Last month, I promised to pull more essays from my past out of the file cabinet. This one dealt with motives and understanding how they influence human behavior. This insight is one of the reasons I decided to avoid going to work on Wall Street after graduating from college and instead putting my higher goal – being near my family, setting up my own household with my spouse, and having large blocks of free time to pursue other passions no one knew about – ahead of my secondary goal – building my company.
Almost every action someone takes is driven by an underlying motivation. This can be social rank, reputation, envy, power, love of work, self-preservation, service, security, escape, fear, thrill, or a host of other alternatives. To understand the world, it is important you develop the ability to recognize the motivation that drives a person. This includes yourself. By better understanding your motivation, you can make better choices.
Most motives are built upon a few, primal desires:
- To be sexually and reproductively successful by finding a mate
- To nurture and protect offspring, giving them a chance at a successful life
- To increase personal comforts and freedoms by amassing resources
- To be liked, respected, and esteemed by friends, family, and society
- To produce novelty for the human brain in the form of fun
- To feel as if life has some meaning or purpose
The 3 Major Advantages to Understanding Core Motivations
There are three major advantages to understanding the core motive that animates a person:
- By understanding your own motives, you can avoid situations and courses of action that conflict with what you decide is the primary mission of your life.
- By understanding the motives of others, you can understand why they consistently make the same mistakes or experience ever-escalating levels of success
- By understanding the motives of others, you can avoid potential disastrous and dangerous situations and relationships
The key is to always be brutally honest with yourself about your motivation. You, to paraphrase Richard Feynman, are the easiest person to fool. Self-denial is tempting. It can call like a siren song to the average person because it offers the chance to protect yourself from rejection and reality. Don’t give into it.
The Parable of John and Samantha
Consider a story about two co-workers, John and Samantha, who work in the home office of one of the nation’s largest airlines. They provide a useful illustration of underlying motivation influencing behavior in a way that is counterproductive and results in undesirable outcomes.
For ten years, John has worked alongside Samantha. They are friendly. They go for drinks after work. They hang out on the weekend from time to time. John tells Samantha about his relationships, his career goals, and his dreams. It’s a nice, mutually enjoyable situation.
Over time, John develops feelings for Samantha. Subconsciously, he creates an entire alternate version of their encounters. Friendliness over drinks turns into flirtation. A hug goodbye with a kiss on the cheek becomes an indication of things to come. Yet, at no point does Samantha ever indicate in any way she is interested in John.
One day, Samantha is called out of the office for an emergency. As she rushes out of the door, John follows her and asks what is wrong. As she runs to the parking lot and toward her car, she yells behind her, “My husband just woke up from a coma!”
If John is wired like many people, he might have no reaction at first. Simply a “good luck!” or “Do you need me to drive?”. Over the following week, a slow feeling of betrayal and irritation is likely to develop in his gut. He will probably resent seeing Samantha and grow increasingly angry at her. Samantha is baffled. It isn’t long before they can’t be in the same room.
What is going on? What are the motivations at play?
In the beginning, John was motivated by the desire to settle down and get married, to enter a relationship with a person he liked and found desirable. He began to write mental scripts of expectations detailing a future with Samantha. To protect himself and hold onto this denial, he never came out and made a move on Samantha or asked if she was interested in a relationship. After all, such a direct action would result in a final answer. John doesn’t want a final answer; he wants the whisper of a hope.
When John found out that Samantha was married, the script began to unravel, threatening not only his expectations but his own sense of self-worth. Without any justification, he is going to feel as if Samantha led him on or lied through omission. The internal question is going to be “How could she do this to me?”, although any rational observer is going to conclude that she hasn’t done anything. The entire thing existed in John’s head and wasn’t real.
What is the underlying cause of John’s anger toward Samantha?
- 1.) Humiliation, and
- 2.) Rejection, more specifically, the fear that he isn’t desirable, none of his relationships work out, and he’ll never meet someone and settle down with them.
As he acts out, talks about, and stews regarding Samantha, John’s motivations stem from a desire to save face. In the back of his mind, he is going to be embarrassed and feel he was “made a fool” by Samantha; as if everyone else in the office is now laughing at him. This is a direct threat to his primal need to find a sexual mate and feel desirable.
John is also going to need to tear Samantha down to make him feel better about his prospects as a future mate. Only a minority of people in a population are mentally wired in a way that they would say, “Man, I missed that boat. I need to examine why I thought she had feelings for me because clearly something is wrong with me.” Instead, they preserve their fragile sense of self-worth, they will say, “How could she do this to me? What is wrong with her?” The lesson will therefore be missed and probably repeated many, many times, all caused by not facing facts: Namely, John had unrealistic expectations about and unrequited feelings for Samantha.
