Prime Theory Of Motivation
Theory Summary - gives an overview of the PRIME Theory of Motivation
Pictoral representation of the human motivational system according to PRIME (plans, responses, impulses, motives, evaluations) theory
PRIME Theory of Motivation Summary Diagram
  Theory Of Motivation Curve
Part 1:

The theory is pitched at the psychological level of analysis but with a view to providing a ‘pegboard’ into which can be plugged theories at other levels (including economic theories and neurophysiological theories). The theory is painted with a broad brush and does not attempt to capture what is known about the details of drug actions, social forces and so on. However, it does seek to provide a coherent framework within which existing knowledge and future findings can be integrated.

When giving a psychological account of motivation, it is impossible to avoid making statements that just sound like common sense. The advance on common sense that is being offered here is bringing these ideas together in a coherent framework, together with non-common-sense ideas that have been developed through formal study and critical observation.

Understanding motivation requires an understanding of the human motivational system. This is the system of ‘forces’ that energise and direct our actions; it shapes the flow of behaviour on a moment-to-moment basis. There are many theories of motivation, surprisingly none has sought to integrate all of its major modes of operation from conscious decision-making through to classical and instrumental learning processes. Therefore, it is necessary to develop a synthetic theory of motivation as the basis for a theory of addiction.

It appears that the human motivational system operates at five levels of complexity and any of these can function abnormally in addiction. The system as a whole can be captured by the acronym ‘p.r.i.m.e’, which stands for plans, responses, impulses, motives and evaluations.

Opportunities for influence between them are shown by their being adjacent to each other in the schematic. For example, motives can only exert influence on responding through impulses, and evaluations can only influence responses through motives and then impulses. Plans provide a structure to our actions but can only influence them through motives and evaluations operating at the time when they are to be executed.

The elements come into and out of existence as a result of the influences within the system, together with the ever-changing matrix of stimuli and information and overall level of arousal that ‘bathe’ it. Thus stimuli and information coming from our senses and from our memory have direct influence on all five levels of motivation. Our overall level of arousal similarly affects the operation of the whole system and all its elements.

The system is shown in more detail on the “about logo” page. As one moves from reflex responses, though impulses, then motives and evaluations, one allows greater flexibility of responding, consideration of a wider range of factors and anticipation of future consequences. At the highest level, plans allow action sequences to be prepared in advance of the circumstances when they are needed.

Dispositions and how they change

Dispositions refer to characteristics of the system that govern its operation and dispositions vary in stability and context sensitivity.

Dispositions change through maturation, learning, habituation and sensitisation, sssociative learning, explicit memory, analysis and re-formulation The process of change is ‘chaotic’ (involving semi-stable states with pseudo-random switching during periods of instability) and ‘dialectic’ (involving mutually interacting elements)


Behaviour change need not proceed in a linear fashion through stages; change from one major disposition to another can occur in a single complete transformation, happen without being intended, involve periods of instability of varying duration and occur in response to apparently insignificant triggers.

Identity refers to our disposition to form mental representations of ourselves and the feelings attached to these

Identity is a potentially important source of motives, it is the ultimate source of self-regulation and it is a major source of stability of behaviour.

Major elements of identity are Labels (e.g. non-smoker), Attributes (e.g. health-conscious) and Rules (e.g. I do not smoke).

Implementing behaviour change in the face of conflicting wants, needs and urges can be effortful and use up mental resources but ‘deep’ identity change and rules with clear boundaries reduce conflict and effort required.

A strong, coherent, deeply entrenched identity that places clear boundaries around a category of behaviour and which anticipates potential challenges will provide strong stability to that behaviour and yield a powerful predictive measure

Fostering such an identity around a new behaviour pattern is a potentially important target for behaviour change interventions

Self-consciously stopping doing something typically means:

forming a rule (plan) not to do it, or

forming a rule (plan) that one will ‘try’ not to do it

Applying that rule in relevant situations which generates a want or need not to do it which adds to those that led to the rule.

Theory (scientific)

A scientific theory does two things: identifies this set of distinct observations as a class of phenomena, and
2.makes assertions about the underlying reality that brings about or affects this class.
  Theory Of Motivation Curve