The Psychology of Motivation

By Bret Fitzgerald
April 10, 2006

Bret A. FitzGerald is a 27-year veteran of the health club industry. He is vice president of corporate communications for Las Vegas Athletic Clubs in Las Vegas, NV, and publisher and editor of LVAC Magazine. He was recently awarded a master of education degree in health promotion from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

When the prospective club member you are sitting with announces, “I need to lose 25 lbs., but I’m just not motivated to start or stay with it,” they are really saying, “Please help me find my true incentive and my emotional reward that will drive me to take action toward that goal of losing weight.” In other words, get busy helping them identify their exact motivation (in emotional terms) and they will, almost always, take action.

When it comes to taking action, motivation--more specifically emotional reward--is at the core of exercise adoption into one’s lifestyle. That being said, motivation is defined as follows: the process that initiates, directs and sustains behavior to satisfy physiological and psychological needs and wants according to the book, Mastering the World of Psychology.

In the science of psychology, the process of motivation is broken down into three subprocesses: activation, persistence and intensity.

Activation, or the initiation of motivated behavior, involves taking the first steps in order to achieve a goal. An example might be the moment at which a prospect picks up the phone and calls your club for information. Or, it might be the day the prospect agrees to join his or her friend for a workout. In either case, something motivated the prospect to initiate or activate toward a particular goal. Those behaviors are rarely initiated without some end in mind. Find the emotional reward, that warm, fuzzy feeling, that is delivered by the “end in mind” and you will have a sale.

Persistence is the faithful and determined effort put forth to achieve a particular goal. This motivational subprocess is most commonly exhibited by high-achievers.

Intensity refers to the focused energy and attention applied by an individual to complete the work that will help them achieve their goal. Common to health club members is the notion of activation with intensity but lacking persistence. This is the member who joins after New Year’s but disappears by March 1.

In most cases, the motives you are looking to uncover will be either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motives are those who give one pleasure in and of itself. Taking a relaxing steam bath or sitting in a bubbling whirlpool are examples of a person experiencing intrinsic motivation. The reward of relaxation is perhaps secondary to the pleasure of the warmth hugging your body.

A friend I’ve known for two decades, Eli Borax, continues to exercise simply because he feels better about doing it. Eli is intrinsically motivated.

Extrinsic motives are those that inspire actions that lead to a reward or the avoidance of an undesirable consequence. A great example is the overweight woman who starts exercising because of her impending nuptials. She is looking to avoid the harsh judgment of family and friends as well as the embarrassment and shame she may feel for letting herself become overweight.

I know a banking executive who lost weight, decreased his blood pressure and cholesterol to save $500 a year on his life insurance policy. The extrinsic motivation, or reward of saving money, encouraged this executive to become healthier.

There are four basic theories of human motivation: Instinct Theory, Drive-Reduction Theory, Arousal Theory and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (MHN) is the most developed theory. MHN is a graduated, five-step pyramid. First, one must satisfy their physiological needs. The need for shelter, water, food, sleep and oxygen are the most basic of needs. Once those basic needs are achieved, humans are then motivated by safety needs, which include a feeling of security and absence of danger. Once a person has been motivated to achieve the basic needs and feels no imminent danger, they are now stimulated to attain love/belonging needs. These middle hierarchal needs revolve around the need to be accepted and loved. This is a common, yet difficult to uncover motivation for most health club membership salespeople. Most prospects won’t say they need to be accepted or loved, but if you can paint a picture with words addressing acceptance, you will convince them as to the benefits of your club. You might say, “I’ve noticed that people who work out are usually very optimistic and energetic. And people with those qualities are very well liked.”

Once a person feels loved and accepted, they are then motivated by their esteem needs. Esteem needs include the requirement to feel competent, respected and accomplished. Esteem needs motivate humans to high levels of achievement and recognition. A prospect at this level is probably married with a family. His/Her career is going well and he/she almost certainly holds an advanced academic degree.

The final step is self-actualization or the desire to become more and more of what one is; To become everything that one is capable of becoming." People who have everything can still maximize their potential by seeking higher knowledge, peace, esthetic experiences and self-fulfillment. Helping others often motivates these people. They start foundations and charities and exercise to increase their health not their appearance.

Abraham Maslow studied people who he felt were using their talents and abilities to the fullest, thus achieving what he termed, self-actualization. Self-actualization, the top rung of MHN, is when an individual is motivated by realizing their full potential. Maslow identifies Presidents Lincoln and Jefferson, as well as Albert Schweitzer and Eleanor Roosevelt as individuals who were motivated to achieve their full potential. Examples within the health club industry are Augie Nieto, founder of Life Fitness; Don Wildman, founder of Health & Tennis Corp. (now Bally Total Fitness); Rudy Smith, chairman of Las Vegas Athletic Clubs; and Mark Mastrov, chairman and CEO of 24-Hour Fitness.

The psychology of human motivation is an interesting, yet complicated subject. However, understanding the theories of this crucial human behavior can provide you with insight into why people act the way they do, and in so doing, assist you and your team of sales professionals with a new perspective on how to make sales that might otherwise get away.