Monday, September 24, 2012

What Is Your Incentive?

Motivation: the process by which activities are started, directed, and continued so that physical or psychological needs or wants are met [See my previous blog post on the difference between a want and a need]. If you're reading this post, then you will hopefully have already read my past couple posts on motivation, so you know just how important this is as a topic to psychologists.

Actually, motivation is incredibly important to just about everything that we do. Unlocking the secrets to motivation would open up a whole world of possibilities. It would allow psychologists to find the elusive mathematical formula needed to "prove" to the other sciences that we too are scientists. We already are scientists, bound by the scientific method and necessities of critical thinking for both research and practice. Yet, we don't get the same respect in the realm of academia as other sciences. Most of that is due to the fact that, unlike other scientific fields, our subjects are much more unpredictable than theirs. Humans are exceedingly complex. Just when one theory seems to grasp the essence of human behavior, some human goes and throws off the whole statistical data set with their originality. [Please don't misunderstand me; I believe originality is fantastic, but it certainly does make it more challenging to find patterns.]

The realms of motivation and personality are two of the most complex topics in the world of psychology. After I run through a few more motivation topics, I may tackle some of the personality theories. My last post mentioned the subset of instinct theories of motivation, specifically the drive-reduction theory. This theory is great for its simplicity. It would seem that it has everything all wrapped up in a nice neat package. When we have a need, say hunger, for example, we are driven to fulfill it through some response, such as eating. That is pretty clear-cut and it makes perfect sense. Well, at least it does until you start getting into the many ways in which we can actually satisfy even a simple need. Why, for instance, do some people prefer to eat out for lunch and others prefer to have a home-made meal? Why do some people select one fast-food restaurant over another even if they both serve essentially the same food for similar prices? This is where the ideas of incentives and incentive values come into play.

Incentive: something that lures an organism (usually a human) into a particular action. Incentives are usually external to an individual, such as a free sample or a coupon. The hope is that the investment is seen as minimal in comparison to the potential pay-out. It does not always work out so well, however. If it were a simple matter of cost-benefit maximization, then everyone who received a coupon for a new product would buy the item. Many people won't take the company up on their offer, though. Why is that? Part of the answer is found in the incentive value a person places on a potential choice.

Incentive value: The value of a goal above and beyond its ability to fill a need. If you remember, a goal is the reduction in a need (or the fulfillment of a desire) as the result of a response. Some people will place a large value on the "savings" offered in a coupon and will thus try the new product. Other people will place a large value on the "savings" they would experience if they avoid the product altogether. The difficulty for psychologists (and marketing gurus) is in attempting to place an actual mathematical or economic value on a person's incentive value. While we have a nice-sounding definition, the concept is all-too abstract. People are constantly placing arbitrary values on choices--do I want chocolate ice cream with sprinkles or vanilla ice cream with fruit topping? If you were to ask the average person what their "incentive value" is for two similar choices, they might not be able to identify a solid, consistent number that you could plug into a formula. Sometimes people just "feel like" one choice is better over another. Sometimes the choice is consistent, other times the decision changes. The incentive value for, say, a drink choice such as coffee versus tea may be consistent for one person who almost always drinks the same thing, but will oscillate wildly for another person who likes to randomize their beverages. [Perhaps a look at my previous post of stimulus motives may help a little here.]

The other thing that is so slippery about discovering an incentive value is that people often come up with arbitrary values for choices without even knowing much about the topic or without having much experience with an option. For example, my grandmother never ate fish, but she knew from an early age that she did not like it. Think about this: how many times have you heard a conversation in which one person swears they either love or loathe a movie when they never actually saw it, or a book and they never actually read it? I bet many of you can think of a book series (I'm not going to name the one that comes to my mind, one that created a huge divide on the Internet this summer between the lovers and the haters of the book; many haters admittedly never read the books because they assumed it was just awful) that seemed to be so popular and yet so many people insisted it was just drivel wrapped in a pretty and vapid package. The same thing happens with political candidates. People will place a value of sorts on each candidate before they vote. Oftentimes, however, the value is based on something superficial, such as "my friends all like this person" or "my boss/parent is voting for them" or "I like their wardrobe." I am not in any way criticizing the choices people make. I make many choices based on arbitrary incentive values, too, and those values tend to change often for me, as well (I have a moderately high need for exploration). This does, however, possibly explain why it is so difficult to generate accurate predictions on consumer choices or human behavior in general.

Expectancy value theory states that we cannot accurately predict, with full certainty, a person's behavior unless we first understand the incentive value that person places on the choices, the person's values and beliefs concerning the choices in general, and the importance those values and beliefs hold for that person at that moment in time. Those are really too many wildly changing variables to juggle in order to come up with a consistently accurate prediction. The best we can hope for at the moment is to introduce arbitrary incentives and hope that individuals place a high enough value on those incentives that we can introduce a modicum of control on their choices.

