The 25 Hidden Motivators That Inspire, Influence and Arouse
A cheat sheet for marketers, writers and self-help enthusiasts
Eight years ago, my first copywriting mentor tasked me with an impossible goal. He wanted me to identify the sources of deep-rooted motivation.
He reasoned that if I could identify the top twenty, I would learn what motivates people. Armed with that knowledge, I could craft sales letters that appealed my audience’s hidden, unstated desires.
The results of that project proved invaluable. An understanding of what really motivates us yields multi-dimensional benefits.
- Marketing and copywriting — demonstrate how your solution fulfills their desire.
- Writing — stir emotions and inspire your readers to act.
- Personal — understand the real motivation behind surface cravings.
The twenty-five hidden motivators
The first item earned its top spot, but the rest are in no particular order.
Much of life revolves around status — maintaining or increasing it. If status did not matter, we wouldn’t have $100,000 cars or $5,000 handbags. You can tell yourself you bought that fancy car because of the smooth ride and quick acceleration. It’s more likely the emblem on the hood served as a status symbol to your neighbors.
Even the rich dude who shuns a six-figure car in favor of a beater does it to project status.
2. Social conformity (majority)
The majority of folks want to fit in, feel part of a group. A small minority feels a drive towards nonconformity.
You can apply this to sales and marketing. “Several of your neighbors just started recycling their plastics.”
You can also apply it to your own life. “Am I doing this because I desire it, or because my friends are doing it?”
3. Psychological reactance
Psychological reactance is our adverse reaction to the restriction of freedom. If I forbid you to do something, you’ll feel motivated to do that prohibited act. Political talk show pundits like to exploit this trait of human nature. They warn of impending government action or law that will strip you of your rights. Sure, sometimes it’s legit, but mostly it’s hyperbole.
4. Acquire or hold onto what’s scarce
If diamonds were as ubiquitous as common rocks, they would not be as valuable as they are in today’s world. Scarcity creates and inflates value.
The scarcity rule works just as well with information as it does physical objects.
When it seems like the world has conspired against us, hope becomes our salvation. It springs from unexpected and unpredictable sources. You might come across a quote, story or thought at just the right time. You could also make a connection you hadn’t seen before.
It’s often easier for you to help someone else find hope than it is to summon it for yourself. We’re also vulnerable to false hope in times of desperation.
Do you derive deep satisfaction and pleasure from your abilities? What about satisfaction in your race, religion or nationality? Pride takes many forms and can impact behavior in positive and negative ways.
7. HPD (hope, pride in your group, distrust of outside groups)
The formula for extreme nationalism and totalitarian tyrants. These “heroes” materialize when you’ve lost hope. They infuse you with hope, stoke the pride of your group, and blame an outside group for your troubles.
Tyrants don’t have a monopoly on this.
I’ve seen it in sales letters promoting financial products and lifestyle newsletters.
We seek certainty over uncertainty. We know there are no guarantees in life, but we still listen to people who promise them.
Managing uncertainty, rather than eliminating it, is often the better path.
9. Relief from guilt
Guilt eats at you from the inside. When someone offers you relief from your guilt, you tend to accept it. Their reasoning only needs a semblance of plausibility.
The CEO who laid off a thousand people might tell himself a story to relieve the guilt. My actions saved the jobs of ten-thousand other employees.
10. Relief/avoidance from pain
My first sales mentor taught me to dig into my prospects’ pain. “Once you get them to feel the pain of their problem, they’ll open their checkbook to relieve them of that pain.”
The desire to eliminate pain is the most potent buying motive. One of my clients from years ago told me that he needed our services to save his business. Upon further probing, we discovered that it wasn’t his real pain. He feared the prospect of losing his business and moving in with his inlaws until he found a job.
11. Relief from the responsibility of failure
My failure is your fault. It may not sound logical, but like relief from guilt, it needs only a hint of plausibility. Politicians love this tactic too (both left and right).
We listen to anyone who tells us the blame for our failure lies with someone else.
Even when we know our angst results from FOMO, we feel helpless to do anything about it.
13. Recognition of excellence in skills and traits important to your audience
No matter how much you claim external recognition doesn’t matter, you must admit that it feels nice. Take note of the skills and traits your friends and peers reference when they talk about themselves. The info you glean serves as quality source material for sincere compliments.
14. Distrust of the establishment
I learned of this during an assignment from my copywriting mentor. He had me listen to political talk shows. It should come as no surprise; the super successful talk show hosts devote much of their time to promoting distrust of the establishment.
Do we have any control over our lives? I’ll leave that debate to philosophers. I do know with certainty that we want to feel like we are in control of our lives.
If you do [fill in the blank], you will get [fill in the blank] results.
Life is usually more complicated than that, but the promise of it intoxicates us.
16. Emotional gratification (a trusted figure articulates your inner thoughts)
Have you ever listened to a public speaker or read an article and thought, “she finally put into words something I’ve been thinking for a long time.”
We often feel and think things we cannot put into words. Out of nowhere, someone comes along and articulates it for us. The problem is that we accept whatever they say next, without question.
17. Address an indignity
You not only address the problem but the indignity of the problem. I’ll show you two examples. The first example inspires hope. The second fuels hate.
Did you ever notice how hospital gowns expose your backside? Medical staff pokes and prods you as they discuss their weekend plans. But with our healthy diet you can …
Let’s look at an example that fuels hate.
How does it feel to wait in line at the unemployment office explaining your story to a government employee treating you like a delinquent. All the while an undocumented immigrant works your old job…
18. Connection (friendship, love, lust)
I know. It’s the most obvious of all, but the list would be incomplete without it.
19. Stoke fantasies
We all have our fantasies: winning the lottery, winning the Pulitzer prize, scoring a multi-billion dollar valuation for our startup.
Most of our fantasies belong in the realm of fiction, but when someone stokes those desires, we find it hard to resist.
Why do societies sometimes look the other way when their government partakes in questionable acts? Why do we sometimes justify violence? Because we value safety; we often subordinate other concerns when we feel unsafe. And yes, those with power can manipulate us into feeling unsafe.
21. Protection from loss
I worked for a small brokerage house in the 1990s. My manager told me that potential clients might ask about risk.
Risk, he said, was code for what are the chances that I’ll lose my principal? He was right. Protecting what my clients already possessed was more important than what they could make on an investment.
Years later, I read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and learned about the theory of loss aversion. It all clicked.
22. Elimination of an embarrassment
Some folks embarrass easily. Others are blessed with a higher threshold of embarrassment. No matter your limit, you want to eliminate the feeling as quickly as possible.
Copywriters and marketers frequently use this quirk to sell solutions (some legitimate, some not) to embarrassing medical conditions.
23. Anger over an injustice
You no doubt feel anger when you’re the victim of an injustice. But what about when it’s not you? Sometimes you shrug it off and go on with your day. Other times, you express sympathy and then shrug it off and go on with your day. It’s rare that injustice angers us to the point of action.
What motivates us to act in those rare situations? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect it’s a connection to the oppressed group or hatred for the oppressive group.
Yes, pleasure motivates us, but in my experience, it’s not a reliable driver. Pain elimination motivates us more. Pleasure-seeking combined with pain-elimination works best.
Freedom means different things to different people. Money can bring us financial freedom. Education and bring a sense of freedom. Divorce can mean freedom.
Ask a man in prison how he defines freedom. Then ask someone who feels stuck in a dreadful marriage. Finally, ask an eighteen-year-old itching to live on his own. Freedom will mean something different to each of them.