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Motive and Motivation in Investigations

When conducting an investigation, figuring out the motive is a critical element in solving the case. The rationale is, after all, the cause of what makes people do specific actions. Figuring out what that motive is can, therefore, significantly assist in moving an investigation forward.

In law, the motive, in itself, is not an element of any given crime. Nevertheless, the legal system usually allows the motive to be proven to provide the reason behind the accused's intentions for committing that crime. Proving motive is typically needed when it is obscure or difficult to recognize. However, it is not a requirement for reaching a verdict or passing sentence.

Nevertheless, motives are used by police or PIs to conduct their investigations, and to narrow down their suspect list.

Motive vs. Intent

From a legal standpoint, motive and intent are not the same things. Both terms are somewhat similar and need to be differentiated to avoid confusion and misinterpretation.

In short, the motive is the underlying reason why a crime was committed. One can look at motive as the background for breaking the law. Regarding background, motivation comes before intent. Nevertheless, unlike intent, the motive alone doesn't prove culpability.

Someone's motive can be refuted by contradictory evidence. And while motive is an initial factor or catalyst, it is not a determining aspect that automatically links a person to a crime. At best, motive points to a person as a likely suspect or to a certain set of probable circumstances.

The Intent, on the other hand, is the purpose for and the action taken to commit a crime. Intent also comes as a consequence of the motive and has a much higher level of culpability in the eyes of the law. In other words, intent describes the deliberate and conscious action taken to break the law, which is, itself, driven by the motivation to do it.

To summarize, having a motive to commit a crime is a good indicator but it is NOT irrefutable evidence. To be considered evidence, one's motive needs to be followed up by the intent to undertake a particular action that breaks the law.

Types of Motives

Someone's motivation to do specific actions is a direct result of the wants and needs of that particular person, sometimes just in a particular moment or in reaction to a specific set of circumstances. Psychologists have divided motives into three categories.

Physiological Motives - Also known as biological motives, these are essential for the survival and proper functioning of the organism, itself. These include elements such as the need for food, water, air, sleep, pain relief, excretion, and procreation. In short, people can be motivated to commit a crime to eat, drink, or do anything else that would ensure their survival or essential wellbeing.

Social Motives - While both humans and animals share the biological motives, social motives are only found in humans and are dictated by the social relationships people are exposed to in society.

Among these, we have the motivation to achieve individual goals; the motivation to react aggressively when faced with certain frustrations or shortcomings; the motivation to exert influence over others (power motive); the acquisition of material property; the curiosity or explorative motive; as well as gregariousness, or the need to be part of a particular group within society. For instance, some people could be motivated to commit a crime to become part of a gang or exclusivist club.

Personal Motives - As their name would suggest, motivations are highly individualized and also, the hardest to ascertain. The most common of these is the force of habit where specific repeated actions like smoking, drinking alcohol, exercising, praying, etc. have become part of that person's character and are influencing their actions and decisions.

There are also the individual goals in life and the level of aspirations which can differ from one person to the next and can be strong motivators in doing specific actions, legal or illegal, to achieve those goals or expectations. Lastly, there are attitudes and interests, where efforts are dictated by the level of interest or general position on a particular subject or activity. For example, if a person has children, their attitude towards physical protection may be a more aggressive one, as opposed to someone who doesn't. Hate crimes are also motivated by the aggressor’s attitude towards the victim’s gender, religion, disability, race, etc.


Figuring out motive is what makes investigation such a “human” job. While technology can process data to help us in doing research, it cannot reason or figure out why people do the things they do. Understanding the role motive plays in crime and how it sits at the foundation of that crime, is a crucial step in a successful investigation.

If you would like to stay up to date on these and other issues relating to investigation, follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, email me at julie@worldclassinvestigator.com or listen to the World Class Investigator podcast at https://worldclassinvestigator.simplecast.fm/