What controls human motives

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Why we do things that others do not want to do and still cannot let others do it is a matter of concern to psychologists and brain researchers. In their search for the essence of motivation, they discover what money, fruit juice and erotic images have in common.

Scientific supervision: Prof. Dr. Rainer Reisenzein

Published: 08/31/2011

Level: medium

  • The basis of motivation is the pursuit of desired and the avoidance of undesirable states.
  • Some motives such as eating or procreation are innate, others are learned, such as the urge for money or possessions.
  • Our motivation is based on the activity of the reward system and the release of dopamine.
  • If motives have a positive connotation, our reward system starts in anticipation of them.
  • The neural mechanisms of motivation can also lead to addiction.

Not yet, think thousands of people in the morning and press the snooze function of their alarm clock. Sleep five more minutes. Work, school, whatever their day starts with, they don't feel like doing that. The motivation is at zero. Nevertheless, shortly afterwards most of them push themselves out of bed, shuffling drowsy into the kitchen and making themselves a coffee. Why actually?

There is a motive behind every action. The term “motif” comes from the Latin word “movere” for “to move”. A motive sets us in motion and incites us to act. Often there is not just one such mainspring, but several. Motivation is the entirety of the motives on which an action is based. And the driving force that prompts people to act purposefully.

Psychologists have described what characterizes human motives in various motivational theories. Most of these theories are based on the assumption that motivation consists in striving for desirable and avoiding undesirable states.

In the simplest case, these goals are the satisfaction of vital physiological needs. In other words, about quenching hunger and thirst, warming oneself in the cold, cooling down in the heat - and about reproduction, which is less essential for the preservation of the individual than for that of the species.

“Newborns smile when a cotton swab with a sugar solution is put in their mouth and they ask for more,” explains neurologist Markus Ullsperger from Radboud University Nijmegen. The sugar solution is a stimulus that activates or intensifies the desire to satisfy the appetite, as well as the smell of food, and thus makes a certain behavior, in this case something to eat, more likely. Objects that satisfy vital primary needs, such as food, act from birth and are therefore referred to as primary enhancers.

The motivating goals can also have been acquired, such as the desire to lose weight or the pursuit of money or possessions. The desired objects - such as a suitcase of money or a sleek motor yacht - are called secondary amplifiers. They are completely neutral at first until it is learned that they can be used to satisfy primary needs. Success - a strong motivator If this type of learning is used positively, behavior can also be influenced and, for example, people who are grumpy in the morning can enjoy going to school because they know that it is good for them. "It is important to create incentives"

I want what you don't want

What motivates us varies from person to person. Ohio State University psychologist Steven Reiss asked over 7,000 people about their motives and found that although they all have the same basic motives (according to Reiss there are 16 in number), the strength of these motives varies from person to person. This means that each individual weights goals such as the pursuit of honor, justice and power differently. The tolerance for frustration in the event of failure is also different for each person. Overcoming it can also become a motivation, for example in competitive athletes. "You have to test yourself"

The US psychologists John Barbuto and Richard Scholl divide the motives into extrinsic and intrinsic according to their origin. Actions that we carry out for their own sake or on the basis of our personal ideas and standards are intrinsically motivated. The pianist makes music for the sheer joy of the music, the skier speeds down the slopes because he enjoys it, or someone becomes a member of a union out of inner conviction.

On the other hand, those who let their actions be guided by external circumstances and incentives are extrinsically motivated. For example, accepting a job only because of the payment or only practicing a musical instrument because he is hoping for an orchestral career. Norms and role models also often lead to extrinsically motivated behavior. Some bridal couples choose a wedding with a white wedding dress and wedding rings only because this corresponds to the conventional ideas of a beautiful wedding in our culture.

Motivator number 1 - survival and reproduction!

For evolutionary biologists, however, the understanding of motivation described so far falls short. They place the mainspring of human action in the overarching context of Darwin's theory of evolution: Ultimately, the biological goal of all living things is to survive and reproduce. Stone Age people had to put their enemies to flight and arm themselves against the rigors of nature. They had to eat to avoid starvation and to gather around a campfire in winter to avoid freezing to death. These and most other human behavior are indeed driven by many individual motives. For evolutionary biologists, however, it is ultimately the biological goal of survival and reproduction that stands behind it. To illustrate this, the example of food intake is often used.

Eating behavior follows a complex interplay between the digestive organs and the brain. The hypothalamus and the medulla oblongata, the region of the brain stem that lies directly above the end of the neck, receive neuronal and hormonal signals from the gastrointestinal tract and thus experience the degree of satiety. This information is processed by the two brain structures that are important for regulating food intake and the energy balance of food regulation: When hunger, the metabolism is put into an energy-saving mode; when saturated, the signs point to consumption.

