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Human Motivation: What Motivates People

By: Ken Austin

Pain and pleasure are the two main motivators of human behavior: avoiding or eliminating pain and obtaining or increasing pleasure.

Since animals also share both of these behaviors, a true understanding of human motivation must also examine how people use their minds to get what they want and get rid of what they don’t want. Defining what is most important as a motivator means determining the order or hierarchy of needs we humans have.

Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchy of needs that has received widespread acceptance. It is interesting that there is very little experimental data to support his hierarchy. This acceptance appears to be because it has the “ring of truth”, without demanding that it be proven experimentally.

The levels, in order of importance, are:
•    Physiological – food, water, shelter
•    Safety – protection from danger
•    Belongingness & Love – a connection with other people, love and affection
•    Esteem – perceiving oneself as good and being perceived by others as good
•    Knowledge and Understanding – making sense of the world and the people in it through learning
•    Aesthetic needs – the desire for symmetry, order and beauty
•    Self-Actualization – to become capable of creating all that we can with what we have
•    Self-Transcendence – to become part of something greater than self; to serve others without          expecting anything in return

What is interesting about this hierarchy is that not all needs have to be 100% fulfilled to allow the next, higher need to be felt. Practically all of us are at least partially unfulfilled in all of them, according to Maslow.

The key to understanding our motivations is based on how much and how often these needs are thwarted. Early childhood experiences of thwarted fulfillment of basic needs may cause some of these needs to be emphasized in adult life, and some of the higher needs may be ignored or never satisfied by the individual.

A person who has lacked for food from an early age may consider total happiness to be an unlimited source of food for life. All the higher needs may be unimportant to such a person.

For the majority of us, prevention of dissatisfaction comes first, then acquiring satisfaction becomes important. Pleasure and fulfillment come after avoidance or elimination of pain. Since each person is different, according to his or her life experience, there are exceptions to the rule.

However, if you are considering how to motivate people in general, remove the pain first, then supply the pleasure.

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