Motivation in individuals has been widely studied. Generally, it refers to recurring factors that influence how an individual interacts with the environment.

Motivation has been studied from the behavioral, molecular, and genetic perspectives. While studies on healthy humans have focused on the behavioral side, medical studies on patient populations such as those with ADHD or dementia have observed behavioral, genetic and molecular and physiological differences.

How is motivation studied?

Motivation has been studied in a variety of contexts. Some of the measurable aspects of activity motivation include reaction times during tasks, preference for physical activity, anxiety, and impatience.1.

Broadly speaking, motivation can be described in terms of intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to being motivated to do an activity out of self-interest. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation refers to being motivated to do an activity when there are external cues that confer some sort of expected outcome (e.g., a feeling or a reward) for doing so.2,3

Behavioral tests, in the form of interviews and experimental games can be used to measure motivation.


It has been suggested that various parts of the brain including the striatum4, hippocampus5and the basal forebrain6may be involved in motivation.

A study in rats showed some evidence that the basal forebrain may be involved in reward-seeking behavior. In this study, rats were randomly played various audio stimuli - one of which is associated with large reward (food), one associated with a small reward, and one with no reward (Figure 1). It was found that the rats exhibited larger neuronal spikes in the basal forebrain, in response to the stimuli for large rewards (Figure 2). This experiment suggests that the basal forebrain may play a role in motivational behavior.


Rats were given different stimuli each of which was associated with different levels of reward (large, small, or none). The spiking activity of the basal forebrain neurons was measured in response to each stimuli and resulting action.


Rats exhibited larger basal forebrain activity spikes in response to the stimuli associated with larger reward. This suggests that the basal forebrain may play a role in motivational behavior.

Behavioral Tests

Experimental games have been used in human studies when assessing motivation.7

In one study, participants were instructed to perform a puzzle-solving task. In one group, the participants were informed that the task was supposed to measure their normative ability on a high to low scale. In a separate group, the participants were given a more subtle hint that their motivation was being tested -- they were simply told that the task could result in either failure or success. The former group of individuals exhibited greater amounts of intrinsic motivation (measured by the amount of attention the participants paid to the task) compared to the latter group.

Often in task-based forms of assessment, participants are observed while performing or before or after performing the task. In order to understand the participants from an unbiased perspective, sometimes the participants are observed without prior explicit knowledge of observation. Measurements such as attention given to the task during waiting periods or "down time", are taken.

One example of a task-based behavioral test is a puzzle-solving task. In one study, participants were instructed to solve a series of puzzles in an experimentation room with video surveillance. The participants were allocated into an ego-involvement group, in which participants were told that the puzzle solving task was a measure of their creativity, a task-involvement group, in which the puzzle solving tasks were described objectively without any mention of creativity, and a task-involvement with video recording group, which is identical to the task-involvement group with the exception that they were video recorded when doing the task. After being shown a practice puzzle, participants were shown 3 puzzles in succession and told to solve them. For the task-involvement group with video surveillance, the participants were viceo recorded for this period. After solving the puzzles, they were instructed to enter another room, which did not have video surveillance. This part of the experiment was denoted the "free-choice period". However, in the new room, there was a peephole through which experimenters looked through to observe behavior of the participants. In the new room, participants were allowed their choice of either waiting quietly, doing more puzzles, or reading magazines. The puzzles and magazines were placed in the room within reach of the participants. After the free-choice period, participants are given a questionnaire to answer about the experience, which assessed enjoyment and perceived choice.[ ^ryan-1991-ego-intrinsic-motivation]

How is motivation modulated?

In the scientific community, motivation has been studied in the context of genetics, behavioral modifications, and diseases and disorders.


Genetic studies on motivation involve observation of identical twins, as well as large scale studies involving genomic biomarkers.

In a study involving monozygotic (identical) and dizygotic (fraternal) twins, it was shown that monozygotic twins tended to have stronger correlations in their performance on several measures of activity motivation. For example, in reaction times in the Toys Game, when measuring range of reaction times, there was a correlation (r-coefficient) of 0.39 between monozygotic twins while a correlation of only 0.05 in dizygotic twins (Z = 1.36, P=0.08). When measuring anxiety with an outside observer, apprehension levels between monozygotic twins tended to correlate more (r = 0.88) compared to levels between dizygotic twins (r=0.28) (Z = 3.63, P = 0.001). Likewise, when measuring patience, monozygotic twins tended to correlate more as well. In particular, aggression levels were more correlated in monozygotic twins compared to dizygotic twins (Z = 1.49, P=0.07). Since monozygotic twins have identical genetic code, these findings suggest that there is a genetic link between certain genes and motivation.1


Motivation can be modulated by a combination of situational as well as intrinsic variables. A meta-analysis found that there are differences in performance on tasks based on how goals can be set. Specifically, there were significant differences in performance between performance-approach goal setting compared to performance avoidance goal setting. In this context, performance-approach refers to a desire to perform better than others, while performance-avoidance refers to the desire to avoid performing worse than others. It was found that performance-approach goals do not decrease performance on tasks, however performance-avoidance goals tended to result in lower levels of free-choice persistence as measured by both outside observers as well as self-report measures.8

In addition to aspects of goal-setting, how feedback is given carries influences on motivation. A meta-analysis found that giving positive, competence-confirming feedback was important in increasing intrinsic motivation. In this case, motivation was measured via free-choice persistence, which refers to a tendency to stay attended to a task even when not directed to do so.9Such experiments suggest that people may develop more intrinsic motivation if given feedback that confirms their competence or skills.

Some studies have used measured differences in engagement on tasks in response to varied motivational settings. A study involving 48 university students evaluated the differences between ego-involved and task-involved people. In this study, ego-involved refers to a situation where the participant believes that performance on a task is tied to some aspect of themselves, such as creativity. Task-involved refers to the situation where the participant believes the task performance is not tied to any aspect of the participant. In this study, it was found that ego-involved participants engaged in significantly less free-choice behavior (i.e., choosing to solve the puzzle when given a choice of other activities) compared to task-involved participants. When the participants were instructed to rate their enjoyment and their perceived free choice, the task-involvement group rated higher marks than did the ego-involvement group.9

Diseases and Disorders

Motivation levels may change when patients are experiencing a disease or disorder. For example, patients with depression or cognitive impairment may exhibit a decrease in motivation levels. In such cases, treatment of the underlying disease state may help to increase motivation levels.

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