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Motives vs. Motivation

What is the difference between these two questions?

“What is his motive?”

“What is his motivation?”

  • December 10, 2002
  • Posted by Dyske
  • Filed in Usage

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In my opinion neither of these words has to have a bad/good connotation attached to it.
That is certainly not the difference
Motives are the specific reasons for performing a specific action.
e.g. I killed Brian to get revenge on him for cheating with my wife. (motive revenge)

Motivation is more what drives you, at a deeper level, to 'want' to do a certain action, or more commonly a longer lasting project or job.
e.g. I became a vet so that I could help relieve suffering in animals (motivation: to relieve suffering in animals)

Motivation may often be confused in some cases with motive, but they are distinct, in correct English.

The negative connotation attached to motive is probably because it is often used in a TV/film crime situation to understand why a crime is committed or who might want to do it.

Limey December 17, 2002, 7:44am

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Both motive and motivation basically mean incentive or drive.

However, in English, most commonly people say "What are his MOTIVES." When "motives" is used rather than "motivation" it implies "ulterior motives", such as those for suspicious actions.

For example, in a murder trial, the lawyer will discuss the suspect's possible motives for committing the crime. In general "motives" has a negative connotation, whereas "motivation" has a positive one.

purpledragon_13 December 11, 2002, 8:31am

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Generally (but not all the time - wonderful language English hey!) I would perceive motivation to be more positive, with motives being used where you are trying to analyse someone's angle... sorry i've not expressed very clearly what I mean...DOH!

Merge December 16, 2002, 1:10am

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Motivation is the desire of the person to do something, while motives are the reasons for performing a an action.

Cathy September 5, 2006, 1:19pm

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A motive is defined as a relatively stable disposition to strive for rather general kinds of goal objects.
In contrast to the construct of motive, motivation refers to a temporarily aroused stated, produced when the cues of a situation elicit an expectancy of goal attainment which engages the motive. Motivation is thus a tendency to perform an act and is a joint function of the motive of the individual and the expectancy or cognition that appropriate instrumenatl behavior will provide satisfying consequences.

H.Helson & W.Bevan (Eds.),Contemporary
Approaches to psychology.Princeton NJ:Van Nostrand.1967.261.

jack chang October 18, 2007, 12:24am

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To put it another way, from the American Heritage dictionary:

1 - The act or process of motivating.
2 - The state of being motivated.
3 - Something that motivates; an inducement or incentive.

1 - An emotion, desire, physiological need, or similar impulse that acts as an incitement to action.

(From a motive is something that causes someone to act in a certain way, do a certain thing, etc.

Motivation definition 3 is symonymous with motive; a motive is something that motivates, but motivation is a broader word since not everything that motivates is a motive.

porsche September 5, 2006, 5:42pm

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The only context in which I can see both terms arising near eachother would be in storytelling.
If an actor, with only a page of a script, must perform an act that fits into the story. The director must provide him with motivation for the action, must supply a motive, a reason for the act.

Without such direction the actor might be at a loss or forced to rely on personal experience to place the action into a context that allows its performance.
If the internal motivation for the action is wrong, the director might ask "Why did you do this this way? What was your motive?" and then supply a more appropriate context within the production, the motivation needed to provide the act validity in the continuum of the envisioned piece.
I do not believe either word really has a connotation that is positive or negative in general use, each refers to an aspect of an action. This suggests they are neutral descriptives.

esc6574 June 1, 2003, 3:06pm

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Motive = "motive for doing" (specific)
Motivation = "motivation in doing" (general)

IMHO, Limey put it nicely! Merge is speaking more about the connotations of the words, insightful stuff but not related to the quesition I think.

bobbygeorge31 January 18, 2003, 11:54am

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Motivation can also mean "the act of motivating", where "motive" cannot. Compare, "oxygen, oxygenate, oxygenation" (or many other similar examples) with "motive, motivate, motivation". With this in mind, I would suggest that motive and motivation might not really be synonyms. Say, I get an apartment. My motive may be to be comfortable and protected from the elements. My motivation may be my parent's throwing me out of the house!

porsche September 5, 2006, 5:19pm

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Jack are the point!

As Heinz Heckhausen and Kuhl would say...
in their pedagogical theory on the model of rubicon

Motive is a stable disposition that effects a process of action, structured and ordered.

Motivation is a process that establishes itself in a particular interaction of a person with the person's ambience or context or situation or need.

christy February 10, 2012, 9:07am

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Fair enough, mate. (Actually, I never say mate; it's not in my ideolect, as the linguists would say), but quite a few of my colleagues do.

Warsaw Will October 31, 2013, 3:39pm

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According to me,

Motive is an inner state that energies, activates, or moves and that directs behaviour towards goals.
A motive is restlessness,a lack ,a yen,a force.Once in the grip of a motive,the organism does something to reduce the restlessness,to remedy the lack,to alleviate the yen,to migrate the force.
where as,
Motivation is the complex force startingand keeping a person at work in an organization. Motivation is something that moves the person to action,and continues him in the course of action already initiated.

