Ok, welcome back. Did you notice anything missing from that piece? How might we apply any one of those theories to the motives of a serial killer? A radical jihadist? Dr. Whitbourne comes close to mentioning a person’s beliefs in her outline of Cognitive Theory where she talks about a person’s expectations. But something missing in this equation is how a brain develops and what it is subjected to. How might a traumatic brain injury (TBI), or childhood abuse, or even adult onset mental illness influence what motivates us? I ask these questions because they directly relate to how a person thinks and what a person believes in the context of their behavior. A motive, by definition, is a hidden reason for doing something, and I would argue many times these reasons are hidden from ourselves; in other words, we are not conscious of why we are engaging in many of our behaviors. Now if this troubles you as much as it does me, then I invite you to read on.
How Our Beliefs Influence Our Motivations
Incentive Theory relates to a person’s beliefs that, if we value external reinforcement (i.e. money, food, sex, praise, etc.), we will act in ways to get more of what we value. Again, these actions are based on the beliefs and expectations that these things are, and will be “good for us”. Cognitive Theory states that our expectations guide our behavior. The important distinction between an expectation and a belief is that a belief is the psychological acceptance of a claim as true, regardless of any empirical evidence, while an expectation is the state of expecting or looking forward to an event that is about to happen. Self-Determination Theory argues that both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards motivate behavior, and that acting in ways in which you feel you are most in control of your behavior will be the most rewarding. This theory is, of course, operating on the assumption that you are actually in control of your choices – more on freewill and determinism later.
Biology Before Psychology
Now as I said before, I believe that what motivates a person has much to do with his or her own neurology first and foremost. Take for example Charles Whitman, the infamous clocktower gunman who killed so many at the University of Texas in Austin, who requested in his own suicide note an autopsy be done on his brain, because he couldn’t make sense of his own thinking. Ned Gaylin, professor emeritus in the Family Science Department of the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland (my graduate school) was known to have said to his students, “Biology before psychology” in explaining a person’s behaviors. I couldn’t agree more.
What activates the fight/flight response for one person may not for another, based on the individual’s neurological system. The construct of each person’s brain may depend on genetic factors and historical experiences that one person’s nervous system may have had that another’s did not. For example, two people are walking down the aisle of a grocery store; one is quite content looking for her shredded wheat, while the other is nervous about what’s around the corner of the aisle because he cannot see whether there is a threat there or not. This could be because of mental illness, PTSD, or perhaps a brain tumor.
Change the Way You Talk to Yourself
Furthermore, (linking back to Self Determination Theory) we can add a layer of perceived control over our event by further changing the language we use when we make a private self-statement. Rather than thinking to ourselves, “I am frustrated” or “I feel frustrated”, we can think, “I’m doing frustration.” This creates the belief that we are in control of the emotion, and therefore by doing frustration, it implies we can stop doing it. You have now switched over to the pre-frontal cortex, the heartland of problem solving. Now you can solve the problem of the negative emotion. This mental gymnastic skill can also be applied to positive emotions. For example, saying to yourself, “I’m motivated”, “I feel motivated”, or “I’m doing motivation” will each yield a different result in your brain, and each has different amounts of staying power. The statement that makes a claim about your identity is likely to have the most power – “I’m motivated!” The statement about what you are doing, just communicates to yourself that you will eventually stop doing that. Geoffrey James wrote a great article for inc.com outlining these very phenomena in more or less the same way.
How We Become Stuck in Dysfunctional Habits: A Guide to Getting Unstuck
Motivation – Tips on Getting Started
?The Science of Happy Couples