Sociology’s Motivation Problem (Part II)26 min read

In a previous post, we outlined the three critical mistakes sociologists make in theorizing about motivation. We referred to them as the mono-motivational, social-psychological, and list-making fallacies. In this post, we briefly summarize each fallacy. We follow with a more extended discussion on how recent interdisciplinary work in social, cognitive, affective, and motivational neuroscience can provide new analytic tools to move the sociological theory of motivation forward while preventing falling into theoretical cul-de-sac previous work fell into. 


The first refers to the sociological penchant to attribute a single “master” motivation to people. Sociologists and social psychologists naturally prefer that this master motivation is of the social kind and that people are primarily driven by social motivations. These range from the usual functionalist penchant to say that people are motivated to conform to the norms imposed by the society that Wrong (1963) castigated, to the Mills-inspired approach that both denies “motivations” exist as motor-springs of action, while simultaneously assuming people are motivated to produce “accounts” of their actions conforming to cultural expectations. Another version of the mono-motivational story links up to the social psychology of “need states.” In this approach, people have an “uber” motivation to “belong” to groups, form strong social ties, and the like (Baumeister and Leary 1995). A special case is “dual” motivation stories in which two “uber” motivations, one social and one anti-social, or one social and one “instrumental,” fight out for supremacy in an endless Manichean struggle (Durkheim 2005; Freud 1989; Kadushin 2002).


The second fallacy is a more general version of this last point. This idea—central to most social and personality psychology work since the early 20th century—argues motivation can be understood as a process by which unmet needs or drives generate an unpleasant state, which people are then motivated to “reduce” or “eliminate.” This general “drive-reduction” model was first developed in behaviorist animal psychology but then generalized to the study of human motivation with the development of “control models” of human behavior after the 1950s (Carver and Scheier 1998; Heise 1977; Powers 1973). The control model imagery provides the ideal formal specification of the drive-reduction model. In this imagery, people can be thought of as “human thermostats.” A “drive” or an unmet “need” (e.g., being lonely) is a deviation from the setpoint (e.g., belongingness). Finally, human motivation is geared toward re-establishing the previous balance (finding some company)–e.g., modern affect and identity control models in social psychology (Burke and Stets 2009; Smith-Lovin and Heise 1988) are built on these foundations. Note that social-psychological control models are also mono-motivational models. They postulate a single abstract motivation (e.g., reduction of “deflection” or identity verification). Most research shows how their motivation (and method of appraising its veracity) is primary to other research programs’ motivation (Burke and Stets 1999). The social psychology behind structuration theory, ethnomethodology, and some versions of social construction, in which people are motivated to re-establish ontological security, facticity, cognitive order, and the like when threatened, also rely on the same underlying imagery (Fararo 2001). 


Finally, we noted that multi-motivational (list) models move beyond some drawbacks of mono-motivational and drive-reduction models. The most sophisticated one, developed in sociology by Jonathan Turner (2010), poses the interplay of a multiplicity of motivations operating in every face-to-face encounter. Motivations range from the cognitive to the affective to the instrumental. However, while the multidimensional aspect of Turner’s approach is appreciated, it does inherit some weaknesses of the drive-reduction and control models that it draws upon. One problem is that the “list” of motivations, regardless of how “fundamental” the analyst thinks these are, comes from pre-existing theory, which means it is unlikely that those lists will exhaustively cover all the sources of motivated action. The lists are inherently limited and occlude both the particularity of motivation, the open-ended nature of the objects of motivation, and the situated nature of most motivated action. The other problem with Turner’s model, shared by most social-psychological models, is the assumption that people are motivated to contain or reduce abstract need states. Under this imagery, both the dynamics of motivation and the end states (usually psychological) that people pursue in motivated action are internal. The actual object people are motivated to seek drops out of the picture altogether. 

