Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Positive vs. Negative motivation

Overall, there are two kinds of emotional motivations: pleasant (will be referred to as "positive") and painful (will be referred to as "negative"). Either a man acts to gain pleasure, or to avoid pain. These are essentially the two forms of emotional motivation man experiences. 

For example: we can be motivated to build a house out of a sense of pleasure. We can run away from a snake because of fear. We can give money to a beggar to avoid guilt, or we can buy a gift to a friend because of pleasure. We can study for a test because we are afraid to fail it, or we can read a book because we enjoy training ourselves in rational thinking. 

These examples illustrate an additional implicit understanding - that emotions are motivational force for action. 

The positive and the negative categories of emotional motivation are not meant to play an equal role in man's life.
Negative motivation is meant to help us avoid damage - to deal with disaster and prevent it. To that extent, it is an excellent servant, and useful for our lives.
Positive motivation is meant to motivate us for the rest of our actions in life, in the pursuit of values. Values such as food, house, entertainment, friends etc'. 

Take this opportunity to stop and think for a moment: Is the pursuit of such values in your life a result of positive motivation or negative one? Are you moved in your work by a sense of pleasure, or by a sense of duty? Do you do what you think is moral out of duty, or out of pleasure? 

Motivation in pursuit of values should be from positive emotions, not from negative ones.
Assuming that the pursuit of values is the norm of every day life (what we do most of the time), and disasters are exceptional and rare, motivation from negative emotions should only be present in exceptional cases of correcting a mistake, or when you try to deal with some disaster - but not on the form of daily basis.

It is important to keep in mind that negative emotions do have a significant role, too. Suppose you did something wrong, like, say, acting unjustly to a friend. You would feel guilt, and this will motivate you to correct the injustice. Acting on negative motivation in this case is proper. 
How do you decide what is proper? Reason is always the final arbiter. But listening to your emotions is an important first step to suggest an action.

So let's look at an example of improper negative motivation: forcing oneself to do well at school, because of viewing it as an instance of the virtue of productivity. Doing well at school in most cases is NOT a matter of productivity at all (because school is not fully rational), studying becomes a constant action despite boredom and pain. "If you want to be good - you must try to be a good student. To be a good student - you must learn to endure pain". 
The result is going through years of putting an effort into school because of a desire to avoid a sense of guilt and failure. 
But the process of acquiring knowledge required for your career is pursuit of a value - not an attempt to avoid disaster or correct a mistake. Is it right that instead of pleasure, all one would feel is the pain of duty and self-repression? No. Such a clash is a call to look for a mistake in one's thinking (as I learned the hard way), not a call to continue things as the day before. 

This example demonstrates how rationalism leads to living one's life under negative motivation - out of a sense of duty to obey moral principles, not out of sense of acting selfishly to achieve one's pleasure. (The rationalist idea, in this case is to decide arbitrarily that success in school has to be, regardless of its actual nature, the virtue of productivity). 

Now what would be the long-term consequence of motivation from negative emotions in pursuits of values? Over time, it destroys everything it touches.
In schools, kids are taught that they are good if they learn despite being bored. Over time the result is that they come to hate learning. Not just learning at school, but the act of putting mental effort into anything. 

As an adult, you may start with a job you dislike, training yourself over time not to notice your boredom. After enough time, you lose motivation to do any kind of work at all, even one you could have enjoyed before. How did this happen? you trained yourself to make your emotions irrelevant to your actions. You trained your subconscious to associate "work" with suffering and self-compulsion. 

If you view morality as a duty to hold yourself to - you will continually repress personal desires in order to be "in-line" with those principles. At the end of this road, you either lose sight of what "you" is, or you throw morality completely and attempt to live without principles at all. 
The pursuit of moral values, or virtues, or becoming the hero you have in your mind - should be from positive emotions.
If it is not, that is the time to stop and think - make sure you really understand the principles you attempt to live by. Make sure you can see how those principles are good for you.  

There is only so much time that negative motivation can carry a man.
This motivation is meant as a temporary assistant - not as fuel for every-day actions throughout life. This motivation is "crash and burn", its end result is always bad if used to pursue values. 
After 4 years of stress and repression I had in the technological institute I studied in, I know. 

