Motivation comes in two types: "true" and "false". It pays to distinguish.

Advertisers, employers and politicians spend huge sums motivating you to buy things, work hard and vote a certain way. But the science of motivation depends ultimately on the psychological ignorance of its victims. Knowing about "carrot and stick" behaviourism isn't enough to protect you – you need to know about value-system warfare.

There's nothing mysterious about motivation: we're motivated to pursue what we value. If you consciously choose your own values, "true" motivation follows. If values are imposed on you (eg by corporate/state authority) or unconsciously absorbed (via the media), "false" motivation results.

Just as values produce motivations, so do value-conflicts produce apathy. When workers' values conflict with corporate values, workplace apathy appears. The corporate bosses then send their staff on "motivational" training courses in the mistaken (and laughable) belief that this will cure the apathy. A more sophisticated approach is to seduce workers into accepting corporate values instead of trying to force motivation. This is done with wealth/status symbols and important-sounding job titles. Reed (the recruitment firm) quotes a case of a receptionist with the title of "Head of Verbal Communications".

Advertisers motivate us to buy things by attaching social value to limited supply commodities and limited duration social status. The perception of limited supply is essential for motivation according to "supply and demand" economics. The psychology behind this equates motivation with competition: act quickly, before someone else snatches the thing of value. It's "a jungle out there" only if everyone believes there's not enough of the valued stuff to go around.

Don’t be a loser in the value-system wars

If you're motivated by a fear of "missing out", it's an indication you've internalised the value system of the economic powers (corporations, advertisers, media), resulting in "false" motivation. You might consider yourself "successful" but you're a loser in the value-system wars. True motivation, resulting from your own personal values, isn't based on fear if you value what exists in unlimited supply – eg qualities rather than things to fight over.


Article by Brian Dean. Originally printed in
magazine, Spring 2004.