Overall, we think that the search for “fundamental” motivations, whether of the omnipotent or additive variety, is a red-herring. People are motivated by many things, and it is unlikely that this will fall into analytically neat “fundamental” types. Moreover, what is fundamental for one person, can be peripheral for another because “fundamentality” is determined by a history of learning and accumulating rewarding and non-rewarding experiences with specific objects (and by the psychological and biological potential to constitute them as rewards). Another limitation of conventional approaches is that most motivation is reactive rather than proactive. People are not motivated to act until their needs for facticity are threatened, or their identities fail to be verified, or they end up getting the short end of the deal in exchange. In a strange sense, sociologists have elevated the avoidance or, more typically, removing pain at the expense of the pursuit or enjoyment of pleasure. By relying on removing or avoiding pain and focusing on externalities only, the sociology of motivation fails the fundamental question of why one person pursues one thing and another person other things, even when faced with similar environmental prompts (Kringelbach and Berridge 2016). In short, what is missing from the social psychology of motivation is both a way to theorize the specific pursuit of particular objects, activities and events and an account of motivated action that puts motivation first — that is, in which motivated action emerges pro-actively rather than re-actively. 

Moving Beyond the Fallacies

Beyond Mono-Motivations

Moving beyond mono-motivations is the easiest. “Typing” motivations at an abstract level does not get us very far in this endeavor (Martin and Lembo 2020), so the best fix is just to acknowledge both the diversity and the specificity of motivators, so we don’t fall into the penchant to say that people are motivated to pursue psychological abstractions (like “ontological security” or “belongingness”), let alone a single one of these. Put differently, people are motivated to pursue a multiplicity of objects and lines of action, and the candidate “motivators” are massively diverse. Some are social, some are pro-social, some are anti-social, some are egoistic, others altruistic, and, yes, some are psychological. A good rule of thumb is that if you cannot tell us what people are motivated by — where “what” has to be a concrete object, event, or experience (e.g., that I get tenure) — then you need to move down the “ladder of abstraction” and tell us precisely what you think people are pursuing (Sartori 1984).

The same goes for the crypto-mono-motivational approach inspired by Mills, where people are master-motivated to produce “accounts” of their actions. Sometimes people may be motivated to do this; other times, they are not. The essential analytic point is that we need to separate motive or motivation talk from motivation proper. To foreshadow, motivation has everything to do with objects and rewards and nothing to do with justifications. This is not difficult to imagine. In quantitative research, in particular, but also retrospective and historical qualitative research, motive talk may be the only data available. Understanding the normative frames or motivation schemata actors use to interpret their behavior remains a relevant and essential subject of study (Franzese 2013; Hewitt 2013). Nevertheless, we should not assume post hoc accounts are causal or even verge on tapping into causally relevant factors. 

Beyond Drive-Reduction

However, we have seen that you can conquer the mono-motivational monster while remaining trapped by the constraint of the dominant model of motivation in social psychology — the drive to reduce discomfort, pain, and the like. For instance, if I think meaning maintenance is such a need, when people experience hard to interpret events (e.g., a mother killing her child), then I can posit that they are motivated to reduce the uncomfortable state of deflection this event has produced. There is no question that some motivational processes are of this (reactive) sort. However, taking this as the paradigm for motivation is an analytic mistake. Most motivated action is the proactive pursuit of specific objects, events, persons, or states of affairs; it is, by definition, intentional, guided, and controlled (Miller Tate 2019). The initiation of motivated action need-not (and usually is not) preceded by a “need” state. Instead, it is preceded by an event that activates a memory of the desired object. Later, by a plan (which could also be stored in long-term memory as a habit if repeatedly rehearsed before) that provides a flexible behavioral template for the person to pursue it. 

But what makes objects desired or desirable? This is a question for which contemporary motivational neuroscience’s answer is deceptively simple, but, we think, extraordinarily generative. Objects become the object of motivation when they are constituted as rewards (Schroeder, 2004). Objects are constituted as rewards when, after seeking them out, they lead to satisfying (e.g., pleasurable) experiences in a given context. This is followed by a learning process (reinforcement) in which we bind the experienced qualities of the object to the pleasurable experience while also storing for future use the extent to which the positive experience matches, exceeds, or falls short of the pleasure we predicted we were going to get (where “prediction” can be both implicit or explicit). In this way, objects go, via repeated travels through this cycle, from being “neutral” (non-motivating) to being capable of triggering motivated action (we start “wanting” the object spontaneously or without much effort). 

An object with the capacity to lead to motivated action following positive consummatory experiences is thus constituted (construed, categorized) as a reward in future encounters so that the object begins to function as a salient incentive. We can then speak of the object as being represented (by that person) as a reward, with reward-representations leading to motivated action once they are activated (either by the environment or by the person) on future occasions (Schroeder 2004; Winkielman and Berridge 2003). 

