Managing Each Other's Motivations

20 May 2018

Although in recent years the literature on preference change has grown (see especially Grüne-Yanoff & Hansson 2009), formal treatments of motivational change remain fragmentary at best. We do not understand well how our motivational landscape develops. I want to suggest that at the same time we manage each other’s motivations on a daily basis and with perhaps surprising success. While we sometimes say “each to their own”, as often we try to make each other change their wants and preferences.[0]

We can categories the cases of social motivational management by how superficial or deep they go. When I offer the baker 50 pence for a product, I manage her motivations. I make her want to give me that product.[1] But there is no great mystery in how I manage her motivations; basically I employ an incentive. The interesting cases are those, where we do not change the other’s material incentives and still succeed in changing their motivational landscape.

For example, I might try to persuade a friend that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman-series is a great piece of literature without bribing them. In some cases, I am merely providing information they lacked before. I could point out how the subplot around Hob Gadling successfully presents the larger theme of persistence and change. Hopefully my friend will find my suggestion persuative and also come to value the graphic novel more highly, but we still have deeper motivations underwriting the change. While this moviation management is already more subtle than my baker example, there are still more complex cases.

In the Sandman example we might argue that my friend already valued literary works, which include subplots illustrating the underlying theme. I just made my friend aware that Gaiman’s graphic novel is an instance of such a piece, that it has the valued property (cf. Dietrich and List 2016). Sometimes, however, there is no already valued property and instead we try to make the other develop a basic motivation. The case of parents who attempt to instill some values in their child offers itself as an example, but I claim that such deep cases of motivational management are in no way limited to child-rearing.

I’m curious how we pull this off and I don’t think we know it very well at this point. We can pick out some basic mechanisms, for example social contagion. Humans tend to emulate each other’s motivations to a degree and parents try to exploit that for shaping their children. I have to eat more vegetables and act as if I liked them, so that my child starts to like them! What interests me most are the mechanisms we employ to make each other want things while having no theoretical and formal grasp on them.

Of course, our capacity to manage each others motivations is limited,[2] as everyone who got rejected in a relationship has learned. No matter, how much one want them to want me they don’t. Nonetheless, in our attempts to make other people want something, we exhibit a sophistication which we haven’t matched in our theories yet. Thus, I claim that we are currently better pracitioners than theoreticians of motivational change. That suggests a research program: Formalise the theories of motivational change which underlie our motivational management.


[0] The associated Latin maxim “de gustibus non est disputandum” is sometimes rendered as “there is no accounting for tast”. But even if their is no accounting in the sense of justification for taste, this might not preclude changing tastes. It would only rule out that our tastets change, because of

[1] We might argue whether she already wanted to give me the product for the 50 pence. She certainly didn’t just want to give to me. In the parlance of decision theory, the extrinsic preference changed.

[2] At this point. I assume that technological advances will change that.


Dietrich, F., & List, C. (2016). Reason-Based Choice and Context-Dependence: An Explanatory Framework. Economics & Philosophy, 32(2), 175–229.

Grüne-Yanoff, T., & Hansson, S. O. (Eds.). (2009). Preference Change: Approaches from Philosophy, Economics and Psychology. Dordrecht; London: Springer.