unleashing motivation: repulsion propels attraction

eager child

Have you noticed that motivations can change over time? For instance, for a child, there may be an attraction to something familiar, like a favorite character from TV. However, the same child will inevitably switch which character is their favorite. The toddler who is excited about Barney or Blues Clues or another cartoon character will eventually prefer something more mature, like Harry Potter or Hannah Montana or even James Bond.

There are two basic forms of motivation: attraction and repulsion. The most powerful motivations will combine an attraction toward a specific outcome as well as repulsion from a specific existing condition. In other words, instead of just an interest (attraction) toward something or just an annoyance (repulsion), there will be propulsion. There will be motion, action, change, experimentation, learning, and achievement.
For the young child, they have not yet developed a capacity to independently create alliances. There is no reason for some stranger to simply make thousands of T-shirts with a popular TV character and then give the shirts away to kids. So, for the young child to get those shirts, they typically would need someone else to buy it for them.

Maybe the child receives a shirt as an uninvited gift. However, anyone who has walked through a store with a child (or as a child) may recall the tendency of children to make repeated requests for someone to get them what they want.

Did you forget which TV character is their favorite? They did not. They will remind you.

Did you notice when they no longer are interested in “baby stuff” and now they only want things for “big kids?” Again, if you forget, they will remind you, right?
Social validation can be important. When a bunch of children are crammed together in a tight area, that can be stressful for them. How do they cluster in to pairs and small groups to adapt to all the distractions?

Children of the same size tend to cluster together. However, what if they are all about the same size? Then what will they use to clump in to smaller groups that are less stressful?

Kids glance around at the other kids and see obvious things like how different people are dressed. If one child has a shirt with a popular TV character, then some other kids will recognize that and approach that child who is “obviously like them” (because they like the same thing- that TV character).
Earlier, the issue of propulsion was mentioned. How does the above example relate to propulsion? Let’s review.

If one child has a colorful shirt featuring a popular TV character and another child recognizes that character as one that they also like, when will that produce an “approach?” Notice that in some cases, the observing child will simply go right over to the other child who is wearing the shirt. In other cases, the observing child will ask the familiar adult “can I go talk to them?” Further, the observing child may simply point to the shirt (ignoring the child wearing it) and then say to an adult “I like that shirt.” Or, maybe one child will say to the other “I like your shirt,” but without physically approaching the other child to start a conversation or play.
The element of attraction is easy to consider. Obviously, the child is attracted to some shirts and ignores many other shirts. Also, if the child is on the way to do something very attractive to them, then seeing a shirt that they like will barely be noticed.

What about the element of repulsion? We have not really discussed this issue yet, but anyone who is experienced with children may recognize the following.

What happens when the child knows that they are on the way to do something that frightens them? What if “it is almost time to go” and then the child suddenly experiences “intense interest” in “just saying hello” to that one child with that one T-shirt who has been on the same playground for the last 10 minutes but now all of a sudden the child “simply must go say hello quickly?”

Have you noticed what happens after they are quick to say hello? Yes, they do say hello very quickly. However, after they say hello quickly, what about playing one “very short” game of tag “real quick?”

The more that the child dreads “the next destination” (whether that is the shoe store or Gramma’s house or the church youth group), the more important it may be for them to “just say hello real quick.” How long does it take for the child’s favorite TV character to change? They child asks you what is happening after you leave the park, then you tell them “we are going to the doctor’s office real quick for you to get some shots.” Suddenly, amazingly, at the speed of light, the child’s favorite TV character changes to what? The child looks around the park and sees someone wearing a “Dora the Explorer” t-shirt just like the one they had just a few years ago! How cute! How interesting! How exciting!
In my exploration of social psychology, I do not recall ever learning about the importance of combining repulsion and attraction to create surges of power. I heard that “some people are dominated by risk avoidance and others are dominated by pursuit of pleasure.” I get that, at times, people avoid risk or pursue pleasure, but how accurate is it that “they are exactly two isolated types of people: risk-avoiders and pleasure-seekers?” Is an individual’s tendency toward one form of motivation aboslutely eternal as in “genetic?”

In the “positive thinking” subculture, it may not be popular to say this, but repulsion can be far more powerful than attraction. What do I mean?

Imagine that you are inside a building and then suddenly you hear some loud crackling sounds and smell smoke then see flashes of orange like a fire? You instantly would stop whatever “very attractive” thing you were doing and look to see if there is a fire, right? If there is a fire, you will EITHER take immediate action to extinguish that fire or take immediate action to get away from the fire (perhaps making a point to grab a few items or wake a few people first).

The threat of getting burned or dying from smoke inhalation is far more powerful than the typical attractions that people experience. Intense repulsion vetoes familiar attractions, at least temporarily. You exit the building promptly.
One challenge with exploring the issue of repulsion is that the subject is… repulsive. We may tend to habitually avoid things that we find disgusting or shameful or infuriating.

