The Black Box of Motivation



Did you ever make a firm resolution and then break it? Chances are that in the process of straying from your good intentions, some plausible seeming thoughts popped into your mind that helped talk you into going against your own best interests. What? That is really remarkable. Your own mind sneakily tricking you into taking a direction that you didn’t want at all! Let’s look at the phenomenon. What is it? Why does it happen? What drives it? How does it work? An important part of our motivational system is hidden from view. I call it our “Motivational Black Box.”

First, what is a black box? According to Wikipedia, it comes from an engineering term introduced in the early 1940s.  “In science and engineering, a black box is a device, system or object which can be viewed solely in terms of its input, output and transfer characteristics without any knowledge of its internal workings.” The reason I am using that term is that in three decades of practice, I have come to the conclusion that we just can’t know for sure the inner workings of this part of our mind. On the other hand, you can make very educated guesses about it by looking at the influences that work on it and the things it produces.

Cognitive Behavioral therapists have done a lot to describe “automatic thoughts” that are “erroneous” and need to be corrected in order to change bad behavior patterns. David Burns, in his book, Feeling Good, gives a good list, for example, all-or-nothing thinking, so that any imperfection is the same as total failure. Another is disqualifying the positive:  “You reject positive experiences by insisting they ‘don’t count’ for some reason or other.” Catastrophizing, and minimization distort observations so as to manipulate their impact on your decision making. Mind reading and fortune telling are ways you may draw conclusions from shaky evidence, then use them to rationalize doing the wrong thing.

Behaviorists say these are learned thought patterns that come up to consciousness, and need to be modified in the light of rational thought. Experience with addiction says there is more to the story. People in recovery say it is “my disease talking.” The Big Book of AA describes it as “cunning, baffling and powerful.” My own observation is that addicts come up with different rationalizations at different times, always perfectly designed for maximum effect. These are not random thoughts flowing out of the depths of memory, they are purposeful productions crafted to fulfill a goal kept far from the prying eyes of consciousness.

We can’t know for sure, but we can form an educated guess that the addicted brain has come to believe that “getting high” is necessary for the survival of the human race. Since we can’t know what exactly is going on, we must treat this as a hypothesis, but it makes perfect sense that a very sophisticated motivational apparatus is behind the addict’s thoughts and rationalizations. Furthermore, it would take millions of years of evolution to develop such a “cunning” and effective system. The stark differences between the thinking of addicts and that of people who are not addicted further supports the idea that the addict brain has come to treat using substances as if it were a fundamental human need. In a separate line of reasoning, think of how your brain responds to resolutions to lose weight. The need to store fat is clearly driven by built-in forces aimed at species preservation. When you try to go against this basic drive, your brain comes up with the same sophisticated rationalizations as the addict brain.

These observations compel me to talk about the mind’s Motivational Black Box (MBB) and think of it as a subtle and creative system for steering our behavior in directions that are independent from our free will and often our best interests.

What are the MBB’s products? So far we have looked at some of the thoughts it is able to produce. These automatic thoughts seem to come from nowhere, popping into our minds for no apparent reason. The MBB also produces impulses. These are more than thoughts. They are action ideas that come with a sense of urgency, a need to do. They may come in the form of words, but more often a picture of yourself taking the action. When we don’t follow impulses, they nag us, coming back over and over till we give in.

Have you heard of “impulse control?” This is a skill we learn mostly in high school, when impulses are very strong. We learn to do boring homework assignments before allowing ourselves to socialize with friends. How do we learn it? By doing. Perhaps the initial motivation comes from outside, from parents telling us we must finish the homework. As we go through the experience of wanting to get up from the desk, and not following those impulses, we go through a very uncomfortable feeling of wanting to get up and not doing it. Over time, with many repetitions, we develop greater ease at controlling our actions in spite of our impulses. What happens to those who make a habit of following impulses instead of resisting them? They don’t develop impulse control. Smoking pot or drinking helps in avoiding the uncomfortable, but formative experiences of not following impulses. People who have little experience in impulse control can always learn it, but it is no less difficult later on. Note that attention deficit disorder is often an added factor making impulse control especially difficult to acquire.

Does your MBB have other products?  Yes, it can shape the contents of dreams. When we are in the midst of a difficult situation or an internal conflict, dream content often reflects the mind’s concerns. Paying attention to dreams, sometimes you can get a glimpse of what is troubling your mind or even where it is making progress in resolving problems. This is another way to make educated guesses about what is going on in your MBB.

Obsessions and obsessive thoughts also seem to come out of nowhere. We can’t tell why they are there and why they are so persistent. Those are the characteristics of a black box, but is it the same MBB we have been discussion? I think it is useful to think of it that way, but there is an additional twist. The other products of the MBB seem very well suited to motivating our behavior. Obsessive thoughts don’t motivate, they bother us and annoy us but don’t tell us what to do. My best guess is that obsessions follow some primitive notion that repeating a thought or worry will allow us to control things we can’t actually control. This is the setting for obsessive thoughts. When we are up against something we can’t control, we worry or obsess. Sometimes the thing we can’t control is a substitute for the content of the obsession. Anorexic patients are unable to fulfill a deep and all-encompassing appetite for nurturing that is buried far from awareness. What they are aware of is the need to control their appetite for food. Thinness and the need to control the appetite for food becomes an obsession.

Does the MBB work for your conscience as well? When feelings of guilt are not strong enough to control your errant wishes, does your Motivational Black Box produce thoughts and impulses designed to talk you into doing the right thing? From my observations, the answer is yes. Think of anorexia nervosa as a case of a conscience leading in the wrong direction. The shame anorexics feel when they eat is coming from the conscience. The MBB is definitely there supporting the conscience, producing impulses and thoughts that it would be good to exercise and skip meals. In a similar way, people who’s trust has been broken in early life may develop a value system that says you should always keep important things to yourself. Mistrust becomes a matter of conscience. Those people experience thoughts and impulses that steer them away from sharing with others, as if doing so were a virtue.

The MBB may seem like a very useful new discovery, but let’s give credit where it is due. In the 1890s when Freud was thinking about how the mind worked, the concept of the black box didn’t exist, so he called it the “unconscious.” He gave us our first real appreciation of how much mental processing could go on without any direct knowledge. He also observed how dreams come as close to being a window on the inner workings of the black box as anything. What hasn’t been so clearly stated, except in the Twelve Step tradition, is how exquisitely purposeful this system is at influencing our behavior.

So what can we do when our MBB wants us to do what we don’t want to?

  1. Be aware of where your thoughts are coming from and which are the ones not to follow. The best test is to ask yourself in what direction a thought is leading your behavior. Will it take you closer to what you want or further? If in doubt ask someone else. They won’t have your blind spots.
  2. Talk back to your thoughts. Identify what they are trying to accomplish and why you don’t want that. Imagine what will happen if you follow. Slogans like those used in AA may seem corny, but simple is powerful in fighting such a strong force.
  3. Have a well defined plan of behavior to turn shades of gray into black and white. Your MBB is highly adept at using “one thing leads to another” to get you to slide imperceptibly into the path you don’t want to take. Firm rules are harder to fudge.
  4. Enlist others in your fight. Tell someone you trust about your struggle. They will root for you as well as helping you see just how outlandish your MBB’s ideas are.
  5. Put yourself in the way of rewards. Mark signs of progress and share your success with others. Combat your tendency to discount success. Accept the gifts and rewards that you win.

If you or someone you know has a dysfunctional MBB, good luck. Tell them about this post, too.

Jeffery Smith, MD


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