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Content created: 060704 & 120815
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Quick Essays on Social Theory

Interpreting Motivation

What Does “Why” Mean?

When we ask why something happens, the question can be understood several quite different ways. For example, if we ask “why are they at war?” we could be referring to how “war” is defined, or to the resources that are involved in war, or the events or motivation that began the war, or the strategies being pursued in the war, or the reasons why the war continues.

For present purposes, we confine ourselves to human motivations. Human motivations have several quite different facets. Our behavior is influenced by our goals, our values, our emotions, our character, and so on.

Goals (Conscious & Unconscious)

Among the most important of these motivations are the actors’ goals. But why somebody does something is not always easy to understand. Just looking at the behavior, or its results, does not necessarily explain what someone was intending or trying to do. I can knock you down to hurt you or I can knock you down to save you from a hail of bullets.

People are not always aware of their own motivations. They can be motivated by unconscious goals that they themselves have difficulty identifying and explaining. (“She dresses like that because she is emotionally insecure.” “He is dragging out his jet lag so as to impress people with all his travel.”) To answer the question “why” a given person does something, we need to try to take account of goals, whether they are conscious or unconscious.

Furthermore, a person’s goals can be affected by his or her emotional state. For example, people affected by road rage or fear or lust or ennui may act to achieve goals that they may or may not care about in other situations.

Bottom Line(s): (1) Goals may be conscious or unconscious, and they are influenced by values and beliefs (i.e., they are culturally variable.) and by and emotional states. (2) Goals influence action, but looking at the action does not, in itself, show you the goals.

Consequences (Intended & Unintended, Recognized & Unrecognized)

Presumably all our behavior is motivated by our goals, whether they are conscious or unconscious. That is, we act because we desire (what we believe will be) the consequences of our actions. That doesn’t mean that we want all of the consequences. Some consequences are irrelevant or negative “side effects” of our behavior. And there may be some consequences that we don’t foresee at all. In other words, the actual consequences of behavior are not the same as the goals of behavior. Many consequences are unintended, whether or not they are (consciously or unconsciously) recognized by the actors.


For historians and social scientists, as well as for reporters and the general public, it is tempting (but irresponsible) to consider only the consequences of behavior in order to estimate its motivation. For example, such and such a member of the board of directors votes a certain way, and as a consequence the value of his stock goes up. We readily infer that he was motivated to vote as he did with the conscious goal of raising the value of his stock, and that he is therefore corrupt. In fact, however, we do not know that he really had such a goal.

In other words, whether talking about individuals, groups, or even whole societies, it is a fundamental logical error to assume that the consequence of any action was necessarily consciously intended.

The best way to study human motivation is by means of depth interviews with the humans involved. To study large numbers of people, depth interviews are not practical. For people already dead, they are not possible. So what is the next best thing? Most specialists go through a series of procedures designed to develop an approximation to such interviews:

  1. Analyze the consequences of the behavior, asking what might have been intended.

    For example: She might have meant to play the old piano loudly to impress her friends; not to break it. OR She might have always hated that old piano and might have pounded hard hoping (consciously or unconsciously) to break it so they would have to get a new one.
  2. Search for all possible evidence about conscious intention but also evidence suggesting relevant unconscious intentions.

    For example: He claimed to love his more handsome and more talented older brother but was probably unconsciously envious and experienced especially strong resentment when his brother also inherited the whole estate.
  3. Include evidence about the values and beliefs, religion, ethics, social structure, and so on of the people involved, so as to limit guesses about probable goals to exclude unlikely ones. (Not everybody has your values.)

    For example: All Persian aristocrats had slaves, but they treated them differently.
  4. Compare what we know about the motivations of other people in similar circumstances, including people who live in similar kinds of societies (since people in the same circumstance may act for the same reasons). (This is referred to as “ethnographic analogy,” a critical technique in understanding extinct societies.)

    For example: The challenge for a farmer who has just sold his crop is to prevent his relatives from trying to “borrow” the money; one way in many societies is to lend it immediately to a non-relative, but not to a stranger, so that is not immediately available, but can be retrieved eventually.
  5. Always remember that the result is a guess. However well reasoned, a guess is a guess; it is not a fact. It may persuade a friend, a voter, a reader, a commentator, or a jury. That still doesn’t make it a fact.

    For Example: We will never really know whether Constantine’s death-bed conversion to Christianity was more religious or more political.

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