What makes us do the things we do

Motivation vs manipulation


I have a hunch that in recent years the notion of motivation has been hijacked by motivational speakers, motivational workshops and pretty compilations of favourite motivational quotes.  To illustrate, consider these battling bisons which I photographed in Alaska. The motivational guru would offer a plethora of insights and strategies on how to win, how to be head of the herd and how to become the greatest, most successful and richest bison in bovine history. That is what the word motivation has come to mean. It is inextricably tied into the idea of inspiring others, soaring to greater heights, fulfillment, vision, goal setting, determination, excitement, challenge, visualisation, mastery, achievement, excellence and action. What parades as ‘motivation’  is more akin to ‘manipulation’ and a distorted idea of success. You will notice that it seems to be about one person motivating or inspiring another to do something. So you end up with the scenario of a person attending a seminar in order to move up a notch in their life and the implicit expectation that someone else will provide the impetus and the inspiration. It relies on the assumption that the motivator knows what’s best for you. This definition has taken hold and many associate motivation with the process of being empowered to do something. It is a secondary meaning of the word, however, and not the direction this discussion is heading.

The primary focus of motivation is to understand why we do the things we do, not how to do them, or, even more sinister, how to get other people to do the things we want them to do. Motivation asks why these bisons are banging their heads together. What drives this behaviour? Why are the cows so disinterested? What are the forces or the stimuli that cause bison to act in this way? The secondary definition would encourage us to devise ways of controlling the behaviour for our own purposes. Manipulation implies interference and introducing an external agenda to control action or responses in a particular way. It also spends considerable time convincing people that this is what they want and need. There is a world of difference between the two. To illustrate we can turn the tables and ask, What motivates motivational speakers to conduct motivational seminars and write motivational books? Why do corporations invest so much in contracting motivational speakers to motivate their staff? Is it because they value them so highly that they want  to see them become better people or is there an agenda to make them more productive employees? Is there a profit-productivity bottom line hovering somewhere in the background? And why do people attend such seminars so willingly? Are they bothered by a sense of inadequacy or do they see attendance as a stepping stone in a career path? Yeah, but we don’t ask the boss those sort of questions, do we?

Some years ago I was invited to attend a three-day motivational seminar being conducted by one of the world’s leading motivational speakers. Before the doors even opened the hype was already seeping into the 3,000 attendees who had paid big bucks to attend. I have never witnessed such mass manipulation of so many people so willing to be manipulated. Repeatedly I found myself asking “why can’t people see the the mind games and control? ” It smacked of well-known brain washing  techniques, and I found it quite unsettling. Eventually I could see no reason to endure the pressure and I walked out.

The importance of understanding motivation

controllersThe early Behaviourists observed the relationship between stimulus and response in initiating certain behaviours in animals. Who hasn’t heard of Pavlov and his slobbering dogs? At a very base level, motivation is essentially about push and pull, avoidance and engagement, need and satiation. Call them triggers or switches, we reach a point where their force or impetus is sufficient to make us do something. If I am starving to the point of death I will eat any food I can get my hands on. If I am peckish I will open the fridge door to see what is on offer. Now it becomes more subtle and complicated – cheese, chocolate, fruit or a nutritious can of beer? Not only do we build a hierarchy of our many needs over time, once satisfied we go on to create our own preferences and options associated with those needs. This is all grass roots motivational stuff. The one factor that is at the crux of motivation and behaviour is control. The formula is quite simple. The more I am able to control my environment – my world – the more satisfied and safer I will be. We say that love makes the world go round, but consistently across the natural world it is not love (apologies to all romantics) but control. Survival, safety and comfort are all dependent upon control.


Let’s take this to the next level. Central to survival in my world is this profound need to have a high degree of control over my environment. But look who is sharing that environment with me! You, and you . .  and you . . and you. And all of yous are all eyeing off the same resources that I have my eye on, and yous all want to control your world. Since I am part of your world, you probably want to control me too, which means that we all end up trying to control each other in what has now become a shared environment. While we may be social creatures by birth and we certainly need each other, we all face this dilemma of control. Every last one of us wants some level of control. The result is inevitable – power plays, conflict, manipulation, and dominance as we all engage in the business of discovering how much control we can exercise over each other. Personal control is essential to one’s sense of autonomy and freedom and intrinsic to establishing identity. Losing control is the basis of invalidation and a guaranteed formula for conflict. We can easily find ourselves in the predicament of wanting to be functional and happy but relying on control to establish that desirable estate. Considering that one of the main reasons why people are unhappy is that they are caught up in dysfunctional  and controlling relationships, we can start to see why the subject of motivation becomes so important.

Who wins? The answer to this question is self evident. The most powerful tend to rise to the top of the heap. The theme of power will be developed as this dialogue continues, but suffice to say that this process is the breeding ground of much unhappiness. We live in a highly manipulated and manipulative society. The external barrage of demands on our attention, assets and affections is relentless. And as the world’s population increases the power of the average individual diminishes.  For all the emphasis on the importance and value of the individual, the supremacy of our rights and the uniqueness of our identity, we have become a remarkably homogeneous lot clamouring for a voice and a presence – have you noticed how Facebook pages all look basically the same and are filled with the same circulating content? The puzzling dilemma is that we convince ourselves that we are highly independent and in control of our lives, when the reality for many is the opposite. We can easily be manipulated into thinking that we are in charge while others are actually dictating terms, even determining what we think, how we spend our money and what we eat. It is control by stealth.

Here are two things that need to happen in order to make sense of this dilemma.

Awareness – Develop the skill of being aware of the power plays taking place in every significant interaction. Once you are able to identify the ways power is used (by others as well as yourself) you place yourself in a position of advantage and are better placed to choose how to respond appropriately.

Understanding – Here comes the motivation bit. It not only helps to recognise what people are doing. It helps a great deal more when you have the insight as to why they are doing it. With this understanding comes power.

Develop these two skills, add a good measure of wisdom, maintain integrity in your choices and you will become a truly powerful person. But I hasten to add that we need to learn how to use power. Using power without controlling others will be the focus of a later blog post.

A simple definition of motivation

Much has been said and written about motivation over the years – some of it being very involved and technical – but for the purpose of this discussion I will reduce it to three basic questions.

Motivation is concerned with:

  • What begins or initiates behaviour? Behaviour doesn’t just happen. There is always a trigger that starts the ball rolling.
  • What keeps it going? Usually related to the impetus that initiates behaviour is the rationale for sticking with it.
  • What stops it? We often forget about this important one. Every activity is finite and there comes a time of completion. We need to know when that time arrives, how best to let go and when to intervene.
motivation_01A narrow boat exiting a tunnel on a canal near Birmingham, UK


One thought on “What makes us do the things we do

  1. Gordon, another very interesting and useful piece of writing! Thank you.

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