The basic lesson here is that only objects constituted as rewards have the causal power to energize action. Abstract “need-states,” uncomfortable drives, experiences of “deflection,” or “lack of meaning,” “ennui,” “ontological (in)security,” or “loneliness,” are not objects. Therefore, they cannot be constituted as rewards. By implication, they cannot count as causes energizing people to act. However, an apple, a glass of water, a beer, hanging out with your best friend, molly, reaching the solution to a challenging crossword puzzle, publishing a paper, getting released from prison, earning praise from your advisor, cocaine, getting a bunch of Twitter likes, and a zillion others (the list is open-ended) are objects (e.g., they are either things or events). Therefore, they can all be constituted—under the right circumstances, by particular people—as rewards. By implication, they count as causes that energize people to act. 

If you are still mourning the death of homeostatic or drive reduction theories of motivation, think of the last time you stuffed yourself with chocolate lava cake after a hearty dinner. You sure weren’t hungry any longer (thus, there was no “drive” to “reduce”). You probably were beyond your set point for satiation (so the “error” was probably going in the wrong direction. However, you still ate the cake because you either had looked forward to dessert from the start, the cake itself looked delicious; or, even more likely, you might have eaten the cake although the “hedonic impact” (the pleasure experience) was actually much more muted than you thought. All rewards (psychological, social, and the like) work like that (Berridge 2004, 2018). 

Beyond Fundamental Motives

 From the perspective of modern motivational science, we can think of standard fundamental motivation theories as incompletely articulated models of motivation. Thus, people are not motivated to attain abstract states (e.g., trust or predictability) qua external states. The hidden scope condition here is that as long as trust and predictability lead to psychologically rewarding objects, people will be motivated to try to organize their external environment such that those states obtain. Making explicit this scope condition also shows the futility of delving for “universal” motives of this kind. Thus, it is fair to suggest people will be motivated to try to live in trusting and predictable worlds, but there is nothing necessary about this; if trust and predictability fail to be psychologically rewarding, then people will not be motivated to pursue these external conditions. 

For instance, people high on the personality trait usually labeled “openness to experience,” find (moderately) unpredictable environments psychologically rewarding and overly predictable environments non-rewarding. As such, these people will be driven to pursue lines of action that do not conform to the idea of “ontological security” as a general motivator. Jumping from planes, hanging out with grizzly bears, or diving around lethal ocean life, none of which are conducive to ontological (or physical) security, can be constituted as rewards by some people. In that case, people will be motivated to seek out these lines of action. The analytic mistake here is to think of the (usually) rewarding line of action as the “motivation,” when in fact it is the (contingent, not necessary) link between the external state and the internal reward (the real motivator) that makes the former a condition to be striven for. 

In the same way, it is essential to not assume that just because something “sounds good,” from the armchair, that it will be a universal motivator. Take, for instance, the oft-discussed case of “belongingness.” It might seem redundant and unnecessary to specify that social ties or group belonging can be constituted as psychological rewards (Baumeister and Leary 1995; Kadushin 2002). But if the full extent of human variation is considered, it is easy to see that they may not be. For instance, recent work in the neuropsychology of autism and the autism-spectrum shows (Carré et al. 2015; Supekar et al. 2018) there is a portion (how large remains unclear) of the population for whom interpersonal relations are either less rewarding or non-rewarding (compared to tangible rewards (Gale, Eikeseth, and Klintwall 2019)), and a smaller proportion for whom they might actually be aversive (so it is the avoidance or cessation of belonging or connection that actually counts as a reward). Interpersonal relationships are generally rewarding for “neurotypical” people because a (developmental, genetic, epigenetic) mechanism has made them so. If this mechanism is either disrupted by, for instance, brain injury or the onset of mental illness (or is non-existent from early on during development as with autistic individuals), then belongingness ceases to be a “fundamental” motivation. 

