A few remarks on human motivation

The pace and energy of human activity is astonishing. What motivates people? Why do people exert such effort against so much resistance in order to achieve their aims?

Extreme lack of food for oneself or for family, friends, or tribe, is obviously the most urgent motivator.

Beyond that comes the urge to be respected, especially by those whom one respects. All humans want and need respect, and will go to endless lengths to obtain it, even perversely denying themselves food or shelter to do so.

Respect means to be valued, and in particular to be valued not any less than others are valued.

It could be argued that wars are mostly fought over national or tribal respect, not over resources (although control of resources often brings respect, as well, so the two motivations can mix).

Many conflicts arise in societies where one group is forced by other groups to play the role of second class. Any system of class ranking is arguably an intrinsic form of disrespect.

The urge to gain or protect respect and to avoid situations where respect might be lost, is what motivates a large portion of human activity.

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Another important motivator is addiction. Most people are addicts of one kind or another.

The object of an addiction is not necessarily a substance to be ingested. Anything can become a target: an activity, a particularly obsessive thought, an interaction with another person or group, control or ownership of an object.

Although many addictions are based on real need, the distinction between addiction and necessity is clear enough. The difference is that addictions are unsatiable. No matter how often or how effectively addictive urges are answered, they can never be satisfied. People return to the objects of their addictions without tiring.

Addiction is not an attachment to a particular chemical or activity, but rather to the mental state that is induced by that chemical or activity.

If those mental states could be triggered or managed without resorting to the substances, activities, or situations that otherwise would have induced those states, then impulsive, unhealthy, and unbalanced behavior could be mitigated or redirected.

What matters to people is ultimately not what happens to them in the physical world, but what happens in the secret crevasses of the brain. If people discover a slice of virtual world that induces the same addictive mental states induced by the real world, they look no further.

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Addictions seem to fall into five major categories, which are physical, sensual, emotional, social, and spiritual.

Examining those categories in depth reveals how surprisingly universal addiction actually is.

Physical addictions are the addictions that usually come to mind when most people think of addiction.

Those are raw, powerful addictions that lead to strong dependencies. Withdrawal produces not only the discomfort from lack of the euphorigen ("feel good" substance that induces a sense of well-being or pleasure), but actually also causes painful mental states.

Physical addiction is relatively rare, compared to addictions in the other categories.

Many physical addictions are based on substances that mimic or replace naturally occurring euphorigens.

The most powerful of all addictions are physical, as they can easily trump addictions at other levels, such as emotional or social.

Physical addictions often lead a person to monomaniacally forsake all else in order to feed a single craving.

For that reason physical addictions carry a well-deserved stigma, in that they cause conflicts with social values having to do with fulfilling a broader set of goals, and often lead to destructive behavior.

The most subtle category of addictions is spiritual addiction, which is so subtle, in fact, that it seems contradictory to refer to it as an addiction.

Spiritual addictions are attachments to mental states induced by thinking about certain ideas. Such addictions can find expression in religious or intellectual activities.

Many religious activities involve addictions to certain ideas or principles, such as a set of rules or a creed.

Intellectual creativity, as well, can be driven by an addictive desire to experience ideas and information snapping together like puzzle pieces in neat and orderly ways. Curiosity can become an addictive desire to know that you know everything.

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Sensual addictions are a step subtler and less dominant than physical addictions.

In the sensual category we find addictions such as gluttony, which is the craving for the textures, smells, flavors, and satiety of food.

We also find passivity, the craving for mental states induced by activities and stimulations that require little effort, such as watching television or sitting idly observing other people being active.

Daydreaming is another example of a sensual addiction, similar to passivity.

We see reflected in the category of sensual addictions the medieval European religious taxonomy of the seven capital sins, which included pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth.

As happens with all addictions, tension builds until the person performs the ritualized or habitual behavior, which then produces the euphorigenic mental state for a short period, until the tension starts to build again.

Some sensual addictions form a class of what are considered by society to be beneficial addictions.

An important example of socially favored addiction would be the craving for mental states induced by working excessively long hours.

What matters to people is ultimately not what happens to them in the physical world, but what happens in the secret crevasses of the brain.

While workaholism is an obvious example of socially favored addiction, other examples are less obvious because their refraction periods are much longer.

The refraction period following the feeling of release produced by performing the addictive activity is the time it takes for tension to build up to an uncomfortable level again.

Addictions with a short or inflexible refraction period will tend to be more dominant.

Physical addictions, in general, seem to have briefer and more rigid refraction periods than sensual ones, and therefore impel their hosts to return more often and more insistently to the source of relief than is the case for addictions in other categories, such as sensual addictions.

The refractive period is an important factor determining an addiction's cooperativeness, or ease with which it can coexist in a person's life with other addictions or obligations that the person may have.

