Exploring the Nature of Motivation

Motivation is fundamental to understanding why people act in their unique manner; moreover, motivation is closely linked to one’s personality as a whole. However, the depth and nuance of an individual’s motivational system are often overlooked or oversimplified due to the scientific bias toward viewing and understanding human motivation solely in general terms.

Gordan Allport espouses his principle of functional autonomy in his 1937 article, The Functional Autonomy of Motives. I will provide a general overview and selection of key points, quotes, and context from Allport’s article before concluding with a discussion of the role and application functional autonomy has in contemporary thought.

In fact, Allport believed “motivation is always contemporary” (p.144, 1937). This conviction about the nature of motivation is likely one reason he writes so critically of the scientific thought of his time. He stood opposed to the attitude of always seeking to generalize; however, he was still aware of the need for this attitude, in some regards, stating, “Science must generalize” (p. 154). Moreover, he explains how relying on generalizations can result in negative consequences, characterizing that “it is a manifest error to assume that a general principle of motivation must involve the postulation of abstract or general motives” (p.154).

Allport uses these critiques as a way to highlight the gaps present in the scientific foundation of his time, and he proceeds to explain how the principle of functional autonomy is both “general enough to meet the needs of science, but particular enough…for the uniqueness of personal conduct” (p.155).

This claim is likely related to an assumption central to the principle of functional autonomy: life is inherently dynamic. Therefore, the motivation that underpins a person’s behaviors is not a static entity that can be quantified, isolated, and said to be fixed, rather a fluid force that possesses the property of emergence (this concept will be further addressed, subsequently).

Allport uses a variety of everyday examples, among other kinds, to demonstrate that even if there exists an “unchanging set of original urges,” it comprises far less than the “plurality of constantly changing [motivational] systems of a dynamic order” (p.153).

At the core of functional autonomy is the notion that the initial motive driving a given behavior does not necessarily entail that it will be the same motive through which the behavior is maintained. Instead, Allport believes “original motives [can be] entirely lost. What was a means to end has become an end in itself” (p.150).

For instance, selecting one of the many everyday examples Allport provides, there is a description of “a businessman, long since secure economically,” yet this businessman continues to work himself into poor health because of a drive that is different from the original. Allport does not expand much on this example but rather explains how all of these examples illustrate “some new function emerg[ing]” (p. 146).

Not only does Allport put forth the notion of emergent motives, but he also describes these emergent motives as being “independently structured units” that function without dependence “upon the continued activity of the units from which they developed” (pp.146-147).

Allport writes about the maturation process of a seed into a tree, “The life of a tree is continuous with that of its seed, but the seed no longer sustains and nourishes the full-grown tree. Earlier purposes lead into later purposes, and are abandoned in their favor” (p.144).

Although this tree imagery is before Allport introduces functional autonomy, I believe it captures both the sophistication and simplicity possessed in the principle of functional autonomy. It is simple in that the tree could never have emerged into being if not for the seed’s existence, in addition to suitable environmental conditions for growth; consequently, there logically exists a point when the seed ceases to exist as a seed.

For the sake of sanity, I implore you not to become fixated on identifying the transitionary point where this identity change occurs—if you cannot resist, then research Sorites paradox—because the primary point that has practical significance is the notion that we are able to sever connections with even original and necessary causes. For example, the process of a child maturing and cleaving with their parents is analogous to the tree analogy (as well as an example Allport provides).

However, this can be applied in other domains than solely developing functionally autonomous drives after maturing to a particular biological or temporal point; in fact, I think addiction is the most straightforward application of the principle of functional autonomy.

While Allport acknowledges this as a domain where functional autonomy applies, he is brief in discussing the matter, and it does not seem to have received much attention to the present day. Nevertheless, the principle of functional autonomy assists in understanding how someone becomes addicted to a given substance or behavior and how it is maintained.

In future writings, I intend to further explore the potential descriptive and explanatory role the principle of functional autonomy may offer the issue of addiction. Additionally, I hope to incorporate relevant takeaways from further research into the Rescorla–Wagner model that is a contemporary model for understanding associative and reward learning.


Allport, G. W. (1937). The Functional Autonomy of Motives. The American Journal of Psychology, 50, pp. 141-156.

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