What motivates a person to act in a way at a particular point of time? It’s a difficult question, as a set of internal and external forces are believed to initiate a particular type of human behaviour. But it’s important to understand it as it reflects the overall behaviour in the society.
Most of the progressive organisations have realised the importance of motivation and now try to use it as a tool to improve their productivity to achieve organisational goals by identifying and satisfying individual’s needs and wants of their employees.
A number of theories like Alderfer’s ERG theory, Herzberg’s two factor theory, Skinner’s reinforcement theory and Vroom’s expectancy theory have been propounded from time to time to explain motivation, but the most popular one is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory.
American Professor of Psychology, Abraham Maslow had proposed that motivation is the result of a person’s attempt at fulfilling 5 basic needs that create internal pressures to influence his or her behaviour.
These five needs are:
(food, clothing, shelter),
(personal and financial security),
(love and belonging),
(self-respect and prestige) and
(achievement of full potential).
These needs exist in a hierarchical order within a pyramid and are arranged in a hierarchy of prepotency, which means that the lowest need exerts the strongest influence when it is not satisfied.
This progression principle suggests that lower level needs must be met before higher level needs. But this model lacks empirical support for ranking the needs. It was criticised by researchers for its unscientific approach and for using the unreliable samples.
Social neuroscience researcher, Dr Matthew Lieberman questioned the hierarchy given by Maslow. In his book, “Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect”, he emphasised that humans are born helpless and totally dependent on others for their survival. So care and connection with other humans is more basic than even physiological needs.
Matthew has a point there. Moreover, the higher level needs like autonomy, social support and feeling respected are still important despite the fact that lower level needs are not being fulfilled.
In fact, all needs are present at a given point of time, but the law of diminishing marginal utility states that as consumption of an item increases, the marginal utility derived from it declines.
Most needs once met don’t go away. Only it’s propensity declines for the time being. A person like Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa, motivated by self-actualisation needs, cannot simply afford to forgo food.
It’s however a fact that human behaviour is not universal. In a few cases, religious values are more important. Cultural differences and social connections also matter a lot. Upbringing and social grooming are not less important.
Actually all needs are interdependent and overlapping depending upon situational and circumstantial aspects. Human behaviour is complicated and unpredictable, which is shaped by biological, emotional, social and cognitive forces, all put together.
I think it’s difficult to summarise such a complex aspect under the umbrella of a single hypothesis or theory. We need to take a holistic view.