Pleasure and Pain, the carrot and the stick

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:

  1. I put tasty things out on the compost, and
  2. 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?


About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

21 responses to “Pleasure and Pain, the carrot and the stick

  • Anonymole

    Aside from self-survival and species propagation, all other motivations must take a back seat, regardless of their origin. That said, I will point out that in the higher reasoning species those two motivators can, from time to time, swap precedence. Self-sacrifice, e.g. altruism uniquely distinguishes humanity and is undoubtedly the foundation of our fantastic success as a species.

    But beyond those motivators, save myself, save my children, my family, my bet is that we’re a too-large brained hodgepodge of desires driven by a twisted tangle of rationales self-justifying themselves.

    If we think there are greater principals or justifications for our actions… That’s just us thinking that. The Universe doesn’t care about us and our delusions, it can’t.

    Bottom line, in my book, anything goes. If saving the seals, or mainlining heroin, or crocheting bird nests is one’s raison d’etre — more power to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      ‘The Universe doesn’t care about us and our delusions, it can’t.’ Yes. It doesn’t even care about the survival of our species when it comes right down to it. The dinosaurs ruled the earth for far longer than we are likely to.
      Ultimately all of this is simply us, gazing at our own navels, but it is kind of interesting. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  • D. Wallace Peach

    What a fascinating post, Andrea, and so fun to contemplate. I tend to think we are both nature and nurture. We’re born with seeds (nature), so to speak, and how those seeds will grow is individually based on experience (nurture). When I worked with little kids, it became clear to me that the child’s sense of self and relationship to the world is drawn from the emotional environment. That environment has a wide range, from terrible fear to unconditional love, and everything in between. It’s not about place, but about the interactions with caregivers. At the same time, the reasoning part of the brain learns through observation – how the caregiver makes decisions, deals with stress, finds joy, assumes responsibilities, teaches through his or her actions. As you mentioned, those emotional experiences and rational observations form templates in the brain that become references. They are reinforced or challenged by further experience. Why does the lion adopt the antelope calf? I haven’t the foggiest idea. Ha ha. But I am absolutely convinced that animals are emotional beings and capable of love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      Yes yes YES! And that combination of emotion and reason is, I believe, where all of our creativity comes from. Unlike computers that are completely linear in their processing, humans build holistic models of the world which don’t require all the pieces of the puzzle to be present for us to have a ‘leap of understanding’.
      Muses, thinking outside the box, lateral thinking…I believe these are all labels we give to that process. 🙂
      I love discussions like these!

      Liked by 1 person

      • D. Wallace Peach

        I love these discussions too. I actually brought up your post later in the day in a discussion with a friend over coffee. She mentioned an article that said that robotic pets offer all the same things as real pets without the mess. We laughed our heads off at that one. To me, animals are as wondrous, mysterious, and nuanced as people.

        Liked by 1 person

        • acflory

          -giggles- You’ve made my day! And yes, we can anthropomorphise as much as we like – my car has a personality to go with his name – but real animals are always wondrous. I’m sure my guys are incredibly frustrated by my poor grasp of cat-speak. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  • robbiesinspiration

    HI Meeks, this is actually a very interesting question when it comes to humans. I was telling my mom just today that many of the senior women I work with are unmarried and have no children. They are career women. The few that do have children, only have one. I am an anomaly as most of my peer group with children stopped working long before they reached my level in the work place. It seems that women who work in ‘high power’ jobs don’t have the same desperate urge to pro create that the rest of us do. Is it a good thing? Maybe, given the overpopulation of the world. What ever the reason, it seems to be a change that is here to stay. I’ve also noticed it more and more with my male colleagues. Many do not marry and do not have children.

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      I think you may be right, Robbie, about the ‘desperate urge’. After I had the Offspring I was determined to have another but…the ex was building a business so I was essentially a sole parent, and one day I realised that I didn’t want to go through being a sole parent again. I had one child who I adored. Being an ‘only’ wasn’t so bad.
      Thinking back, I was always torn between being a good sole parent and wanting something for /me/. Tech writing saved my sanity but not every one has an outlet for their creativity.
      I know you do. What I don’t know is how you do it all. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  • Widdershins

    I think a lot depends too, on how self-aware we are. Accepting responsibility for the consequences of our actions, that sort of thing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      God yes. But that self-awareness is a higher order of processing, if I can put it in those terms.
      I’ve been trying to give up smoking for decades. I stopped smoking cigarettes about 30 years ago, but only by chewing nicotine gum. Did that for close to 20 years. After finally graduating to ordinary gum, I’m now close to being able to give up gum altogether. All rational decisions and ALL bloody hard to make myself do. -sigh-

      Liked by 1 person

  • Audrey Driscoll

    What about empathy? Putting yourself in the place of a person or creature in danger of death can be a powerful motivator. And yes, that is an emotional rather than a logical/rational response. To answer your question, I think our actions are influence by both instinct and logic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      Yes! At its most basic, empathy is the ability to recognize another’s pain, and be compelled to ease it. I honestly don’t think we would have developed language if not for empathy. And I doubt we would have been able to create societies without it either.
      I think language is an abstraction of empathy which might explain why those without genuine empathy can still use language to appear ‘normal’. And, of course, you can’t really have any kind of logic without language. We can intuit patterns without language, but I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t be able to communicate those patterns to others.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    Whatever you decide to do (and it IS a decision in most cases), the reaction (how you feel about it, what others say about it) determines whether you will do it again.

    This gets reinforced every time the cycle works out for you. Think about how it works in gangs – the gang gives approval to behaviors, and keeps doing it bit by bit until you are in so deep you have moved on to selling drugs or killing people. Many never make it out, even when they hate some of what they’re doing, at least at the start.

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      Definitely. I think that’s precisely how young children learn about their world too. A benign form of trial and error. Actually, I take that back. I don’t think it’s like learning, I think it’s more like conditioning. The behaviours which are entrenched at a very early age are almost impossible to shift later using only ‘reason’. I guess the members of a gang have been conditioned to feel that they have no other way of being.


  • Mick Canning

    I don’t think you’re far from the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Audrey Driscoll

    Heavy questions for 11 pm. I’ll have to do some thinking and come back tomorrow!

    Liked by 1 person

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