To the extent that a society is irrational (like bad schooling system), some conflicts are bound to cross your way. 
In a dictatorship, one's actions are motivated by fear as the only possible way to function. 
But - Taking whatever existing conditions under account, try to pursue your values by the desire to gain pleasure. It is selfish. It is good. It is what makes life worth living. 


  1. I really enjoyed this piece, it's spot on with what i keep trying to tell the mystics around me who believe that a man will only do good if he's afraid of doing the bad.

  2. Yep, I am always amazed by the kind of negative external injunction as a supposed motivation. Dostoevsky's question in "The Brothers Karamazov" (i.e. if there is no god, why be good?) seems to betray a massive immorality on the part of believers. Presumably by their own reasoning, such supposed divine instructions are the only reason they are not wholly and overtly immoral?

  3. i'm sure you're familiar with this passage:
    "You seek escape from pain. We seek the achievement of happiness. You exist for the sake of avoiding punishment. We exist for the sake of earning rewards. Threats will not make us function; fear is not our incentive. It is not death that we wish to avoid, but life that we wish to live. You, who have lost the concept of the difference, you who claim that fear and joy are incentives of equal power—and secretly add that fear is the more “practical”—you do not wish to live, and only fear of death still holds you to the existence you have damned." AS

  4. Yes, I'm familiar with it, although I did not remember it when I was writing this article.

    Since I wrote it I realized the subject is more complex than it had seemed to me at the time, so I will write a follow up to this whole subject covering some "gray" areas which are not yet entirely clear to me.

    I also think that there's a difference between what Ayn Rand wrote about and what I wrote about here. Mine is more specific per-action and hers is more broad, but I will need more time before I can go back and write about this.

  5. i looked up stuff about motivation after i actually started to recognize how negative motivation has been severely impairing my productivity practically all my life. early in life i learned that if i didnt do certain things like chores i would get yelled at for being lazy, if i did do them it was never done right, good enough or i took too long which would earn more negative feedback or even yelling from my mom. so i guess i eventually started to loathe doing anything and would have to be told to do anything, and of course would get yelled at more for having to be told what to do

    over time it just got worse, i would do less and less on my own and the mere thought of doing anything instantly overwhelmed me and i would feel like there was this brick wall in my mind whenever i tried to force myself to do things. however just today i was thinking about this and i suddenly realized, my main motivation for doing anything has always been fear, only to avoid consequenses. i suddenly felt this rush of energy i realized i didnt need to let fear motivate me anymore, i could do things because i can do them, because i will feel better and more accomplished afterward. it was like a fog had lifted. still i understand how negative motivation is essential in certain situations like the ones you stated but i feel i have been either primarily motivated by negative emotions or motivated only by outside forces whether negative or positive, i had not intrinsic motivators.

  6. I used to think that this essay was potentially wrong in some regards and definitely needed revisiting and more gray-area examples, but if it helped you recognize what you describe in any way, I don't regret leaving it published for a second.

    I'm sorry your parents showed so little sensitivity!

    In case you're an Objectivist, you might find my advice very puzzling, but I think the best thing to do is to give yourself a whole month of complete indulgence in whatever the heck you want. Just do whatever is necessary to survive and not harm your future, but other than that my advice would be to give yourself a break. Give yourself complete permission to do whatever pleases you. Also, let out your inner voice and learn to listen to it.
    Whenever you set your mind to do something and you start feeling reluctant, give that voice an outlet and really listen to it. Treat it as if you trust what it's telling you and let it come to the surface. You could keep a small diary, for example, and let those thoughts out. Things like: "I will never be able to do it right anyway". A part of you believes them. But once they are out in the open it is possible to challenge them. Think about whether or not those ideas are true or not. Think about who put them in your head - was it you, or someone else? You don't have to adopt it as your own voice.

    If you have some things you feel motivated about you are already in a good place. even if there are thoughts diverting you from doing them. It is a much better place to be in than not to have interests at all.

    After you indulge enough in whatever you do and really listen and isolate your negative thoughts I believe your natural positive motivation would take over.

    I've been through a similar battle myself and I can tell you, if you persist eventually you start feeling more and more natural healthy motivation and you don't have to force yourself to do things.
    Whenever it feels like forcing, take a moment to listen to yourself. You will find that the persistent little voice can be battled and chased away. Good luck! I hope this works out for you.

    1. P.S. Except for Taxes. Unless you are messed up beyond repair, taxes will always feel forced. That is not something to worry about though!

      Good luck.