However, exploring the various triggers of repulsion is not essential in this presentation. The point here is to recognize the importance of repulsion within the study of motivation.

The strongest attraction that we experience generally will be whatever we focus on most often. In fact, if we love to talk about how a particular thing is not how it should be, that is not something that powerfully repulses us. That is an issue that attracts our attention. We would not intentionally bring up issues that powerfully repulse us (or not in an organized commentary). Things that trigger shame or panic or denial will only be addressed when there is no other alternative. Oo- that reminds me: did I mention that I saw someone at the park today who was wearing a Dora t-shirt?

We totally avoid things that intensely repulse us. If other people bring them up, then we either ignore the subject, or quickly change the focus of the interaction, or justify an immediate withdrawal from the interaction. We do NOT talk for hours about how that thing should not be how it is (and should be some other way… so how can we reofrm it to conform to our ideals about how it should have already been). If we do that, then the subject of that conversation is not a subject that triggers intense repulsion in us. It is possible for us to be hysterical about an issue (like to argue furiously for months about some political proposal), but the issue in which we display the hysteria might not be the actual root of the hysteria, right?
Still, repulsion can be very important. Attraction is what sets our destination. A stronger attraction will produce a change of destination.

However, that is usually a relatively easy issue. Except in cases in which people have suppressed their natural envies and desires, they will know what they are attracted to. If they are repulsed by the idea of admitting what attracts them, that is not uncommon, but the strongest attraction will still attract whether they admit it or not.

How do you tell what attracts someone? Just notice their patterns of behavior. What outcomes do their actions repeatedly produce? They may attempt to distract others with their words and “acting out a role.” However, everyone experiences attraction, including attraction for the familiar, attraction to familiar slogans about “nothing attracts me,” and so on.

Instead, notice what they habitually condemn. Why so much attention on that subject? Why initiate a focus on it?

They may be attracted to it, but ashamed of the attraction, so they display verbal repulsion while demonstrating a foundation of strong attraction. If they complain about a government being too powerful, then they are interested in power, but they are not acting on that interest. They are slowly cultivating the interest and studying it. They may say it disgusts them. Does it?

Imagine someone who say that they hate the heat of eating cayenne pepper, but keep tasting a little bit of it and say “see, it is still way too hot for me!” If they do that twenty times in one hour, then maybe they are secretly attracted to the heat.

We do not repeatedly initiate conversations about things that disgust us. What we might do though is say that something disgusts us when in fact it infuriates us. Fury and disgust are quite distinct. Fury includes demonstrations of assertiveness. Disgust does not.
I have repeated a few times that attraction sets our destination (our focus). However, what motivates change most powerfully is often not just attraction.

Imagine a sleeping dog. If you put a bone in the dog’s mouth, the dog may start chewing on it, but continue to sleep. But what happens if the smoke alarm goes off?

Repulsion wakes us up. Repulsion motivates action. Repulsion even motivates attraction.

“Next, after we leave the park, we are going to the doctor’s office for you to get a few shots real quick.” Suddenly, you are told that every child on the playground has a fascinating t-shirt, right?
Repulsion is key to motion. Attraction MIGHT produce motion.

Here are some variations: Strong repulsion without attraction will not produce well-organized planning. Very strong repulsion with mild attraction will produce poorly-organized planning (with lots of anxiety and irritability in the background). Strong repulsion with strong attraction will produce thorough planning and discplined implementation.

What is the key to highly-effective planning? Motivation will produce effectiveness. When there is motivation, but no effectiveness, then motivation will consistently pursue effectiveness until effectiveness begins to develop.

To plan well, there must be some attraction (to bring the target in to focus), plus strong repulsion (to motivate a careful investment of time in to planning, gathering any relevant resources, and implementing the plan). If people say “but I do not have enough resources to do that yet,” that may not be a lack of attraction to the outcome. They may be truly frustrated. In that case, what they lack is clarity about repulsion. If they experienced powerful repulsion (without habitual coping mechanisms to dampen out the repulsion), then that woul dmotivate innovation.
So, the key to coaching is an ability to assist someone in regard to two related issues: first, identifying what attracts them (without condeming their attraction based on socially-programmed ideals) and, second, properly accessing the power of what repulses them. Too much repulsion will typically lead to disorder. Too little experience of what repulses them will not produce consistent investment. They will no release prior habits.

What if you suddenly noticed that your house is one fire? Repulsion will motivate change. To motivating lasting change, there must be an access to lasting repulsions (which includes experiencing a fire in such a traumatizing way that a person creates a new habit, like always identifying the location of fire extinguishers and carefully checking them). In fact, creating repulsion toward old habits CAN be very effective for motivating new habits.




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