Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Note on Motivation

I hope it does not reflect their IQ, but far too many denizens of the therapy culture have cranked up their minds and concluded that shame is bad and that guilt is good.

They are right in part. It is bad to feel shame.

But, while guilt is the right emotion when you have committed or thought to commit a crime, it is hardly transformative. The honor belongs to shame.

Some therapists believe that guilt is more likely to provoke a change in behavior than is shame. If this were true, psychoanalysis would be far more effective than cognitive and behavioral therapies. Since we know that the opposite is the case, this judgment should be dismissed as so much junk thought.

There is one way to avoid shame.

You keep your pants on. You behave with dignity, propriety, decorum and responsibility. If you make these habitual, you will have shielded yourself from shame.

If you prefer not to avoid shame, you have other options.

You can drop your pants and demand to be praised for your candor. It doesn’t make any sense, but some people make it a point of pride to show off their shamelessness, that is, their lack of pride.

Also, if, upon getting caught with your pants down, you do not immediately pull them up, you can numb yourself to the shame by denouncing those who would judge you ill for your shamelessness.

With guilt, there is one basic way to reduce it. You accept punishment.

Since guilt is an anticipation of punishment for a transgression or crime, you dissipate it with one or another form of punishment, with penance or self-criticism or even self-flagellation.

To each his own.

Now behavioral economists have come to believe that the threat of punishment is a great motivator. One questions their use of the notion of punishment here. True enough, sanctions matter. Shame is a sanction. Guilt anticipates a different kind of sanction.

Thus, we will want to know what sanction they have in mind.

I question the use of the term punishment, largely because it is most often associated with guilt, not shame. When Peter Ubel reports on the latest experiments, he is not showing outcomes that involve punishment. The sanction that applies when someone fails to fulfill a commitment is shame.

Since guilt ensues when you break a law, not when you fail to fulfill a commitment. If you do not show up for dinner on time or do not hand in an assignment when it is due, you do not feel guilt; you are embarrassed. Embarrassment is a mild form of shame.

The issue applies directly to the question of motivation. The studies suggest that you are more motivated to complete a task when you have promised someone else that you would do so.

If you take it out of your mind and put it into a conversation with another individual you will be more motivated. Presumably, you are more concerned with the way you look to the other person than with the way you feel about yourself.

Your willpower, however strong it is, does not motivate as well as your wish to be seen as the kind of person who keeps his or her word.

The wish to avoid shame will propel you to complete a task. Guilt feelings will make you self-absorbed.

According to the researchers, you are more motivated when you make what they call a pre-commitment. Here again the vocabulary is misleading. When you promise someone that you will hand in a paper, you have made a commitment, not a pre-commitment. You have given your word. You have pledged something.

If you fail to complete the assignment on time you will feel shame. If you complete it on time you will feel pride. 

For the record, the primary motivation might be to feel pride, even more than the fear of shame.

My caveats notwithstanding, we can understand well what Peter Ubel reports:

But [Prof. Janet] Schwartz’s unusual enticement recognized that people will adopt precommitment strategies when they recognize the desirability of a goal but believe that their will power will not, absent the threat of punishment, be strong enough to resist temptation. Graduate students employ precommitment devices when they promise their mentors that they will bring a draft of the paper to next Tuesday’s meeting, thus facing potential shame if the draft is not delivered on time. And millions of Americans use it when they commit to having income tax withheld from their paychecks throughout the year, in order to receive a large refund after April 15th. The idea behind these precommitment strategies is simple: if the harms of a behavior are not enough to motivate you to change your ways, then you can opt to add to those harms.

I would only qualify this conclusion in one sense. People are not motivated by the fear of shame as much as they are by the more positive wish to affirm their good character.


Wm Sears said...

In other words there is a difference between guiltless and shameless.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Very good... thanks for the enlightening observation.

Ares Olympus said...

re: The wish to avoid shame will propel you to complete a task. Guilt feelings will make you self-absorbed.

I like simple conclisions, but I confess I'm not sure on any of it. At least it really seems like we need a clearer road map between the positive and negatives of both guilt and shame.

I would think guilt is related to the conscience, and it often contains a sort of black and white authoritarian perspective of right and wrong. And its a powerful inner voice as long as as we can identify "correct action" so we can avoid conflict with others and identify corrective measures when we stray, like an apology for a transgression.

And yet perhaps all of that can also fit under shame as well? But the difference of shame would seem to be pride-centered so "covering up" is an effective tactic, and so what matters isn't facts but perception of facts, so if you can cheat on your physics final, your guilt will rise, and perhaps be compensated by some good deeds or clever rationalizations, while your shame at needing to cheat can stay hidden, as long as no else one knows.

So it would seem shame is good at helping us compartmentalize our self awareness in a way that we can hide what's shameful, but only in the context that it is shameful, while allowing other contexts to have no taboos.

In regards to "completing a task", its an interesting idea - does promising someone something allow shame to help you achieve it?

And the clear answer is YES, as long as you have no way to cheat, or lie. You know, like borrowing money from your dad, and telling him you're getting your finances in order, and so you make sure to repay him 10% per paycheck, off the top, and he compliments your good behavior, while you're still using your credit card and just making minimum payments there, while your balance is increasing each month.

So you're ashamed that you can't seem to get your spending down, and don't tell your dad the truth, and feel like a fraud, but you don't want to disappoint him by telling him the truth, so you keep quiet, and look good, while just delaying your wicked day of destiny into a future where you'll get that raise, or win the lottery and finally get it under control.

So from that example, we can see it is shame that requires his secrecy over his out of control debt, and shame means he must suffer alone, and feel like a failure.

I actually had a conversation with my minister about this a couple years ago, specifically I convinced him that people's pride would encourage some to tithe 10% even when their personal debt was increasing, so on his tithing sermon he said that people should see paying down debt (beyond minimum payments) as a substitute for tithing.

In contrast, I told this story to a friend who was serious about his tithing who said basically church comes first no matter what, and our task as Christians is to budget what's left. But he admitted he was living paycheck to paycheck, and was carrying a credit card balance, but he said that was his problem, nothing to do with his promises to the church.

So that validates the idea how pride (and shame) motivate, and it works as long as it works, but the question to me is whether that same pride encourages you to lie rather than confess your failures.

I imagine the same predicaments happen for pyramid schemers, who make promises they can't keep, but find "creative book-keeping" to keep funds flowing, and if it works, they can ignore their guilt, focus on all the people they're helping with their charity events, etc, and believe their own pretend world, until finally the compartments start leaking into each other, and everything falls down.

I'm sure there are lots of examples, and without examples, its hard to know what we're really saying.