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The mental processes that arouse, sustain, and direct human behaviour. Motivation may stem from processes taking place within an individual (intrinsic motivation) or from the impact of factors acting on the individual from outside (extrinsic motivation); in most cases these two influences are continually interacting.

The vocabulary associated with motivation is large; such terms as purpose, desire, need, goal, preference, perception, attitude, recognition, achievement, and incentive are commonly used. Many of these drives can act on an individual simultaneously, causing varying degrees of conflict. A consumer deciding between buying chocolate and buying ice cream is in conflict. An employee who wants to disagree with the boss but also wants to keep his or her job is in conflict.

In a business context, an understanding of human motivation is crucial to understanding consumer buying behaviour. It is also vital to the design of organizational norms and structures, including reward structures, that encourage effort and achievement on the part of employees. In the realm of theory considerable importance has been given to the hierarchy of needs investigated by Abraham Maslow (1908–70; see Maslow's motivational hierarchy), which places the basic needs of human survival at the bottom of the scale of human motivation and self-actualization at the top. The more flexible ERG theory focuses on three groups of needs that form a hierarchy: existence needs (physical and material wants); relatedness needs (the desire for interpersonal relationships); and growth needs (desires to be creative and productive).

Although most psychologists now believe that human needs and motives are too variable to be confined to a fixed hierarchy, these theories have the merit of emphasizing that, besides goals, ambitions, and rewards, there is a need for success to be recognized by others and a need to develop and progress. A person in an organization never works in a vacuum; there can be a real conflict between different motivations that relate to the organization: Would I be worse paid working elsewhere? But would I be more secure/better trained/more appreciated elsewhere? See achievement motivation theory; alienation; Theory X and Theory Y; Theory Z; valence-instrumentality-expectancy theory.

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