• Claire Higgins

Theories of Motivation, Hope & Fear

Motivation has been a cornerstone of psychology research and practice pretty much since their inception. Why do we do what we do, and what makes us do it? More importantly, how can we make ourselves do certain things and not others?

Maslow (1943), an American psychologist, spoke of survival-oriented or lower needs such as safety, shelter, and food that needed to be fulfilled before developmental or higher needs could be attained. By then, the second world war was well underway and it was only natural that survival took precedence over personal development.

The world has and hasn't changed since then. Wars are still waged and fought, and it could be argued that the people affected by them are forced not only to survive but also to develop at a personal level. Take a young Syrian refugee fleeing via Turkey to Europe. Doesn't he or she have to develop personally in order to adapt to a new environment?

External and Internal Triggers

Environmental changes can be forced upon us against our will. How we respond to them depends on who we were before the changes happened. Whether we stay stuck in fear or turn towards hope can say a lot about our world view, but it can also be a measure of some of the personal challenges that came before.

In his hope-fear polar model, Coker (2016) writes about hope and fear-based motivation. When we are afraid that something bad will happen, we naturally hope that it won't. The same is true when we hope that something good will happen; we automatically fear that it won't. This inner tug of war influences our motivation.

The Polar Model of Hope and Fear (Coker, 2016)

Essentially, there are five types of fear that we all share (Albrecht, 2007). All other fears stem from these: (1) Fear of Extinction (or death); (2) Fear of Mutilation (or physical harm); (3) Fear of Loss of Autonomy (or control); (4) Fear of Separation (or isolation); (5) Fear of Ego Death (e.g. shame, humiliation).

Knowing what we fear most can sometimes shed light on how we are motivated to act. Putting specific goals to one side, let's consider our behaviours. Take, for example, someone who is afraid to speak in public. Deep down, the person may fear being embarrassed at his or her lack of skill or knowledge. This is fear of ego death.

Another example is someone who finds it impossible to be alone. Instead of finding ways to entertain themselves in a positive manner, they may consistently seek out social activities or unhealthy ways to dull the feeling of being alone, such as drugs, alcohol, or comfort eating. These negative behaviours are triggered by a fear of separation.

Broadening Our Perspective

Being driven or motivated by fear isn't always a bad thing. If the need is to survive a violent attack or war zone then fear as a psychological and physiological trigger makes perfect sense. But once our basic survival needs are met, it is healthier to be motivated by hope. For those motivated by fear, this can be a tricky bridge to cross.

When bad or difficult things happen in succession, it's important to maintain our perspective. Our brain will naturally create shortcuts to help us to avoid those situations from repeating, but in a fear-based state it isn't always easy to identify if the likelihood of their repetition is logical. This is because fear affects our cognitive functioning.

Experiencing repeat setbacks can lead to negative patterns of thought (Williams et al 2007). We may fall into the trap of catastrophic thinking and exaggerate the likelihood of terrible things happening. Our internal resources will be directed to strategies of mitigation and avoidance, and we will be more prone to anxiety and depression.

Learning to step out of this loop involves personal development. While this can happen in the midst of chaos, it is only after the chaos has passed that we can make sense of what is happening and why we were motivated to do what we did. We can also evaluate critically whether continuing to act in the same way makes sense or not.

Personal Motivation Styles

Before we even set goals or new directions for our life, work, or sport, it pays to reflect on our motivation styles. What do we generally want and why? How do we usually go about getting what we want? Do we use overt or covert means to ultimately get our own way? Most importantly, is what we're driven to do or achieve a reflection of what we really want, and who we actually are? Or is it just an echo of someone else's dream, or a past desire that has run its course?

When going after a goal or pursuing a new direction, are we more inclined to go it alone or do we immediately seek out support and help? Do we willingly partake in the bulk of the work or do we expect others to bear the brunt? Are we generally a leader in setting the course of our lives or have we fallen into the trap of being led?

When things don't go as planned, what is our habitual response? Do we pause to explore any lessons learned or do we rush into another activity or response? Are we discouraged by early indications of failure or does the risk of falling short of our aspirations actually egg us on? Is our outlook mostly positive or negative?

Which is the better motivator, hope or fear?

Think about goals you have achieved in the past. Were you driven by hope or fear in their attainment? What was the difference between goals achieved from a state of fear versus those achieved from a place of hope?

Hope isn't a sufficient strategy for motivation in and of itself. We need both willpower and waypower (Snyder, 2003). When we feel safe to hope we also feel safer to be who we really are. Creating goals and taking action from this safe place can create the psychological and physiological states needed to make positive and lasting change.


Coker, R. (2016). The two faces of hope: hope positive and hope negative – a polar perspective. Bucks University Knowledge Archive.

Snyder C. R. (2003), The Psychology of Hope. New York: Free Press.

Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z., Kabat-Zinn, J (2007). The Mindful Way Through Depression. The Guildford Press: NY

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