Uncovering motivations

Often, it seems that people are not fully aware of the strategies they are following in various situations, or the reasons behind their choices. Psychological experiments have repeatedly demonstrated that factors that people do not consciously acknowledge can nonetheless affect things like knowledge and decision-making. That said, it stands to reason that people are not always fully aware of why they behave as they do, in relation to things like career choices and interpersonal relationships.

The task of trying to identify one’s ‘real’ motivations is a challenging one, with at least two types of error possible. On the one hand, it is possible to accept overly superficial explanations: ‘I stormed out of there because I found the offer unacceptable.’ While this may be true in a sense, it probably doesn’t capture the entirety of your thought process, or the factors that had put you in that particular state of mind. On the other hand, it is also possible to over-interpret your own decisions, in an almost paranoid way, and see them as more cynical or strategic than they really are.

I suppose all of this is indicative of how perplexing it is to be a creature that can never really step outside itself for purposes of comprehension. We have more information than anybody else about what makes us act as we do, but the same cognitive filters that determine how we act make it difficult or impossible for us to understand the process objectively.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

8 thoughts on “Uncovering motivations”

  1. That’s why we obsessively seek answers from outside of ourselves — why Oprah is so popular; why self-help books fly off the shelves; why people cling to religion and other forms of spirituality and/or new age stuff; why we need close friends and family; why we blog even…

  2. We have these internal negotiations going in our heads all day, even if we don’t know it,” said Benoît Monin, a social psychologist who studies moral licensing at Stanford University. “People’s past behavior literally gives them license to do that next thing, which might not be good.”

    The implications of moral licensing are vast, stretching beyond consumer decisions and into politics and environmental policy. Monin published a study showing that voters given an opportunity to endorse Barack Obama for president were more likely to later favor white people for job openings. Social psychologists point to government standards for fuel efficiency as another example of moral licensing at work: Automakers can sell a certain number of gas guzzlers as long as their overall fleet achieves a specified miles-per-gallon rating.

    “There are so many contradictions in today’s world, especially when it comes to green issues,” said Keith Ware, who has watched with raised eyebrows as Hummers pull up to his environmentally sensitive appliance store, Eco-Green Living, near the nuclear-free zone of Takoma Park.”

  3. Not being able to know for certain why we choose to act as we do seems like a major problem for humanity. You can add it to ‘we don’t have language capable of communicating exactly what we are thinking’ on the list of reasons why human beings will never fully understand one another, and why all human relationships will involve situations in which people fail to appreciate why things have turned out as they have.

    Illustrating how pairs of people – especially romantic couples – can singularly fail to understand one another and themselves is one of the things I think Czech novelist Milan Kundera does best in his books. It teaches us a bit of humility – not to assume that what came out as a veiled hint or pointed jab was intended as such. Similarly, not to assume that what seemed an innocuous comment was intended that way by the conscious or unconscious mind of the person who spoke it.

  4. This “gap” which prevents full understanding is part of the chaotic nature of reality – onto which we ascribe patterns and forms which work well enough for a while, until they break down and we freak out.

    Jordan Peterson has done a lot of good work on the breakdown of assumptions and anxiety, and his explanations saliently connect experimental psychology with existentialism and the history of religion.

    There are two mainstream ways this gap are characterized in 20th century Continental philosophy.

    On the one hand, Derrida, who emphasizes the “play in the same”, whereby through iteration no meanings are stable, and the gap between conveyed meaning and intent is a condition for communication at all.

    The logic is roughly: meaning is only created through activity – repeating the same words in new contexts to make new meanings – so meaning is always in flux. And yet, communication implies that the communicated is divorcable from the communicator (i.e. you can write a book, sign your name, and leave it on the street). So, you always lose control over the thing which you could never stably possess.

    On the other hand, philosophers like Levinas suppose a total gap between self and other, and call any attempt to subsume different subjects under a “play of the same” totalitarian. They therefore need a concept of infinity which can apply to a subject before that subject comes into relations with stuff in the world, or with others. They therefore posit God as the creator of man, and say man’s nature is infinity. So, they believe there are many “infinite” beings walking around, who can never quite reach each other, but who can experience the chaotic absence of the other because their nature’s were already to be infinite. Writers like this dismiss the idea that the chaotic relations between others actually come from the engagement itself as “the vanity of Pantheism”.

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