The Article of the Month

by Robert Dilts.


Motivation is generally defined as a "force, stimulus, or influence" that moves a person or organism to act or respond. According to Webster's Dictionary, motivation is "the psychological feature that arouses an organism to action;" and "the reason for the action." Thus, motivation relates to the internal processes that "move, impel, induce, or incite," people to do the things they do. It is "the call to action" that stimulates us to initiate behaviors in the world around us. "Needs, drives, and desires" are typically cited as internal motives of our behaviors. "Incentives, rewards and reinforcement" are considered motivations derived from external sources.

One of the earliest theories of motivation was proposed by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle postulated that motivation was the result of an "appetitive" function, which always operated relative to some outcome or end. According to Aristotle, this "end" was provided or created by the thought processes of ongoing perception, memory or imagination. He claimed:

[I]t is the object of appetite which originates movement, this object may be either the real or the apparent good...To the thinking soul images serve as if they were contents of perception...just as if it were seeing, it calculates and deliberates what is to come by reference to what is present; and when it makes a pronouncement, as in the case of sensation it pronounces the object to be pleasant or painful, in this case it avoids or pursues.

In Aristotle's view, it was "the real or the apparent good" of some anticipated consequence, or image of "what is to come" derived in "reference to what is present," that simulated a living organism to pursue it (if positive) or avoid it (if negative).

Sigmund Freud proposed the "pleasure principle" as the primary mechanism of motivation. According to Freud, organisms are driven to "seek pleasurable experiences" and "avoid pain;" a notion which clearly reflects Aristotle's concept of "appetites."

Modern cognitive theories of motivation also mirror Aristotle's model, postulating that motivation is primarily derived from internal cognitive maps or "expectations" of the potential consequences of various actions. According to the cognitive perspective, expectations relating to the projected outcomes of one's behavior are the primary source of motivation. From this view, how people feel, and what they do, depends on the value that they attach, and the causes they attribute to, anticipated consequences. Strong "positive" expectations, for instance, can push people to put out extra effort in hope of reaching some desired outcome. Expected consequences that are perceived as "negative," on the other hand, will lead to either avoidance or apathy.

In addition to pain and pleasure, "needs" and "drives" are also associated with motivation. From the perspective of systems theory, for instance, the need for a system to maintain balance or homeostasis is considered one of the fundamental sources of motivation in organisms. According to cybernetics, deviation from a desired state automatically leads to corrective measures to attempt to regain the state. "Food seeking" behavior, for example, would be motivated by "hunger" which would occur as a result of a physiological imbalance created by some degree of food deprivation.

Self-organization theory would view "consequences," "expectations" or "needs" as types of "attractors" around which the rest of the system "self organizes" in order to produce some type of stable state or pattern.

Some models of motivation simply connect it with learned associations or conditioning, suggesting that it is essentially mechanically programmed in through repetition or external reinforcement. These theories of learning and motivation are centered around the paradigm of the 'reflex arc' we take in some sensory stimulus, which causes some response, which is subsequently either positively or negatively reinforced. Attempts to motivate others which are based on the presuppositions of the reflex arc often center around giving people clearer stimuli, and providing appropriate 'reinforcements' in terms of praise, monetary rewards, fringe benefits, etc. Much of the research designed to support the 'reflex arc' paradigm has been done with rats, pigeons and dogs, however, and is unable to account for many phenomena related to motivation which seem to be independent of external reinforcements. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, created his voluminous notebooks on his own, without the need for any obvious "reflex arc" providing external "rewards," such as money or praise. This type of high degree of internal self-motivation seems to be a common pattern for works of creativity and genius.

As opposed to the reflex arc, the standard NLP paradigm for learning and motivation is the T.O.T.E. (which stands for Test-Operate-Test- Exit). The T.O.T.E. Model (Miller, Gallanter and Pribram, 1960) combines Aristotle's notion that "appetites" are directed toward some end with the cybernetic concept of self-correcting feedback loops. The T.O.T.E. model maintains that behavior is goal driven (teleological) rather than stimulus driven (deterministic), as is proposed by the reflex arc. The distinctions of the T.O.T.E. define the basic elements of a goal oriented feedback loop unless certain conditions defined by the "Test" are met, the person will continue to "Operate" in order to attempt to fulfill those conditions. Thus, the "motivation" is the outcome or conditions to be achieved, not some external reinforcement. No additional "drive," "force," "external reinforcement," or other explanation is required. Natural, self-correction is an integral part of any healthy living, or self-organizing, system.

Starting with the T.O.T.E. as its basis, the NLP view of motivation then incorporates all of the other various perspectives of motivation to some degree. NLP also adds the influence of other aspects of our mental programming. According to NLP, for instance, certain qualities (Submodalities) of the internal representation of some object or behavioral consequence (such as its color, brightness, distance, etc.) will influence whether we perceive it as "positive," "pleasurable," and "desirable," or "negative," "painful," or "frightening." Thus, adjusting the Submodality qualities of our internal representation of some outcome or expected consequence, will alter its degree of attraction, and thus the intensity of motivation we experience.