Physical addictions are highly uncooperative, and therefore lead to destructive, monomaniacal behavior, while sensual addictions are generally somewhat more cooperative.

The more cooperative an addiction is, the easier it will be for the host of the addiction (that is, the person suffering from it) to defer gratification when appropriate.

Sensual addictions to mental states induced by types of work activities are sometimes so cooperative that they are usually thought of as benign "sources of satisfaction" rather than as addictions.

However, that is really only a difference in degree than difference in nature.

Many decisions that a person in a relatively free and wealthy society must wrestle with have to do with balancing the demands made by various cooperative addictions.

At this point, we might ask why it is appropriate to refer to such interests as addictions rather than simply needs or desires.

What do those interests have in common with more obvious cases of addiction, such as a physical addiction to a narcotic drug?

One important distinction between interests and addictions is that addictions a follow a common, repeating pattern of tension and release.

Another point worth emphasizing is that what drives the activities is the mental state that is consistently induced by those activities.

Each of those mental states, with their complex neurological implications, are what underpin the addictive response.

A mere desire, in contrast, is a preference that is supported by simple pleasure. Addictive mental states are generally pleasurable, but pleasure is only part of what drives a person to repeatedly return to the stimulus long after the need has been met, often at the expense of pain or inconvenience.

What characterizes addictions, in contrast to simple desire, is that a person is willing to endure a disproportionate amount of pain, or even of injury to the health or oneself or others, in order to achieve that particular addictive mental state.

The pleasure associated with the addictive mental state may or may not be compensated by the pleasure associated with it. In fact, over the long term the pain often vastly exceeds the pleasure, on balance.

That fact, when taken in light of how extensive and variegated addictions are, is probably what chiefly causes the pernicious existential incompleteness noted by Buddhists and others.

The fact that people pursue addictive behaviors despite their self-destructiveness is what makes addiction remarkable.

Addictive behavior clearly happens at a group level, or even on a global scale. Examples are deforestation, fossil fuel consumption, and unrestrained population growth, which all clearly lead to cataclysmic and sorrowful ecological change, but which societies helplessly fail to find the collective will to abandon.

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Like physical and sensual addictions, emotional and social ones often overlap or include components of each other.

However, just as physical addictions are more dominant and less cooperative than sensual ones, emotional addictions are more "hard-wired" and intrusive than social ones.

Emotional addictions are also generally more diffuse than sensual ones, meaning that the same emotionally addictive state can be implicated with more activities or situations than is usually the case for sensual addictions, which tend to be more specific.

People can develop addictions to painful or "bittersweet" emotional states, such as melancholy, remorse, or self-pity.

A person hosting that kind of addiction will return repeatedly to thoughts or situations that induce the mental state, with the same pattern of tension and release observed in other addictions.

That example shows that addictions are not simply pleasure-satisfying behaviors.

Some people are addicted to the emotions that come from conflict-ridden or confusing situations.

That type of person may become a "drama addict", periodically needing a certain measure of turmoil, again in the telltale tension and release pattern seen in other addictions. Such people might unconsciously provoke conflict with others or sabotage their own plans, just to get a fix from the uproar that their actions provoke.

Another similar example is the type of addicts who find themselves relentless drawn to dangerous circumstances to get their fix.

In contrast, some people are addicted to the feeling that comes from being safe and comfortable, with every aspect of life carefully regularized. That is often interpreted as insecurity, but it is probably mostly due to an addiction to routine.

Emotional addictions generally have a social component. Most emotional "kicks" require some sort of interaction with other people in order to be produced.

An important example of an emotional addiction that has a social dimension is addiction to altruism or unrequited kindness.

Altruistic acts trigger potent emotions, whose mental states can easily become addictive.

Addicts of altruism must periodically perform what appear to be unmotivated acts of kindness or giving in order to satisfy this craving for those mental states.

Another noteworthy emotional addiction with an interpersonal dimension is based around the desire to be helped. People who host this addiction will often seek to rely on the help of other people even when they might otherwise manage to achieve the same results independently.

They seem to be addicted to the mental state produced by feelings of being weak and of having other people go out of their way to provide them with special service.

A classical example of complementary addictions is when a person who is addicted to altruism pairs off with a person addicted to being helped. The joint addiction is an example of what is generally called co-dependency, a significant factor in many personal relationships.

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Social addictions are of course closely tied to the structure and dynamics of a group.

While social addictions certainly have an emotional flavor, they are more likely to involve interactions with anyone, even with a stranger, who happens to give the addict the desired effect, rather than to be built upon a relationship with a particular person or group, as emotional addictions tend to be.

An example of a social addiction is an addiction to fame or notoriety. Fame addicts needs to be reminded, in a typically addictive tension/release manner, that they are not just a mere anonymous mortal in the crowd, but rather someone unique and recognizable by all.

Addiction to fame is relatively rare, as is another easily identifiable social addiction: addiction to power.