However, that alone does not determine whether we fill our stomach or spurn a menu. All sensory perceptions caused by a meal - from the smell to the sight of the food - are passed on in the form of their electrical signals to an area of ​​the cerebral cortex called the visceral sensory cortex. There, for example, the taste in the mouth and the feeling of fullness in the stomach are processed spatially separately. The visceral sensory cortex, in turn, is closely interconnected with the reward system in the brain. This generally plays a central role for motivated behavior - and therefore also for eating. Because only the reward system gives us the delight in good taste, as well as the satisfaction that both the mere satiation of hunger and a dinner in pleasant company prepares.

The source of joy is established as a motive: "When I threaten to die of thirst in the desert, I like to drink the most hideous water and look for this puddle again and again to quench my thirst and survive," explains neurologist Niels Birbaumer from of the University of Tübingen. "If the food in a restaurant tastes excellent to me, I go there again and again because of this unique taste experience." Many paths lead to positive feelings such as joy or satisfaction and thus become a source of motivation. The common end route is always the start of the reward system. Circuits of Motivation

Whether winning the lottery, cream cake or yoga - when we long for certain things or conditions, the reward system is always involved. According to brain scans, it is located in the midbrain as well as in an inner part of the cerebrum called the striatum. The dopaminergic system as part of the reward system is particularly well understood. In the event of unexpected joy, the dopaminergic neurons fire like a burst (burst firing) and release the messenger substance dopamine. From this point on, dopaminergic neurons keep jumping in anticipation of the same event. “In this way, the dopaminergic system drives us again and again to the places where we have already received a reward in the form of joy,” summarizes Birbaumer.

However, dopamine is not the only neurotransmitter in the brain that is associated with motivation. Birbaumer distinguishes the phenomenon of "wanting" from that of "liking". While "wanting" is conveyed via dopamine, he and other researchers assume that "liking" is evoked via other messenger substances - in particular opiates and endocannabinoids. Birbaumer cites the aesthetic enjoyment of looking at a beautiful picture or a sunset as an example of “liking”. Most people do not specifically seek out either of these. The joy comes over you unexpectedly when you look at it. Passionate gallery visitors, on the other hand, strive for these moments of edification. With them, liking is likely to have turned into wanting and dopamine floods into their brains in anticipation of new paintings.

With the help of imaging processes, numerous neuroscientific studies have now investigated what motivates us and where the motivation is located in the brain. Money, the prospect of profit, erotic photos and attractive faces, but also tasty fruit juices and social recognition always activate the reward system in brain scans.

Depending on the stimulus presented, however, there are subtle differences. For example, the neuroscientist Jean-Claude Dreher and his colleagues from the Institut des Sciences Cognitives in Bron, France discovered in 2010 that the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) belonging to the forebrain responds differently to bikini photos and money. Erotic stimuli mainly activate the rear part of this brain area - the so-called posterior lateral OFC. Jean-Claude Dreher explains that this area of ​​the orbitofrontal cortex, which is very old in terms of development, reacts in this case by the fact that our ancestors, who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago, reacted with joy and motivation when they saw an attractive, sexy counterpart. Or, as evolutionary biologists would say, had to react - to ensure the survival of the species.

The part of the OFC that is in front, near the eyes - the anterior lateral OFC - is activated when there is a prospect of financial gain. Compared to the posterior part, it is relatively young in terms of developmental history, which could indicate that motivation through secondary reinforcers such as money has only emerged more recently.

Another finding of neuroscientific research is that even a mere novelty - something that has not been there before, such as an unknown image - leads to an activation of the reward system. This proves neurobiologically what psychologists have already proven many times: Curiosity is a strong motivation and one of the most important driving forces of human behavior.

Some motives can also incite activities that are detrimental to health and well-being. This is the case with addiction, for example. Addiction - Motivation for Bad Goals All drugs tread the same end in the brain: In the expectation of cocaine, nicotine or alcohol, dopamine is released on a massive scale in the reward center. Addicts have also been shown to suffer from a reward deficit. “They are therefore particularly susceptible to the drug kick,” believes Christian Büchel from the Hamburg-Eppendorf University Medical Center. The addiction is to a certain extent based on an imbalance in the motivational system in the head. But hand on heart: the prospect of a strong coffee from bed helps some people in the morning. And with caffeine in your blood, it's much easier to motivate yourself for the day.

for further reading:

  • Guitart-Masip, M. et al: Contextual Novelty Changes Reward Representations in the Striatum. Journal of Neuroscience. 2010; 30 (5): 1721-1726 (on the text).
  • Secousse, G., et al: The Architecture of Reward Value Coding in the Human Orbitofrontal Cortex. Journal of Neuroscience. 2009; 30 (39): 13095-13104 (to the text).