Another important aspect of motivation in NLP relates to Meta Program Patterns. Meta Program distinctions refer to higher level patterns related to the T.O.T.E. i.e., the ways that goals are established and assessed, and the way that operations and responses are selected in the attempt to achieve those goals. The goal or "Test" phase of the T.O.T.E., for instance, can be set up to represent either the state that a person wants to achieve, or what they seek to avoid. The goal state may be represented in terms of either a vision, logical construction, actions or an emotional state; and can come from past memories or constructions projecting possible futures. It may also be an attempt to maintain an ongoing present state. The goal and its achievement may be cast in terms of either a long term or short term time frame, and so forth.

The Meta Program pattern distinguishing whether a person is "approaching positives" or "avoiding negatives," then, would determine what types of consequences would most likely move the person to action. Similarly, patterns relating to whether a person's outcome is represented with respect to the long term future or immediate present, or is oriented toward generalities or details, will have a significant effect on the types of situations and "reinforcements" that will most likely motivate that person.

On another level, NLP perceives both Meta Programs and motivation as ultimately being driven by values and beliefs i.e., the level of processes related to why we think and act the way we do. Values and beliefs shape how an individual "punctuates" and gives "meaning" to his or her perception of a situation. This, in turn, determines which kinds of mental programs and behaviors the person selects to approach that situation. Thus, our beliefs and values provide the internal reinforcement that supports or inhibits particular capabilities and behaviors. This makes them an important influence on motivation.

A person's "hierarchy" of "values" or "criteria," for instance, will greatly influence the way that person acts in the world. Hierarchies of values relate to the degree of importance or meaning which people attach to various actions and experiences. (They form a series of, what are called, "nested T.O.T.E.s.) An example of a 'hierarchy of values' would be a person who values 'relationship' more than 'achievement'. Such a person would tend to put his or her relationships "first." This person would probably structure his or her life more around maintaining good relationships than completing tasks and outcomes. A person whose hierarchy of criteria placed 'achievement' over 'relationships' would consistently act according to different priorities. He or she might sacrifice his or her relationships in order to achieve success.

On a practical level, NLP combines these various influences on motivation together in order to identify and create particular Motivation Strategies which may be used to help a person to more effectively inspire or propel himself or herself toward particular goals and outcomes.

Motivation Strategies

Motivation strategies are one of the seven basic classes of strategies identified by NLP. The others include: Memory, Learning, Creativity, Decision, Reality and Belief (or Convincer). Motivation strategies relate to the sequence of cognitive steps and operations that people go through in order to inspire themselves to do all of the things necessary to get what they want.

Motivation strategies are similar to processes involving mental rehearsal, such as the New Behavior Generator and Future Pacing, though they differ in important respects. Both mental rehearsal and motivation strategies involve using imagination and visualization. The primary purpose of mental rehearsal, however, is to prepare oneself in one's imagination to respond or behave the way one wants in some future situation. Motivation strategies are ways to stimulate or propel oneself forward toward a dream, goal or outcome. Motivation, for instance, may be required in order to get oneself to go through mental rehearsal at all.

Many people experience problems around the process of motivating themselves or others. This is often because, as Aristotle pointed out:

[A]ppetites run counter to one another, which happens when a principle of reason and desire are contrary and is possible only in beings with a sense of time (for while mind bids us hold back because of what is future, desire is influenced by what is just at hand: a pleasant object which is just at hand presents itself as both pleasant and good, without condition in either case, because want of foresight into what is farther away in

One way NLP addresses such conflicts between short term and long term consequences is through the use of time lines and the "as if" frame, in order to create "foresight into what is farther away in time." This involves the use of visualization and the creation of an associated experience of the future.

In addition to helping create positive expectations, motivation strategies are procedures which help people to tap into and direct their own inner source of motivation. Motivation strategies are typically formed around key values or "criteria." To get a sense of your own values and criteria, consider for a moment the following questions: "In general, what motivates you?" "What inspires you?" "What moves you to action, or 'gets you out of bed in the morning'?"

Some possible answers might be:

  • Success
  • Praise
  • Recognition
  • Love and Acceptance
  • Setting my sights on something that I want to make my own (a home, an education, a thinner body, a job, a cause)
  • Making a difference in the world

    These are all examples of "criteria" or "values" that form the basis of people's motivation strategies. Of course, a next important question would be, "How do you know if some behavior or consequence fits a particular criterion or value?" NLP would call these conditions your "criterial equivalences" or "evidences." These are typically much more sensory based than criteria or values themselves, and can be influenced by various sensory qualities of an experience.

    Consider the ways in which your sensory perceptions influence your degree of motivation. Think of an advertisement on television that made you want to own the product being advertised, for example. What was it about the add that inspired you to go out and buy the product? Was it the color, brightness, music, words, tone of voice, movement, etc. These particular features are known as "Submodalities" in NLP, and often play a significant role in people's motivation strategies.


    Parable of the Porpoise; Dilts, R., 1992.
    Strategies of Genius, Volume ; Dilts, R., 1994.

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