I did say this was one of the most complex and difficult topics in psychology. And I am only beginning to scratch the surface here. If there were any easy answers about motivation, then the world would be a whole lot less complex and an awful lot of people would have to find something else to do with their time and research efforts.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What You Want vs. What You Need

Motivation: the process by which activities are started, directed, and continued so that physical or psychological needs or wants are met.

I thought it would be prudent to differentiate between a need and a want before I delved any deeper into other motivation theories. This is one of the hardest lessons to teach children, but many adults also have a hard time distinguishing between what they want and what they really need. Let's take a look at the Drive-Reduction theory of motivation (an instinct theory).

Need: a requirement of some material, such as food and water, that is essential for survival of the organism. This is a biologically based necessity, usually instinctual in nature. Needs, true needs, tend to fall into the primary drives category. There are only a select few of these. Anything else can fall into the secondary drives category (at least according to instinct theory).

Instinct: biologically determined and innate pattern of behavior that exists in both people and animals. Instincts are unlearned, uniform in expression, and universal in a species. This is why there are only a few primary drives. Only a few things are unlearned and universal needs across ALL humans.

Drive: a psychological tension and physical arousal arising when there is a need that motivates the organism to act in order to fulfill the need and reduce the tension.This is essentially our psychological tipping point; when we can no longer ignore our deficiency (need), then we are moved into action in order to reduce our body's nagging insistence that we care for it.

Primary drives: those drives that involve needs of the body. There are only a few primary drives--things we must have in order to survive. The goals of primary drive satisfaction is to achieve homeostasis (a steady state or balance within the body). The only primary drives that exist are:
  • hunger
  • thirst
  • avoidance of pain
  • sex (important on a species level)
  • [honorable mentions: oxygen, sleep]
  • [pending more defined research and definition: love]
That's it. These are the only things that you absolutely NEED in life. Everything else is either a personality characteristic that is not universal to all humans (psychological drives, stimulus drives; [see related motivation posts]) or an acquired or secondary drive. Granted, life would be boring and not really fulfilling with only these basic needs, but these are the only true needs for humans. If anyone tells you otherwise, they are once again confusing the meaning of the words.

Secondary (acquired) drives: those drives that are learned through experience or conditioning. Somewhere along the way people learned that other things seem to be important (or perceived as such) for a human life. These things are wide and varied and you can argue that society has made then almost a necessity, however, there may be ways around them. Included in secondary drives are things like money, status, fashion, education, power, "stuff" and consumer goods (cell phones, tablets, Internet, etc.), and certain qualities of the basic needs, such as expensive food or drink. In all reality, no one needs a well-paying job. However, it is incredibly difficult to provide the basics, and some luxuries, for ourselves and our families without one. This is probably why it is so easy to confuse need and want. Many people want a car, for example, but it is possible--though not comfortable--to navigate the world without one.

Goal: target of motivated behavior. This is usually the reduction of a need or the satisfaction of a desire. We are goal-oriented in nature, so we constantly create goals to achieve when our bodies do not provide a natural deficiency to satisfy. For many people, satisfaction of primary drives is taken for granted. This could explain why it becomes increasingly easier to fall into the trap of believing that secondary drives are necessities as well. We are hard-wired to constantly fulfill deficiencies. When we have no real deficiencies, then we seek to create new ones so that we can continue responding [response: an action or series of actions, usually with the purpose of reducing a need].

Friday, September 14, 2012

Sensation Seekers Are Not All Death-Defiers

I am sure many people have heard of sensation seekers, or adrenaline junkies. The research we have on these individuals is based mostly on the work of Marvin Zuckerman and his collaborators, though some of the information on stimulus motives can be traced to Harlow's work in the 1950s.

Motivation: the process by which activities are started, directed, and continued so that physical or psychological needs or wants are met [I will create a future blog post on the different between a want and a need]. Motivation is essentially what "moves" us, what inspires us, what gets us to do things. Motivation is the "holy grail" of psychology and marketing. To accurately and scientifically unlock the secrets of human motivation would allow us to not only predict human behavior more consistently (no more "average" or "mean" statistics, but actual precise numbers!), but it would also allow us to consistently and successfully direct behaviors. Perhaps the potential evils would outweigh the benefits and this is why we have not cracked the code yet.

One school of thought on motivation comes in the form of arousal theory. Arousal theory, stemming from the Yerkes-Dodson law, proposes that every person has an ideal/optimal level of arousal or psychological tension needed for our best performance. This optimal level of arousal is determined by 1) an individual's personality and 2) the particular task at hand. One of the personality factors to look at is whether or not the individual seems to be driven by stimulus motives.

