How a Behaviorist Views Motivation: An Overview & Introduction

How a Behaviorist Views Motivation: An Overview & Introduction

OK, Julie! Here’s how you can earn your gym reimbursement reward.

Several psychological theories about what constitutes and generates motivation exist. This post will illustrate how behavioral science contributes to our understanding of motivation in regard to health behavior change.

My employer offers a fairly comprehensive employee wellbeing program in which we can earn points for participation in various programs and activities. Once we accumulate a certain number of points, we are eligible for a healthcare premium reduction. One program allows us to earn a $20/month gym reimbursement based on the number of times we go to the gym.

Did you notice that I emphasized the words “go to” in the previous sentence? Yep, though the program has good intentions, there are ways in which to cheat the system. A simple swipe of one’s keyfob or scan of a membership card is all that is needed in order to make it look like you went to the gym AND actually worked out. Have you ever watched someone pull into the gym parking lot, get out to swipe their keyfob, and then return to their car and drive away? This happens quite frequently, believe it or not! {Note: It is possible that this individual opted for an outdoor workout that day, but those folks are the exception vs. the norm.} Is the person who swipes and bails unmotivated? How do you know?

Now consider the behavior of two personal training clients, Billie and Jean. Billie attends every scheduled session, shows up early, listens attentively, and asks questions. Billie’s trainer says that Billie is the perfect client and makes progress because she is motivated. Jean, on the other hand, frequently “no shows” (without notice) or shows up late for scheduled sessions, checks Facebook and responds to text messages during sessions, and rarely asks questions that are relevant to training. Jean’s trainer says that Jean has no motivation.

If you ask a handful of people to define motivation, it’s likely that they will each provide a slightly different description of the concept. provides the following of Motivation (noun):

  1. the act or an instance of motivating, or providing with a reason to act in a certain way: I don't understand what her motivation was for quitting her job. 
  1. the state or condition of being motivated or having a strong reason to act or accomplish something: We know that these students have strong motivation to learn.

As illustrated in the example with Billie and Jean and the above definitions, motivation is commonly conceptualized as an internal “thing” that causes us to do something. Motivation is not a physical object that we can see. Within the field of psychology, we refer to motivation as a hypothetical construct because it is something which is not directly observable that is used to describe why people do what they do. Have you ever heard someone say that their inner drives, desires, or needs caused them to act in a certain way or were the motivation behind their behavior?

From a behaviorist view, a logical problem exists when we view motivation as an internal “thing”. Namely, the traditional view of motivation involves circular reasoning. This means that the causal “thing” (i.e., motivation) is inferred from the behavior that it is supposed to explain:

Why does Billie put forth a lot of effort at the gym? Because she is a motivated client. How do we know she is a motivated client? Because she puts forth a great effort.

Do you see the theoretical problem with using motivation (and other hypothetical constructs) in this way?

The problem doesn’t stop at the theoretical level. Martin and Pear (2015, p. 184) highlight three problematic issues from a practical perspective that are especially relevant to health behavior change and fitness and sports performance. Suggesting that the causes of behavior are inside of us (versus in our external physical and social environments) and viewing motivation as an internal cause for behavior might influence some individuals to:

  1. Ignore the principles for changing behavior [i.e., the principles of behavior analysis]…and the enormous amount of data demonstrating that application of those principles can effectively modify behavior.
  2. Blame the individual for substandard performance by attributing this to a lack of motivation, or laziness, rather than trying to help such individuals to improve their performance.
  3. Blame themselves for failures to emit various behaviors (e.g., “I just can’t get motivated to go on a diet”) rather than examining potential self-management strategies.

In common sense terms, behavior occurs a function of knowledge and motivation; a person must not only “know how” to do something but also “want to” do it.

Therefore, if a behavior issue exists (either a behavior is occurring too much, not enough, or not at all), we need to first establish whether the individual has the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) to perform a specific behavior (e.g., follow a training program, prepare a healthy meal, perform a specific exercise movement). A simple, but crude-sounding way to assess this is to ask whether the person could perform the desired behavior if their life depended on it. If not, then you need to assess their capacity to learn; if they are capable, then you need to meet the person where they are at (i.e., readjust the starting point) and teach the pre-requisite KSAs.

If you’ve identified that a motivational “won’t do” problem exists, you will then want to look at the person’s physical and social (external) environments, as well as inquire about internal processes (e.g., beliefs, thoughts, self-talk, perceptions) to identify various factors that might influence their motivation to act.

**Note that it is assumed that the behavioral principles and techniques that apply to overt (directly observable) behaviors are also applicable to covet (internal) behaviors (Martin & Pear, 2015). For a fascinating debate on the role of private events in a science of behavior, you can freely access all articles within a special issue of The Behavior Analyst, 2011, Number 2.

If you’ve ever been around a behavior analyst or have flipped through a behavioral psychology textbook, you’ve likely heard of the terms antecedent and consequence. In simple terms, antecedents occur before the behavior and are commonly viewed as prompts, cues, or triggers; consequences are what happens to the person as a result of their behavior and occur during or after the behavior.

A variety of antecedents and consequences can influence the same behavior. I have illustrated this for a common class of health-related behavior, unhealthy eating, as an example.

The figure below provides a fairly simple description of the relationship among antecedents, behavior, and consequences. From a behavior-analytic perspective, when motivational issues are present, the solution involves altering antecedents and consequences.

Common antecedent-based interventions include training, clarification of expectations, goal setting, warnings, notices; as noted above, these are often overused and/or lead to short-term effects. Most behavioral problems can be solved by altering consequences such as social attention, accountability, feedback, tangible rewards.

Looking for more? Check out a more in-depth blog post about various antecedent alterations, including an overview of the concept of the motivating operation (MO) to illustrate how MOs alter the effectiveness of consequences and, in turn, influence behavior that typically leads to that consequence. In that post, I also discuss the application of MOs in the design of health behavior change programs to increase the probability of success.

Please note: this post originally appeared on the InJewel LLC blog.


Martin, G. L., & Pear, J. J. (2015). Behavior modification: What is it and how to do it (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson-Prentice Hall.

motivation. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved October 19, 2017 from website

AUTHOR BIO: Julie Slowiak, PhD, BCBA is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Founder of InJewel LLC. Early in her academic career, Julie found herself struggling to maintain a healthy work-life flow. Achieving tenure was a feat Julie considered the ultimate "gold star" in her academic career and one after which she had expected to feel less stressed, less trapped, more fulfilled, and more at ease. Unfortunately, quite the opposite was true, but Julie viewed this as an opportunity to take action by making tweaks to her job that aligned with her personal and professional values. As a result, Julie founded her coaching and consulting practice as a “side gig”. Julie works with individuals and organizations to design action plans and identify simple, high impact tweaks that lead to measurable improvements in performance and wellbeing.


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