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Willpower, motivation and emotion

  1. May 27, 2010 #1
    | --- willpower --- \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\
    | ------ motivation ------- \\\\\\\\
    | ------------ emotion ----------- \

    Let's imagine the picture above is a house with 3 floors. First is emotion, second motivation and third willpower. The house has a roof and basement too, which are empty. The house is inhabited by 3 people. Everyone of them has prohibited access to a certain floor. Where can you meet any of them?

    Now seriously... What are your thoughts on the connection between willpower, motivation and emotion? Please link me to some papers, where is described an emotionless condition / apathy and its effect on motivation and willpower.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 27, 2010 #2
    My personal thoughts? Willpower, Motivation, and Emotion are all the same thing.

    Try The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis.
  4. May 27, 2010 #3


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    You are talking about a spectrum from biological to social. So genes build in a certain set of drives, then society comes along and tries to inculate a second socially-evolved set over the top.

    Will-power is the socialised idea that "you" should be able to regulate your behaviour in the socially appropriate way.

    Motivation sits somewhere between the two as it is when you find it natural to do the things that your nagging social self says you ought to be doing.

    Emotion is then the biological or otherwise uncontrollable part of yourself that the social side has to worry about.
  5. May 27, 2010 #4
    Motivations for behaviours arise from many different things:

    -evolutionary factors ( mating behaviors for example)
    -powerful social situation ( social impact)
    -from decision making (see aspiration theory / Atkinson achievment theory)
    -from social attributions (your behavior is always motivated by the attributions you make. see Attribution theory)
    -from social judgments (achievement judging,stigmatization,helping behaviors,impression management, political ideologies )

    Emotions are powerful motivators.

    Will power can be understood as the relentless strength to act, to control behavior and some times motivators (like emotions) toward a certain goal. It's completely irrelevant if you act in a socially acceptable or socially unacceptable way.
  6. May 27, 2010 #5


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    It can certainly be "understood as that" because that is the social script. The "irrelevancy" of the acceptability of an individual's action is a big part of the script.

    I know because I have studied the history. :wink: Here is an except from a paper I wrote.

    Besides, you did not address the OP question about why these things seem arranged as a hierarchy.

  7. May 27, 2010 #6
    I thought I made it clear my opinion that emotions are a class of motivators. i.e motivations for certain behaviors arise from them. And I at least hinted at the fact the will power is part of the psychological mechanism of self regulation.

    Can you please expand on this ?
  8. May 27, 2010 #7


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    But can you point to the neural machinery of self regulation. The social machinery is very easy to find (your parents, your peers, your church, your culture).

    Psychology is a mix of the neural and social. Science is about dissecting such mixes.

    Didn't you read the extract? As soon as people saw their actions as socially constructed, they rewrote the script so that they could claim no, their actions were from now on going to be "authentic". A whole group of them got together to agree this fact :rofl:. They created the Romantic movement, later Nietzche, existentialism, Hollywood and the american dream.

    So people in certain societies now think that will-power is a measure of their ability to stand against their society's conformist dictates as well as against their own biological drives, as well as against the assaults of the environment.

    Do you have high will power or low will power? See what contexts such a question brings to mind and then examine the roots of the attitudes discovered.

    Yes, the popular concept of will power is about relentless pursuit of a goal in the face of other (de)motivators. But whose goals are they really? And why does it even matter?
  9. May 27, 2010 #8
    I think everybody knows this. But you are too bent in explaining everything socially. The social machinery is only a class of motivators. The person is a social machine, a biological machine, a decision maker, a judge.

    As I pointed out, the motivations toward goals arise from many factors.

    And self regulation is not used only to act in socially acceptable ways.

    It is self regulation which allow a human to become an efficient killer, instead of a wreck who barely can hold a gun, not to mention pull the trigger. It is self regulation which decide sometime the outcome in violent physical conflict. It is self regulation which allows predatory aggression, planed and swiftly executed. It is self regulation which allows humans to cope with the aftermath of killing. It is self regulation which allow a human to control anxiety and arousal when **** hits the fan during cave diving or during an extremely dangerous climbing route. In a word allow him to survive. It is self regulation which allows an elite sportsman to regulate anxiety and arousal per competition / during competition. Those are some examples of socially unacceptable / socially neutral behaviors.
  10. May 27, 2010 #9


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    How much combat have you seen Dan (apart from Xbox)?

