Theories of Motivation: Implications for Engineering Education

Posted on July 30, 2010


Author:  Sanjay Goel,


According to Webster’s Dictionary, motivation is “the psychological feature that arouses an organism to action;” and “the reason for the action.”   Psychologists have carried out extensive research on various aspects of motivation. Motives influence one’s perception, cognition, emotion, and behavior.

Aristotle identified twelve end motives: confidence, pleasure, saving, magnificence, honor, ambition, patience, sincerity, conversation, social contact, modesty, and righteousness.

Descartes listed six intrinsic motives: wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy, and sadness.

James and McDougall, famous psychologists had identified thirteen basic desires: saving, construction, curiosity, exhibition, family, hunting, order, play, sex, (avoid) shame, (avoid) pain, herd, and vengeance. Construction is a related desire to build and achieve.

In 1938, Murray suggested 27 psychogenic need: abasement (to surrender and accept punishment), achievement, acquisition, affiliation, aggression, autonomy, blame avoidance, construction, contrariance (to be unique), counteraction (defend honor), defendance (justify actions), deference (to follow/serve), dominance, exhibition, exposition (provide information/teach), harm avoidance, infavoidance (to avoid failure/shame), nurturance (protect the  helpless), order, play, recognition, rejection (to exclude another), sentience (enjoy sensuous impressions), sex, similance (to empathise), succorance (seek sympathy), and understanding.

In 1943, Maslow proposed his famous theory of hierarchy of human needs. After later extension, his theory classifies human needs in a hierarchical structure of levels given below:

1.  Biological and physiological needs,

2. Safety needs,

3. Belongingness and love needs,

4. Esteem needs,

5. Cognitive needs,

6. Aesthetic needs,

7. Self actualization needs,

8. Transcendence needs

In 1959, Herzberg modified Maslow’s model and suggested that man has two sets of needs: hygiene (or maintenance) and motivator. The satisfaction of hygiene factors does not motivate, but absence of these results in dissatisfaction.  The motivator factors include achievement, recognition, responsibility, personal growth, advancement, and work itself.

In 1964, Vroom proposed his expectancy theory.  As per this theory, strength of tendency to act in a certain way depends on the strength of the valence (attractiveness of the outcome to the individual), and strength of expectation that the act will be followed by the given outcome.

In 1969, Alderfer’s proposed his ERG Theory. This theory viewed needs as a three level hierarchy: existence, relatedness, and growth. The growth needs are satisfied by an individual by making creative or productive contributions. He also postulated that if a person is continually frustrated in attempts to satisfy growth needs, relatedness needs reemerge as a major motivating force.

In 1980’s, Deci and Ryan proposed ‘self determination theory’ to suggest that humans have three innate psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

In 2000, Reis identified 16 basic needs – power, curiosity, independence, status, social contact, vengeance, honor, idealism, physical exercise, romance, family, order, eating, acceptance, tranquility, and saving.

In 2006, Ryff and Singer identified six factors for psychological wellbeing: self acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growthHence, satisfaction of higher level needs as per Maslow’s model, motivator factors as per Herzberg’s theory, or growth needs as per ERG theory is necessary for wholesome experience and happiness in  life.

Maslow viewed that a person attempts to satisfy basic needs before directing behavior toward satisfying upper-level needs. According to him, people have a need to grow to move up the hierarchy of needs. The satisfied needs cease to motivate and unsatisfied needs can cause frustration, conflict, and stress. Enrichment and advancement of needs from low-level to higher level is not automatic. Satisfaction of lower level needs does not automatically facilitate upward movement of motivation factors. I strongly believe that higher education must motivate, contribute, and help  students to raise the levels of their needs on need hierarchy.

Unfortunately, this aspect is usually  ignored by education systems at least in engineering education.  Increasing emphasis on placement, employability, and industry readiness has further complicated the situation and increased the challenge in achieving this goal.

The educational systems, especially in India, have already undergone most severe damages in the modern history of education, because of this hype about considering placement and employability as the sole objective of education. At the time of admission, the only question asked by parents and potential students is placement and package. Students think that they need to focus more on developing their presentation and communication skills rather than developing their perspectives, thinking ability, and values. During college days, students do not want to learn anything beyond the requirement of some large companies that anyway are so small. After getting the placement offer during campus interviews, most neglect their studies. A deep sense of complacence seems to have engulfed the system.

Often poor state of Indian engineering education is  openly discussed at various forum. However,  the frame of reference of  this discussion is usually limited to the short term talent needs as projected by  India’s IT giants.   Whereas extremely poor  “” by India’s otherwise very large,  glamorized, and even hyped IT corporate engaging over a  million computing professionals   is another  good evidence as to why the often superficially perceived and articulated educational goals wrt the short term manpower needs of India’s current IT corporate giants are not sufficient for India’s long term needs.   In few years, the large companies of today will certainly be replaced by other companies of tomorrow. That is how history works. If today’s education is mainly driven by the training needs of today’s corporate, who will create and lead tomorrow’s corporate and society.

Education has to be distinguished from Training. Developing ready professionals for the industry is an insufficient goal for college education. Employability and placement can only be a sub goal of education. Education has to have a larger purpose.

Newman’s classical lecture series on “The Idea of a University” is a masterpiece on education thinking. He viewed education as the process of “enlargement of mind” that allows one to see otherwise invisible connections and interdependence. College education’s main goal is to cultivate mental faculties, tastes, good habits, and ethical conviction of students so that they can provide leadership in the future. Any compatible and necessary subgoal should be acceptable within this agenda without replacing it.


1.    A.H. Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50(4), pp 370-396, 1943, retrieved from

2.  Steven Reis, Who Am I?: The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Behavior and Define Our Personality, Tarcher, 2000.

3. Carol D. Ryff and Burton H. Singer, Know thyself and become what you are: a Eudaimonic approach to psychological well-being, Journal of Happiness Studies, Jan 2006, Springer Netherlands, pp 13-39.

4.  Richard M. Ryan, Veronika Huta and Edward L. Deci, Living well: a self-determination theory perspective on eudaimonia,  Journal of Happiness Studies, Volume 9, Number 1, Springer Netherlands, pp 139-170, January, 2008.

5.    Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, Hedonia, eudaimonia, and well-being: an introduction, Volume 9, Number 1, Springer Netherlands, pp 1-11 January, 2008.

6.    Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior, 1985, New York: Plenum.



9.   Theories that can help teachers/trainers/e-learning designers to think like educators, help students to improve their learning ability, and also help Software Developers in developing domain competence and readiness




Keywords: Software Engineering Education, Computing Education, Computer Science Education, Engineering Education, Information Technology Education, Information Systems Education, College Education, Higher Education, Professional Education ___________________

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