Motivation and Identity for the MCAT: Everything You Need to Know — Shemmassian Academic Consulting (2023)

Learn key MCAT concepts about motivation and identity, plus practice questions and answers

(Note: This guide is part of our MCAT Psychology and Sociology series.)

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Motivation

a) Intrinsic and extrinsic locus

b) Theories of motivation

c) Attitudes

Part 3: Self-identity

a) Freud’s theory of psychosexual development

b) Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development

c) Kohlberg’s theory of moral development

d) Vygotsky’s theory of sociocultural development

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Part 4: Personality

a) Psychoanalytic perspective

b) Humanistic perspective

c) Social cognitive perspective

d) Behaviorist perspective

e) Biological perspective

f) Dramaturgical perspective

Part 5: High-yield terms

Part 6: Passage-based questions and answers

Part 7: Standalone practice questions and answers

Part 1: Introduction

The world is filled with many diverse people with different personalities, different identities, and different motivations. Our motivation to do certain things plays a large role in how we behave and what personalities we adopt and can even come to shape how we see ourselves and how others see us.

This content covered by this portion of the MCAT can seem deceptively easy at first, but there are quite a few theories and terms to keep track of. In this guide, we will break down the main concepts you need to know for the MCAT and provide real-life examples similar to those you will see on exam day. Most terms that are bolded throughout the guide will be defined in Part 5 of the guide, but feel free to create your own terms and definitions/examples as you progress!

Along with knowing the terms and concepts, you will also need to know how to apply them to real-life situations that the MCAT will present. At the end of this guide, there is an MCAT-style passage and standalone questions that will test your knowledge of the covered topics.

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Here we go!

Part 2: Motivation

a) Intrinsic and extrinsic locus

Motivation is like an invisible force that drives us to act in a certain way and achieve certain goals. Humans are motivated by different sources to do different things. We are motivated to seek out food because our body sends us hunger signals. We are motivated to dress nicely for an interview because it will help us get into medical school.

Our motivation can be either intrinsic or extrinsic, depending on its source, goal, and drive.

Intrinsic motivation is directed by internal rewards or one’s internal desire to do something for its own sake. The activity is inherently rewarding, such as watching your favorite Netflix show, or challenging, such as the career in medicine you are excited about. Intrinsic motivation leads to high productivity and high quality of work because the person is invested in the task itself and not the rewards that come from it.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is directed by external rewards from the environment. The person is only willing to do the task because it offers some sort of reward, such as receiving money, food, or the avoidance of punishment. For example, employers will offer promotions, bonuses, paid vacations, and other benefits to keep their employees from leaving the company. The employee only continues to work because of these benefits. The locus of control here is external, as it is in the hands of the employer. Even if productivity is high under extrinsic motivation, the quality of work declines over time, and resentment grows.

For the MCAT, you will have to be able to identify the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Here’s a table that briefly summarizes the points made above.

Figure: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivators pursue different goals and outcomes.

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An individual’s self-concept is deeply shaped by factors such as self-esteem, self-efficacy, and perceived locus of control. Self-esteem refers to the perception of one’s identity, self-respect, and role in society. Self-efficacy refers to the perceived capabilities and independence within society. If an individual believes that a situation is out of their control and is deeply influenced by other factors, they can be thought of as relying on an external locus of control. Alternatively, an individual with an internal locus of control may think of themselves as very self-sufficient and capable, thereby holding a highly positive self-concept. Perception of self may also be deeply influenced by the identities of others in primary or reference groups. (For more information on this, be sure to refer to our guide on social psychology.)

To manage self-impressions to either ourselves or to others, we may also perform attributional processes. There are two key attributional processes to consider: the self-serving bias and the fundamental attribution error.

The self-serving bias explains how individuals explain their own successes or failures. If an individual is successful at a task, they are more likely to attribute that to an internal locus of control (such as their own hard work and dedication). If an individual fails at a task, they are more likely to attribute that to an external locus of control (such as through making excuses for themselves or blaming others). The fundamental attribution error states that individuals are more likely to attribute the failures of others to inherent personality faults.

These attributions tend to be deeply influenced by cultural values. For instance, in the United States and some Western cultures, success and failure are emphasized as individual efforts. Thus, the resulting success or failure is often attributed to an internal locus of control.

b) Theories of motivation

How do we understand our basic and higher needs and translate them into motivators? The MCAT will test your knowledge on several theories of motivation, many of which are detailed below.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

You may be familiar with this pyramid-shaped figure, in which the base is wider than the top. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs emphasizes the attainment of “lower” needs (depicted at the base of the pyramid) before “higher” needs can be attained.

Under this theory,all humans have certain needs that must be met in order to achieve their full potential, but certain needs must be fulfilled before others. The last need that humans can achieve in their lifetime—which is rarely met—is self-personalization, or self-actualization.

