Housekeeping Note »« The Cockroach of Motivation

Aversive and Achievement Goals

[Related to The Cockroach of Motivation. If you're here and generally consider yourself part of the rationality community, check out the quick note first.]

In psychology, especially the subsector focused on motivation and identity, there’s this idea of future possible selves: the ways you imagine yourself being as you go forward. You can have lots of them at once: being good at math, popular with friends, owning a pet, being responsible, not procrastinating, being known as friendly, avoiding debt, etc. Some of them are considered ‘positive’ and some ‘negative’. This has little to do with the actual goal you want, as how you frame it. Are you aiming to ‘be X’ or ‘not be Y’? The first is positive, the second negative. In other words, one is about achieving something (grades, a relationship, being known as a certain personality trait), the other about being averse to something (procrastinating, failing a class, debt).

In general, people who have more specific and elaborate positive possible/future selves (rather than an equal mix of negative possible selves and positive possible selves, or lots of elaborate future selves they want to avoid) seem to be more motivated and persistent. (here, here, and here)

If you pull this apart, it fits. One of the roles of future selves is something to become more like or less like. If you check in with yourself about whether or not you’re achieving this, you’ll probably get markedly different results from positive future selves and negative future selves. It’s easier to mentally rehearse Doing Something than it is to mentally rehearse Not Doing Something.

And I’ve been using this framework to poke about it my goal setting and motivations. I’ve started tagging things as aversive (negative/go away from/be less like) or achieving (positive/aim for/be more like), and then flipping them around the axis.

Here’s an aversive one, as I decided when to have a stressful phone call:

I don’t want to be the sort of person who avoids things because they’re emotionally weighty.

Okay, I feel fairly good about wanting this. I don’t want to be someone who avoids these interactions! I’m  impressed by people who dive right in to figuring out emotions that make me want to mentally recoil. I find myself frustrated when people aren’t willing to introspect.

But I also flip it around to achievement:

I want to be the sort of person who tackles emotionally weighty conflicts.

Actually, I feel even better about this framing. Not only that, but I’m likely to be able to notice when I get closer to this goal. Hello, availability heuristic, let me use you to my advantage!

Take the aversive framing: when I ping my brain and ask “Have I been the sort of person who avoids things because they’re emotionally weighty?” I’m asking it to come up with times when I’ve avoided things that were emotionally weighty. If the question is Am I This Person, and This Person is defined by “not avoiding”, I’m going to pull up times when I avoided–it’s faster to locate instances of something happening than discrete instances of something not-happening. As Robby put it, it’s easier to remember elephants than not-elephants. So suddenly I’m recalling all the times I screwed up. Wheeee!

But look at what happens with the positive framing: I ask myself Have I been the sort of person who tackles emotionally weighty conflicts? And now the elephant that my beleaguered brain is looking for is instances of dealing with emotionally-heavy conflicts. Suddenly, I have a list of times I did the right thing!

And even if I don’t have a list right now–maybe I still haven’t achieved this future self–I know that I’ll be closer when I have a longer list. Whereas with the aversive framing, it’s probably always going to be possible to come up with an example or two when I avoided a stressful conversation. If I think about the goal like that…well, I’ll likely end up frustrated with myself even when things have improved. “I could do better!” is a useful mindset, but when it plays out into “I suck just slightly less than I used to” repeatedly, it’s hard to motivate myself.

Yeah, but what if you already frame goals in the achievement direction?

I want to prioritize cooking meals for myself. 

Nice and achievement-oriented. So I flipped it around:

I want to not fail to prioritize cooking for myself.

…which, uh, sounded a little bit awkward and ungainly. What the hell did that even mean? How would I know if I was ‘not failing to prioritize’? And this train of thought lead my brain into figuring out exactly what prioritizing meant–if only so I could rescue that sentence from its awkward grammatical puberty. One obvious way was to define my terms in the aversive condition:

I want to avoid eating out more than twice a week.

Evanesco double negatives, Accio simple sentences!

Which also gave me a better achievement orientation:

I want to cook meals all but two times a week.

And beyond rescuing a horrible sentence, I’d now spent more than a few mental cycles on this goal. I’d turned it over in my head, defined the more nebulous bits, and pictured and discarded other versions of the plan.



Hello LW/Rationalists/People Who Were Curious and Clicked the Anchor: make sure to keep an eye to the abstract and methods section within research links. For some reason, the LW colloquial usage of ‘future/possible self’ doesn’t quite jive with how they’re operationalizing it, and this will save you time and confusion. If that doesn’t clear things up, here’s me giving a more informal explanation. [Return to top.]

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