Tag Archives: Motivation

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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My Play

In social play, an animal again waits until safe and satisfied, and feels pleasure from a large variety of safe behavior within a distinct space and time. The difference is that now they explore behavior that interacts with other animals, seeking equilibria that adjust well to changes in other animals’ behavior. (more)

Over the course of their lives Kahneman and Tversky don’t seem to have actually made many big decisions. The major trajectories of their lives were determined by historical events, random coincidences, their own psychological needs and irresistible impulsions. .. Their lives weren’t so much shaped by decisions as by rapture. They were held rapt by each other’s minds. (more)

When tested in national surveys against such seemingly crucial factors as intelligence, ability, and salary, level of motivation proves to be a more significant component in predicting career success. While level of motivation is highly correlated with success, importantly, the source of motivation varies greatly among individuals and is unrelated to success. (more)

In recent posts I said that play is ancient and robust, and I outlined what play consists of. I claimed that play is a powerful concept, but I haven’t supported that claim much. Today, I’ll consider some personal examples.

As a kid I was a severe nerd. I was beaten up sometimes, and for years spent each recess being chased around the school yard. This made me quite cautious and defensive socially. Later I was terrified of girls and acted cautiously toward them too, which they didn’t take as a positive sign. In college I gave up on girls for a while, and then was surprised to find women attracted by my chatting sincerely about physics at the physics club.

Being good at school-work, I was more willing to take chances there, and focused more on what interested me. In college when I learned that the second two years of physics covered the same material as the first two years, just with more math, I stopped doing homework and played with the equations instead, and aced the exams. I went to grad school in philosophy of science because that interested me at the time, and then switched back to physics because I’d found good enough answers to my philosophy questions.

I left school for silicon valley when topics out there sounded more interesting, and a few years later switched to only working 30 hours a week so I could spend more time studying what I wanted. I started a PhD program at age 34, with two kids aged 0 and 2, and allowed myself to dabble in many topics not on the shortest path to tenure. Post tenure I’ve paid even less attention to the usual career rewards. I choose as my first book topic not the most marketable, impressive, or important topic, but the one that would most suck me in with fascinating detail. (I’d heard half the authors with a book contract don’t finish a book.)

So I must admit that much of my personal success in life has resulted less from econ-style conscious calculation, and more from play. Feeling safe enough to move into play mode freed me enough from anxiety to get things done. And even though my goals in more playful modes tended more to cuteness, curiosity, and glory, my acts there better achieved my long term goals than has conscious planning toward such ends. Yes, I did moderate my playful urges based on conscious thought, and that probably helped overall. Even so, I must admit that my personal experience raises doubts about the value of conscious planning.

My experience is somewhat unusual, but I still see play helping a lot in the successes of those I know and respect. While conscious planning can at times be important, what tends to matter more is finding a strong motivation, any strong motivation, to really get into whatever it is you are doing. And to feel comfortable enough to just explore even if none of your options seem especially promising and you face real career and resource pressures.

Playful motives are near and myopic but strong, while conscious planning can be accurate but far. Near beats far it seems. I’ll continue to ponder play, and hopefully find more to say.

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