Rahul kumar Gupta(Patna) October 27, 2013, 3:57am

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To return to topic, my motivation behind that rather long comment is a general interest in English and in looking things up; my motive was to try and answer jayles's question.

Warsaw Will October 29, 2013, 3:37pm

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@jayles - another way is to google, for example "words ending ment". The first entry will probably be MoreWords, which gives words for Scrabble etc. It will give you a list of the most common, with their ratings. This is what they say about it:

"The words are from the Enable2k North American word list used in well-known word games. This contains 173,528 words which are mostly US spellings, with some words from other forms of English (such as British)."

That's what I used when dividing abstract nouns into more and less common lists:

Warsaw Will October 29, 2013, 3:52pm

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christo: replace gaol by goal and then your angle is helpful

pylon42 May 26, 2013, 9:18pm

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Curiously, according to the Google Ngram Viewer, the usage of "motive", "motives" has been steadily declining since 1800.
In contrast, usage of "motivate", "motivates", and "motivated" has risen to overtake the former words.
Could this be because "academics" favored a more latin sounding word?

jayles October 29, 2013, 9:09pm

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I don't think there is a connection between motive(s) and motivate(s) considering they fall within two different word groups (parts of speech). If there were a nominal Latin replacement of motive, then I you may be on to something.

Jasper October 30, 2013, 7:46am

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@Jasper - there's no reason why different word classes can't affect (or have an effect on) each other, just think how 'prioritise' has replaced 'give priority to', and 'incentivise' is replacing 'give incentives to' in business English. Both verb forms are now standard in business English course books, where the verb + noun + preposition combinations would have been used twenty years ago.

Other (also controversial) examples would include nouns being used as verbs replacing verb + noun + preposition combinations - 'action' instead of 'take action on', 'access' rather than 'gain access to', 'influence' instead of 'have an influence on' etc.

The reasons for the rise of motivate and motivation are not hard to see. While motive has been English since the 14th century, both motivate and motivation are relatively recent arrivals (1863 and 1873 respectively - Etymology Online). What's more, they became heavily used in two very twentieth century phenomena - the rise of psychology, and of business theory. I can't open a business course book without stumbling across staff motivation.

I doubt this has so much to do with sounding more Latin, jayles (they're all ultimately from Latin). The provenance is likely to have been French or German via psychology - much early work on psychology was in German-speaking countries. And the meaning was a new one, so a new word would have been appropriate.

But I think you're on to something with motivation and possibly even motivate partly replacing motive. Oxford Online gives these definitions:

motive - a reason for doing something
motivation - a reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way

This looks to me to give some considerable room for overlap, so it wouldn't be surprising if motivation was replacing motive in some senses, especially to talk more generally, where earlier there had been no alternative to motive. It seems no accident that the beginning of the real decline in use of 'motive' (around 1900) coincides pretty neatly with the beginnings of the use of motivation.

Incidentally, since 2000, according to Ngram, motivate and motivation have retreated somewhat, while motive has had a bit of a comeback. Unfortunately PITE won't let me do an a href and it has problems with hhtps addresses, so just google Ngram, enter 'motive,motivation,motivate,motivating,motivated' and adjust the final year to 2008.
There's also a bit of a difference between American books and British books - in British books, motivation is quite well ahead of motive, while in American books they're running neck and neck.

@jayles - I think you ought to come clean. You might be teaching BrE, but are you in fact American (spelling clue)?

Warsaw Will October 30, 2013, 2:16pm

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@WW No, but I've gotten used to AmE spellings since reading economics and accounting using Am textbooks and working for multinationals where "labor costs" was the norm. I can still get out "Wotcha guv" to the bloke from London at the local garage, though.; but it don't come easy after decades abroad. Fluctuat nec mergitur.
As for what I teach, well I don't mark the following as wrong:
"Did you do your homework yet?" as so many have had Am teachers before.
I think in CPE the requirement to use EITHER AmE OR BrE (grammar and vocab) has been withdrawn.

jayles October 30, 2013, 8:41pm

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'"motives" has a negative connotation, whereas "motivation" has a positive one.'


M Stevenson April 11, 2004, 3:57am

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Motive are expectation that leads an organism to stick to a gaol.

christo April 8, 2013, 3:38am

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Providing someone with a motive for some action is motivation. Motive is the cause, motivation is being caused, or causing.

owl March 19, 2003, 5:54pm

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@Rahul kumar Gupta - Hi. I have a question, and this is purely an observation. In British and American English, we don't usually use 'according to' in the first person, only in third person. But as well as your own use, I've just noticed at a Yahoo Answers thread on 'according to me', a certain sai krishna saying it was absolutely normal.

