The rich kid becomes a junkie, the poor kid an advertiser. What a tragic waste of potential! …but being a junkie’s not so good, either.
TISM, “Greg! The Stop Sign!”

Traditionally, which is to say “even before Aristotle,” basic motivation has been regarded as utilitarian: people act to pursue pleasure and/or avoid pain.  The determination of what qualifies as pleasure or pain depends somewhat on where a person is at in life, which is what Maslow’s 1943 Hierarchy of needs helps to explain.

Maslow’s hierarchy basically says that people have five tiers of fulfillment, and they have to be fulfilled on baser levels before they can actually get higher levels of fulfillment.  In order, people need to have their physiological needs met, followed by their needs for safety and security, then love and belonging (social), which feeds into esteem, which provides the basis for self-actualization.  The changing of tiers in this hierarchy are super-relevant to motivation because the why of what motivates changes between tiers.  There has lately been a growing concern (as reported by Daniel Pink) that money isn’t an effective motivator of people because people are realizing that it doesn’t buy happiness (after about $60,000 — a point which is relevant in ensuring that people don’t assume that more money will solve whatever or wonder why more money hasn’t solved whatever).

So why does money motivate people?  It can be used to buy access to fulfill physiological needs, but it’s not wholly necessary there.  For our civilization, it is more commonly used to secure (second tier) our possessions under the force of law. Once we have a roof over our heads that we feel is ours because we paid for it, we move on to tier three and spend some money pub-crawling with our mates to establish a sense of social belonging.  And if we’ve still got a pile of money left over after that, we might be one of those extreme-capitalist people who are using the stack of money as a scoreboard rather than as money per se.

What this shows us is that past certain points — that is, every time somebody changes tiers in the hierarchy — the quality of a motivator changes.  In the case of money, this even resembles diminishing marginal utility:  $1200 of mortgage payment to secure your home is one thing, but nobody of sound mind and limited resources would blow through $1200 on a pub crawl.  While money doesn’t stop being valued or wanted, the why behind the desire for more money changes from the rather expensive “I need enough to have a home” to the substantially cheaper “I need enough to facilitate relaxing with friends.”  On a mild tangent, it is partially for this reason that a canny corporation will take a (slightly unnerving) interest in whether or not you have close friends at work:  if you’re relaxed with friends at work, then you likely won’t spend as much effort ($1200 pub crawl?) to relax with friends outside of work and thus not feel as fiscally constrained by your paycheck.

Where some people go wrong with motivation is the belief that what motivates rather than why.  This isn’t far wrong for the people who don’t really stop to examine their motivations, but it only serves to partially explain actions after they’ve happened rather than predict what is going to happen since what is going to happen is a person will likely be changing tiers on the hierarchy of needs and the quality of motivation they’re getting from what will change.  For example, I’ve heard a suggestion that people are motivated by any of five things: wealth, power, time, information or comfort.  I’m surprised that “love” isn’t on that list per se, but when missing the why of the motivation, the ability of using a motivator to predict an action fails.  For example, I am motivated by money to go to work.  But if money were as simple as what devoid of a why, then I should be motivated to get another part-time job to make more money.  I’m not going to do that, though, because my current job pays me enough to warrant the claim that my time is probably worth more than whatever a secondary part-time job could give me.  Where the suggested system bugs out is when I go and volunteer as a debate coach for high school students.  This fulfills other needs I have that money can’t efficiently pursue for me.

These needs get into what Pink says takes over after people hit the diminished marginal utility from money: people want autonomy, purpose and mastery.  Or, put another way, people want the freedom to find some bigger goal that they can get better at pursuing.  Mapped back to Maslow, autonomy fills in the top of the esteem tier (where you have adequate self-respect and respect from your peers to be self-directed) while mastery and purpose start the self-actualization tier to focus creativity and problem solving.

Tangent: Given those five “what” elements, how would I rate them?  Well, from a quasi-existential point of view, every individual has the power to reject and thus power is of no effective value so it’s off the table from the get-go.  Of the four remaining motivators, they pair off like this: money is a renewable resource, time isn’t — so given adequate money, the remaining time is more valuable.  Similarly, comfort has a maximal net effect so after I am comfortable, information becomes more valuable than comfort.  Again, these are cases of why things motivate, not just what things motivate — if I was uncomfortable and lacking in money, I would be ignoring a lot of information and spending my time trying to get a job and indoor plumbing to call my own.  I have a job and indoor plumbing, so my priorities shift accordingly.

The exceptionally significant wild card in predicting motivation, even if we can successfully map somebody onto a hierarchy of needs and get them to understand why they are motivated to pursue what they’re pursuing, is that thus far we’ve only talked about people pursuing pleasure.  This is a difficulty because it seems to me that the formative years of our intellectual lives are generally spent trying to avoid pain; that is, schools are primarily focused on students not failing rather than facilitating success or achievement.  This is usual ground for me — we spend more on getting bottom performers to adequacy than on getting the top performers to appreciate the scope of their potential, and we reject academic curiosity because it doesn’t fit in the scope of a multiple-choice test necessitated by state standards and overflowing classrooms.  But the pernicious effect that we’re seeing is that people are taught, by school, to be risk-averse.  Curiosity is not positively reinforced and success generally has an upper limit of a 4.0 GPA which can be achieved with less rigorous curriculum than the student is necessarily capable of handling — indeed, a more challenging course of study could be threatening to the student’s academic standing on that shallow metric.  This has us teaching kids that risk of failure, or even of being wrong, is something to be avoided in favor of more simple certainties.  (This also plays into the myth of perpetual progress that gets repeated in history classes, as noted by Loewen.)  To put it another way, our society is teaching kids to avoid pain, but not to pursue pleasure.

