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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Kent Berridge and the Motivational Drive Train

Nothing is more exciting and promising than the concept of a new and revolutionary product. Yet promise often fails to match reality, which thankfully means that new products die in the lab before they cause you to die.

Consider for example the concept car. Powered by sunlight, natural gas, steam, or just pedaling, they can take us from 0-60 in two seconds and from here to the Arctic circle on a tank of gas, or the equivalent thereof. They look fancy, act fancy, and get a lot of fancy press. The problem is that we know what they can do, but not how they can do it. But no matter. After all, such details can take care of themselves after the car rolls out of the assembly line. That is, we can believe that a car can fly to the moon on a whim and promise, knowing that when push comes to shove, the product is mere hype once the first consumer has to get behind the immobile wonder mobile, pushing and shoving.

Nonetheless, it would save a lot of time if we could sort out the science from the fiction, lest we end up forever looking forward to Star Trek holo-decks and transporter beams to pop up soon at the local Best Buy. For the hyped up futuristic contraptions that will power our everyday lives, that means that knowledge of elementary physics is fundamental to separating hype from reality, so that if we read about a concept car powered by anti gravity or brain waves, we can tell in a flash whether we are reading a story from Scientific American or Amazing Stories.

Being able to distinguish hype from reality is particularly important when hype is more than a prelude to a product, as with consumer goods, but is the product. For psychologists in particular, hype may not make a lot in terms of product or procedure, but it certainly makes for discussion groups, journal articles, and job tenure. Thus getting too real can get in the way of the hype, or the 'high concept' if you will. So the motivational forces which make us move must have as little to do with a firm grounding on the brain 'in action' as possible, which would make those high falutin' concepts as testable and ephemeral as the promise of a perpetual motion machine.

So among psychologists, it is no surprise that the most popular motivational drive trains are as powerful, intangible, and untestable as phlogiston (an imaginary ingredient that enabled fire). From hard wired mental modules (evolutionary psychology), to computation (cognitive psychology), to conceptual metaphor (cognitive linguistics), to intrinsic and extrinsic motivational drives (self-determination theory), the brain is missing in every equation. And that's a pity, for if psychologists qualified what they know by the limitations of that grey congealed pudding between our ears, they could minimize their chatter and maximize their usefulness, which come to think of it would be the highest concept of all.

For those of you who really have to know what a true motivational drive train looks like that has high learning but mercifully little high concept, I refer you to the neuro-psychologist Kent Berridge's 2001 article Reward Learning: reinforcement, incentives, and expectations. Now if Kent would only hire a Steve Jobs for his lab to dress things up a bit, think of the high concepts he could roll out!

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