Philosophers have been talking about human motivation since the time of Aristotle. Are our actions motivated by reason or feelings? Logic or instinct?
As a writer and someone fascinated by biology, I’m hedging my bets a little. I think most of us are motivated by feelings, but I believe many of those feelings are learned responses and as such, can be influenced by reason. Furthermore, I believe all warm-blooded creatures on this planet ‘tick’ the same way. We are all driven to seek out those things that give us pleasure and learn to avoid those that give us pain.
That’s pretty basic. In humans, the fear response – i.e. I-must-avoid-xx-because-it-is-painful – is controlled by the amygdala, an incredibly powerful part of the brain. The amygdala only has to experience something painful once. After that, it will warn us with ‘fear’ whenever we are in danger of repeating that experience. This is a great survival trait in the wild, but not that great in an ordered, civilized [with a huge grain of salt] world. Just think about phobias about spiders or snakes etc.
On the other side of the equation, a newborn baby’s suckle response is instinctive, but most other pleasures are actually learned. What baby is born liking ice-cream? -cough- Or alcohol? And that is a nice segue into learning to like things that go against our survival instincts.
“I tender as my first item of evidence, your Honour, the human love affair with motorbikes, motorcars and other machines that go fast and are highly dangerous.”
You’ll notice that apart from alcohol, I haven’t talked about pleasures that are, or become, addictive. Addiction is, to a large extent, a physiological disorder rather than a ‘choice’ whereas driving fast cars is something we choose to do for a variety of reasons.
But learning to like things that may be bad for us is not restricted to humans. All warm-blooded species to it, even those so-called lower order animals that are said to function solely on instinct.
Having grown up with animals, I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of pure instinct – i.e. the mechanical performance of actions without any element of choice [my definition only]. Am I trying to say that my dog and cat use logic like we do? No. But the mere fact that both species share my home, and actually seem to seek out each other’s company, is a fair indication that something has overcome their instinctive fear of and aggression towards each other.
Taking personal experience one step further, all the birds in and around my garden know two things about me:
- I put tasty things out on the compost, and
- I would never harm them
One magpie has taken this trust a step further and will take scraps of meat from my hand. I should also add that none of my magpie neighbours dive bomb me during nesting season. They will dive on Golli and Mogi [cat and dog respectively], but never on me.
Yet this lack of aggression is far from normal. I still remember walking through a park when the Offspring was very little and being chased by a pair of very angry magpies. I suspect most Australians will have their own stories of magpie aggression, so the behaviour of ‘my’ magpies is not ‘normal’, instinctive behaviour.
One of the most extreme examples of such counter-instinct behaviour is the story of the lioness who adopted a baby oryx [a kind of deer or antelope]. The story has a sad ending, but not because she ate the baby:
Closer to home, here’s a video about a cat that adopts ducklings:
So if all these examples are neither pure instinct nor the result of reason, then what are they?
You might say that in these two cases of cross species adoption, mother ‘instinct’ becomes stronger than survival instinct – i.e. knowing what to kill in order to eat. I prefer to think that the pleasure of mothering over-rides the instinct to kill for food.
Does the lioness reason her way to action? I very much doubt it, but then how much reason do we use when we put our own lives at risk to rescue a child from a burning house, or to drag someone from shark infested waters, or any other act of heroism you care to name?
Frankly, if reason were our motivator, no child would ever be rescued, no hero would ever be presented with a medal. Reason would tell us ‘this is crazy, don’t do it’.
So does that mean reason has no part to play?
Personally, I believe that reason builds a habit of belief, and it’s that belief that over-rides pure instinct. What kind of belief? How about courage, or honour, or the distinction between right and wrong, good and bad?
When we uphold those beliefs, and survive the experience, we are rewarded by a sense of satisfaction or pride. That is a form of emotional pleasure. On the other hand, if we don’t uphold those beliefs, for whatever reason, we are haunted by feelings of guilt and shame, both of which are examples of emotional pain.
I suspect that logic and reason are like muscles, the more we use them, the stronger they become, allowing us to over-ride some of our instinctive reactions to pleasure and pain. But…however we may rationalise our actions after the fact, the driver of those actions is still going to be a feeling rather than logic.
I’ve been thinking a hell of a lot about motivation lately, but I know reality is far more complex than the ideas I’ve explored in this post. I’d love to hear what you think. Are we rational creatures or puppets driven by biology…or maybe something in between?