Throwing Out the Lists

In this last respect, many of the criticisms of fundamental motivations apply to the list-makers. Because of the contingent link between external state (e.g., trust, security, belonging) and reward, it is unlikely that any of the other so-called “fundamental motivations,” that have been proposed in psychology and sociology (e.g., need for “power,” “influence,” “status,” “altruism,” “trust,” and the like) by people who like to write down “lists” of motives are fundamental. This is especially the case for “fundamental” motives theorized as “needs for” some concrete state of affairs. Thus, all of these candidate motives will fail Baumeister and Leary’s criterion of being “universal in the sense of applying to all people” (p. 498). Instead, most of the motives appearing in these sorts of lists and proposals can be best thought of as states, processes, and external conditions commonly (in the probabilistic sense) linked to objects typically constituted as rewards and thus likely to be pursued by most (but not all) people. Diversity, both in terms of “neurodiversity” and diversity of experience and learning history, and institutional location and historical context is the rule rather than the exception. 

Turner’s (2010) list inherits this weakness. Still, it stands out because it does not seek an exhaustive list of drives we have—mostly because he accepts the underlying homeostatic control model seeing a finite number of needs being salient in micro-interaction and because he does not prioritize the items on the list. On the one hand, this is commendable. It adds flexibility to the social scientist: we could add more things to the list as identity verification, trust, facticity, reciprocal fairness, and belongingness are not the only things that might matter. Furthermore, this flexibility does not negate the utility of his list because he does locate the motivational forces, even if he does not specify their neurobiological foundations, inside our heads and bodies. On the other hand, because Turner’s list seeks to contextualize psychological needs within a larger constellation of nested social spaces, it cannot explain a wide array of behaviors that fall outside the interaction or encounter unit in which his microsociology situates itself. Drug or food addiction goes unexplained, as do situations between two or more people who are not motivated by, say, trust, but get along just fine, and so does the ability to make sense of why some scientists pursue celebrity status at all costs while others operate within the rules of their professional field.

From Fundamental “Motivations” to Fundamental Motivational Processes

Ultimately, lists or not, drive-states or not, the fundamental weakness in sociological theories of motivation is the omission of reward and, importantly, the neurophysiological connections between reward/object/schema work. This is perhaps the most controversial thing we can posit to sociologists, given their aversion to intrapersonal dynamics and to any hint at reductionism. But, despite our best efforts to resist over-psychologization and over-economization, sociology’s candidates for motivation continue to psychologize and economize (and, worse, oversocialize), but with very little connection to empirical research on the mechanics of motivation or reflective thought on what, why, and how people are actually compelled to do things. Rewards, then, are central to the explanatory story (Kringelbach and Berridge 2016). Controversial as it may be, it is the best path forward for exercising sociology of the (explicit and implicit) vestiges of a long-standing and venerable tradition, in which analysts sit at their desks trying to come up with the one, or for more modest cogitators, the definitive top list of, motivation and motivations, respectively. Incorporating control-theoretic versions of early twentieth-century homeostatic models or philosophical speculation about “ontological security” did not help matters in this particular regard.

Luckily for us, contemporary work in affective, cognitive, and motivational neuroscience (and increasingly the overlap of these fields with social neuroscience and social and personality psychology) suggests a fundamental theoretical reorientation in the way we think of motivation in broader social and human sciences. Thus, instead of “fundamental motivations,” we propose that the focus should move to the study of fundamental motivational processes, with the understanding that there is a massive (perhaps non-enumerable) set of objects that could count as “motivators.” 

What are these processes? In the earlier discussion, we have made reference to a few of them. Note, for instance, that in the cycle leading objects to be constituted as rewards, there is a seeking phase where we engage in (flexible—either habitual or intentional) motivated activity to attain the object and a consummatory phase—where we enjoy the object. There is also a post-consummation (or satiatory) phase, where we store linkages between the pleasure experienced (if any) to update the “reward status” of the object and where we compare what we thought we were going to get to what we got. Using folk psychological labels for these phases of motivation, we can say that the fundamental motivational processes leading objects to be constituted as rewards are wanting (seeking), liking, and learning. Thus, pleasure is an aspect or “phase” (to use Dewey’s locution) of motivated action, not the whole of it. 

In short, it is this cycle (and, as we will see in a follow-up post, each phase’s neurobiological dissociability), our ability to anticipate — right or wrongly — rewarding experiences with an object (or set of similarly classed objects), and the actual reward itself that constitutes a theory of motivation or motivational processes. Any object can come to intentionally guide and control our motor impulses or become a source of habitually motivated activity. In a follow-up post, we will discuss these fundamental motivational processes, how they are linked together—and most importantly, how they come apart—and the more significant implications the reward-focused approach has for the study of motivated action in institutional settings. 


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