Why do we act?

When we were members of the church, we knew very acutely how many rules and laws and words of wisdom and commandments we had to follow. Why did we keep up with it then…and why do we do what we do now? What motivates us to act?

For the past few weeks, I have been doing a lot of recruiting and networking events. I’m not even going to lie — even in such a poor economy, I’m living quite well as multiple accounting firms try to convince me to intern for their firm. So, included with that are all kinds of fringe benefits — plenty of events and activities and dinners and mixers and whatnot.

And I dunno…maybe it’s a Texas thing…but many times at these various events, they’ll only have two drinks available — tea and water. And even at one, they only had one drink available: tea. I don’t know what happened to the water.

So, I guess this is no big deal for everyone else and I’m putting a magnifying glass on something that is really quite trivial to everyone else, but occasionally, I have been asked why I won’t touch my glass.

“I don’t drink tea.”

Well, ok…but why not? This is Texas, after all! (I’ve had someone say that).

In a previous life, it would have been so easy to say, “Because of my religion.” But, I realize this is a copout answer (and not even a true copout answer for me). I mean, certainly people would understand if it was against your religion…but seriously, is that it?

Personally, I had tea once (actually, a few times, just to confirm)…it was disgusting (maybe that’s the sin I’ve been hiding all along that destroyed faith!). But that’s also a copout answer (because there are many things I have not tried [which coincidentally also fit in the word of wisdom], so I couldn’t necessarily use that excuse).

But it seems to me…that we should be acting not because our religion restrains us (which is what the answer, “Because of my religion” so often sounds like), but because we personally are motivated not to do certain things and are motivated to do other things. I can say even now…I am not motivated to drink, so I do not. I’ve seen others succumb to the peer pressure, but maybe I’m a robot and immune to it. Whatever the case is, if I don’t want to do something, I’m not going to do it*. (Unfortunately for my bishop and parents, I suppose, this also applies to the church or parental requests.) *But perhaps the whole point of peer pressure is that group pressure can change your very wants.

And I guess that’s how I’ve changed since then. The difference since leaving the church has been that I am more flexible with my motivations and demotivations. I don’t have to feel bad or guilty for wanting something that was bad just because the church said it was so.

So, what’s been more interesting of a question to me is…how do we want to do certain things, and learn to want to not do other things? It’s easy to realize that “we act because we are motivated to act in certain ways.” And it’s also easy to recognize that, with free will, we can choose to act against our natural motivations (although the jury is out on whether this is a net positive in all cases). But this just backs the question up one step, and now we have to wonder about what motivates us and how we can change these motivations.

Andrew S

Andrew S grew up in a military family, but apparently, that didn't make much of an impression upon him because he has since forgotten all of his French and all of his Hangungmal (but he does mispronounce the past tense of "win" like the Korean currency and thinks that English needs to get it together!) Andrew is currently a student at Texas A&M who loves tax accounting, the social sciences, fencing (epee), typography, presentation design, and public speaking, smartphones, linux, and nonparallel structured lists.

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14 Responses

  1. chanson says:

    I think “what motivates us?” is a very hard question that doesn’t have a simple answer…

  2. Jonathan says:

    And it’s also easy to recognize that, with free will, we can choose to act against our natural motivations…

    You don’t really want to get into free will do you? 🙂

    Most people don’t really examine the thing they call free will. The more I think about it, the less sense the concept makes. I defy anyone to give me a rigorous definition of free will. 🙂

    I think what we call free will is really the self-awareness that allows us to step back from our instincts and observe them and make conscious chooses about them. Most of our choices are not made at the conscious level. Most of the time we live like the animals seem to do: acting on whatever unconscious desire demands priority at the moment.

    We have apparently evolved the ability to reflect on those individual desires rather than simply acting instantaneously. (I’m not human-chauvinistic enough to think we’re the only ones who can do this.)

    This leads us to swallow the illusion that we make choices independent of outside influence. Setting quantum indeterminacy aside for a moment, the world at our scale is governed by deterministic laws. There is no evidence that human will violates those deterministic laws.

    Our brains can be manipulated in the laboratory to make a choice (such as whether to steer left or right on an obstacle course) determined by an experimenter. We can be manipulated like puppets on strings. Even further, the subjects consciously believe that they have made those choices of their own free will (and choice?).

    This seems to me to say that free will is a lie that our consciousness tells us. It makes up a story to explain why we did something. We believe that we have free will therefore if we decide to do something, it must be because we chose to do it freely. All evidence that I’m aware of points to the conclusion that we’re all meat machines—extremely adorable, utterly complex meat machines.

    Our choices are an infinitely complex dance between our selves and the world outside of our selves, determined by laws governing how the dance proceeds. (Where to draw that line between self and not self is another discussion.)

  3. Elaine says:

    My answer, when asked why I don’t drink tea (or coffee, or hard liquor) is simple: I don’t like it, and I can’t see why I have to drink (or eat) something I don’t like just because someone else thinks I should to be social or to be polite or, well, just because.

    Just like I no longer participate in the Mormon church just because someone else thinks I should.

    I suppose some people think that is horrible of me, but I spent too many years doing things I didn’t want to just to make other people comfortable or happy, or to have them approve of me. I don’t do that anymore.


  4. Andrew S says:

    Re 2:

    sorry, illusion of free will!

    But regardless, what you describe as free will (which makes sense to me) *is* critical. This self-awareness, even though it too is also chemically created is vital.

    Consider, Jonathan, that it could be that our senses are lying to us. It is certainly *possible* that our senses consistently and reliably lie to everyone of us. However…regardless of this possibility (let’s grant that this is REALITY), it’s silly to go about living our lives with this fact. Because our sense so consistently and reliably lie to us, it doesn’t matter if we believe a persistent lie or not.

