Unconscious Motivation

Unawareness of ourselves is neither scientifically suspect nor all that unusual.

Posted Jul 29, 2020

One of the core principles of psychoanalytic theory is that our problematic behavior is often unconsciously motivated, which allows us to get our way in various situations without having to admit to ourselves what it is we were up to.

The importance of the idea—that we don’t always know our own agendas—led to much discussion of it, and these discussions produced some shorthand terms like “the unconscious,” which sounds like a separate realm of the universe where the usual rules don’t apply. Scientists debunked that implication, and often in the process, they thought they were debunking the idea of unconscious motivation. Skinner (of all people, not being in the least psychoanalytic in approach or training) put that aright by noting that it is not ideas or thoughts or feelings or motives that are “unconscious” but the people having them. When you hear someone say, “unconscious hostility,” they really mean, “hostility of which the person herself or himself is unaware.”

There is a great deal about ourselves of which we are unaware for the sake of functioning efficiently. This includes our autonomic processes like breathing and heart rate, our physical discomfort when something important is at stake, and the way we appear in the eyes of others when that appearance would derail our plans. The idea of unconscious motivation, then, is neither scientifically suspect nor all that unusual; in fact, what is remarkable is that we are ever self-aware.

Still, it angers people. I imagine some people are so invested in their breathing or posture that they would resent your telling them that they were breathing heavily or sitting awkwardly when they thought they weren’t; most people do in fact take pride in knowing their own reasons and feel insulted when told they don’t. It’s apparently a common response to being told one snores: “No, I don’t”—even though the purported snorer was asleep at the time and the witness was awake.

How do you know when you are motivated to do something without your knowledge? One angle on this question is the old saying, "insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result." It may be that you intend for the result you’ve been getting but refuse to admit it to yourself.

For example, a sweet person who is always late always hopes that others will not be angry or disappointed. Maybe there is something about other people’s anger and disappointment that motivates her. This is hard to admit, and hard to understand, but as one example, she may organize her experience of social relations as a conflict between nagging parents and liberated or playful children. She doesn’t know how to feel free or playful unless someone else feels put upon, like the boy in Roethke’s poem, "My Papa’s Waltz," whose joyous dancing with his father occurs in the presence of his “mother’s countenance,” which “could not unfrown itself.” She feels something is missing when no one is nagging her, so she arranges unconsciously for others to nag her. Behaviorally, she associates joy with nagging, so nagging has become a reinforcer.

Some unconscious motivation can be identified by applying tort law. Torts (wrongs to others) are sensibly divided according to the motivation of the tortfeasor; the most important categories are intentional torts and negligent torts. Negligence requires an injury caused by a failure to fulfill a duty, and you wouldn’t say that negligent people are motivated by the injury. Negligent injuries are typically motivated by whatever led you to avoid your duty. Thus, if you ignore your duty to shovel the snow from your sidewalk and thereby cause an accident, the accident wasn’t what you were really up to; what you were really up to was staying warm or avoiding a heart attack or doing whatever you were doing when you weren’t shoveling.

Battery is the intentional tort of harmful or offensive contact. The “intention” here applies to the behavior of making contact, not to the damage done. If you intentionally cause contact with someone and they are harmed, you are legally responsible for the harm done. How do we know if you intended the contact? The legal authorities say that if you do something where the contact is “substantially certain to be produced,” then you intended the contact. This nicely avoids having to get evidence about the tortfeasor’s subjective state of mind.

In one case (Garrett v. Dailey), a 5-year-old boy pulled the lawn chair out from under an old woman just as she was sitting down. The issue was financial: If her striking the ground was intended, then her injuries were the result of battery, and a different insurer would have to pay than if the injuries were the result of negligence or accident. The judge was convinced the boy did not intend to pull a prank, but on remand and properly instructed, the judge found that even to a 5-year-old, it is was substantially certain that she would hit the ground. Therefore, it was a battery.

Substantial certainty varies with age, because adults know more about how the world works than children do. It also varies with familiarity. If you eat with the wrong hand in a different culture and offend people, it’s quite likely that you didn’t know their being offended was substantially certain to follow, and you can’t rationally be said to have been motivated by a desire to offend them. (Apply this to many microaggressions if you like, where some are substantially certain to offend and some are not.) If you offend your spouse, well, you likely intended to, especially after a few years when you know what makes them tick.

Some therapists insist that a patient’s lateness is always motivated, but that’s silly. If the patient always leaves at the same time, always hits rush hour traffic, and is always late, then the lateness—and the reactions of the therapist—were likely intended, unconsciously. But if the patient leaves at the time that usually gets them to sessions on time and runs into an unpredictable road delay, then the lateness cannot be said to have been substantially certain to follow.

One of psychoanalysis' big ideas is that we are more likely to manage our motivations successfully if we acknowledge and accept them. Motivations of which we are unconscious are like children we didn’t know we had. It’s much easier to manage your children in a department store if you know which ones are yours.