    You will know the research that shows just how hard it is to train people to kill in combat, the proportion of psychopaths in the population being rather small. With your interest in guns and stuff, you will be familiar with the very powerful social mechanisms that armies use to break down civilians and turn them into "killing machines". Combat training is all about taking away personal initiative, tightly constraining individuals in a formal social hierarchy, and teaching them the automatic habits they would not want to learn of their own accord.

    As for the psychological aftermath, well again it is clear that the attitude you are expressing - "be a man, pull yourself together, deal with it" - is one that exists for the benefit of the society that puts a person in that position, not the individual.

    I live in a country where the soldiers have been historically the toughest, and where the mental health of men is also a notorious problem.

    Sports is the same story, though a healthy one now. There is a social setting of course, but sport is also just fun - biological play. It is intrinsically motivating and does not need willpower to get out and do it.

    Controlling arousal is not down to some mysterious source of "will". It is all about developing the skill, the automaticisms, to do the job. Then having the confidence to ease off the attentive-level processing and actually let the habits take over.

    Self-regulation is what destroys performance rather than enhances it. That's why there are those goofy books about "letting go".

    About the only place that Nietzchean style concepts of personal strength of will comes in is with dominance~submission - the social story of testosterone.

    To win a tennis match, the easiest way is to make your opponent crumble. You have to establish your dominance and so induce feelings of submission and inevitable loss on the other side of the net. This is a mind game and its techniques can be learnt (of course, it cannot help if your skills are truly inferior).

    But dominance~submission is an evolved trait to underpin social living. It is a way of minimising group conflict by establishing a pecking order. And so it is another reason why your fantasies about efficient predators and killing machines are not accurate portrayals of the human condition.

    The reason why the Romantic notion of will-power is pathological is that it creates a social image that makes everyone strive to be dominant. And so is the recipe for endless conflict.

    Societies don't function unless they fall into habits of submission and dominance. Why do you think PF is so hot with its mentors and moderators?
  11. May 28, 2010 #10
    I dont own a X-box. Do you ? Have you developed you psyhcology in your X-box live network of friends ?

    Here is where you fail to see. You revert time and again to social groups examples. I was talking about killers, not soldiers. Not armies.

    No it is not so clear as you think it is.

    Everybody says that about their soldiers. "We are the toughest"

    Sure, to jog 1Km and pretend you do sports may be just fun :P Elite performance requires a lot of will power.

    Why do you believe a "mysterious" force has to exist ? It's self regulation.

    You forget about the years of training required to have any meaningless performance in a flow state. You do require a lot of self-regulation to get there.

    Which you wont be able to do most of the time. You will face an opponent as determined to win as you, as hell bent to make you crumble. Don't relay your winning strategy on psychological domination alone. Learn not to put all your eggs in one basket.
  12. May 28, 2010 #11
    Thank you guys for taking part in the discussion, you shifted the topic a little, so I want to place a more specific question. Do you agree that without emotion there can't be any motivation, and without motivation there can't be any willpower?
  13. May 28, 2010 #12
    No. motivation doesn't appear only as a result of an emotion. While emotions are powerful motivators, they are far from being the only class of motivators. Take hunger or thirst for example. They are signals which appear as a result of a physiological states and will cause motivation to engage in behaviors which will soothe hunger/thirst.

    But I wouldn't be very surprised if some theorists would generalize the model of emotion to other models which includes a wider range of affective states.

    Self regulation works on in fact in many things, not only on emotional control. For example it may operate on behavioral levels.
  14. May 28, 2010 #13
    I think you are confused. Motivation Willpower Emotion are 3 sides of the same coin.
  15. May 28, 2010 #14
    DanP, I think a person who is completely emotionless will dismiss pain, hunger and thirst. Also the whole decision making will collapse to only following others, thus willpower won't operate on any level.

    magpies, these 3 are on the same coin for sure, but are clustered in one another and not the same, but I am eager to learn why you think otherwise.
  16. May 28, 2010 #15


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    The real problem here is that you want to break the mind/brain down into a collection of separate functions or components, and the essence of mental processing is how a whole lot of activity hangs together.

