BEHAVIOUR & MOTIVATION: REWARD SEEKING BRAIN
Motivation is best understood as an instinct or urge to do something. You miss it most when you feel lethargic to go for that early morning run. You feel it most when you fight an injustice being done, no matter the cost. Motivation is the fuel needed to drive actions to fulfil our needs. It is the dopamine driver in the brain. Quite simply, no dopamine, no action. Hence it critical to understand the needs that compel us to explore and engage with the world in search of satiation.
So what needs are we trying to fulfil? The answer lies in the rewards we seek. There are many ways to understand rewards but let’s start with the simple classification into material (money, physical comfort, luxury), social (status, power, belonging, esteem) and information (knowledge, beauty, learning) rewards. Once we feel the urge for a reward, dopamine has been triggered in the brain. Dopamine reduces the cost of expending effort/energy, making it easier for us to pursue goals. An easy example to understand this is when we see extroverted behaviour. Extroverts find it easier to engage with total strangers as their drive for the social connection and curiosity are high.
The reward seeking behaviours triggered by dopamine can be classified into 2 categories:
PLASTICITY: Exploratory and flexible behaviours that allow us to explore and adapt in order to achieve goals. Curiosity and active engagement in the form of assertiveness, high activity levels, gregariousness, thinking & problem solving belong in this domain.
STABILITY: Sustaining behaviours that allow us to pursue goals to the very end. Maintaining focus and perseverance in the face of distractions/difficulty along with emotional stability and stable working relationships are in this domain.
As we put effort into being stable and plastic, we reach a crucial juncture where we experience the outcome of our endeavour – if we are successful in winning a reward, we enjoy gratification – a pleasant experience resulting from release of endogenous opioids in the brain. If on the other hand we are unsuccessful in our attempt, we feel thwarted and frustrated. The dopamine flurry does not culminate with the anticipated outcome. At this point a resilient brain will self soothe, reignite passion for goal, learn from past mistakes and rally back to put more effort into the chase. Serotonin and oxytocin are neurotransmitters that help the system to recover and reengage. If this does not happen, the mind gets disappointed and goes into a negative spiral with a tendency to self doubt and/or chase weak substitute rewards and addictions.
The flow chart below depicts the intertwined nature of motivation and behaviour. Personality structures and attitudes play a crucial role in behaviours we manifest and outcomes we land but that is a whole new inquiry to be discussed in a different section.
BEHAVIOUR & MOTIVATION: APPROACH / WITHDRAWAL REWARD STRATEGIES
As the reward seeking behaviour of the brain becomes evident, it is useful to understand it in terms of approach and avoidance.
Approach motivation – This style is excitement/consumption led, and actively seeks the benefits and enjoyment of the rewards. This motivation has an expanding and engaging energy that wants to win games, achieve personal bests, influence people and create beauty.
Withdrawal motivation – This style is fear led, and actively seeks to avoid punishment or failure. This motivation has a contracting and sometimes recoiling energy that wants to avoid reprimand/threat, stay risk averse and operate primarily to avoid shame, guilt and discomfort. Withdrawal motivation is somewhat limited in its appeal. Whilst it is useful in high risk environments where the cost of failure is very high, in other situations it may trigger issues of confidence and esteem.
Approach and withdrawal strategies determine the type of behaviours we deploy to satisfy our needs. Do we approach the situation with a rewards focus or a preference to avoid threats/failure. Depending on the framing we use, our attention will be drawn to different things and our outcomes determined accordingly.
BEHAVIOUR & MOTIVATION: REWARD CATEGORIES
Let’s go back to the flowchart for the reward seeking brain which classifies rewards as being material, social and knowledge linked. There are many ways to classify rewards. We will look at them through 4 main lenses.
DE YOUNG’S PERSONALITY TRAITS LINKED REWARDS:
Viewing rewards through the lens of personality is very useful as it can help us understand what we are truly passionate about and what our biological wiring is best suited to do. Rewards are seen through the lens of material, social and information driven rewards. Apart from this horizontal breakdown, the intensity of motivation for these rewards can also be understood through the personality lens by studying the conscientiousness and neuroticism trait. How do you rank yourself on these parameters?
Material Rewards: These are traditional rewards understood as money, physical comfort, luxury, sex, adrenalin pumping experiences, etc. These are linked to the extroversion trait of the five factor model. Those with high dopamine sensitivity are highly motivated by these rewards.
Social Rewards: These are linked to our needs as social beings desirous of status, power, love & belonging, esteem and prestige. This is linked to our extroversion trait and to some degree the agreeableness trait. The former makes us friendly and gregarious and the latter wires us to be compassionate, trusting and show pro social behavior. An easy to remember social rewards is through the trilogy of: be seen, be soothed, be secure.
Information Rewards: These are linked to pursuit of knowledge, beauty, learning, imagination simply for its own sake. Often artistic pursuits, academic work, story telling, self mastery speaks to this motivation. Openness is the personality trait that relates to this reward.
Intensity of motivation: The ambition of our desire for reward should be matched by the grit we are able to fire up. This is linked to our conscientiousness trait as well as our ability to withstand our negative emotions, also understood as our neuroticism trait. Low neuroticism is linked to low cortisol and high serotonin / oxytocin while high grit is linked to dopamine plus adrenaline that sustains energy to do the work. Personality wiring along with mind training help keep These neurotransmitters at optimal levels for high performance.