Mysterious Motivation

Our lives are full of evidence that we don’t understand what motivates us. Kevin Simler and I recently published a book arguing that even though we humans are built to readily and confidently explain our motivations regarding pretty much everything we do, we in fact greatly misjudge our motives in ten big specific areas of life. For example, even though we think we choose medical treatments mainly to improve our health, we more use medicine to show concern about others, and to let them show concern about us. But a lot of other supporting evidence also suggests that we don’t understand our motivations. 

For example, when advertisers and sales-folk try to motivate us to buy products and services, they pay great attention to many issues that we would deny are important to us. We often make lists of the features we want in friends, lovers, homes, and jobs, and then find ourselves drawn to options that don’t score well on these lists. Managers struggle to motivate employees, and often attend to different issues to what employees say motivate them. 

While books on how to write fiction say motivation is central to characters and plot, most fiction attempts focused on the motives we usually attribute to ourselves fall flat, and feel unsatisfying. We are bothered by scenes showing just one level of motivation, such as a couple simply enjoying a romantic meal without subtext, as we expect multiple levels. 

While most people see their own lives as having meaning, they also find it easy to see lives different from theirs are empty and meaningless, without motivation. Teens often see this about most adult lives, and adults often see retired folks this way. Many see the lives of those with careers that don’t appeal to them, such as accounting, as empty and meaningless. Artists see non-artists this way. City dwellers often see those who live in suburbia this way, and many rural folks see city folks this way. Many modern people see the lives of most everyone before the industrial era as empty. We even sometimes see our own lives as meaningless, when our lives seem different enough from the lives we once had, or hoped to have.  

Apparently, an abstract description of a life can easily seem empty. Lives seem meaningful, with motivation, when we see enough concrete details about them that we can relate to, either via personal experience or compelling stories. I think this is so why many have call the world I describe in Age of Em a hell, even though to me it seems an okay world compared to most in history. They just don’t see enough relatable detail.  

Taken together, this all suggests great error in our abstract thinking about motivations. We find motivation in our own lives and in some fictional lives. And if our subconscious minds can pattern-match with enough detail of a life description, we might see it as similar enough to what we would find motivating to agree that such a life is likely motivating. But without sufficiently detailed pattern-matching, few abstract life descriptions seem motivating or meaningful to us. In the abstract, we just don’t understand why people with such lives get up in the morning, or don’t commit suicide. 

Motivation is pretty central to human behavior. If you don’t know the point of what you do, how can you calculate whether to do more or less, or something different? And how can you offer useful advice to others on what to do if you don’t know why they do what they do? So being told that you don’t actually understand your motives and those of others should be pretty shocking, and grab your attention. But in fact, it usually doesn’t.

It seems that, just as we are built to assume that we automatically know local norms, without needing much thought, we are also built to presume that we know our motives. We make decisions and, if asked, we have motives to which we attribute our behavior. But we don’t care much about abstract patterns of discrepancies between the two. We care about specific discrepancies, which could make us vulnerable to specific accusations that our motives violate norms in specific situations. Otherwise, as long as we believe that our behavior is achieving our actual motives, we don’t much care what those motives are. Whatever we want must be a good thing to want, and following intuition is good enough to get it; we don’t need to consciously think about it.  

I guess I’m weird, because I find the idea that I don’t know my motives, or what would motivate myself or others, quite disturbing.

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