Problems with Authority, Part I

A friend of ours, R., experimented with walking a certain number of steps every day. He said during the experiment he would look at his little device, realize he needed another ninety seven steps, and walk out to get a carton of milk. Keeping track kept him motivated.

I find this interesting, not because it worked for R., but because it worked for R. and when I hear about it, I think: “If I did that, I would end up ordering pizza and making the delivery guy walk the box to my kitchen table so that I wouldn’t have to take the steps to the door.”

I have been thinking lately about decisions and motivation. I often feel like I have backed into every big decision in my life. They kind of sneak up on me. I feel like I spend lots of time thinking about what to do and why to do it, and then suddenly… “Oh! That was a kind of rude thing to do to the pizza guy.” I feel that these sneaky decisions are intricately tied up with my relationship to authority and motivation… But I don’t, for example, think that there’s any way to make me someone who could use a pedometer. Quite the opposite.

Psychologists call it “intrinsic motivation” when you do something for your own reasons, for pleasure, instead of for an external reward. One of my favorite parenting books is all about how you should never reward or punish your child. This, of course, is a noble but impossible goal. But respect, even self-respect I believe, does require a step away from rewards and punishments.  The Eskimo had a saying “By gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.” No rewards, no punishments. And now, there are behavioral economists—people who swear by the market—who claim that large cash rewards make people perform poorly on cognitive and creative tasks. Yes, that’s right. Big carrot dangling in front of you? You are likely to do worse.

I’ll come back to the implications of all this for, say, banker bonuses. First, authority and pedometers. I want to say that I recognize that my intense and evolving dislike of extrinsic motivation probably reveals deep-seated issues. Yes, I have a problem with authority. Yes, I even have a problem with internalized authority, if it feels externally imposed. If my internal authoritative voice says, “Hey, get off your butt and take some steps,” I might resent and resist. Perhaps this is a bit extreme.

In the absence of a good relationship to a pedometer, it took me an incredibly long portion of my life to figure out that exercise, for me, is Prozac. I have never taken Prozac, I am leery of psychotropic drugs. But I’m familiar with the noonday demons, and I truly believe that exercise saved me. Specifically, running and dance class. Getting my heart rate up regularly, for me, in general, keeps the demons at bay. I am not saying this to seem virtuous or to sell you on a Jane Fonda videotape. In fact, it makes me feel intensely goofy to admit that I need my dance class. But when I keep to my exercise routine, if the bottom falls out it doesn’t fall as far. I figured this out long before I actually truly followed my own advice. The way I got myself to start exercising with real regularity was to make exercise really hard to fit into my schedule. In other words, I had a child.

I figured out fairly early on that exercise was good for me. I’ve been active off and on for a while. But when I kept strict track of my exercise, when I set a quota and tried to meet it, I did less. As soon as it became precious “me time,” I did more. That moment where I used to pause while looking for my running shorts and think, “Feh… Maybe I’ve run enough in the past eight days”—that has disappeared. It was replaced with, “I have an hour, I get to go for a run!” As soon as the run was something I “got” to do and not something I “had” to do… suddenly I no longer hesitated.

Now, keeping track is not quite the same as rewarding and punishing, but the two are intimately connected. And all this gets close to but does not directly address the question of why we’re attracted to the forbidden. That’s a related question, but it’s not quite the same. The psychologists say “intrinsic motivation” is about pleasure. The behavioral economists say we need to feel “purpose and mastery.” But it’s complicated. The reason it took me even longer to give myself permission to take more dance classes than it did to start running regularly… complicated. It turns out that once you start sailing the intrinsic motivational seas, you hit some deep philosophical and psychological shoals…

(to be continued….)

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5 Responses to Problems with Authority, Part I

  1. still trying to get my mind around this one…

  2. thisblue says:

    Yeah, may be talking in circles a bit. Stay tuned for the clarity of Part II!

  3. I’m so with you. And staying tuned for clarity.

  4. It makes perfect sense. Even internal dialogues are not immune from the requirement to present things in ways that appeal and entice us. The key is to figure out how to tell yourself what you need to hear. Tone and reasoning matter.

    Unfortunately, Google has the advertising and customization chops, and Apple has the output methods (Siri), so we won’t get the ideal self-marketing, self-improvement, auto-monitoring, feedback system for a while yet.

  5. Pingback: Problems with Authority, Part II | this.blue.angel

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