Course description

This course surveys the field of motivation. This field entails the scientific examination of motives, traditionally defined as internal forces or influences within the organism having two purposes, namely, to activate and arouse the organism to an optimal level of functioning and to direct the organisms behavior toward the attainment of a goal. Often described colloquially as the study of why we do the things we do, this line of inquiry has become increasingly important in recent years as it speaks to the decisive question of what people fundamentally want or desire in life. For some time now, psychologists have proposed different theories of motivation, which may be classified with respect to whether the theory posits natural forces (drives, needs, and desires) versus some form of rationality (meaningfulness and self-identity) as energizing, directing, or sustaining behavior and whether the theory focuses on content (what motivates) versus process (how motivation takes place). Further, much scientific research has documented the numerous and varied forces or influences on motivation at all levels, that is, biological, psychological, and sociocultural. For example, at the biological level, researchers have uncovered the neuroscience of motivation (mesolimbic dopaminergic pathways). At the psychological level, determinants of motivation have been shown to involve all aspects of experience, namely, cognition (goal setting, mindsets, and control beliefs), affect (emotions arise from progress or hindrance in goal pursuit), and valuation (personality and values influence motivation via the processes of goal content and goal striving). At the sociocultural level, the relations between inner social needs (affiliation and dominance) and motivation have been explored for some time now and more recently sociocultural theory has expanded the conceptualization of motivation to include external factors such as culturally-based knowledge and social interaction as potential motivators. Finally, given that motives have been shown to differ in strength depending on the person and on the situation, diversity, and contextual considerations have more recently been integrated into the field.


Associated Schools

  • Harvard Extension School

  • Harvard Division of Continuing Education

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