The Motivational Triad

holy, trinity, triangle


When we speak of motivation, many of us speak of it as a big mystery and even refer to some kind of force that is pushing the other way, taking us over such that we are no longer in charge.

Well, bullbleep to that!

We are mere machines (except for the frontal cortex’s ability to add a special little something: meaning and value).  We operate mechanically, period.  There are no little magic genie’s or little saboteurs or devils or whatever – no mysterious forces or “entities” in the machine.   There is only the laws of physics operating via chemicals and electricity in a bio-mechanical being.  

It is mechanically motivated to:

1.  Seek pleasure (via mechanical means to have us survive better)
2.  Avoid pain (as pain indicates a threat to survival in some way)
3.  Conserve energy (since we in Caveman days needed to conserve energy to survive, as we could not assure ourselves of getting a supply of food/energy very quickly)

Evolution resulted in these realities, since that which survives better passes its genes on more often and better.  There is no intent, since that is just the mechanical way our survival came about.  There is only one “goal”:  survival to pass on the genes, period.  It is not really a goal, since there is no being setting an “intention”.  It is just “what it does”, period. 

All of these systems have one purpose: survival, period.

If we want our machine (the elephant being ridden by our small prefrontal cortex) to do what we want, we must do that which motivate it in one or more of those 3 motivations.  Otherwise, we are hoping for a miracle or intervention by an entity that we may think exists but it doesn’t.   


Worthy of note here, however, is the way that evolution resulted in a special piece of our body that is a seeming miracle of thinking ability: the prefrontal cortex.  With that “higher brain”, we have the unique ability among earth’s species to create “meaning” and “value”.  

When we experience that which has meaning and value to us, we experience “pleasure” – the cascading of “good feeling chemicals” down upon us!   So, we are motivated to seek meaning and value. 


The bad side of the coin, however, is that we add negative meaning to certain things, so that we end up experiencing “pain” – but that particular type of pain does not get us anything good as it has no survival benefit nor any upside.  We feel a sense of loss or we make up something about ourselves that indicates we will not survive so well.  Though it may indicate that in our minds, it actually has no effect upon whether we survive or not – it has no reality in the world of reality!  (It is strictly what Buddhist and psychologists call a “mental construct“.) 

If we learn that our beliefs about the negative meaning (negative consequences predicted) are false, then we will be able to “disappear” them.  We will know that there are no real consequences and that we can ignore them if such a thought/belief pops up from the primitive brain.  If we intervene that early in the chain, we will avoid the compelling force of the negative chemicals that push against some possibly good thing on the other side.  And we eliminate the resistance we have to whatever it is that we are positively motivated toward.  

Though our “pain” may be in the form of mental pain or what is called “emotional pain”, it shows up in the same part of our brain as physical pain to our body.  Why is that?  Because it is physical pain, brought about one’s chemicals causing the pain in order to motivate some correction back to better survivability. 

This is the way we operate.

Feed the primitive mind any “data bits” that there is a threat (even if we only believe it and it is actually not so) and it will act swiftly to begin to handle that threat.  Even if the threat might not be justified or real, the primitive mind is built to react without question, as it couldn’t afford to be wrong by ignoring even a possible threat – or it might be eaten by a tiger.  

Only when we balance off or correct the erroneous data will we be able to stop the constant experiencing of “negative emotions” (chemicals.


For anyone who has tried to “overcome” the hunger signals while trying to lose weight, we know that the body puts up one helluva battle to do that which ordinarily has itself survive better – it motivates us to eat plenty and to not get too low in supply, as it needs to have plenty of storage for the probable periods of famine that the Caveman experiences.

What, you aren’t a Caveman?   

Well, the body has not yet evolved beyond that.  It hasn’t had time.

“Now” is what the body is oriented toward, though apparently it did help for the evolved higher brain to be able to anticipate the future and what was better for oneself.  

The primitive mind does not anticipate well, in terms of accuracy or in terms of time. It was oriented for survival right now, not “later”.  This means the value of a future benefit is at best rather fuzzy to the primitive brain.  You’ve got to convince it in a primitive way that it understands. 


As cavepersons we did not have a constant food supply, so when we weren’t doing those things that had us better survive, we needed to not use up our energy.  We did not know how long it would be before we ate.  Evolution, of course, did not care about that concept, but apparently those who tended to sufficiently conserve their energy survived better to pass on their genes(!).

This is reflected, in an unbalanced manner, in the “couch potato”, perfectly evolved to conserve energy, often storing lots of it up into their body, to assure protection in the case of a famine…  

So, late at night, when our body is preparing for going to sleep, slowing down, getting ready for a night of repair and rejuvenation, we somehow do not feel as motivated to do the things we think we should do that are more productive.  We have a “conflicting need” (of conserving energy) and certainly a conflicting state of low energy.  (One does not have much power when in a state of low energy!)


Don’t argue with the elephant, for it is far more powerful than the little rider.  

The body and the primitive mind are powerfully, mechanically able to create whatever level of force that is needed to assure survival.  

If it perceives a big threat, it goes into super powerful mode, activating the full force of the fight/flight response, powerful chemicals activating very high, very quick energy, shutting down all organs and functions that do not help us survive and which might take energy away that we need to fight or flee. 

Just try to use willpower to just stand there while a tiger is snarling in your face – and you’ll lose.  In fact, your “willpower” is fairly wimpy in comparison.  The physical reserve that is “willpower” only evolved to be a slight temporary source of energy as it paid off much better during evolution to let the highly powerful primitive mind’s automatic reaction get us the heck outa there!  (Understand how and why it is easily depleted by reading the article Willpower – Its Use And Misuse.)

In fact, the huge fear response will even shut down the the higher brain functions – sometimes just when we need them.  Unless you figure out a way to activate that higher brain at the time, you are likely to keep on reacting “unsmartly”, such as in continuing anger when there is no legitimate need for it at the time!!!!  (See Anger And The “Protector/Critic” – Its Psychology And Its Management.)

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