This series will examine the foundations of human motivation. The purpose of the series is to provide insight into motivation itself and to serve also as a foundation for discussing change.
We are all driven – by ourselves, by motivations encoded in our brains. This is an exploration of how your brain motivation system works, how you can use it, change it, and adapt to it. This is an exploration of how you can live with the brain you have built (and which was built for you).
Two minds live inside of you: one is yours, the other belongs to everyone else. The mind that is yours is guided by the Beliefs, Values, Expectations, and Goals (BVEGs) that you have developed to guide how the real you wants to live your life. More or less, this is the “ego” part of you. Your other mind, the one that belongs to the society around you, is more-or-less your “superego” – the “shoulds” and “oughts” that you’ve taken inside yourself from others, that you coded into your brain as what others think your BVEGs “should” be.
Your two minds tussle for control of you. Sometimes you listen to what you want to do – that is, what the real you wants to do. Sometimes you listen to what you “should” do, the rules and perspectives of others who are significant to you, and the larger society around you. When the two “voices” are more-or-less harmonious you feel relative comfort. When the two voices are at odds you feel ambivalence, even anxiety.
Actually, it’s good that you have the two voices. A well-balanced human being acts in accord with his/her personal drives but these are restrained and modified by the interests of society and important people around you. A well-balanced human being listens to both voices and then acts with a perspective that represents a blending of self-interests and interests of others.
Not everyone is well balanced. If action is far out of balance toward self-interest then this is likely to result in a sociopathic state – doing what a person wants personally while ignoring reasonable responsibility to the interests of others and the general good. Or, at the other end of the scale, if action is far out of balance toward the interests of others, without a healthy dose of self-interest, then this tends to produce neuroticism – constant worry about what others want and what they think. I’ll have much more to say about these balance issues later. At this point it is enough to know that you have these two voices in your brain and that they act in some sort of balance to guide your actions.
Each of your two voices is directed by a set of BVEG’s that are its guiding principles. Based on variations in application of the BVEG’s it is even possible to feel like there are more than two voices guiding action. In a pathological situation this becomes “multiple personality disorder”, or DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) as it is now being called. Fortunately, most of us don’t end up with this kind of conflicting “voices”. We just operate partly based on what we want to do and partly based on what we think we should do.
Before we dig into this further let’s get some practical definitions for these concepts we call goals, expectations, values, and beliefs. Presented in this order we go from the simplest to change to the most difficult to change.
The simplest of the four motivators is a goal: this is a target for intentional action, particularly persistent action. When we set a goal we are deciding to pursue something, often over some significant span of time.
Notice that a goal is an intellectualization, rather than a simple reaction to a stimulus (such as withdrawing from a source of pain). This concept is critical to consider when we later talk about changing. We often hold on to BVEGs in spite of incoming information. This will turn out to be important in later discussion. All four of the motivations discussed here are formed mostly from thought. Thus they are slightly isolated from experience-driven adaptation. People may follow a goal, or other BVEG, long after experience has shown a reason for change.
The second concept is an expectation. An expectation is an anticipation of what may be found during life and the pursuit of goals. Expectations are formed partly from experience, but it can be someone else’s experience. So, for example, parents can teach their children to expect certain outcomes from actions. (This can be useful or harmful, depending on its accuracy and effect on the child.) Expectations have the tendency to control the energy we devote toward goal pursuit. If we expect good things can happen then our energy is high. If we expect that good things are unlikely to happen then we have less energy for goal pursuit.
A value is a regulation of allowable behaviors while pursuing goals. A value can be an attraction or an avoidance. For example, if we value truth then we are attracted to discovering and using truth when we pursue life goals. A value can also be an avoidance. For example, if we value honesty then we avoid being dishonest as we pursue life goals. Essentially, values function as boundaries for behavior. They are often obtained from others.
The last of the four BVEGs is beliefs. A belief is an overarching view of how the world works and how our life works in it. Beliefs are the most abstract of the four BVEGs. Therefore, beliefs may be maintained long after experience has said they are wrong. This is an important issue for management of change. They are powerful. The most sacred of our beliefs (what I call cherished beliefs) are essentially a personal religion. When they are challenged major emotional reaction may result. I’ll have much more to say about beliefs later.
These four concepts, the BVEGs, are thus relatively distinct as they are used here. In practice the issues are not always entirely “clean”. For example, if a child takes on an expectation given by a parent (e.g. “You need a college education to get a good job.”) that expectation may act as a belief for the child. Nonetheless, even though there is cross-over, you’ll see it is useful to understand these different concepts because they carry different implications when it comes time to create change.
Not everyone agrees on any given definition of these terms. I have found the above definitions to be both useful and practical.
You’ll notice I have not mentioned habits. Don’t habits also drive behavior? Yes. However, a habit is basically a well-learned solution to a physical or mental problem. We can have habits for how we put on our clothes, how we get to our favorite destinations, how we eat, and many other physical situations. These become well-learned solutions because they are practical and because they work. However, we don’t generally have much emotional entanglement with habits themselves. (We may have entanglements with issues that surround habits.) So, for example, we may have a habit of tuning our car radio using a particular set of physical behaviors that work for that radio. If we buy a new car, with a different radio, we may need to change the habit. It takes a little time but we do it willingly (unless someone stole the previous car or the new radio doesn’t work as well as the last one). Overall, habits are practical solutions to common, repeated situational demands. They don’t tend to have the emotional baggage that may be associated with the BVEGs. And, they are typically easier (less emotional energy) to change. For example, we don’t really care how we turn on the car radio, we just need to know how to do it. So, shifting behaviors is typically no more complicated than practicing the new behavior (unless values and beliefs are attached to the habits, and make us resistant to change them). Habits are practical solutions rather than true motivations. So, we won’t spend much time on them in this discussion.
NEXT TIME: BVEGs For Me and You: How we build our “two minds”.