The Motivated Brain

Understanding the Pursuit of Goals

The Brain's Clues to Finding a Will and a Way

Is motivation to pursue a goal unrelated to planning for that goal?

In baseball, when a pitcher is having a bad outing you’ll hear coaches say that he’s throwing but he’s not pitching. What they mean is that the pitcher is going through the mechanics of delivering the ball to the plate but that his motion isn’t coming together as a cohesive whole. Usually the problem is that the pitcher is too focused on the lower-level details—the position of his fingers on the ball or the angle of his arm—rather than on their higher-level purpose—to deliver a perfect curveball.

It turns out that the wisdom of these coaches applies not just to baseball but also to everyday goals like the ones we set at work or around New Year’s, and contains some important insights about how goals are represented in our brains. Along with some recent results from neuroscience research, those insights can help us improve how we pursue our goals and ultimately increase our chances at success.

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Just as with pitches, there are different ways of thinking about goals, and the way you think about a goal can impact your success or failure. Are you merely typing words on a page, or are you authoring a novel? Are you sitting attentively in a meeting, or are you being an empathic supervisor? Psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Scheier would answer that you’re actually doing both at the same. This is because both actions—say, typing words and authoring a novel—are embedded within the same goal hierarchy that contains multiple and different aspects of the goal. Motivation is represented at higher levels of the hierarchy and mechanics are represented at lower levels; asking why moves you up in the hierarchy, and asking how moves you down. In the case of the pitcher, rotating his arm is the way, but striking out the batter is the will. Both pieces are required for success at most goals—without a will, there’d be no need for a way, and without a way, there is no means to achieve the end—and, critically, the two must remain connected to one another to sustain goal pursuit through to success.  

And here’s where the neuroscience on goal hierarchies is particularly interesting. It turns out that the parts of the brain that are active when you think about how to do things are completely different than the parts that are active when you think about why you do things. Researchers Robert Spunt at CalTech and Matthew Lieberman at UCLA recorded the brain activity of participants watching videos of people engaging in various everyday tasks like brushing their teeth or reading the newspaper. Critically, the subjects alternately thought about how the people were doing the tasks or why the people were doing them. Thinking about how engaged regions on the left side of the brain involved in planning motor movements and tracking the location of oneself and others in space such as the premotor cortex and the posterior parietal cortex. Thinking about why engaged a separate set of regions that are active when thinking about the states and intentions of others such as the right temporoparietal junction, the precuneus, and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. These two sets of regions were almost completely different from one another, and there is even some evidence to suggest that they are inversely related—it might be the case that when one set is active, the other set is suppressed.

These facts about the brain reveal some practical tips for people seeking to better their own goal pursuit or to help other people improve theirs. A well-formed goal needs to have a will and a way connected in the context of a goal hierarchy, but our brains can’t focus on both of them at the same time. The best we can do is to start at the top and work our way down by asking how until we reach a task we can easily accomplish. However, it’s important not to lose the connection between the levels of the hierarchy so you can readily switch back and forth between them. If you get stuck on a task, move back up the hierarchy by asking why. There are almost always multiple alternative hows for each why—if a pitcher is struggling with his curveball, he might try asking himself what his larger goal is, and consequently end up switching to his slider to strike out the batter. People in leadership roles can play a crucial role here, too, by identifying when people are stuck at one level in the hierarchy and helping them to shift gears. For a pitcher, it might take a visit to the mound by the coach to remind him that the goal is to record the out and not necessarily to throw the perfect pitch. One brain may be may be forced to choose a will or a way, but two can have them both.

(Portions of this post first appeared on FastCompany.com on October 10th.)

Elliot Berkman, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon and Director of the Oregon Social and Affective Neuroscience lab.

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