Myths, Motivation and Pseudo-Psychology

Posted on 14 August 2020

Why do people believe that they can tell what secretly motivates or drives others?


Of all the topics that come up in the leadership and management media, one of the commonest is motivation: how do you motivate people? In my simple-minded way, the answer to the question of discovering what motivates someone else seems simple: you ask them. So why is so much ink spent on theories of motivation, motivation surveys and endless speculation about the topic, some of it rather ill-considered?

On the whole, I think I blame Freud. His notion of unconscious motivation may or may not be well-grounded in psychological understanding — I am not a psychologist, so I won’t get into that morass — but it certainly opened the door to a situation the Viennese doctor may not have intended: you don’t ask people what motivates them, because they don’t know — at least consciously.

This created an even more dangerous belief: that you, the observer, may know better than the person does him or herself why she does what she does, based on using pseudo-psychology to ‘explain’ the links between what may be observed and the supposed underlying or unconscious motivations.

The mischief this has caused! Armed with nothing more than prejudice and pop-psychology, hoards of people believe that they know why others do things, without the need to check. Indeed, if they do ask — or are told — that often discount the explanation given as an example of ‘avoidance’ or because (thanks to Freud) they assume what the person says consciously isn’t true. It’s the unconscious motivation that counts.

Emotional assumptions

A friend of mine recently asked my advice on how to respond to a colleague whose behavior seemed — to be polite — somewhat bizarre. I suggested they talk to establish the facts, then my friend could decide what to do. I know that the advice others gave was more colorful and definite. Most clearly thought they ‘knew’ the source of the behavior and based their answers on that ‘knowledge’.

What did my friend do? He was angry at the start, but some of the well-meaning advice served to get him even more mad. Sure that the colleague’s behavior must be malevolent, he came to a decision that ended their relationship at once. No ifs or buts. We’ll never know if that was the right course of action, because the colleague never had the chance to explain; nor would he have been believed, if he had. My friend ‘knew’ exactly what the colleague intended, even if the colleague didn’t.

The whole event has made me wonder how many relationships in our world, from personal through business to national and political, are wrecked every day because one or other party believes they know exactly what’s in the other party’s mind; and are proof against explanation, because of the notion that they also know some kind of ‘unconscious motivations’ hidden from the person him or herself.

Popular myths

There is even a set of folk myths — pop-psychology explanations, if you like — that have become so common we scarcely notice them any more, though they frequently lead to the most sweeping of generalizations and direct actions on important issues.

Take the belief that arrogance and bad behavior ‘mask’ some deep-seated, inner insecurity. In some cases, it may be true — though it would probably take a professional long hours of careful exploration to find out. Still, we, the most casual of observers, seem to believe we can tell in an instant; whether we use the ‘knowledge’ to make ourselves feel better (”She’s so arrogant about her two Ph.Ds, but I know she’s doing it to conceal how insecure she truly is about herself.”), or to excuse unacceptable behavior (”He may act like a total rat and asshole, but deep down I know he’s just insecure.”).

Or the one that anyone who comes on too strongly when opposing something is ‘hiding’ the fact that he or she really desires what they condemn. The moralist is a secret libertine (some, of course, have been found to be just that); the homophobe is a closet homosexual; the more someone professes to despise something, the more ‘proof’ it gives that they are actually attracted to it.

In the workplace, there’s the belief that those who constantly seek the limelight are ‘making up’ for being inadequate in some way, physically or mentally; bullies do what they do because they weren’t loved as a child, or some other facile explanation; domineering bosses act that way to mask their fear of being seen to have been over-promoted.

All might be correct in specific situations, but all are often invoked as crass and bogus, pseudo-psychological generalizations to support a case the user wants to advance. Like the discredited stereotypes based on race (all colored people are stupid and lazy) and gender (women are too weak for tough jobs and get pregnant all the time anyway), these motivational myths are nothing but wind and prejudice, masquerading as fact or established theory.

Get the facts first

No decision that is based on prejudice and mythology has much chance of being correct. No argument supported with silly generalizations can stand up to proper scrutiny. Those who behave this way (which is all of us at some time) are pretty much bound to destroy their own credibility as a result.

One of the biggest advantages to slowing down is that is allows you to inquire into the facts, think about whatever you find, and have second, third or even fourth thoughts before committing yourself to action. Stereotypes and pop-psychology statements are popular in large part because they are quick and easy. They offer a simple explanation for complex behavior — one that doesn’t demand thought. They also imply knowledge on behalf of the person putting such ideas forward. You look at what is happening and end up bewildered. I’m cleverer than you. Armed with pseudo-scientific half-truths and bogus theories, I know what’s going on; I can see through the façade to the ‘truth’ inside. See how clever I am!

If you need to know, ask or seek out the facts in some other objective way. Don’t jump to conclusions, however much pseudo-scientific ‘proof’ you put behind them. You’ll nearly always regret it later, when you’ve ruined a relationship that might readily have been rescued, or acted the part of an ill-informed champion of some bigoted stereotype.

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This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 251 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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