Stimulus motive: a motive that appears to be unlearned but causes an increase in stimulation. Many stimulus motives have been mentioned in the research literature. Four main categories seem to stick out a bit more than the others, however.
  • Need for information: the drive to satisfy one's curiosity, to gain knowledge, to constantly learn and gather more information. Someone with a high need for information is something of a data or news junky (I count myself in this category). This person can get lost for hours on the Internet reading, research, collecting articles and information. They may be the first to learn the latest gossip. They hate feeling left in the dark about certain (sometimes all) subjects.
  •  Need for exploration: the drive to try something new, to avoid routine. A person with a high need for exploration becomes depressed if their life starts to take on too much routine. Don't get me wrong; they can handle some stability such as getting to work and home and such each day. However, the way things are done are often changed. For example, they may pick a new route to work or decide to make their phone calls before answering emails or pick a new place to eat lunch. Someone with a need for exploration likes to mix it up when things start to look too similar. And, contrary to popular belief, it does not always have to be something entirely new that satisfies them. It could be watching a movie that they haven't watched in years. If it was a long enough gap between experiences, then that is usually acceptable. A high need for exploration will also encourage people to go over a similar area in the hopes of finding something new that they did not notice before.
  •  Need for manipulation: the drive for hands-on experiences. An individual with a high need for manipulation does not like to sit back and receive life. They like to actively engage in it. This person would much rather stick their hand in a mysterious box than observe and hypothesize about what the box might contain. They occasionally dive in feet first to see what would happen. Planning is not nearly as important as experiencing. They may have a tendency to experiment, though not necessarily in new ways, as someone with a high need for exploration might do. Experimentation for a person with a need for manipulation may involve engaging in the same activity multiple times, especially if the first trials were successful. They don't mind confirming their discoveries again and again. As far as entertainment goes, they would much rather participate than watch, even if they have done it dozens of times before.
  • Need for sensation or sensory input: the drive for sensory stimulation (touch, taste, hearing, sight, smell). Someone with a high need for sensory input does not like feeling bored. They relish entertainment and excitement. They are capable of finding satisfaction in passive entertainment, so long as it is entertainment; it does not have to be actively engaging as it would be for a high need for manipulation. Yes, some sensation seekers are adrenaline junkies. The rush of stress hormones (primarily adrenaline) that a person gets during a free-fall or a roller coaster drop or loop does bring satisfaction to many sensation seekers. However, a person with a high need for sensory input can also find satisfaction for their needs through good food (taste), music (sound), action sequences in a movie or TV show (visual & auditory stimulation) or with enough decoration on a room's wall (vision). The sensation does not have to be overly exciting all the time, it just has to be there. Boredom leads to depression for a sensation seeker. You may come across someone who is a sensation seeker with acrophobia (fear of heights). They would satisfy their need for sensory input not by putting themselves in danger, but by finding other sources of entertainment such as a concert with a lot of special effects.
The thing to remember about these stimulus motives is that they are an unlearned part of a person's personality. Your personality is something that is partially genetic, partially a culmination of your life experiences and your interpretation of those experiences. Your personality is also something that is extremely difficult to change. Unless it is maladaptive and a real danger to yourself and others--personality disorders--there is no reason for anyone to apologize for who they are or for what they find motivating in life. The more we accept people, the less we try to "convert" them into copies of us, the richer life and this world will be.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Nightmares vs. Night Terrors

Sleep appears to be a slightly mysterious phenomenon, despite the fact that all humans experience it. One of the greatest sources of confusion seems to come from a misunderstanding of the different stages of sleep and the kinds of disorders that can occur during sleep. I will not give interpretations of dreams or attempt to give meaning to various dream symbols on this blog. Dream interpretation is a very personal thing that is driven by each individual's beliefs and life experiences. A wonderful guide (NOT a dictionary!) for dream interpretation is Dream Language by Robert J. Hoss. You can also research Sigmund Freud's theory of dreams, the activation-synthesis hypothesis, or the activation information mode model (cognitive theory). The purpose of this post is to hopefully clear up some misconceptions about sleep disturbances. But first, let's review the 5 stages of sleep.

REM (rapid eye movement): paradoxical sleep; an altered state of consciousness occurring during sleep in which the brain is very active. This is typically the stage in which dreams occur. The body is paralyzed so that we do not thrash around while we are not fully aware of reality. This is also the time during which our body undergoes its mental maintenance. If we push ourselves, pulling too many all-nighters, then we may experience REM rebound. When this occurs, we will directly enter the REM state of sleep before any other stages in order to help "clear the cobwebs" so that our mind can function normally and later engage in the physical maintenance of the rest of the body during the other stages of sleep. In extremely rare cases--less than 10% of the world-wide population--an individual may suffer from REM behavior disorder, which means that their body is not paralyzed during the dream state. This can be quite dangerous, as the individual would be able to act without full conscious control of their behaviors.