    To do science, we must chunk the description in some way. But we have to be very careful to do so in a way that cuts with the grain as much as possible.

    Emotion, motivation, drive, will power, free will, are a bunch of folk pyschology concepts that are created culturally to explain the mind in terms that help teach the right kinds of moral and ethical lessons. They are not scientifically-based, and so lead to all sorts of confusion.

    They sort of mean something, but they are not precise terms that can be related to the neurology or even the psychology.

    A general point to make is that the brain is designed to react to everything "emotionally" - to value the world. And everything it focuses on will also be "motivating" - lead to some state of action and intention. This is true even if the response is to feel relaxed, to lie down and save energy.

    So every moment of awareness forming involves a valuing and an intending.

    Then we can make a distinction between endogenous and exogenous focus. Different neurotransmitter systems are involved so it is a fairly strong distinction. Depending on the balance of threats, opportunities and intentions prevailing, we can either be more outwardly alert an uncommitted, or more inwardly focused on a train of goals and actions.

    So this balancing act between being driven by outer events or inner desires/intentions is what we are getting at when we talk about the socialised conflict between our will and our distractions.

    To answer your question, there cannot be brain activity without evaluation and so emotion - changes in the state of the brain and body to suit the perceived or anticipated circumstances. And there cannot be attentive awareness without some thought of a response.

    There is a major choice we are constantly making between following our own internal agendas and responding to the events imposed upon us by circumstances.

    For animals, their brains have evolved to make these choices very efficiently and we can follow the neural story nicely.

    For humans, we have this neural machinery, but also overlaid are the socialised habits. In effect, we carry around a really big internal cultural agenda - an extra lens - through which we view life and make those internal vs environment valuing and acting decisions.
  17. May 28, 2010 #16
    Only that it doesn't work this way. Those are physiological signals, and they signal serious physiological needs to survival. Your body will generate them regardless you want or not. They will automatically create a strong motivation to eat.

    A person who "dismisses" hunger, for example a person who enters hunger strike, will have
    to use the psychological self regulation mechanisms (power of will for mundane) to not engage in the behavior motivated by hunger. That's it, eating. In the end, you will die if you deny engaging in a feeding behavior. But you will die a happy man because you used your will power :P:devil:

    Like I said, there countless sources of motivation besides emotions. This was just a tiny example.
  18. May 29, 2010 #17
    Yeah apeiron, I agree that evaluation and emotion are bound together and that it's wrong to reduce brain states to strictly separate functions. Emotion as a mental state represents so large repertoire of brain activity and information processing that it's really hard to say "let's take it away and see what happens". You cannot remove it alone, all the emotionless medical conditions come with a whole specter of cognitive and behavioural changes associated with other disorders.

    DanP, by "dismiss" I don't mean "suppress", I mean that such person will not eat at all or, if given food he will fall in gluttony, that's it he won't have neither hunger, nor satiety. This is one interesting case for example.
  19. May 29, 2010 #18
    It is unlikely. Such a case is much more likely the result of serious malfunctions in the brain and / or other biological regulation mechanisms . The pathology in this case It is not caused by lack of emotion(s). Lack of manifestation of certain emotions is a consequence of the pathology, not the cause.
  20. Jun 3, 2010 #19


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    I think we are motivated through emotions. They help us prioritize and act on things. We could not function on logic alone, let alone be the perfectly rationally functioning Mr. Spock.

    I first read this in Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works", where he nicely busted the so-called reason-emotion dichotomy.

    To quote : "Once triggered by a propitious moment, an emotion triggers the cascade of subgoals and sub-subgoals that we call thinking and acting. Because the goals and means are woven into a multiply nested control structure of subgoals within subgoals with subgoals, no sharp line divides thinking from feeling, nor does thinking inevitably precede feeling or vice versa (notwithstanding the century of debate within psychology over which comes first)."

    As for willpower, I am not sure we do have one central "deciding" module in our brain. Just different modules, sometimes cooperating and sometimes conflicting with each other. Our decisions/actions depend on what wins out at that moment.
    So I don't subscribe to willpower in the traditional sense of the word.
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