Power addicts are locked into a tension-and-release cycle centered on the mental states associated with seeing other people respond to their wishes or commands. Addiction to power is probably the most obvious of social addictions.

History is well stocked with examples of people who wreaked havoc in order to meet their own addiction to power.

Power addiction is closely related to another, somewhat quieter addiction, which is addiction to deference.

People who host this kind of addiction thrive on the deferent behavior that other people show toward them. Deference addicts do not need to exercise power, however, in order for other people to defer to them.

Many groups that purport to be leader-less actually have fairly well demarcated system of deference signaling. That system may be measured in terms of popularity or by how much a person in the group is ascribed a subjective quality, such as "hipness" or "professionalism".

Fashion and popularity are closely associated with deference signaling, which is of keen interest to people who have an addiction to being seen as leader.

Just as in the case of the co-dependency relationships mentioned above, some people are addicted to showing deference to those in charge. Such people seek out situations where they can be shepherded and shown around by others. Clearly, this addiction is complementary to the addiction to power, which can be an unhealthy combination, or to the addiction to being seen as in charge.

One of the most pervasive social addictions in urban social situations seems to have no precise name. For convenience let's call it "snurfing", only because the sound of the word seems appropriate.

Snurfers have a tension/release fixation with mental states that are associated with being seen by others as "top rate" or of higher caliber than most people. Snurfers are addicted to the feeling of being in some sort of elite group within the larger group.

To snurf means to go after the little rush of emotion that comes when you let it be known that you have some sort of some special rank, background, or achievement. Snurfing is so common in modern urban societies that it seems normal and can be hard to notice without consciously deciding to do so.

Other common examples of social addiction are the addictive attachments to duty and obligation, or to their complement, the addiction to guilt. Addictions to guilt and duty often co-exist. Part of what makes a "guilty pleasure" so pleasurable for many people is the guilt itself.

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Most people are fortunate enough to host addictions that are relatively cooperative, so that no single addiction dominates the person destructively and throws the person's life into dysfunctional imbalance.

The fact that for most people addictive needs interweave with each other smoothly makes it hard to spot that those needs are actually addictive.

Furthermore, many addictions may involve some kind of passivity, such as "vegging out" in front of the television, or they may be an integral part of a socially desirable activity, such as an addiction to certain aspects of one's work.

Only when addictions conflict with each other or clash uncontrollably with the addictions of other people, do we notice them as being addictions.

The relationship between addiction and fear is also worth considering.

Some observers of human nature suggest that fear is a powerful motivator. The opposite is probably true. Fear is a significant de-motivator.

A common pattern in biological systems is for inhibitory and excitatory factors to counteract each other and keep the system in a state of dynamic, adaptive balance (adrenal/norepinephrin, glutamate/GABA, etc).

We see an analogous pattern in human behavior. Addiction seems to play the excitatory role and fear the inhibitory role.

Addiction makes people continue acting in particular ways long after it makes sense or is in their best interest to do so. Fear, on the other hand, causes people to freeze, to move more slowly into a situation, or to withdraw altogether.

Most normal people host a whole array of addictions, and fear plays a significant role in helping ensure that those various addictions cooperate with each other in terms of the person's time and energy.

Fear is the only psychological factor strong enough to restrain addictions, and every addiction has a correlated assortment of fears that hold that addiction in check.

The cultivation and management of motivation is an essential ingredient to health, both physical and mental.

If a person has too many urges or if several of those urges are too strong, the person's mind may try to dampen down the motivational pressure caused by those addictions. One of the interesting ways that it does this is through depression.

Depression is like a circuit breaker that gets tripped if too much motivational "voltage" surges through the wires at once. Depression works through a kind of generalized or free-floating fear or anxiety to inhibit motivational force.

In that sense, depression is a psychological defense mechanism that protects a person from excessive or conflicting ambitions.

It's interesting to consider whether an entire society could fall into a state of apathy, anomie, or depression due to a similar kind of overheating?

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The cause of motivation, or conation, as it is sometimes called by psychologists, is one of the great mysteries of the mind.

An interesting technique is to observe one's own mind at work progressively closer, until one discovers the experiential point at which an addictive motivation "hooks into the soul".

We can imagine a time when neuroscientists will have discovered the precise mechanisms in the brain that create those hooks. We can also imagine altering the landing points of those addictions to satisfied them endlessly without having to turn to any outside substance or activity to induce the desired brain state.

People would plug a unit into their brains to supply them with all the respect, excitement, challenge, triumph, pleasure, esthetic response, and so on, that they would otherwise have to achieve by struggling against the environment and competing against each other. Ambition would cease.

The world as a whole would almost certainly choose to accept that technology, helplessly, just as it has almost always surrendered before to such expediencies.

We instinctively feel that this would be deplorable, but to ask precisely why it would be deplorable is another good question.

Michael Webb, December, 2005

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