posttitle = Towardsness & Awayness Motivation are fundamentally asymmetric titleClass =title-long len =67

Towardsness & Awayness Motivation are fundamentally asymmetric

What’s the difference between positive & negative motivation?

I like to talk about these as towardsness & awayness motivation, since positive & negative mean near-opposite things in this exact context depending on whether you’re using emotional language (where “negative” means “bad”, ie “awayness”) or systems theory language (where “negative” means “balancing” ie “towardsness”). I have a footnote on why this is.

There’s a very core difference between these two types, both inherently to any feedback system and specifics to human psychology implementation.

Awayness can’t aim

Part of the issue is (and this is why I say positive vs negative motivation are different in all systems) you fundamentally can’t aim awayness based motivation. In 1-dimensional systems, this is almost sorta kinda fine because there’s no aiming to do (as long as you don’t go past the repulsor). But in 2D (below) you can already see that “away” is basically everywhere:

Whereas with towardsness, you can hone in on what you actually want. As the number of dimensions gets large (and it’s huge for most interesting things like communication or creative problem-solving) the relative usefulness of awayness feedback gets tiny.

Imagine trying to steer someone to stop in one exact spot. You can place a ❤ beacon they’ll move towards, or an X beacon they’ll move away from. (Reverse for pirates I guess.)

In a hallway, you can kinda trap them in the middle of two Xs, or just put the ❤ in the exact spot.

In an open field, you can maybe trap them in the middle of a bunch of XXXXs, but that’ll be hard because if you try to make a circle of X, and they’re starting outside it, they’ll probably just avoid it. If you get to move around, you can maybe kinda herd them to the right spot then close in, but it’s a lot of work.

Or, you can just put the ❤ in the exact spot.

For three dimensions, consider a helicopter or bird or some situation where there’s a height dimension as well. Now the X-based orientation is even harder because they can fly up to get away from the Xs, but with the ❤ you still just need one beacon for them to hone in on it.

In a large space, the ☠ might be helpful to eliminate dead ends, but you still need a ❤ to hone in on an exact spot with any accuracy. And even there, the path to get to the target might involve temporarily getting close(r) to a X, which might get someone stuck.

I think this would make an excellent Explorable Explanation—let me know if you want to collaborate on that!

Coercive Motivation

Simply going away from something you don’t want is natural and makes sense. Sometimes there’s a reason to stick around, but if something is scary/dangerous, or disgusting/toxic, or annoying/disrespectful, you can leave: just walk out.

However, sometimes people think of something that they want, and then (often unconsciously) they figure that the way to motivate themselves towards that their goal is to feel bad until they get there. This is introducing extra awayness motivation into a situation where they already had some towardsness motivation. They’re now trying to escape the bad feeling, not actually moving towards the thing they want! Which is likely to make the whole situation aversive, and often results in people avoiding even thinking about the thing they want.

This is sometimes what people talk about as “coercive motivation“.

Natural awayness-based motivation (eg avoiding a bad smell) isn’t coercive, but anything that adds an extra layer of “do X or else” or “you can only feel good once you do X” is. (At least in my model of coercion—there’s some debate about this)

Note that any “reward” you’re withholding from yourself until you complete something is uhhh kinda technically also punishing yourself in the meantime. Like if you could give it to yourself now, and you’re not… then you’re still kind of motivating yourself with awayness from the state of lack. This is different, again, from the intrinsic fruits of labor: you plant your garden and have to wait for it to grow. (A full discussion of employment is relevant but will have to wait for a future piece of writing.)

Nothing is behind. Anything worth doing is worth doing because of what will happen as a result, not because of something in the past. The result might be “be someone who fulfills my promises” but it’s still a future result, achievable from here.

If you need a homo economicus case against this kind of motivation, I’ll note that it tends to cause blindspots and goodharting due to how avoiding thinking about things is an easier way to avoid the pain than doing the things. And if it doesn’t, and you end up focusing on the thing you’re trying to avoid, you might just crash right into it. But even leaving aside all of that, consider that you might want to live a life that feels good in the meantime.

At any rate, if it’s so counterproductive and it feels so bad, why do people do this?

Here’s one model—maybe it’s an evolutionary biology just-so story, but it evokes something.

Fear & desire

If you’re eating and you hear a predator approaching, it’s very adaptive for fear to overpower desire: those who don’t flee don’t survive, in which case it doesn’t matter how much you successfully ate moments ago.

This makes sense when dealing with real acute danger, but for most of human history (and possibly before) most humans have been living in states of chronic fear. Due to the power differential between fear & desire, this makes desire-based motivation hard to tap.