And here is the really interesting part – because of a mental model called confirmation bias, John is likely to only discuss what happened between him and Samantha with people who are either going to feign support for him or who don’t like Samantha. His mind, in an effort to preserve it’s own self-image once more, will avoid bringing up the subject in an environment that is likely to result in him being told he was the one out of line. It’s a natural defense mechanism that prevents clear cognition.
John is also likely to re-write the mental history of his relationship with Samantha, convince himself he never had any feelings for her, and create negative memories of and associations with her to convince himself that she is “just a bitch” or “heartless”. He has to do so unless he possesses a certain strength of mind that is too rare in humanity.
From Samantha’s standpoint, she simply didn’t want to discuss her husband’s condition. Years before, he had been hit by a car and she spent her weekends in the hospital, reading to him at his bedside. It was emotionally exhausting. One of the few moments of respite she got to enjoy in her life were her work lunches or going out with friends after leaving the office.
Samantha did nothing wrong. She had no obligation to tell anyone about her husband or his condition. She never led John on or indicated she wanted a relationship. John never made a move on her or asked her out on a date, both of which would have immediately led her to put up boundaries. Now, she has to work in a somewhat hostile environment that was in no way her own fault.
What are Samantha’s motivations? She likely just wants to move on so she might transfer departments or take a new job across town. She might stop talking to John entirely. If she wants to try to salvage the relationships, she might approach him and explain that she is sorry his feelings are hurt. Either way, there is nothing Samantha could have done to avoid the situation without violating her desire for privacy in her personal life, which is her right.
How To Apply the Concept of Motive to Investing and Business
If you are hiring a portfolio manager, figuring out if he is motivated by the desire to help his clients’ dreams come true or, instead, the thrill of the “big win” on a speculative gamble is going to have big implications for your company.
[mainbodyad]If you are hiring a nanny, figuring out if she truly loves working with children and helping them grow or if she just wants a paycheck is going to have big implications for the quality of care your kids receive.
If you are looking at a declining investment position, figuring out if you are adding more money because the asset truly does represent a great bargain or if you are committing “irrational escalation” in economic terms in a bid to strengthen your conviction that you made the right choice initially can mean the difference between big wins and huge losses.
Motivation matters. Motive matters. Figure it out. Sooner of later, if you become adept at it, you have a better than average chance at determining how people will behave given certain incentive systems. You can design more intelligent incentive systems.
Money By Itself Isn’t a Motivation
Notice that I don’t discuss money as a motivations unto itself. That isn’t an oversight. Money is the mechanism through which most incentive systems are built, and this is good and advisable, but if you are trying to weigh the quality of your colleagues, employees, or clients, I don’t consider it a motivation because money is almost always a distraction to the real underlying core issue. It doesn’t go deep enough to really understand the fuel powering the engine of human will.
If you say someone is motivated by money, it doesn’t tell you much.
- Is he motivated by a need for security due to anxiety about losing his home or standard of living?
- Is he motivated by the desire for expensive things?
- Is he motivated by the belief that money makes him valuable and desirable because he has no self-worth?
- Is he motivated by the fun of making money?
- Is he motivated by the desire to leave a legacy for his children?
- Is he motivated by money as a ranking system to help him stack himself up against his neighbors and colleagues?
- Is he motivated by the desire to build something that can improve civilization?
As Charlie Munger has discussed, this approach explains how someone working at a major investment bank can be thrilled with a $1 million bonus check but suddenly grow despondent when he finds out the guy at the next desk received $2 million. The money, in this case, is merely a proxy for perceived value to the firm. It’s a scoring system that is tied into self-worth, subconscious reproductive desirability, and a host of other factors. It’s asinine, but most people don’t take the time to understand the workings of the human mind so they continually find themselves unhappy, stressed, working with unpleasant people, or dissatisfied with their life.
A Final Word of Caution
A final word of caution: I would urge you to consider keeping your thoughts on another person’s motivation to yourself. Like skills that are kept secret to create information asymmetry in your favor, if other people think you are going through life analyzing their motivations, they are likely to change their behavior.
Also, all else equal, it is going to be better to surround yourself with people who have motivations that are of a positive, or affirmative, nature rather than a negative one. That is, the odds are good that it’s going to be more exciting, fulfilling, and enjoyable to work for a guy who is passionate about building something meaningful rather than one who is trying to run from poverty. Both are amassing money but the spirit of the work is completely different.