N-REM stage 1: the first stage of regular sleep. This is light sleep in which the brain waves begin to change slightly in preparation for deeper sleep. A person may be partially aware of the reality surrounding them, but they are not paying full attention, so there may be some momentary confusion, combined with possible hypnogogic images and/or hypnic jerks, if awakened at this point.

N-REM stage 2: relatively light sleep, deeper than stage one, in which the body's temperature begins to drop slightly and the brain waves continue to change in quality. A person is less aware of their surroundings at this point. Waking someone in stage 2 is slightly more difficult than in stage one, though not impossible. It may take the individual more time to reacclimate to their surroundings if awakened during this stage and they may be disoriented.

N-REM stage 3 & 4: deep sleep; brain waves have changed over to primarily theta waves, indicating loss of consciousness. The individual is no longer processing sensory input, but rather switching into physical maintenance mode. The brain sends out test signals to ensure the nervous system is intact. Cellular damage is repaired. Body chemicals such as neurotransmitters and hormones are replenished. It is very difficult to wake someone in these stages. If you do manage to rouse the individual, then there is a good chance that they will be in fight-or-flight mode and they may scream in fear or lash out without knowing what they are doing. It will take a person much longer to gain full consciousness of their surroundings if roused during stage 3 or 4.

Note: the body is not paralyzed during the N-REM stages. That means we can move around when we are not dreaming.

Light sleepers tend to progress through the N-REM stages more quickly and deep sleepers tend to spend more time in stages 3 and 4 when they sleep. All healthy individuals progress through each stage of sleep at least once during the night; it is necessary for normal bodily maintenance. With the exception of REM behavior disorder, all sleep disturbances occur during the N-REM stages, primarily stages 3 and 4. Also, most sleep disturbances occur when a person is experiencing a period of great anxiety and/or stress. Sleep disturbances do not typically exhibit themselves when the individual is happy and healthy or relaxed.

Nightmare: this is NOT a sleep disturbance. A nightmare is a dream, occurring during REM sleep, that is interpreted negatively by the person experiencing it. Usually accompanied by feelings of fear or anxiety, a nightmare is subject to personal perception. One man's nightmare is another man's fantasy. It's all in how you view it. Unless a person suffers from REM behavior disorder--which is very rare--any thrashing about in their sleep is most likely not due to a bad dream.

Night terror: a parasomnia that occurs during N-REM stage 4 (sometimes stage 3). The individual is not paralyzed, as they are in a N-REM stage. They are essentially experiencing a severe hallucination, typically of a traumatic flashback or their worst fears "come to life." A person experiencing a night terror may scream and/or fight against what they believe is threatening them. Any individual who enters the room of the sufferer will become incorporated with the hallucination and will most likely be attacked in turn. Most episodes last around 20-30 minutes. It is best to leave the person alone to fight out their anxieties. Contrary to popular media presentations, night terrors do not typically occur each and every night. Rather, they may exhibit themselves during a time of significant anxiety or distress for the individual. Yes, they are a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, but they are not always tied to it. A child can suffer night terrors without suffering from PTSD. Night terrors are more prevalent in children than in adults and they are overall pretty rare.

Narcolepsy: a dyssomnia in which an individual falls directly into a REM state during normal daily activities. [Remember, we are naturally paralyzed when in REM, which is called cataplexy when it occurs as part of narcolepsy.] Regardless of how much sleep the individual experiences at night, they may have moments when they fall immediately and unexpectedly into a dream state. Upon waking, they usually have no notion of the lost time and tend to continue their activities and/or conversations as if the episode never happened.

Sleep walking (somnambulism): a parasomnia in which an individual moves about during N-REM stage 4 sleep. The person is unconscious, completely unaware of their surroundings. They tend to enact part of their routine, such as attempting to fix a meal, without actually paying attention to their surroundings. Once they believe their task is accomplished, they will then return to their bed to continue normal sleep. A sleep walker may have a tendency to open their eyes, but due to the fact that they are in deep sleep, they do not usually process any visual stimulation, instead relying upon past experiences to navigate what they believe is the world they are moving through. The experience is similar to a non-threatening hallucination.

Sleep talking: a parasomnia, occurring in N-REM stage 3 or 4, in which an individual may respond to verbal stimuli. A person can carry on a seemingly coherent conversation, but because they were in deep sleep they will not recall any of it.

Many of the weird behaviors we witness in others (or experience ourselves) during sleep take place when a person is almost completely unconscious, and thus not aware of his/her actions or their consequences. As a species, with the exception of REM behavior disorder, we do not act out our dreams during the night. Instead we seem to be prone to stress-related hallucinations. Because we are not fully conscious we cannot identify them as fantasy at the time. Incidentally, I have only described a few of the commonly known sleep disturbances. If you would like me to post information about more, please leave a comment or send me a message and I will add more posts on other sleep disorders in the future.