It seems that if people can narrow their view sufficiently, they can sometimes do it for short periods. Sex or food, for instance. But trying to really think about the question “what do I want” quickly reveals that many people have no idea and are afraid to consider it.

People are habituated to orient to what they don’t want. And the question “what do I want?” is a fundamentally different type. You can even sometimes watch people answer “what do you want?” questions in the negative, like “well, I don’t want X”. Try it out with yourself or your friends.

This is, in my understanding, what is meant by the word “neurotic”: a strategy for caring about something that’s based on trying to avoid various pitfalls or problems without a clear idea of what “good” looks like.

Since fear-based awayness motivation can dominate desire-based towardsness motivation, it can be hard to make a transition. But one thing that can help is becoming more embodied and deepening your ability to track whether you’re in a situation that’s locally safe. Is the threat right here? Or can you at least relax for now? Polyvagal theory is relevant for understanding and developing this capacity.

Guilt & shame

I don’t think the biological answer quite explains how we come to be in the trap in the first place though. The answer to that is also partially evolutionary, but memeplex evolution instead of biological evolution. I won’t try to explain all of the context (read David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity for that) but the point is that cultures (via parents) are functionally trying to control kids’ behavior as they grow up, and the main way to do this is via undermining people’s natural towardsness motivation with reward & punishment.

Physical threat and material reward can do this crudely, but not as precisely as installing a guilt button so that people coerce themselves into doing things even when they don’t have intrinsic motivation towards it, because they’d feel bad otherwise.

There’s some subtlety here to distinguish externally installed guilt from the intrinsic pain of seeing someone you care about suffer and the particular unique flavor of pain of being the cause of that suffering. That’s part of empathy and compassion, and can be helpful for steering although ultimately you’re still going to have a better time steering towards people feeling satisfied, delighted, cared-for, loved, etc… than steering away from some sort of problem.

Various further thoughts

I once had a conversation with my friend Conor about this and he pointed out that this is part of why role models are so important. It’s not enough to have a sense of which behaviors will get you punished (or which will get you rewarded, since that still involves avoiding the appearance of doing other behaviors). You need to have a multi-dimensional destination that you know you want to iterate towards, and to be able to see how that way of being actually works.


In our goal-setting workshops, we use a framework called CSI Approach, which involves setting goals that are Challenging, Specific, Immediate, and Approach-based. The idea is the same: moving towards something is much clearer than moving away from something.


Over the last while I’ve been tracking that “want” etymologically refers to a “lack” of something—same root as “wane”. So I’ve considered trying out other phrases, though none of them flow quite as well. “I desire” is too long and too connotated for something so basic and fundamental. A friend of mine, inspired by some psychology terminology, uses “like”; the need from “I want” to “I would like” does something kind of interesting in terms of shifting to a sort of conditional conjugation—”if I had this, I would like that”. But it’s also cumbersome. Hmm.


Footnote: “positive” & “negative” are confusing words.

The emotional & common-parlance mapping is:
➕ positive ~= desire (lust, curiosity, thirst) — approach
➖ negative ~= fear (disgust, panic, etc) — avoid

but in control systems…
➕ “positive” feedback = “the more there is the more more there is” (can be an upward or downward spiral)
➖ “negative” feedback = “I need to close this gap” (aiming for a target)

This is because in control systems, negative refers to “going in the opposite direction of the gap”. So if you’re aiming for a temperature setpoint and it’s currently too warm, say +2 degrees, and in order to get to the right temperature you need a change of -2 degrees. But if it’s too cold, say -3 degrees, you need a change of +3 degrees. So either way the feedback opposes the measurement, which means multiplying by a negative number.

Whereas positive feedback is unrestricted growth, such as a virus spreading where the more virus there is out there, the faster it spreads—a positive multiplier. While this is sometimes described as “runaway growth”, it’s different from someone running from a proverbial lion, where the person doesn’t run faster the further away they get. This kind of positive feedback, as it pertains to motivation, is like being more motivated to practice the better you get, and better at something the more you practice! Perhaps in some sense running from a lion is still better described as running towards safety.


A friend of mine points out on twitter that if there are indeed doomy regions of space, it’s easier to avoid those if they’re simply marked, rather than trying to explain a detailed path that contains all that information.


Further reading:

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.



2 Comments

What is in a name » 1 Mar 2022 » Reply

Could adapt the state attractor landscape explorable

    Malcolm » 1 Mar 2022 » Reply

    Link me? I tried googling & ctrl+f on explorabl.es but didn’t find it.

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