Motivation and behaviour, still core to what we do

3 Minutes Read

Years ago, I completed my undergraduate degree in organisational and experimental psychology.  At the time, I learned about the many motivational theories about human behaviour.  Freudian theory, Skinner’s Behaviorism, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, McClelland’s need for achievement, Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory and Goal theory to name just a few.  All seek to explain why we behave as we do through underlying psychological mechanisms and forces.

Why do we do what we do?


But who is right?

The problem, as I saw it, was that all these theories can’t be right and they are just that – theories – attempts to explain human behaviour through conceptual models of cause and effect arising from biological factors of hormones, neurons, pheromones and instinct.  As we know, however, people are complex and although we are all made of the same stuff, we are also all unique, fashioned by a mix of our genes and our unique life experiences.         

Ideas in practice?

When I left university and commenced by research career, I was lucky enough to be mentored by a brilliant qualitative research with a passion for motivational research.  She was a proponent of a needs based motivational model called Implicit which looked at personality characteristics as a driver of behaviour.  That is, our motivations can be understood by virtue of our outlook on life – extroversion or introversion, affiliation or individualism.  I also had the opportunity to learn from her, the use of projective techniques to uncover subconscious motivations, recognising that we tend to post-rationalise ourselves to others and explicit lines of questioning, revealing only a filtered explanation of our behaviour.

Understanding motivation unlocks control

These days, many corporates are reluctant to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and months of time on studies that explore behaviour through a theoretical lens and which can require a level of belief to understand and use to drive strategy. Yet, the benefits of such research investment can be considerable, particularly in creative development for advertising and communication. The latest generation of theories work on archetypes and universal stories to develop campaigns and copy that people immediately relate to, because they tap into deeper underlying myths and beliefs. I’ve seen this in practice and it can be incredibly powerful.

Nevertheless, I’ve seen how research spend has gradually moved away from these types of methods towards big data and behavioural approaches.  In today’s data rich world, it is much easier to understand motivations through the behaviour they manifest.  Easier, but not necessarily better.  Machine learning and experimental designs on big data sets make identifying opportunities to shape behaviour in real time realistic.  Data scientists can build and scale powerful models that optimise product interfaces and service experiences to drive repeat usage.  For further reading on this I can recommend two books – Hooked: How To Build Habit Forming Products (by Nir Eyal), and Addiction by Design (by Natasha Dow Schüll).  Both of these books deal with how people have used behavioural science techniques to drive behaviour for profit.  Big data is effective because it creates a direct line of sight from understanding behaviour towards commercial strategy, even at the cost of a deeper understanding of ‘why’ and theorising on motivations beyond basic Pavlovian mechanisms.

At an ethical level, is this any different or better than people like Ernest Dichter creating campaigns for Ivory Soap back in the 50s that tapped into people’s insecurities? I’m not sure.

Application of Motivations at Evolve

At Evolve, practically everything we do at some level requires consideration of motivation and motivational theory. It is factored into:

  • Writing questionnaires
  • Designing discussion guides
  • How we interpret results and explain ‘why’
  • How we motivate community members to keep coming back and participating
  • Helping our clients design effective products and processes
  • Developing workplace models for our employee engagement solution, PeopleListening™
  • Designing dashboards that people want to use and which guide action
  • Motivating our team to be great at what they do

Motivating people with data

The ‘Act on Feedback’ goals we have are particularly interesting. For example, when we build a dashboard for a client, the technology is just an enabler. The key ingredient for success is the design itself – how the dashboard looks and functions. I sometimes call this the ‘psychology’ of the dashboard and includes various gamification stratifies. Examples include:

Drive urgency: Create weekly reminders through push reports that highlight calls to action
Drive immediacy: Mobile optimisation so that people can access results anyway
Drive competition: Use of league tables to show team results in a comparative list
Intrinsic reward: Use of shouts and call outs that reward success through peer recognition
Extrinsic reward: Tying results to incentives
Stimulation: Design factors such as colour, movement and placement of dashboard elements to drive pleasure and reward

Picture of Garreth Chandler

Garreth Chandler

Garreth is the founding partner of the Evolved Group and head of consulting at Evolved Thinking. Garreth’s passions are technology, buyer behaviour and organisational theory.