They would like to ensure that the fear of the consequence will outweigh the hope of a benefit.

Let’s take the case of an extra marital affair. The partners in crime, calculate the benefits and consequences, and indulge in a limited /one time engagement, fully blown separation, even divorce. Friends I know of, have become alcohol / drug addicts, some from a very early age, and I often wonder why -  are they motivated or demotivated? Do they not fear the consequences of their actions and behavior or does the benefit outweigh the consequences? I believe that they go with hope of benefit accruing, however short term that might be in comparison to the long term consequences.  Can that be changed? Yes it can.

It’s always been a fine balance and there is always a tipping point as Malcolm Gladwell says, that ultimately determines our actions or behavior.  The secret is to recognize it and take a sustainable decision in favor of the right balance.  Unfortunately we are seldom even aware of the tipping point till after the event.

Self Awareness / Reflection are a powerful tool in understanding our and other’s motivation or lack of it. Once we do that, we start to exercise self control over the tipping point and therein lay the secret of motivation within self and among others. There are many ways of motivating the self and others around us. Some of them are

1. Intrinsic process — motivated by FUN
2. Instrumental — motivated by REWARDS
3. Self-Concept-External — motivated by REPUTATION
4. Self-Concept-Internal — motivated by CHALLENGE
5. Goal Internalization — motivated by the cause or PURPOSE

We must start to reflect on our actions of yesterday and regulate tomorrow after balancing the hope of a benefit or the fear of a consequence!


Brian Fernandes Archives:



Comments on this article
Derek Baldry, AustraliaWednesday, August 07, 2013
Excellent analysis argued with great clarity. Food for thought.
Comment on this message     

jimmy noronha, Bellore, LucknowWednesday, January 16, 2013
Very good article. Motivation is the prime mover towards achieving the aim in our life or for that matter anything positive or otherwise.
Comment on this message     

R.Bhandarkar., MWednesday, January 16, 2013
Dear Brian
True always! 'Motivation' in one way or the other eggs people on!
Your analysis and deciphering is spot on! Very difficult to put the same in 'words' and kudos for an excellent job done! Regards.
Comment on this message     

Dexter Britto, Mangalore/AucklandTuesday, January 15, 2013
A very interesting analysis which should motivate many in the right path . A rightly mentioned , Self Awareness / Reflection is a very powerful tool for sure.

Thanks Brian
Comment on this message     

R.Bhandarkar, M'LoreTuesday, January 15, 2013
I Honestly could not understand the 'extra marital' part and the 'part', motivation plays in it!.'The partners in crime-calculate the benefit and consequences and indulge in a limited one/time engagement, full blown separation,
divorce'. What was that?
Think here.....(O.K.- My way!)
1) All calculations go out of the window at the outset here...!
2) What has 'motivation' got to do here is the moot point-Hope everyone gets me....I mean my point!
3)What 'benefits'?-It does not quite fit in....By 'consequences' I think one means 'repercussions' here!Think only the 'Do's' have an upper hand here -What , Why and when do not matter.
I really with my limited knowledge
have put this forth...Hope-You get my point?-Simplified...
NO Motiviation-Sensual Sensation..!
Comment on this message     

Clitus Dsouza, BantwalTuesday, January 15, 2013
Good article on MOTIVATION.
Comment on this message     

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