We spend a lot of effort conditioning people to not fail, but we do precious little to equip them to succeed.  With that in mind, is it any surprise that blase ambivalence has people wondering why they’re not feeling successful when they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong?

Consider the surprisingly popular Hyperbole-and-a-Half exhibit on “This is why I’ll never be an adult”: “a few times a year, I spontaneously decide that I’m ready to be a real adult… I sit myself down and tell myself how I’m going to start cleaning the house every day and paying my bills on time and replying to emails before my inbox reaches quadruple digits.” () which has elicited a rather uncharitable response of “This is why we’re all totally screwed” apparently without either of them considering, as Paul Graham wrote while I was composing this, that “The most dangerous way to lose time is not to spend it having fun, but to spend it doing fake work.”  There is a possible comfort in fake work, like believing if you do it more, you will fail less because it is work — without realizing that the time you’re spending not failing is time you can’t spend actually succeeding.  There may be a better way to spend our time than doing laundry, but how can we be bothered to figure out what it is when there are all these fitted sheets that need folding?

So, for the adults, my current claim is that once we have not failed, we need to figure out what to succeed at.  The process of figuring is autonomy, the what is our purpose, and the succeeding — and the taking of risks necessary to pursue success — that builds our self-actualization through mastery.  If you’re not sure what you want to succeed at, then read a book or go to a conference instead of on vacation or buy a chemistry set and be curious in the way that wasn’t encouraged back in school.

And for the Value debaters, who should be very keen on learning what motivates people to accept or reject propositions, it’s simple to remap this posting into a case structure:  start with a what motivator as a judgment criterion because it’s easy to claim you’re getting something tangible, then explain why as your value limited and nuanced against a tier in Maslow’s hierarchy, with bonus points if you can pick up a different value on a different tier while keeping the same criterion.  Turning this to a rebuttal, if somebody makes a claim of a grand and universal value — and you can probably double-bind them in cross-examination by either letting them make a grandiose claim or dither in uncertainty because they haven’t really thought about the limits of why — then you can make a very quick claim about diminished marginal utility resulting in a failure of the claim of the value in practice in modern civilization and let them burn entirely too much of their rebuttal time nuancing their position or proclaiming their ignorance.  Finally, and this is something I saw at the end of last season, always keep in mind that not failing is not the same thing as succeeding — you’ll see this when somebody conflates “fighting injustice” with “achieving justice.”  We certainly can spend a lot of time fighting what is bad, but I can’t readily name any situation where that necessarily gives us something good, because we fight what is bad out of fear of falling into what is bad, not out of love of what is good.  We prolong life not because we value life but because we fear death.  We rail against inequality not because we love equality but because we fear being less than other people.  We decry totalitarianism not out of love for democracy, but because we fear not being able to redress our government.  And we try to win not because it proves the rightness of our thinking, but because it reassures us that we were less wrong than anybody else.  So while it’s not bad to be not bad, it is actually good to be good — and that’s an important distinction, between not failing and succeeding, that isn’t made often or clear enough for the betterment of society.

Afterthoughts: In an essay in Creative Capitalism compiled by Michael Kinsley, Ed Glaeser claims that “The quest for meaning in life and work is, of course, something of a luxury good, which means that it has gotten more important over time as we have become richer.”  This seems true on face to me, given my cubicle zombie career but a bit of consideration suggests that it is more an impact of the industrial revolution on the jobs that were revolutionized.  I know many people who don’t appear to be earning scads of money working with food (farmers, baristas, chefs) but they do seem to find a purpose in feeding and caffeinating people.  Likewise, teachers seem to believe in an inherent purpose in the education of young minds, which allegedly makes up for the plethora of hardships involved with teaching.  These are roles that existed before the industrial revolution, which shifted many people’s attachment from the product of their labor to the productivity of their labor with the help of gin. Today we have American Idol, and it’s not quite as effective, so things like this are being written.

The thing that I think surprises me the most isn’t that people are tired after a day filled with work (and potentially taxing offspring to however many allegedly life-developing activities) and are willing to vegetate with American Idol or CSI or Fox News, but that capitalistic civilization insists that so many people should spend much of their lives making temporary and disposable things so that other people will be continually compelled to buy Whatever over and over again.  This was one of Orwell’s concerns in 1984 (re-read chapter, if I recall correctly, 9) with the march of industrialized progress:  while people may want autonomy and purpose and mastery, the nation only ever wants a larger gross national product, and corporations would almost always rather sell more than sell better.