Often times, discussions of motivation bring up the concept of instant gratification. This is often viewed as a desire for more immediate rewards over long-term rewards. Rather than viewing this as a problem of the time it takes to reach a reward, it should be viewed as a matter of the certainty or uncertainty of the reward. Long-term rewards would be correlated with levels of uncertainty in this model. This will be explained below.
Consider short-term rewards. What makes these rewards short-term is that they are obtainable with a minimal amount of steps, which means the amount of time invested to attain the reward is minimal as well. Long-term rewards are long-term because the amount of steps, and thus time investment, is increased compared to short-term rewards.
For each step required to reach a reward, there is a level of certainty that we have for whether this step can be accomplished. Think about how awesome it would be to walk through walls. While it sounds amazing, you don’t necessarily have the motivation to attempt this. That isn’t because you don’t desire it, it is because you are certain that it isn’t possible for you to achieve. This abolishes your motivation to accomplish such a task. Each step presents a level of potential and possibility, a level of certainty we have that the task is accomplishable. With increasing number of steps, the chance that there are steps with high uncertainty also increases. There is also the fact that to reach the final goal in the journey to the long-term reward and each step may be a gamble, so the motivation for each step partially depends on knowing that you can reach the end goal and pass each step along the way. If any of these steps appeared to be impossible, our motivation for any step crashes.
This is most notable for entrepreneurial pursuits. We may have an idea and the means to create a product, but the trouble may come in how to market the product. Alternatively, we may actually struggle to have the means to create the product but have an idea and the marketing skills. Being stuck on either of these will likely result in a halting of motivation, at least for most people. Being stuck is to hit a wall that we believe we cannot walk through. Beyond entrepeneurial pursuits, any sort of long-term risk-taking would fit into this category. With short-term risk-taking, we are often thrilled to win the gamble, but with long-term risk-taking, many of us become scared and shut down because of the amount of effort we would have to invest to take this risk. The losses seem more extreme in this case.
It is important to consider that each person will be more or less prone to risk-taking in both the short- and long-term. This may come down to genetics and also prior experiences. Succeeding at risk-taking seems to really excite us and this may leave us imprinted and craving for such experiences again. We may become tolerant to the minor excitement of succeeding at easier goals and then crave these larger rewards that come from riskier choices. The level of risk we are willing to take probably increases the more that we succeed at more secure goals, again, partly due to this tolerance and boredom that we develop from the repetition of reaching easier goals. Though, when something goes horribly wrong, we may become afraid of taking risks again.
Motivation for rewards is also competitive. It is possible to want to want to finish eating and to also use the restroom simultaneously. Whichever reward urges us stronger will tend to win. This doesn’t always mean that the reward that is physically most urgent feeling wins though. We can often push through pain to reach a goal that matters to us more than the avoidance of pain.
Someone noted to me that when they are depressed and ruminating, they have goals they would like to reach and they don’t want to lay around depressed. I think that we actually do have motivations to lay around and ruminate. This kind of rumination may be akin to painful brainstorming, perhaps with the hope that we will think of something that allows us to escape our painful situation. Escaping such a situation is rewarding in a sense, or at the very least relieving. The motivation to ruminate like this is likely driven by the experience of depressive suffering.
When it comes to addiction, we may providing ourselves with a reward that is hyper-certain. We can simply take the drug and feel a rewarding sense. This may quickly outcompete most other goals. Though, addiction isn’t necessarily this simple. Many drugs are actually altering our motivation to do other tasks. Consider the case of psychostimulants. They amplify how much motivation we have for other rewards. Thus, the addiction to psychostimulants may often involve addiction to other rewards. Often times it is work in the case of stimulant users. Some stimulant users are intentionally amplifying their motivation for taking long-term risks.
The way we look at motivation and risk assessment matters because it helps us to elucidate possible solutions to our problems with motivation. Consider your own habits and behaviors through this lens. Consider what you fear about the future and what leads you to dose your daily chemicals. You can use this awareness to more specifically target the specific issues you face in a more granular way.
Have any questions about motivation? Ask away in the comments! I’ve also starting to offer Psychology Coaching now! So if you would like to understand your own motivations, book a session and I’ll explore them with you and provide my best effort to help you.
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