Motivation vs. Self Control

I was considering how motivation competes with self control. Clearly there is potential for conflicts between the agencies of the mind, since the goals of different agencies vary and often lead to competing needs. How do these conflicts get resolved?


The brain is operating with the notion that there are some goals which need to be met. Some goals are rather basic, like "satisfy hunger", and others are high-level, like "get a job". Motivation is the mechanism by which one's goals are met. Metaphorically, motivation is the force which causes events in the mind to occur... This "force" may take the form of a message, passed from one agency to another, which causes the receiving agency to act, hopefully in a way that furthers the sender's goal. Reflex and instinct can be classified as types of motivation. For example:

Reflex as motive: Say you touch something hot, then pull your hand away. Upon touching the hot object, a hard-coded motive (i.e. the sending agency may be implemented directly into the nervous system, and not created by some learning...) is immediately activated, demanding that you remove your hand from the object. In this instance, the sender may have direct communication with the agents which can cause the hand to move.

Instinct as motive: A bird builds herself a nest. Here instinct invokes a high level motive to build a nest, which may involve spawning off several sub-motives, such as finding materials, then putting them together, etc. Because it would be difficult for a bird to learn how to build a nest, the instructions for building a nest are hard-coded into the birds knowledge base. Similarly, because it would be difficult to explain to the bird why she should build the nest, an agency could be hard-coded into her mind which knows to send appropriate motives around in certain occasions, which cause her to want to built a nest.

High-level motive: I want to graduate. So I've been spending some time working on my thesis. This is similar to the example in section 4.5 of SOM, in which the Work agency attempts to keep Marvin working. Work sends out motives to other agencies to accomplish its task. It may try to suppress other agencies, like Goof Off and Sleep, but there are limits on what Work can do to prevent things like sleep from occuring.

A motive is created by an individual Agency, and is geared at contributing to the completion of a specific goal. Typically, a motive is received by another Agency, which may or may not act on the motive, depending on circumstances and certain limitations imposed on the receiving Agency. The fact that the receiver may choose not to act on the motive allows for a mechanism for self-control.

Self Control

Self control is the set of barriers that prevents a particular agency, like Work, from completely (and possibly unjustifiably) overriding another agency, like Sleep. Self control may manifest in a variety of forms.

An interesting barrier is simply the abstraction between agencies.

Because of my thesis, my agency Work has some motivation (perhaps induced by my agency Keep Mom Happy) to keep me working on my thesis. So the Work agency decides that sleep is detrimental to my work habits and would like to interfere. However, it's likely that Work doesn't really know how to talk directly to the low-level sleep agents which cause one to fall asleep. Only the agency Sleep can do this. Therefore, Work can only keep me from sleeping by somehow (perhaps indirectly) making a request to Sleep.

Similarly, another barrier might be the inability of a fellow agency to act on a motive.

In trying to keep me working, Work might try asking my agency Speak to keep me awake. Speak, however doesn't really know much about sleeping and staying awake, so it can't do much on Work's behalf.

Such a scenario is probably very common. An agency knows how to contact some set of other agencies, and doesn't necessarily know what the capabilities of each of its colleagues are. Work may therefore try probing Speak to see if Speak can do anything to help. Since Speak cannot help, Work's attempts to motivate Speak into preventing sleep will then fail.

Motives, of course, don't always fail. In a successful case, Work may remember from the past - or presently learn - that invoking the agencies Stand Up, Get Angry, and Be Afraid all resulted in less sleep, and re-invoking these agencies may contribute to less sleep and more work. Note what makes the motive here: the invocation of the agency Stand Up is the motive. Note also that while the motive is geared at keeping me awake, the motive doesn't necessarily carry its purpose to the recipient. All that matters to Work is that Stand Up does its thing and that somehow, this effects Sleep in the desired way. Stand up, and also Sleep, do not necessarily know what the purpose of all this commotion is.

Another barrier is inhibition, which is learned. Some agency may have been developed to prevent certain mishaps from repeating themselves.

Joe eats some eggs. Joe gets terribly sick. Joe never eats eggs again. After getting sick, Joe's agency Keep Me Healthy learns that eggs are bad for you. This knowledge manifests itself as another agency, Don't Eat Eggs. When Joe gets hungry, his agency Eat may happen to notice that eggs are available and may try to motivate Joe into eating some eggs. Don't Eat Eggs notices that there are some eggs approaching, and motivates Joe's stomach into making some serious complaints about the possibility of getting sick again. At this point, either the agencies that Eat had working on eating eggs, or Eat itself, back off for fear of causing too much trouble.

This is a good example of competing motives, where one motive does something that causes the effect of another motive to be abated.


An interesting question one may come across is "What is the top-level motive behind all these motives?" If a motive is generated by an agency, something must have motivated that agency...

I want to stay awake
because I want to work
because I want to finish my thesis
because I want to graduate
because I want to make Mom happy, and she has indicated that this would make her happy
because... ?

Well, Freud would probably be content in knowing that I got stuck at "making Mom happy"... But there are other motives as well:

I want to graduate
because I want a job
because I think I need money
because I need food
because I'll otherwise die.

Ah. This time is comes down to basic needs. Perhaps making Mom happy is also a basic need, or perhaps I have ulterior motives for making Mom happy that I don't understand or care to admit.

Whatever the top level motives behind all others are, the interesting thing is the theory that they must exist. The reason this is interesting is because, if they are indeed the source of all motivation, finding and understanding these core motives is key to understanding why people do anything. Where do core motives come from? Perhaps they are all built into the brain directly and are defined by evolution, or perhaps some of them are learned.


Motivation is simply the passing of a message (request) from one agency to another. Wondering about why someone acts in a certain way can be difficult when you are considering only high level motives. The details of what causes someone to want to do something are complex in that many factors can be at work. By thinking of motivation as a low level communication between agencies, can understand how small details can build up to high-level motivation.

Wilfredo Sánchez Jr. |
Copyright © Wilfredo Sánchez