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The Neuroscience of Pulling Oneself Up by the Bootstraps

Personal Perspective: Who or what is responsible for our motivations?

Key points

  • We don't choose our neuronal architecture and connectivity.
  • Intrinsic motivation is predicated on a number of neuronal networks working in symphony.
  • Incentivization might be a more adaptive and productive response to the unmotivated.
Source: Sanneburg/Shutterstock

The notion of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is so built into the American ethos, the American myth, that challenging it is often bitterly attacked, or categorized as being somehow subversive. But challenge it we shall.

We’re all overly familiar with the concept. We the people, in the land of the free, the land of democracy, the land of entrepreneurial capitalism, are all captains of our own ships, masters of our own destinies.

The table is set for us, as equitably as possible (well, in theory at least), to follow our dreams and carve out a niche in this booming free-market economy. Those with initiative, gumption, drive, verve, can-do spirit, desire, industry, and enterprise run a good chance of reaching soaring heights of achievement, approbation, and financial remuneration.

Or at least a stable income, a house, a yard, a barbecue grill, a two-car garage, health insurance, and some sort of retirement fund.

 John Moeses Bauan/Unsplash
Source: John Moeses Bauan/Unsplash

The lazy, the dull, the unimaginative, the slackers, the uninspired, and the irresponsible may not.

We venerate the former and denigrate the latter. And why not? If it weren’t for the former, the latter would have no jobs, no food, no shelter, no innovation, no technology, no computers, and no cell phones, right?

We therefore make value judgements about the quality of character and the worthiness of reward of the people in both groups, predicated on their performance.

But there’s the rub. In making said judgments, we assume we understand the motivations, and the source of said motivations, of the people in the two groups.

How responsible are we, or can we be, for our motivations?

We act as if those in either group have some control over their motivations, their aspirations, and their work ethics. But approached neuroscientifically, or even metaphysically, this defies logic.

Let’s take the metaphysical first. Let’s ascribe every one of us a soul. A being separate from our physical selves. One that may even live on after we have shuffled off our mortal coils. How did we come by such souls?

Either somehow spontaneously, or by the grace of some greater power. Right? How is it then that we are responsible for the “quality” of the soul we’re given?

Souls of superior quality and functionality are not equally distributed. There’s a bell-shaped curve to the distribution at best. Or sadly, there’s an overabundance of underperforming ones doled out at the distribution center.

Those of us awarded the superior souls have lucked out in the great cosmic lottery. Those who haven’t may not be equipped to pull up bootstraps or any other form of straps, for that matter.

The Neuroscience of Bootstraps

Human intelligence, motivation, ethics, behavior, and performance are predicated on a stunning milieu of factors, much of which has to do with each individual’s neural architecture and connectivity. Well-put-together prefrontal areas and limbic systems, well-grooved reward networks, superlative cost-benefit calculators, sensational memory storage and retrieval, chill fight-or-flight tone, balanced emotional valence, finely tuned motivational salience, and more, combine to make star performers. These people are primed for success in the modern era.

To become one such individual, not only do we need a sensational wiring diagram, but we need some of that cosmic luck in where we’re conceived, how we’re put together in the factory, and how we’re fed and nurtured and instructed. We need to be far from war zones, famine, and poverty. And epigenetically speaking, so did our grandparents and parents.

 Adrian Swancar/Unsplash
Source: Adrian Swancar/Unsplash

Everything needs to fire away in near-perfect order, over decades, with minimal intervening injuries, toxic exposures, infections, and illnesses.

Small perturbations in any of these factors may mess it all up, and we become one of the unwashed masses.

What Choice Do We Have in Who We Are?

I don’t know about you, but no one consulted me on my neuronal blueprints, my choice of parents, my perinatal existence, my early environment, or the world events occurring during my formative years.

Nor was I given any choice of which soul to upload. I am what I am, but I had little say in it all.

Who am I to pass judgment on the quality of character, the quality of being, in my fellow travelers? How can I assert that anyone came by their qualities, or their foibles, by choice or personal design?

And ultimately, how can I assume that those who we assert need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps are actually equipped to do so?

A Behavioral Approach?

Whether we come by our qualities by blessing or quantum luck, I wonder if we as a society might do better by backing off on the disparaging language and attitudes, making judgments on people’s motivations, and considering what incentives might affect the behaviors we wish to propagate.

From a neuroscientific point of view, this makes more sense. The more we encourage and reinforce certain behaviors, the more we groove the necessary networks and connections to perpetuate such behaviors.

The more we shame and stress, the more we strengthen aversive and negative reward networks.

As a society we need people, on average, to pull their own weight. But people are not equally equipped to do so. Some will be able to do more than others. And they will likely be rewarded handsomely for doing so.

For those ill-equipped, how do we get them to at least make the effort?

Yes, I too bristle when I’m working like a dog and I see many who are not, who are “taking advantage of the system.” But this is a maladaptive response. Even if I could be provided with their wiring diagrams, I’m not sure how I would go about changing them.

Our best bet is likely to tone down the derogatory and punitive language and turn up the empathy and creative approaches.


Simpson, E., Balsam, P., (2016) The Behavioral Neuroscience of Motivation: An Overview of Concepts, Measures, and Translational Applications. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2016; 27: 1-12 PMCID: PMC4864984 doi:10.1007/7854_2015_402

Baggini, J. (2024) Scientists may have finally solved the mystery of consciousness – their discoveries are troubling. The Telegraph. Sat, February 24, 2024

Morris, L., et al. (2022) On what motivates us: a detailed review of intrinsic v. extrinsic motivation. Psychol. Med. 2022 Jul;52(10):1801-1816. doi: 10.1017/S0033291722001611. Epub 2022 Jul 7.

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