This got me to wondering whether it is in fact standard in Indian English, and a quick site search of the main Indian English-language newspapers certainly seems to suggest that that's the case:

"According to me, badminton is the No.1 sport of the country" - Saina Nehwal, top Badminton player, quoted in The Times of India

"According to me Kareena has surpassed Julia Roberts from the original," - film director Siddharth Malhotra, quoted in the Hindustan Times

"According to me, the present collegium system works well." - Justice P. Sathasivam, currently Chief Justice of India - interviewed in the Hindu

So could you perhaps tell us whether it's often used like this, and if it's used more informally, formally or both?

Warsaw Will October 27, 2013, 3:40pm

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Ah yes I am thinking it is about time someone was asking those hundred million plus English-speakers in India to be making their input heard, instead of us relying on a handful of Brits with their "proper" grammar and pronunciation.

jayles October 27, 2013, 6:11pm

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@jayles - I'm a little confused. Who relies on what handful of Brits? I think we should be told! And what is this "proper" grammar and pronunciation you seem to despise?

Warsaw Will October 28, 2013, 1:51pm

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@WW "Handful" was somewhat under-stated I grant. I think I'll leave it up to you to come up with how many Brits indeed speak "proper" English (taking that as Standard Brit English) and use "proper" pronunciation - whatever the limits of that is - should one weed out all those Scots and Northerners?
If we are grounding our thinking about what is "mainstream" English on numbers then English as spoken and used in India surely is worthy of a silver not a bronze..

jayles October 28, 2013, 3:06pm

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@WW You might like to look at the band descriptors for academic IELTS writing:
level 8 :"skilfully uses uncommon lexical items.......
level 7 :"uses less common lexical items with some awareness of style and collocation...
To me these benchmarks raise noteworthy questions about how common is "less common" and exactly what corpus one would use to come up with an answer. Of course in truth I use the corpus in my head, however "standard" or unaware of US/India usage that may be.

jayles October 28, 2013, 3:30pm

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@jayles - I'm still not sure whether you're talking with your teacher's hat on, or talking about English in general. If we're talking in general, I'm all for hearing more dialect and other Englishes in broadcasting, for example.

According to some research, only about 15% (or less) of British children arriving at primary schools have Standard English as their mother tongue, (but nearly all understand it of course, because it is the language of broadcasting, books etc) . Unless you're going to change society, however, schools need to teach them Standard English if they're going to get on in life. But there is no reason this can't be done in a comparative way with their regional dialect, rather than teaching Standard English as somehow superior. Indeed some research seems to show that this helps non-standard speakers learn to use Standard English more effectively.

When it comes to teaching foreign learners, we need to teach them some sort of standard, whether its American English or British English, simply so that they can use it as widely as possible. When we learn French or Spanish, we take it for granted that we learn a standard version of the language (whether a European version, or an American version).

There is much debate about whether a World English will eventually replace BrE and AmE for international communication, but it hasn't happened yet, and I'm afraid Indian English doesn't really have much currency beyond the sub-continent.

But British English is changing rapidly, as does our concept of 'proper English'. You just need to listen to old radio programmes from the 50's and 60s on the iPlayer to hear the difference. A few years ago a City report suggested that companies prefer to employ people with Estuary accents rather than RP ones, as they sounded friendlier, and RP has really lost the position it had up until the 60s. Just listen to Radio Four announcers and continuity people - all speaking Standard English of course, but hardly a pure RP speaker amongst them, so with quite a bit of pronunciation variation, especially in vowel sounds. I'm thinking, for example, of Susan Rae (Scottish) and Kathy Clugston (Northern Ireland), and I'm pretty sure we hear quite a lot of northern Us these days. Most of the time I listen to Radio 4 Extra on the Internet, where it is even more eclectic, as several comedians like Arthur Smith (non-RP London) do continuity as well.

As for less common expressions, isn't the Academic Word List divided into sublists according to their frequency? Macmillan Dictionary gives star ratings according to frequency, and will give you a frequency score (up to about 87,000 I think). Just the Word (based on the British National Corpus - BNC) and the web-based Netspeak will also give you frequency figures. Or you can use the BNC simple search facility to get frequency:

For example, if I take the word 'analysis' from sublist 1 in the AWL, Macmillan gives it three stars for high frequency and puts it at as the 740th most common word. Netspeak finds 125.0 million examples, while the BNC has 13151.

If I take 'enforcement' from sublist 5 in the AWL, Macmillan gives it two stars and Wordcount puts it at 5782. At Netspeak, 23.6 million, at the BNC 1341.

And when I take 'adjacent' from sublist 10 in the AWL, Macmillan gives it one star (so still within the top 7500), and Wordcount lists it at 6702. Netspeak gives it 9.9 million, BNC 1623

Intriguingly, 'conceive', from sublist 10, (1.3 million at Netspeak - BNC 450), gets two stars at Macmillan but comes in at 120001 at Wordcount, while 'inconceivable' (406,000 at Netspeak - BNC 255) gets no stars and is ranked at 17023 at Wordcount.

So there are certainly ways of getting comparative figures.

Warsaw Will October 29, 2013, 3:29pm

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Yes     No