I have been doing some research for my thesis and one of the subjects I am researching is motivation. Something that I've generally noticed is that if we do not find something relevant or needed for us, we tend to lose motivation.

For example: In middle school we learn math. Lots of students question the need for math for their own reasons. When they hear an answer that not does not completely answer the question we lose motivation. An answer like: "you need it for your future" or "you just have to".

Other example: Most people learn how to drive a car, because we understand that usually you need a car to get to work. Other people that work from home or live in walking distance from their work, could for that reason, not learn how to drive. If you would make the latter group learn how to drive, most would question the need and therefore lose motivation.

I would like to know if there is a principle or theory about this. A name or a source would be of great help! Or if my presupposition is wrong, please share your thoughts!


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    $\begingroup$ I spent a whole weekend making a bad song and editing a horrible music video as a joke. It was nor needed nor relevant. But I had way more motivation doing it compared to other important and relevant things. I did it because I thought the outcome would be funny. That's it. I think the need to know if something is relevant is often about things we don't want to do. Math is boring. Learning how to drive is stressful. If we didn't have to do it, we wouldn't do it. That's why we question the need. As long as we like what we're doing, we don't need to motivate ourselves with how relevant it is. $\endgroup$
    – Doliprane
    Mar 26, 2021 at 16:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Doliprane thanks for your comment! I might not have been clear in explaining, so let me try to elaborate. Let's take your example: you spent your weekend editing because of the goal of creating something funny. This goal intrinsically motivated you to work on it. Carl Rogers' "Ideal-Self", would explain it as you seeing yourself as someone who is funny and makes funny content. But when we need to do something or learn something and we don't see the need or purpose of it, we question it and often are not motivated to do it. Like math, if you don't understand why then you'll hate it $\endgroup$
    – Michael B.
    Mar 27, 2021 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ you're right, you have a right idea about it, the thing is many cases. So Doliprane talks about it made it for funny so your answer is true, because it have the self-motivation that its get funny. In the life the most people that make a great things is because they are self-motivated, they enjoy the things that they are making so that people will get funny about that, of course the normal people need to learn the things to survive in the society and don't mean we enjoy that, so thats the leak of motivation, Im not have a knowledge about the theme but I see it in the life. $\endgroup$
    – Black Hole
    Apr 7, 2021 at 4:35
  • $\begingroup$ sorry for my bad english jeje $\endgroup$
    – Black Hole
    Apr 7, 2021 at 4:36
  • $\begingroup$ I wonder if the term executive function will be helpful. IANAP, but the healthy brain, being able to plan (e.g. invest in learning X for future payoff Y), rewards us chemically for such activity—that's why we "like" "relevant" activity. How "relevant" something is is up to that brain. People with ADHD have executive dysfunction and may have trouble connecting relevance where most others would. $\endgroup$ Aug 22, 2021 at 20:58

2 Answers 2


The term I think of that is most associated with this concept is salience.

There is a massively informative world out there. If you were to spend all your time focusing your attention on arbitrary objects or sensations from the environment you would never get anywhere. You might die of starvation or some other unmet physiological need or get eaten by a tiger while focused on something that isn't dangerous and doesn't help you reproduce - this circumstance is not evolutionarily favorable.

Though salience is often focused on more immediate threats and benefits, more complex organisms including humans are able to plan ahead a bit and put effort into things now that have benefits in the future. Some things seem to be innately salient, others become salient with learning.


Naturally we are driven by instinct. If a proposed activity cannot be mapped to an instinct, or if the resulting assessment (instinct times expectation) is weaker than other proposed activities, we are going to lack motivation. Goals with direct and immediate mapping to an instinct are said to have intrinsic value, whereas goals whose end reward requires more steps and abstraction are said to have extrinsic or instrumental value.

The proposed goal of learning something you need for your future is an example of an instrumental goal. The skill or knowledge in question may lack immediate gratification, especially if the learner cannot map the learning process itself to an intrinsic drive. A teacher who successfully promotes this mapping may be more effective.

There are three main factors which come to mind in the learner's level of drive:

  • The activity must be framed in the mind of the learner as having a believable connection with an intrinsic motivator such as self-preservation (among others). Painting a clear and visceral image of life with and without the proposed skill or knowledge might help to motivate.

  • The activity should produce a benefit within a time-frame the learner can tolerate. Personality and mental factors such as impulsivity and ADHD can play a role here.

  • The activity is better learned when intrinsic value is present. Making the activity more social may help to motivate those who value socialising. Making the activity more mentally stimulating or novel may help to activate curiosity. Those higher in need for cognition, and related personality constructs, may require less auxiliary motivation to learn new things.

  • $\begingroup$ Your answer only uses Wikipedia links, which are good for terminology, but you haven't backed any of your claims made in your answer. Please back your claims with reliable sources which this meta answer can help you with. $\endgroup$ Dec 18, 2021 at 8:49

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