The First Principles of Behavior: Motivation
9 min read

The First Principles of Behavior: Motivation

On the surface motivation may simply be the reasoning behind why we take certain actions. Dr.Reeves, a motivational psychologist , gives a much precise definition here...
The First Principles of Behavior: Motivation

Welcome to the first episode in a series I'm thinking of calling FPT or First Principles Thinking. As someone who enjoys creating systems that empower people to improve while enjoying themselves (gamification), motivation is something I'm fascinated by. It's been around since the birth of mankind, easy to explain on the surface, yet almost impossible to fully understand/master.

In this article I will be explaining a framework motivational psychologists use to understand motivation, what causes it, and the behaviors it creates.

I pretty much wrote this essay for myself. By explaining the topic, and crystalizing certain ideas, I'm able to see gaps in my understanding and force myself to understand the material at a fundamental level. I’ve read many of the popular books such as Atomic Habits,  Hooked by Nir Eyal, and Tiny Habits by B.J Fogg to name a few. But it wasn’t until I discovered the textbook Understanding Motivation and Emotion that the puzzle of motivation began to form a clear picture for me.

What Exactly is Motivation?

On the surface motivation may simply be the reasoning behind why we take certain actions. Dr.Reeves, a motivational psychologist , gives a much precise definition here:

Motivation concerns those internal processes that give behavior its energy, direction, and persistence. Energy implies that behavior has strength—that it is relatively strong, intense, and hardy or resilient. Direction implies that behavior has purpose—that it is aimed or guided toward some particular goal or outcome. Persistence implies that behavior has endurance—that it sustains itself over time and across different situations.

If you’re able to master what motivation, you become the master of your self, and that’s when you become truly become dangerous. Motivation is something I’m always fascinated by, why are some people extremely intense and persistent while others can’t even seem to get out of bed?

Neurons and Dopamine

If we're going to talk about the first principles of behavior we need to briefly delve into neuroscience. Neurons are the basic units of the nervous system, they help us take information in (sensory) and then respond to that information (motor).


Our brains are made of billions of these neurons. Neurons communicate with each other through pulses that take place in synapses. These pulses are either all in on or completely off  (like a light switch)

We perform actions through what is known as the motor loop, which I won't go into detail here but is important to understand that this system controls not only physical movements but areas such as working memory and emotions.

Which actions we choose to perform however has to do with dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical compounds that a neuron releases in order to communicate with other neurons.

Dopamine has more to do with motivation & craving than pleasure. Instead of thinking of it as neurons signaling "we've obtained a reward", think of it as the motivation/craving to go seek reward.

There's been a whole craze on dopamine detoxing lately, although there have been no scientific studies that prove detoxing has any effect, regulation of your dopamine levels has been proven to play a huge role in motivation. Here are some key points from a podcast episode by neuroscientist Andrew Huberman:

  • It's important to note that almost everything we do releases dopamine, seeing friends/family, going from a hot to cool environment, eating, drinking alcohol, and exercising.
  • Your experience of life and your level of motivation and drive depends on how much dopamine you have relative to your most recent experiences.
  • This is why when you repeatedly engage in something that you enjoy your threshold for enjoyment goes up and up and up.
  • “Don’t spike dopamine prior to engaging in effort, and don’t spike dopamine after engaging in effort. Learn to spike dopamine from effort itself.” Pretty much don't treat yourself to ice cream every time after you run, because eventually, the pleasure from the ice cream will diminish which as a result decreases your motivation to run overall.

Although the scientific literature on “dopamine detoxing” doesn’t seem to really exist, it seems pretty explanatory that by engaging in less supernormal stimulating activities such as using social media, we can lower threshold levels of dopamine which as a result makes effort become much more attractive and something we take pleasure from.

I put this section here because in the world we live in today, motivation has become a game of doing less. This is one of the fundamental differences between motivation today versus thousands of years ago, we're now in hyper stimulated world 24/7 and that effects all of actions we take.

The Framework to Make it Make Sense

This framework devised by Dr.Reeves, and is in my opinion is the most comprehensive and well-rounded mental model to help understand behavior and motivation.

Antecedent Conditions

Social contexts and external events that act as prior requirements to motives that cause or trigger motivational states. It’s impossible to have motives without these antecedents. Here’s an example:

  • If I offered someone $20 to touch their nose, almost everyone would take the deal. It is tempting therefore to say that the $20 bill motivated me to touch my nose.
  • But the motivational power of incentives and rewards is actually traceable to the dopamine discharge that occurs in your brain, when you expect the delivery of the reward.
  • So the discharge and expectation of the benefit of receiving the money caused your internal motive status to change not the extrinsic reward itself.

What are motives?

In a nutshell, motives are internal experiences in the form of needs, cognitions, and emotions and are the direct and proximal causes of motivated action.

Expressions of Motivation

This internal energy that we build up from our motives is then expressed through behavior, engagement, psychophysiology (release of chemicals such as adrenaline), brain activity (ECGs)  and self-report.

