Perverse Motivation

God’s error was forbidding the apple.
If He would have forbidden the serpent,
then Adam would have eaten the serpent.

–George Bernard Shaw

People often end up doing exactly what they tell themselves not to do. The intention to suppress a response has the perverse effect of making that response more likely. Edgar Allan Poe named the phenomenon: the Imp of the Perverse.

Thought Experiment: Negative Suggestion.

Try not to scratch your nose. Continue reading, but be aware that even letting your nose itch would indicate personal weakness. So try not to even think about your nose, and see if you can read to the end of this chapter without once touching your face in the area around your nose.

Trying to prevent your nose from itching perversely evokes the very reaction you are trying to prevent. The more seriously you try the greater is the effect. Two interpretations of this perverse reaction:

  • Negative Suggestion: Negative representations are defined in terms of positive representations (their opposite), but positive representations are defined directly. For example, the statement, “It is not raining,” requires one to conceptualize the meaning of the statement, “It is raining.” To understand the instruction, “Don’t let your nose itch!” the reader must access a representation of an itchy nose, which evokes that very sensation. For this reason, claiming you are not a child molester is likely to do more harm than good to your reputation. 

  • Ironic process: To determine if you are successful at having a nose that is not itching, you must compare the current sensations with what they would be if your nose was itching. According to this interpretation, it is checking to make sure you are successful at preventing your nose from itching that causes the nose to itch. Ironic, isn’t it?


Humans hate restrictions—especially of those freedoms they already have. Reactance refers to the motivation to react or rebel against restriction. In one study, two-year-old boys accompanied their mothers into a room containing equally attractive toys. The toys were arranged so that one was easily available to the child while the other stood behind a transparent Plexiglas barrier, out of reach. Naturally, the little boys wanted the one they could not have. Reactance is one explanation for the observation that: Forbidding something increases its desirability.

Never frame your intentions as a negative

From problem drinke, Hasselbring's perspective, intoxication produces both pleasurable and painful consequences. He wants the pleasure but does not want the pain. This predicament is called an Approach-Avoidance Conflict: Alcohol motivates both approach and avoidance behavior.

As H's therapist, I'd rather he frame the conflict in terms of the pleasures and pains of sobriety. It is understandable that H would frame the challenge as he does — that is, the goal is to not drink alcohol.. This formulation makes the focus of the challenge, drinking alcohol. The goal — not drinking — is derivative and abstract, and so is not as easily represented in consciousness as "drinking alcohol." For example H may represent the goal by visualizing himself drinking and intending not to do that. This way of framing the challenge has the perverse effect of evoking counter-regulatory motivation [see The Imp of the Perverse].

The focus on drinking and not drinking makes alcohol the star of this story. But  alcohol is just a chemical; it has no say in the matter. The story is about Hasselbring, his choices, and the choice he would make if he knew what was good for him, . His story is rich and complex with purpose and meaning that goes beyond not drinking. Becoming free of dependence on alcohol opens the door to the possibility of a following a meaningful path. As Nietzsche puts it, "It is not free from what, it is free for what."

Despite this theoretical rationale, there is a strong tendency to frame the challenge as getting free from dependence on the incentive. Pain is highly salient. When you are in pain, the focus of your attention is escaping it. If using the incentive causes pain, then not using it is the solution.. Sadly, the motivation to escape the pain is state-dependent. When the pain subsides, the motivation to avoid the incentive subsides as well. Memories of past pleasures resulting from incentive use may dissipate more slowly or not at all.


Attribution Theory: The Insult Is the Injury

Smoking cessation research shows that on average successful quitters failed seven times before they finally made it. Most smokers, however, interpret their pattern of relapse as evidence that they are weak or defective. The belief that the cause of the failure is within the self is called an internal attribution for failure. Explanations for failure that appeal to internal causes - such as low motivation or intelligence, a disease or character defect -  are examples of internal attribution for failure.  Attributing failure to external causes – such as luck or task difficulty – would be an external attribution for failure.

Other dimensions of Attribution Theory:

  • Stable versus changeable
    • Stable - The belief that the same inadequacy that caused me to fail in the past will cause me to fail in the future is an example of a stable attribution for failure.
    •  Changeable -  The belief that I can change how I respond to the challenge.  If I can figure out the solution I can succeed where I failed in the past.
  • Global versus Specific
    • Global – I failed because I am a failure through and through; everything I try becomes a failure; the cause of the failure is me.
    • Specific – There are specific causes for the failure.  If I perform the actions that lead to success I will succeed.

If you believe that you are intrinsically defective and powerless to change, then turning responsibility for change over to an external agent is the only alternative.  However, internal, stable, and global attributions for failure are often the result of sloppy thinking in which conclusions go well beyond the data to support them.  What it worse, these attributions promote low self-efficacy. 

Paradoxically, the belief, “I cannot exercise my will,” often results from an initial underestimate of the difficulty of this task.  You might think, “It shouldn’t be that hard to change my ways once I make up my mind, so my history of relapse means there must be something wrong with me.” In fact, it is hard to change your ways, even when you have made up your mind.  But, it is not impossible; you can do it.  The challenge is worthy of your respect and success usually results from a well-planned, sustained effort. Understand this: Your future is populated with difficult challenges; internal, stable, and global attributions for your past failures are demoralizing and will drain the energy and perseverance required to perform heroically under difficult circumstance.

Attribution and Self Image

Consider the following study, which demonstrates how internal attribution and counter-regulatory motivation can work together to influence one's appraisal of oneself: Teen-aged boys were told that a book was too sexually explicit to be read by those under 21. This restriction had the effect of dramatically increasing their desire to read the book. The experimenters knew that the attractiveness of the book was enhanced because the book was forbidden. However, ignorant of the principle of reactance, the boys attributed their motivation to read the book to a specific personal tendency to be attracted to lewd content. Forbidding the book had the perverse consequence of causing the subjects to believe that they were perverse.


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