Drive reduction theory

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This theory, developed by behaviorist Clark Hull, states that the body works to maintain homeostasis (a state of physiological equilibrium) through behavior. For example, imagine the weather outside is extremely hot. Your body begins to sweat, but that alone isn’t enough. Your brain also sends a message to the rest of the body to take your jacket off and seek shade. Similarly, if it’s really cold outside, your body begins to shiver and form goosebumps, but that autonomic response alone isn’t enough. Your brain also sends a message to your body to wear layers and find a warm latte to drink. By motivating certain behaviors, the brain allows our body to fulfill its needs.

Drive reduction theory says that all motivation arises from the goal of fulfilling these biological needs, or drives. These drives can include hunger, thirst, temperature, and other biological needs. These drives create an unpleasant state of tension, and to reduce this drive we become motivated to fulfill the need at hand. This is particularly advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint, as it ensures that organisms can alter behaviors to fulfill needs and survive.

Instinct theory

How do birds know to fly south during the winter? Instinct theory says that we are all born with instincts, or innate tendencies for certain behaviors, that enable us to survive. Instincts must be: 1) unlearned and innate, and 2) occur in a similar fashion across the entire species. These instincts are what help us achieve certain goals that ensure our survival.

Arousal theory

Why is it that some days you feel like going to the club and dancing, while other days you feel like curling up on the couch with hot chocolate and a movie? What motivates us toward these drastically different activities and behaviors?

Arousal theory states that each person has an optimal level of arousal, and that we are motivated to pursue behaviors that will help us maintain this optimal level. If our arousal levels are higher than normal, we become motivated to seek out behaviors that will reduce our arousal. For example, you go out with friends for a night on the town but you start to get overstimulated. You might become more motivated to choose something relaxing to do, like taking a nap, in order to bring your arousal levels back down to normal.

Arousal theory is similar to drive-reduction theory in that both aim to maintain homeostasis, but arousal theory focuses on maintaining optimal arousal, whereas drive-reduction theory focuses on maintaining homeostasis by reducing tension.

Incentive theory

Incentive theory is quite different from the other theories of motivation we have already discussed. While other theories use the maintenance of self as motivation for behavior, incentive theory states that behavior is motivated by the individual’s environment through rewards—for instance, through extrinsic motivation. Incentive theory, which is heavily based on behaviorism, says that people are motivated to behave in ways that lead to rewards (such as food and money) and are demotivated from behaving in ways that lead to negative consequences (such as fines and criminal punishment).

For example, young children might be motivated to do their homework because their teacher promised them an ice cream party. On the contrary, they are motivated to refrain from calling each other names because the teacher would place them in timeout.

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What is the MCAT instinct theory? ›

Instinct theory says that we are all born with instincts, or innate tendencies for certain behaviors, that enable us to survive.

What is psychoanalytic theory of motivation? ›

Freudian motivation theory posits that unconscious psychological forces, such as hidden desires and motives, shape an individual's behavior, like their purchasing patterns. This theory was developed by Sigmund Freud who, in addition to being a medical doctor, is synonymous with the field of psychoanalysis.

What are the 4 Basic instincts? ›

In evolutionary psychology, people often speak of the four Fs which are said to be the four basic and most primal drives (motivations or instincts) that animals (including humans) are evolutionarily adapted to have, follow, and achieve: fighting, fleeing, feeding and fornicating (although the "four Fs" term is possibly ...

What are the 5 basic human instincts? ›

Jung identified five prominent groups of instinctive factors: creativity, reflection, activity, sexuality and hunger.

What are the 3 major theories of motivation? ›

Top 3 Motivation Theories in Management
  • Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.
  • McClelland's Three Needs Theory.
  • Herzberg's Motivation Theory.
Oct 5, 2020

What are the 3 principles of psychoanalytic theory? ›

The three areas are those of the dynamic unconscious, the plasticity of the interpersonal drives, and mastery of experience through reversal of voice.

What are the 4 techniques of psychoanalysis? ›

Four aspects jointly determine the very essence of psychoanalytic technique: interpretation, transference analysis, technical neutrality, and countertransference analysis.

What is the most primal instinct? ›

These are seeking, anger, fear, panic-grief, care, pleasure/lust and play. Interestingly, it is thought that the most powerful instinct is “seeking”. Something that we generally give little thought or credence to. This is the instinct that moves us to explore our environment in order to meet our needs.

What are the seven human instincts? ›

Jaan Panskepp, a radical neuroscientist identified human beings are driven by seven ancient instincts, or “primary-process affective systems,”. These are seeking, anger, fear, panic-grief, care, pleasure/lust and play. Interestingly, it is thought that the most powerful instinct is "seeking".

What are 3 primal instincts? ›

Humans all have three main survival instincts: Self-Preservation, Sexual, and Social.

Who gave 14 types of instincts? ›

Answer : Instincts have been classified into fourteen types by William McDougall.

What are the strongest human instincts? ›

As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct." Keltner's team is looking into how the human capacity to care and cooperate is wired into particular regions of the brain and nervous system. One recent study found compelling evidence that many of us are genetically predisposed to be empathetic.

Can humans act on instinct? ›

Examples of instinctive behaviours in humans include many of the primitive reflexes, such as rooting and suckling, behaviours which are present in mammals.

