Conflicting Desires

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool
I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.

 —  Steve Jobs

If you were in the dessert without water for more than a few hours, you would gladly trade all the money in your pocket for a glass of water. After being rescued and having access to plenty of water you would no longer want to make that trade. Water is highly valued only when you don't have enough of it. Most biological sources of motivation — e.g., the desire for food  —  work the same way: Deprivation energizes and directs the search for incentives that would reduce the biological need. The motivations of the creature you inhabit tend to rise and fall with the magnitude of deprivation.

Other motives are abstract and do not depend on your biological need at the moment. The motivation to treat people fairly is not directly influenced by how hungry or thirsty you are. However, consider the motivation of a judge who is offered a bribe to unfairly favor one side over another in legal dispute. He is vulnerable to corruption if he wants the money more than he wants to act fairly. If you were to rank order all your motivations, would Incentive Motivation be at the top?

Hasselbring’s Conflict

H's wife tells him that the next time he gets drunk she will leave him. He does, and so she does. The obvious conclusion is that H wants his alcohol more than he wants his wife. However, he earnestly denies this conclusion. He claims that he really loves her, and "being a good dad for my kids is more important than anything else in the world."

I once asked H to list his five most important sources of motivation in rank order from first to fifth — his Hierarchy of Motives. "Being a good husband and father" was first. Getting drunk was not even on the list. How can we interpret the disconnect between his actions and his claim that his greatest desire is to do right by his wife and children?

During the moments when H chooses the alcohol there is no conflict, because he was not thinking about his wife and her ultimatum — except perhaps to rebel against it. At the critical moment of decision H's attention was captured by the prospect of drinking; and the future consequences of this action was not a factor. Naturally, after she left him, and the consequences of his actions became more salient, he was highly motivated to undo his lapse, claiming he '"would do anything to get her back."

When he is in his "right mind" he says his family is more important to him than his alcohol. But despite his apparent sincerity each time he makes this claim, he repeatedly chooses the alcohol over his family. For H to act in accord with his Core Motivation he has to be aware of it during the critical high-risk moments.

Sadly, the shame that results from failing to act in accord with his Core Motivation complicates his problem and makes the heroic performance required to escape his trap less likely. Reviewing his history of relapse is painful for him, because it rekindles his shame. However, the purpose of these History Reviews is not to give him ammunition for self-punishment, but to increase his understanding of the conflict between Incentive Motivation and Core Motivation.

Clearly, H uses different criteria to appraise his options when he is in my office then when he is in a high-risk situation. In my office he wants to do what it takes to be a good dad, during happy hour with his buddies he wants to get drunk. Future conflicts are predictable. To actually be a good dad, his real-time behavior must be driven by his Core Motivation — regardless of the circumstance.

It looks different than it feels

Hasselbring's conflict seems simple from our dispassionate perspective. If only H could see things from our perspective. Needless to say, your conflict would seem simple to Hasselbring if he was observing it from his detached perspective. Shifting from the associative perspective [how it feels to the performer] to the dissociative perspective [how it looks to the observer] can enable you to act mindfully in the most difficult situations.

The fact that you can appreciate that the same event can be perceived differently from different perspectives means that you have the faculty of meta-cognitiion  — that is you are able to think about how you think. As far as we know this faculty does not exist in lower animals and does not emerge in children until upper elementry school.

Even though your current self wants to successfully resist temptation when you encounter it in the future, you understand that your future self is likely to be driven by a different motive when the incentive is nearby. To make matters worse, when you are in a high-risk situation you are likely to be more sensitive to hedonic payoffs than you are now.

The challenge you will face during a high-risk situation is different in kind than your current conceptualization of it. Despite your current understanding of that your motivation will be different during moments of temptation, it is likely that you are greatly under-estimating the degree of distortion. Moreover, your immediate environment is allowing you to access your Rational Processing System. During high-risk situations, the cognitive gifts you now take for granted will be far away.

Our challenge is to give your current [rational] self the tools to influence the actions and choices of this future self, whose motivation will be in conflict with your current motivation.

Particulars and Universals

Aristotle said that impulsive choice (‘‘akrasia’’) was the result of choosing according to ‘‘particulars instead of ‘‘universals." Kant said that the highest kind of decision-making involved making all choices as if they defined universal rules (the ‘‘categorical imperative’). The fundamental insight is that you increase your self-control by choosing according to category rather than on a case-by-case basis (e.g., a preference for leading a sober life, even as you would prefer to get smashed at this particular moment).

According to behavioral psychologist Howard Rachlin, the foundation of self-control is the perception of the act as part of a larger and attractive pattern rather than as a particular and isolated act. Failure of self-control results from failure to see acts as part of larger patterns, and success emerges once this more global level of analysis is realized.


Appraising your alternatives from the perspective of following the path of greatest advantage rather than from the PIG's perspective — what will produced the greatest hedonic payoff now — is a special case of willfullly changing your perspective. The thought experiment below will give you an opportunity to explore several different perspectives. For this thought experiment be a "method actor" and get into the suggested roles. The goals of this exercise:

  1. Become familiar with the process of intentionally shifting your perspective [Meta-Cognitive Shift].
  2. Develop an understanding , at an experiential level, that whatever you are experiencing at the moment is just your subjective experience at the moment [Meta-Cognitive Awareness]. Even though you may feel that you will die if you do not get the incentive, that is just a subjective experience that will pass. Later you will appraise that moment of decision from a different perspective, and you will be glad you did the right thing and miserable if you lapsed.

Thought Experiment: Perspective Shifting

This exercise involves shifting from your normal associative perspective to the perspective of an observer who is only interested in healing and good outcome. Just as you can appreciate Hasselbring's trap more clearly than he can, a dispassionate observer — free of state-dependent distortions —  may be able to appreciate your trap more clearly than you can.

The goal of this exercise is to shift from your personal perspective to one of the external-observer perspectives listed below. You can try on any or all of them. Specifically, how would your motivational conflicts look to an observer who is rooting for you, and that observer was:

  • Me, the author of this material, who has never met you. This detached perspective is aware of what you say you want to do and what you actually do.
  • A psychologist who knows well. This professional understands your biological vulnerabilities, personal history, and current social environment.  
  • Your guardian angel who knows everything about you.
  • Your life partner or a fictitious person who wants to be your partner for life
  • The young child version of you
  • An older version of you retrospectively looking back on the current chapter of your life

It is not free FROM what but free FOR what

Reviewing and learning from the regrettable choices you made in past can free you from the sources of influence that would condemn you to future regrets. Self-punishment is a poor substitute for investing your energy to understand yourself, your values, and the motivational conflicts that drive you. The exercises on the next page offer one approach to structuring the study of your Core Values and Hierarchy of Motives.

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