    Free will could be something like that. In this case, the illusion of free will is a persistent, consistent, reliable and useful lie. So whether we do or do not REALLY have free will is irrelevant. For all important intents and purposes, our socially perceived reality believes in free will (e.g., our crime systems…our morality systems…etc., all start with a premise that we have accountability for our actions that requires some freedom to choose)

  5. Andrew S says:

    Re 3:

    So, Elaine, does this reasoning cause you to try everything *once* to see if you will like or dislike it?

    It seems to me that we already have preconceptions about these things…but are they reliable, since they can be so swayed by our upbringing? Does it matter if they are reliable or not?

  6. chanson says:

    I don’t know. Coming from a goal-oriented culture, I feel like I can select where I want to be and then direct my actions to get there. OTOH, perhaps the admission “coming from a goal-oriented culture” indicates environmental factors… 😉

  7. Craig says:

    Totally sidestepping the whole “free will” conversation, I think that as an ExMormon, we can’t rely on our preconceptions or intuitions about a lot of things, especially for those of us who were raised in the church.

    With regards to things forbidden by the WoW, I’ve adopted the policy of trying (almost – I’m not probably going to try heroin or cocaine) everything a couple times before giving up on it – and I have to say that the first time I tried tea, coffee, wine, liquor, I didn’t like it, but I kept trying it, knowing that I had been programmed to not like it, and now I love all those things. I think that even one try isn’t enough.

    From my perspective, someone saying that they don’t drink tea because they tried it a couple times and didn’t like it, is like saying you don’t like cheese because you tried Stilton once and didn’t like it. I love tea, and there are still several types or preparations of tea that I don’t like, no matter how many times I try them.

    Also, growing up in Mormonism, you’re only ever told of negative things about coffee, tea, alcohol, but none of the positives. I think that a person who really doesn’t want Mormonism to influence their decisions needs to really examine why they’re doing what they do. I know several people who are no longer Mormon, and yet still hesitate at drinking alcohol. They still have an unrealistic and I think unhealthy view of alcohol, as well as a lot of other things, even though they no longer believe in Mormonism.

  8. Andrew S says:

    Re Craig:

    Do we have a duty to trudge through many things we do not like to find something we do? Would this not sound like people who say, “Don’t be so quick to say you’re gay; you just haven’t met the right girl”?

    the analogy is flawed for more reasons than one (food taste actually *is* malleable…you can “acquire” a taste in a great many things…but that doesn’t quite work so well in sexual orientation)…but still, it seems that the similarities of the thought process still tell us *something*.

  9. Jonathan says:

    The usefulness of believing in freewill is debatable, and there people working to change the basis of our moral and legal reasoning. I’ve become constitutionally incapable of accepting the lie—it’s part of why I’m an exMo.

    I think the freewill discussion lies at the heart of your question. For example, I don’t drink even though I’m theoretically free to do so now that I don’t believe it’s a sin. I can give you a handful of reasons why I say I choose not to. But if I pay attention, sometimes I can see that I that it’s not a purely conscious decision.

    At a recent conference, I was offered free wine at a reception. Reflexively, I said “No, thanks.” Immediately I started with the rationalization of why I made that choice, but the truth is that it was a reflex born out of training and fear. The rationalizations are the lie that helps me preserve the illusion of freewill.

    Knowing this brings the process into conscious awareness which means that I have a chance to make less reflexive choices in the future. So I’d much rather get beyond the illusion of freewill. It helps me bring my higher reasoning skills to bear, when that’s appropriate.

  10. Jonathan says:

    Oh, and tea did taste weak and rather disgusting at first. It’s grown on me after I forced myself to learn to like it (like I did with dill pickles and raw mushrooms). I told myself it was for the health benefits of green tea. I think I really wanted to rebel a little and be like all those neverMos drinking their morning tea. 🙂

    Anyway, make sure to try some of the flavored teas if you haven’t already. They were much more enjoyable for me as a tea-newbie.

  11. chanson says:

    I hated tea at first too. Coffee was easier to start with (mixed half-and-half with chocolate back in my BYU days). Now I really like black tea (especially Lapsang Suchong), and I’ll take green tea if there’s no black, but I’ve never really developed a fondness for any kind of “herbal tea” — just real tea.

    And I agree that you shouldn’t feel compelled to try something you don’t like over and over until it grows on you if you don’t want to. Yet sometimes it’s fun to put a little effort into things that people say are an “acquired taste,” to see if they really are worth the effort.

  12. Craig says:

    Do we have a duty to trudge through many things we do not like to find something we do?

    No, I don’t think we’ve a “duty” to do much of anything. I do think that life is more exciting and fulfilling though if we experience more things.

    Yet sometimes it’s fun to put a little effort into things that people say are an “acquired taste,” to see if they really are worth the effort.


  13. Elaine says:

    Andrew S….I don’t generally feel compelled to try something just to see if I like it.

    I’m not of the school of thought that believes it is necessarily a good thing to do something just to say you’ve done it.

    I suppose what it comes down to is, I only have myself to answer to, so if I want to try something, I will. If I don’t want to, then I don’t, even if someone urges me to do so. I don’t have anything to prove to anyone. And there are some things that I can be pretty sure I won’t like without trying them. Peer pressure is for impressionable teenagers, something I haven’t been for some time now.

  1. June 13, 2009

    […] sucked willing sucked myself into a discussion of atheism)…and way back when on MSP I asked why we act. A rather elementary question, I […]

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