What are the 4 main theories of motivation? ›

In this chapter we will discuss on four foundational theories of motivation which include: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Herzberg's Two-Factor Theory, McClelland's Three Needs Theory, and McGregor's Theory X, Theory Y.

What are the three A's of motivation? ›

McClelland's Human Motivation Theory states that every person has one of three main driving motivators: the needs for achievement, affiliation, or power. These motivators are not inherent; we develop them through our culture and life experiences. Achievers like to solve problems and achieve goals.

What are the four 4 process theories of motivation? ›

There are four major process theories: (1) operant conditioning, (2) equity, (3) goal, and (4) expectancy.

What are the three 3 Structures of personality according to Freud? ›

Id, Ego, and Superego. Freud proposed that the mind is divided into three components: id, ego, and superego, and that the interactions and conflicts among the components create personality (Freud, 1923/1949).

What are the two main goals of psychoanalytic therapy? ›

The main goal of psychoanalytic therapy is to bring unconscious material into consciousness and enhance the functioning of the ego, helping the individual become less controlled by biological drives or demands of the superego.

Why is psychoanalysis therapy not really used anymore? ›

In fact, one of the main reasons for the decline of psychoanalysis is that the ideas of Freud and his followers have gained little empirical support. Freud's theoretical model of the mind and of child development has been challenged and refuted by a wide range of evidence.

What are the 5 methods of psychoanalysis? ›

1 HERE ARE FIVE ESSENTIAL WAYS psychoanalysts now do their therapeutic inquiry: (1) talking, (2) interpreting, (3) relating, (4) experiencing, and (5) centering. They are the major empirical methods of psychoanalytic inquiry available for clinical use at present.

What are the three personality in psychoanalysis treatment? ›

Freud's theory places central importance on dynamic, unconscious psychological conflicts. Freud divided human personality into three significant components: the id, ego, and superego.

What is McDougall's instinct theory? ›

McDougall's well-known Introduction to Social Psychology developed a Darwinian theory of human behaviour based on the assumption of inherited instinct, or tendency, to note particular stimuli and to respond to them for the purpose of attaining some goal. Should response be delayed, an emotional reaction follows.

What are the 14 instincts by McDougall? ›

The instincts are:
  • Escape.
  • Combat.
  • Repulsion.
  • Parental Instinct.
  • Appeal.
  • Sex.
  • Curiosity.
  • Submission.
Mar 5, 2023

What is Freud's instinct theory? ›

According to Freud, there are two classes of instincts: 1) Eros or the sexual instincts, which he later saw as compatible with the self-preservative instincts; and 2) Thanatos or the death-instinct, a natural desire to "re-establish a state of things that was disturbed by the emergence of life" ("Ego and the Id" 709).

What is the concept of instinct? ›

instinct, an inborn impulse or motivation to action typically performed in response to specific external stimuli. Today instinct is generally described as a stereotyped, apparently unlearned, genetically determined behaviour pattern.

What is McDougall's theory of motivation? ›

Instinct Theory of motivation was propounded by William McDougall. According to this theory, instinct drives all behaviours and McDougall saw instinct as purposive and goal-directed. In this theory, McDougall suggested that: All organisms are born with natural biological tendencies that assist them to survive.

What are the criticisms of instinct theory? ›

Criticism on instinct theory of motivation:

It is also criticized when people show different behavior under same instincts. Most of the human behavior cannot be considered as result of instincts because most of the behavior of humans is learned.

WHO listed 37 human instincts? ›

In the first published psych textbook, (1890), William James listed 37 human instincts, including mental instincts such as cleanliness, jealousy & curiosity. Instinct was the original psychological explanation for human motivation.

What are the 3 human instincts? ›

The three Instincts are Self-Preservation, Sexual, and Social. Self-Preservation is about conserving energy, Sexual about releasing energy, and Social about receiving energy from others.

What are Freud's 3 theories? ›

Freudian theory postulates that adult personality is made up of three aspects: (1) the id, operating on the pleasure principle generally within the unconscious; (2) the ego, operating on the reality principle within the conscious realm; and (3) the superego, operating on the morality principle at all levels of ...

What are the two major drives or instincts in Freudian psychology? ›

With the publication of his book "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" in 1920, Freud concluded that all instincts fall into one of two major classes: life drives and death drives—later dubbed Eros and Thanatos by other psychologists.

How would I apply instinct theory? ›

A common example used to explain the Instinct Theory is that a human mother will attempt to provide comfort to a baby who has been crying all night and will not sleep until she sees that the baby is calm and asleep.

What is our primal instinct? ›

Primal instinct is behind our innate ability to react to new potentially dangerous situations in the interest of self-preservation. Although humans still possess most of the instincts of our primal ancestors, other instincts have adapted and evolved, which override the older reactions.

Is instinct a theory of motivation? ›

What Is Instinct Theory? According to the instinct theory of motivation, all organisms are born with innate biological tendencies that help them survive. This theory suggests that instincts drive all behaviors.

What is instinct vs intuition? ›

Instinct and intuition are two different ways that people use to make decisions. Instinct is a feeling or reaction based on a person's past experiences. Intuition, on the other hand, is a feeling or reaction based on a person's gut feeling.


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