Self-report can be thought of as consciously being aware of why you’re doing certain things. This method should be a last resort due to the vast amount of cognitive biases and implicit motivations (more on this later) which can make answers obsolete.


This is pillar one of what drives behavior and is arguably the strongest. A need is a condition within the person that is essential and necessary for growth, well-being, and life.

There are three main ways our needs are manifested: physically, psychologically and implicitly.

  • Physiological Needs: Thirst, Hunger, Sex.
  • Psychological Needs: Autonomy (Control), Competence (Mastery), Relatedness (Purpose/Belonging)
  • Implicit Motivations: Achievement, Affiliation, Power

Implicit motivations differ fundamentally from the other two in the fact that they are acquired after the development of language, and experiences that are influenced by your social and cultural environment. Because of this, they tend to vary drastically among people.

What a person “needs” within an implicit motive is to experience a particular pattern of affect or emotion. For instance, a person with a strong need for achievement typically experiences strong interest, enthusiasm, joy, and pride while engaging in a challenging task. A person with little or no need for achievement, on the other hand, does not experience this same pattern of affect.


These can be thought of as mental constructs such as goals, mindset, expectations, identity, and self-efficacy (how skilled you believe you are). There are many more but these tend to be the big hitters.

In James Clear popular book Atomic Habits, Clear argues identity is one of the main driving forces to get habits to stick. If you believe to the core of your being that you are a runner, waking up in the morning to go jog isn’t even a choice. If your trying to quit smoking and someone offers you a cigarette, responding with the sentence “Sorry I’m not a smoker” is extremely powerful.

Expectations is another topic that Clear delves into deeply. Craving is step 2 in his 4 part habit loop.

  • “The cause of your habits is actually the prediction that precedes them”

Goals and Motivation

Clear however is not a big proponent of goals. There are many compelling studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of goals and performance.

Interestingly, goals are generated by what is NOT, or in other words, a discrepancy between where we are and where we want to be.

Goals help you focus your motivation and therefore attention into obtaining a defined outcome.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there”   describes the difference between goal setters and non goal setters. (Locke, 1996; Locke & Latham, 1990, 2002).

Many studies have also shown the harder the goal, the stronger the performance. The caveat here is that the person needs to have a strong belief that they can achieve it, otherwise it will simply lead to procrastination.


The concept of motivation is closely related to emotion. Both of these words are derived from the same underlying Latin root movere that means “to move.”

In part, emotions are feeling states, because they lead to feeling a particular way, such as anger or joy. But emotions are also biological reactions — energy-mobilizing response systems that prepare the body for situational adaptation. Emotions are also agents of purpose, much like hunger has purpose, that generates urges and impulses to action/

Anger, for instance, creates a motivational impulse to do what we might not otherwise do, such as fight an enemy or standup in the face of injustice.

Emotions automatically and rapidly synchronize four interconnected aspects of experience: Feelings, Arousal, Purpose and Expression.

The 6 Levels of Motivation

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan argue that there are six levels of motivation:

  • Amotivation - an utter lack to act. This can be due to a feeling of helplessness or the belief the task at hand provides zero value to your life.
  • External regulation: A child who is forced to read because he is being watched by his parents. Remove any rewards or punishments and this behavior will be gone.
  • Introjection: When your motives stem from feelings such as guilt/shame. Your parents spend thousands of dollars to send you to college, so you go to classes not because you want to, but because you feel obliged.
  • Identification: You want to do the behavior and understand its benefits. You want to become a coder, but you don't follow through your self study regime, because it conflicts with your times to relax.
  • Integration: When you fully identify with the behavior. You not only consistently are learning to code but it you identify as a coder.
  • Intrinsic motivation: When you engage in learning to code because it's fun.

People who are able to generate intrinsic motivation are the ones change the world. Fame, money, and status are second to their craft. They're the ones playing a real-life video game, their energy and drive are limitless. These are the John Carmacks, Steve Jobs, and da Vincis.

My philosophy is that intrinsic motivation can be generated for any skill if the system is designed well enough. This is the main reasons why I believe gamification is one of the most exciting and underrated fields out there right now. Combined with technology from Web3, artificial intelligence and AR/VR the possibilities for human growth are infinite.


Motivation is a dynamic process and our motives vary as time progresses. As shown before you have multiple motives competing for each other every moment.

Source: Understanding Motivation and Emotion 

Simply having awareness of this fact as well as everything else discussed in the essay will help you set more realistic and accurate goals which as a result will lead to higher performance. I’ve only really scratched the surface with this essay, there are dozens of theories that I didn’t go over such as Classical Conditioning or Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Studying why we do what we do will give you a powerful new lens through which to view the world, which is why it’s a topic I will continue to study for decades to come. If you enjoyed this essay, make sure to share on Twitter and tag me, would love to chat. I’ll leave you with this: What motivates you?


  • Understanding Motivation and Emotion by Johnmarshall Reeves
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear
  • The Complete Guide to Motivation by Scott Young
  • Controlling Your Dopamine For Motivation, Focus & Satisfaction by Andrew Huberman

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