Positive vs. Negative Motivation

This is just going to be a quick coverage of the concept; I don’t have much more explicit knowledge of it than this. Intuitively, the distinction between positive motivation and negative motivation is that of positive emotions versus negative motivations. Positive emotions being things that attract you, like excitement, anticipation, and joy. Negative motivation comes instead from fear, worry, guilt, etc. In a discussion with others two weeks ago, we came up with additional dichotomies between them. Besides the nature of the driving emotions, positive motivation tends to revolve around creating good results, and negative motivation seeks to avoid bad results.

Most central though, is the distinction between doing, and not doing. It’s a working hypothesis, but it seems that negative emotion is superior if there is a specific, concrete action you want to avoid taking. At least, it’s much better at that than avoiding abstract results, like “don’t disappoint others”. Positive emotion seems superior at taking an action, such as exercising. Judging from various reports of successful people and our own experiences, it also seems superior at long-term abstracts, such as getting more fit, impressing others, or completing a project.

Unfortunately, in most cases the language used to describe something can be interpreted through either motivational system, and one system or the other seems to dominate our perspective at different points in our lives. Take the goal of “getting more fit”. If you have this goal, are you doing it to not be overweight, to not look bad? Or are you doing it to feel great and look great? Are you trying to evade the current situation, or are you excited about the future state of affairs? Pointedly, are you trying to avoid the extinction of the human race, or working excitedly towards a brilliant future?

This post is mostly meant to explain the concept and its benefits. For anyone interested in techniques to move from a negative to a positive motivation, one thing that I’ve found helpful is being aware of my framing, and mentally reframe when desired. I can’t change my entire emotional undercurrent on command, but I can work a little change in the perspective I use, and that seems to have significant and cumulative effects. Generally increasing my positive emotions has also helped.

Closing this up, I’d like to point out that not only is positive motivation more productive, but it’s also a hell of a lot more fun.

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