Many theories and almost every popular interpretation of motivation are based on the premise that actions are the result of deliberation and decision making. And while this is largely technically true, it is also misleading. Much of that deliberation and decision-making, along with the actions they initiate, occurs below conscious awareness, perhaps as reactions, perhaps as intuition, or perhaps as a fundamentally meaningless impulse. And for good reason – if we had to decide on every action based on objective fact using considered executive function, we would be overloaded and could not survive.
The brain works mostly below consciousness. Most functions occur without thought or intent, some of which are genetically encoded, and some of which are created through experience and repetition to become “natural” (for example how to walk, write and speak, and how we feel about people and events). Many things happen without us even getting the chance to be “smart” – for example jumping in fright when watching a movie or forming an impression of someone. Some things, like breathing, can be both – they occur automatically yet can be, to some extent, controlled.
Some conscious choices can influence subconscious ones – for example slowing breathing can reduce and redirect pulse and blood pressure, in turn returning capacity to the PFC for better problem-solving and emotional regulation. Alternatively, a first-impression or personal bias can to some extent be put aside to downregulate defensiveness, which then can enhance empathy and cooperation. In these examples, a conscious choice shapes a subconscious response which in turn increases capacity for superior choices that combine both (the amygdala’s involvement in rational decision making pretty much ensures this – or ensures we feel conflicted when we ignore its emotional/intuitive advice).
Our subconscious (whether emotional/intuitive or reactive) choices are often not as good as we’d like them to be. For example, without thinking, recently I scratched a small wound on my arm, which then began bleeding, prompting me to consciously choose to stop and attend to the situation. But why did I scratch in the first place, knowing, if I had thought about it, that the sore needed to be left alone to heal? The answer is in the third element of the neuroscience of motivation discussed earlier, being the battle between impulses and self-regulation. My nervous system probably detected a minor irritation where the wound was healing and directed my fingers to scratch it as an impulse. At that stage I was not conscious of that motivational process even occurring and conscious coordination of the response action was not required, and so had no awareness of the action or opportunity to self-regulate.
And this is a challenge for self-regulation – not only of strength, but of awareness. How can one consciously regulate an action-choice that one is not aware of? On a bigger scale, how can one regulate an action-choice that is perhaps a well-practiced fear response knowing that the fear circuitry is at least 10 times faster and far stronger than “rational” processing? There are three options available: all are helpful but none are perfect.
Downregulate the sensitivity
PTSD is devastating because it involves experiences influencing brain development and function into up-regulating sensitivity because it has learned that the world is a dangerous place. The opposite is to weaken the fear circuitry (typically involving temporary medication or, preferably, conversations, environments and activities that normalise amygdala intervention and promote hippocampal size and influence.) Similarly, safe environments, interpersonal support, contextualization of risks and security in being able to satisfy basic motivational needs come together to reduce reactiveness and unhelpful action choices. Further, tasks and challenges within safe environments that engage and strengthen cognitive capacity and hippocampal activity (eg, problem solving, collaboration, concentration) can also strengthen capacity for emotional awareness and management.
The more self-aware one is of emotions, and the moods, impulses and actions they influence, the more one can pick and choose the emotions that are most likely to be helpful at any given time. Over time, this practice of bringing the subconscious to consciousness becomes more natural, allowing for emotional processing to become a cognitive, deliberate experience – and all the stronger, more enjoyable and effective for it. This skill is hugely effective because allows people to enjoy the moment and creates more great moments to be enjoyed. It is also a foundation for EQ and effective leadership. Slowing down is really helpful here. Buy time to engage the smarter brain regions and networks.
Influence your assumptions & actions
It is easy to feel under attack when others, in reality or perception, criticize actions and outputs. Our natural over-estimation of risk sees us often assuming the worse, amplifying the bad while dismissing the good. Workplaces reinforce this, forever reminding people of what they do wrong and rarely paying as much attention to what is OK or great. Combined with our need for sense-making, this cycle also sees people reading things into e-mails that were never intended, and likely to have been misinterpreted in personal conversations, making the workplace a battlefield where a good day is one that didn’t involve blame or criticism.
It’s also helpful to be able to link your own goals, behaviours, focus and energy levels to your intrinsic motivations so that you can make choices about whether they are worthy of pursuing and a true reflection of the person you’d like to see yourself as. For example, it can be compelling to retaliate when someone does something that upsets you, but are you the type of person who simply escalates conflict or the type of person who is above all of that and helps to diffuse conflict? Will it matter tomorrow either way? Does the person who is working extra hours at the store simply motivated by money? Or by the things that they feel money can buy them, such as clothing that is on-trend and they feel will make them more liked and socially elevated, in turn satisfying basic needs around self-esteem and social connection? If that person were to understand that connection, how, if at all, might that influence their decision to work those extra hours? How might it influence their spending decisions and how they presented themselves socially?
In the workplace we often see disruptive behaviours from employees who seem, to management, to be intent on causing trouble. The may simply be a “trouble-maker”, but if so, that is a behavioural response to attempting to gain control of the fulfilment of one or more motivational needs, in these cases often linked to identity. If the employee understood how this need was affecting them, they might make different behavioural choices that would allow them to satisfy it in other ways. If the manager had similar insights, what changes might she be able to initiate to better channel that motivation?
The reality is that most people, at every level and role, are simply doing their best to get by, and this can at times have them saying or doing things that aren’t helpful or that can disadvantage others. People who feel secure in their environments and within themselves are more likely to have a downregulated fear sensitivity and so are less likely to jump to become as emotionally defensive as readily. People who are self-aware and can influence their own motivations are better placed to manage impulses to match their action choices with their broader identity and intentions.