Neuroscience & Motivation: What You Need to Know

By: Charles Purvis
hand holding image of brain to symbolize neuroscience

“Neuroscience over the next 50 years is going to introduce things that are mind-blowing.” —David Eagleman

My twin daughters have a grey tabby cat named Pooka who is obsessed with mealtime. The second you spend more than a moment standing near her food bowl, she surges across the room, takes a seat, and gives a ferocious meow. Since the coffeemaker is positioned near her food bowl, we get to hear Pooka’s song every time we make coffee.  We’ve conditioned her thoroughly.

According to, behaviorism is “the theory that human behavior can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to thoughts or feelings.” Really? Sounds more like the definition of 1930s robot, not a way to motivate people.

When it comes to behavior, I like to think humans are a little more evolved than our feline friends. It takes more than a simple treat to inspire and motivate people to change their behavior.

Though behaviorism is a renowned approach in the world of psychology, there are many different perspectives about what drives human behavior and motivation, including interdisciplinary areas of study such as cognitive neuroscience. And although there are psychologists on both sides of the fence, it’s no secret that neuroscience is certainly challenging behaviorism.

Many aspects of motivation are neurological and this is at least one commonality scientists and psychologists agree on.

How Neuroscience & Motivation Work Inside the Brain

Neurotransmitters, or brain networks, regulate our motivational behavior. One regulates emotional response for risk-reward processing, another for reinforcement, a third area for memory, and a fourth for functions like decision-making.

Without getting too detailed, the key takeaway is that motivational behavior is regulated by chemicals in our brain, in addition to being impacted by other things like the environment around us, resources available, timing, and how we feel each day.

“So what?” you might be thinking. How does any of this get applied in the workplace to improve performance? And can I really activate the brain in such a way to change behaviors? Yes, you can.

As Daniel Pink notes in his book, Drive, “There is a mismatch between what science says and what business does.” Many companies are still trying to motivate people to perform preferred tasks such as hitting a sales goal or developing a new product based on a “do this, get that” premise alone.

While this worked well for a skilled-labor force in the twentieth century, today’s knowledge workers respond better when self-determination is encouraged. In other words, appealing to peoples’ fundamental needs of autonomy, mastery, and purpose has a longer lasting impact than extrinsic (external) awards alone.

Our brain is activated by two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic motivators as described above. Human beings have a need to achieve, and getting their brains to fire on all cylinders at once requires a careful balance of motivational techniques.

Maximizing Motivators

To maximize intrinsic motivators, people must perceive they have the skills and a supportive environment that fosters “creativity, responsibility, healthy behavior, and lasting change” as noted by Edward L. Deci, Ph.D. in Why We Do What We Do.

Ask yourself if your company has provided the necessary training, education, tools and resources for an employee to be effective. Is leadership providing a controlling environment (strict dress codes, static office hours, micro management, etc.) that diminishes internal motivation? Or is management providing a more flexible and open workplace where innovation is nurtured?

Related: These career development tactics not only give your employees the training and resources they need to be successful, but they also help you build employee loyalty throughout your organization.

Extrinsic motivators, when combined with an appeal to intrinsic motivators, provide a powerful mechanism to develop and transform a culture into a productive and effective work force.

External motivators, such as cash and bonuses, need to be carefully deployed because, once given, they’re difficult to take away. Why? Because over time they lose their effectiveness as motivators and are seen as entitlements. Use extrinsic rewards (praise, tangible awards, travel awards and social recognition) to distinguish exceptional involvement with the job and commitment to the company.

Driving improved performance of human beings is a complex process. As Dan Ariely says in Payoff, “It is impossible to come up with one simple set of motivational rules.” That’s why it’s important to understand your employee personas and what’s important to them.

Appealing to both intrinsic and extrinsic forces increases the likelihood of capturing an individual's attention and motivating them to do something differently.

Motivation Experts

ITA Group understands how to work with the brain in motivating people to be more productive, engaged and happy in their roles. We’ve been developing and operating performance improvement programs for over 50 years, and adding scientific rigor to the process is in our DNA.

See how our approach moves people to higher levels of performance and drives maximized impact and value.

Charles Purvis
Charles Purvis

Charles has over 25 years’ experience helping clients drive lasting change and success with their channel partners, sales teams, workforces and consumers. His passion lies in leveraging behavioral science and economics to design participant-centric experiences that shift behaviors, attitudes and beliefs in alignment with business objectives. Charles and his wife spend time in Southern California and at their home on the Big Island of Hawai’i.