Motivation: just a story?

Motivation is a funny thing. I was certain I needed it. I needed it to run faster than my friends, to finish my PhD, to learn how to paint skin tones. When I started to study motivation in my research, things changed. I had never seen my students so confused: did I know what motivation was? I didn’t. So let’s start the October motivation theme with a blog post on what motivation is.

Motivation determines behavior

In basic neuroscience, ‘motivation’ refers to the processes that cause an animal (or human) to act. In other words: the processes that set an animal in motion. Hence the term moti-vation. In this sense saying that you did something because you were motivated is a tautology.


Motivation is an experience

When informally referring to motivation, we generally mean something else. If I tell my friend that I wasn’t really motivated for my marathon, I refer to an experience of motivation. We can feel that we are motivated just like we can feel that we are angry, happy or paying attention.

Do these experiences influence behavior or are they the result of behavior? Do I write this blog because I feel motivated or do I feel motivated because I write this blog? And, does it matter, or is this just a philosophical word game?

Whether experiences of motivation influence behavior matters because we make a big deal of influencing motivation. We motivate ourselves for exercise, we try to motivate our students to do their statistics properly and wish motivation would save us from a bored afternoon.

If experiences affect behavior, we should try to change these experiences, if they follow from behavior we should simply try to change the behavior.

Experiences are just a story

Whether experiences (the mind) influence behavior or whether they are the result of behavior is a classic question in psychology. In the early years 1900 a group of psychologists argued that all human behavior can be explained by behavior itself: by interactions with the world. Therefore they called themselves the Behaviorists.

B. F. Skinner, one of the Behaviorists

B.F. Skinner, one of the Behaviorists is my favorite psychologist. He believed that experiences of motivation are nothing but collateral products of rewarded behavior. If Skinner was right, luck may cause us to feel that our success was due to motivation. In this case, motivation would be just a story.

Off course many would disagree and would propose that the mind is the cause of behavior. But if one day you are just not feeling the mojo this blog may be a nice consolation: what you experience may not be that important.


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