Simulating Motivation

Posted on February 16, 2012


Motivation is a funny thing. We know that something like autonomy can be a motivating factor (or rather the lack of autonomy can be a hugely demotivating factor), but the funny thing is that autonomy can be simulated or faked very easily.

If someone want to control another person (remove their autonomy), say a parent trying to convince their child to go to bed, one can simply create the illusion of autonomy. You can give the child a few choices (“would you rather brush your teeth, get in to your pajamas, or read a bed time story?”). Depending on how conscious the child is of this trick, it may create a complete simulation of autonomy where there is very little. At the very least it will provide greater autonomy than simply saying “now go brush your teeth”.

If you create an environment where a person only has a few choices than that simulation is even more potent. The person still only has a few choices to choose from, but the sense of autonomy will be complete (as long as the person doesn’t want to leave that environment). So at the end of the day it is very possible to simulate autonomy while actually providing very little.

Similarly one can simulate purpose. Puzzles are a great example of simulated purpose. Purpose comes from the sense that you can take a lot of small steps toward a larger goal, that those steps will build on each other, allowing you to accomplish something more significant through the accumulation of your work. Puzzles provide this sense of progress toward a larger goal. No matter how good you are you can’t sit down and simply solve a puzzle. You have to take each incremental step and you can easily get the sense of progress toward that larger goal, giving you a sense of purpose that is enormously motivating, even though that purpose is largely trivial.

I think there may be many more examples of how motivation can be broken down and simulated. I can’t help but think that it brings to mind more nefarious ends (if I can get you to do things without you realizing I am controlling you, that’s kind of scary), but I also think it’s important to understand the dynamics regardless.


Posted in: Motivation