Human beings are more than bundles of instincts, drives and needs. They are, as Maslow understood, thinking, responsive and creative beings, which makes their motivation in any situation very difficult to determine. Even the person being motivated can be uncertain as to their real wishes or needs in a situation, or they may be influenced by conflicting motives. If you want to leave your job to study at university, you might be motivated by the need to improve your job prospects, or the desire for a better income, or a desire to change careers. Your partner is fully supportive and proud of your determination. You like the image of yourself as a university student and expect to have new and interesting experiences as a student. Though you and your partner will feel the loss of your income, your shared expectation of a much higher income later makes temporary difficulties seem worthwhile. In such a case, the different motives tend to complement and reinforce each other.

At other times, motives can result in inner conflict.  You might want to take a new job in a new city but you might also want to remain close to your family, and you might not want to give up your current apartment, with its view of the ocean. You might want to please your partner, who is excited about the prospect of a move and a better income, but you might secretly be anxious about taking on the new job with its new challenges and wonder whether it would be best to stay where you are in a job where you are successful although not so well paid. These conflicting motives can lead to indecisiveness, anxiety, or failure to act.

Conflicting motives come in three general forms:

  • Approach-approach conflict – where you are equally attracted by different goals or incentives. For example, you want to accept an invitation to dine at a favourite restaurant, and you also want to join your daughter at her yoga class.
  • Approach-avoidance conflict – where a goal is simultaneously attractive and unattractive. You might want to accept an invitation from a person whom you admire, but you might be afraid that you will embarrass yourself.
  • Avoidance-avoidance conflict You might dislike either option but must choose between them. You do not want to spend the vacation with your in-laws, but you do not want to upset your husband who has planned the family vacation.

* Motivation can be difficult to unravel and can also be misunderstood because of these various push-pull factors. Imagine that the City Council wants to find out what causes people to migrate to their area. Because the area is in a beautiful setting, with wide beaches on one side and green mountains on another, and because the climate is mild all year and the summers are bright and hot, the researchers might first assume that people migrate because they are attracted to the area or the lifestyle (because of pull factors). After some research, they might find that much of the migration is due to factors that made people want to leave their former homes such as: high cost of living, expensive housing, cold climate, or poor health (these are push factors). Similarly, the people in our previous examples: the one who is planning to study at university, the other trying to decide whether or not to accept a new job, are motivated by push and pull factors.

Motivation is further complicated by the fact that we often misinterpret our own motivations and misread those that influence others. For instance, a young girl dresses in a way that her father considers provocative. He might misread her clothing as a sign that she wants to attract young men in a sexual way. She might say that she dresses in this way because such clothes are fashionable, and she likes to dress like other girls her age. Both may be partly correct. It could also be that she dresses this way because she believes that her physical attractiveness is her only asset and other girls and boys would otherwise ignore her; but the young girl may not be aware of this unconscious motivation.

Research seems to indicate gender differences in the way we perceive and interpret some things. Certainly, we recognise age differences and do not expect a five-year-old to interpret things in the same way that a fifty-year-old might. Culture, experience, socio-economic status and even physiological differences can affect our perceptions of another’s needs and motivations.