It’s tough being a human! We know it’s not good to lounge in the armchair when we should be out for that bracing walk. We know that second croissant for breakfast is more than we need, but it smells so good. We know that we should wash our hands after the toilet and before every meal, but somehow we’re just too busy to remember. Mothers everywhere know that breast is best for their babies, yet bottle feeding is growing globally, rather than falling. Most people know full well the dangers of disease from unprotected sex, but does that mean they always wear condoms?

Though we mostly know what’s good for us we just can’t seem to do it. What’s going on here? Sometimes it seems as though there are voices squabbling in our heads, telling us contradictory things. It can get quite noisy in there; and the rational arguments often get outshouted by the siren voices of temptation.

And indeed, the feeling that there are multiple voices telling us contradictory things is not too far from the truth.Theory suggests that our evolutionary heritage has given us about fourteen motives, and they are pulling us in different directions.

So, for example, lust may tempt us to us to go out with the cute guy, but nurture says to stay home to look after the kids. The hoard motive tells us to save everything we can for a rainy day, but create tells us that our environments will become impossibly inefficient if we fill them with junk. Disgust tells us to avoid sick and odd- looking people but justice tells us that this can be hurtful and unfair. The play motive may tell us to try bungee jumping but comfort tells us it might be better to stay warm at home on that sofa. Each one of these motives evolved to do a particular job, which was to make our ancestors do the things that made more ancestors. The ancestors with a strong love motive for example, tended to pair-bond more successfully and hence were able to bring up more children on average than those who didn’t. And those more offspring were equipped with a love motive. Similarly those with a strong disgust motive were better at avoiding infectious disease, and hence they had more offspring – inheriting a healthy disgust motive. Those who craved status got more resources and hence had more offspring, again with healthy status drives. Motives evolved to make our ancestors do what was good for their genes.

One would think then, with all this clever motivational machinery designed by natural selection to keep us reproducing successfully that we would be optimally healthy. And for the most part this is true. Comfort motivates us to seek shelter and warm clothes when the temperature falls, hence we don’t die of cold. Fear keeps us from falling off cliffs and running into the arms of wild animals, hence we minimise accidents. Disgust helps us to avoid food that has gone off and people with running sores, hence we avoid much disease. But the world that designed us and our motives is not the world of today.

Humans have created a new world, one that is radically different from the one our ancestors evolved in. We are an inventive species, and we’ve used our innovative abilities to develop technologies to satisfy our every desire. 

One of the desires we’ve got very good at satisfying is our hunger motive. We evolved to hunger for sugary substances because calories were scarce in the environments in which we evolved. Climbing a tree to raid a beehive for honey was a  dangerous and uncomfortable job, one that would not have got done without our ancestors having a strong motive to do so. However, that strong hunger motive also transformed our world. We now produce, extract, refine, manufacture and trade in sucrose, to the extent that is easy and cheap to obtain, at almost every street corner, in some cities. No need to climb a tree, you can just graze on candy bars all day, should you so wish. And many do.

However, the biggest transformation in the modern world has been down to our comfort motive. We seek to meet all of our needs with the least possible effort, without getting cold or hot and sweaty or bending down. Convenience and effort-saving features are the most desirable and, hence marketable, feature of any new consumer product. From ready meals, to robot floor cleaners, to ergonomic potato peelers, to TV remotes, we get what we want with the least effort. We love all of these products, they make life easier. But they make life lazier too and all that saved effort adds up to fewer calories burnt.

What is the result of these changes? Our ancient hunger drive makes us overeat as if our lives depended on it. We grab that extra croissant, not because we need it, but because the ancestors who didn’t fill up today might have starved tomorrow. So we put on weight. And all that extra weight makes us even less inclined to exert ourselves, more likely to use the remote rather than get out on the tennis court for some real, rather than virtual, play. Hence two thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, with other countries fast following suit. Bottle feeding formula makes life easier for mothers but the result is infections and weight problems for babies. We think we have more important things to do than stopping for long enough to wash our hands with soap but this too has a steep cost for health.

So if designing technology to satisfy our motives got us into this mess, can it help to get us out? Yes it can. The solution is not the one prescribed by governments and policy makers – more education about health. The endless preaching about what's good for us only adds to the cacophony in our heads. The answer is instead to work with our human nature and not against it. We need healthy new food products that cheap and easy to eat and that we can gorge on without making us fat. We need more opportunities to enjoy physical play, in warmth and comfort, preferably, so we exercise more, and get more rewards. For example how about running machines that earn airmiles or amass charity donations? We need to make breastfeeding much more visible so the affiliation drive makes mums want to do like everyone else, rather than feel different. And we need to make handwashing with soap and condom wearing such addictive experiences that we never forget to use them again. Difficult perhaps, but technological innovation needs to move us in that direction, offering us a better answer than weak self-control.

Motives got us humans into this mess, now we need to enlist our motives to help get us out of it again.

Further reading: see our paper on motivational mismatch:

About the Author

Valerie Curtis, Ph.D.

Valerie Curtis, Ph.D., is a Disgustologist and Director of the Hygiene Centre at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

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