The Factor of Time in Goal-Directed Behavior

This essay will start by expounding on the concluding topics from my last paper; however, I intend to take more of a thematic approach for this essay, providing a general treatment of aspects relating to goal-construction, valuation of goals, and the influence of time perspective on the perceived salience of future goals.

Starting with this last topic of time’s influence can help to explain the topics of goal valuation and construction. I believe that how we perceive time (i.e., time perspective) affects how we arrange our mental landscape, including our future goals. Therefore, this element is integral to the fundamental understanding of what goals genuinely are.

A thought experiment can help extend the influence of time perspectives to our perception of valuation. For example, let us suppose you receive an email informing you that next week you will receive $1000 if you meditate for 30 minutes each day. Also, for the sake of this example, let us assume that $1000 is considered a high-value reward and that you dislike the act of meditation, so the task of 30 minutes daily is appraised as a high-effort task.

Given these conditions, receiving this email will likely produce enough motivation to stimulate committed action for at least a week until the monetary reward is received.

To this point, I presume this thought experiment seems straightforward and is aligned with how you would respond to this hypothetical situation, given the specific conditions. However, what would change if the time commitment required was doubled to two weeks? If you are like me, then this time expansion would not significantly change my response to the valued reward.

However, if we continue iterations increasing the time commitment, then there would eventually be a point where the threshold between reward value and effort is reversed. This shift would result in the $1000 reward value being less than that of the magnitude of the perceived effort and commitment required to receive the reward (assuming a stable condition of dislike for meditation across time).  

Now, let us manipulate the other side of the equation and increase the reward value to $10,000, with the daily meditation requirement being over a year. At this point, we could bounce back-and-forth manipulating variables in our thought experiment and noticing how our perception changes with each manipulation.

However, this hypothetical has served the primary purpose I wished to highlight: dilating or constricting time horizons for given goals directly influences one’s motivational levels, despite the constant objective outcome value.

A quote on reward valuation may help to emphasize the significance of the variable of time:

“Reward valuation involves assessment of the relative value of rewards that guide approach and motivated behaviors. For example, rewards of higher value are expected to produce greater anticipation of and motivation to obtain the reward compared to rewards of lower value. Prior experiences allow individuals to create representations of reward value for future stimuli” (Der-Avakian et al., p. 240, 2016).

Our thought experiment encompassed much of what this quote highlights, only it provides an academic lens. For example, it states a direct connection between the valuation of a reward and the degree of behavioral motivation; moreover, it demonstrates the correlation between expected reward value and anticipatory motivation.

However, I chose to introduce this quote not solely to corroborate our thought experiment; instead, it interested me that the variable of time is only implied in the last sentence of this quote. As we have demonstrated in our hypothetical, manipulating the variable of time affects reward valuation and, consequently, motivation levels. 

Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd (2009) posited the time perspective theory (TPT) in their book The Time Paradox Time. This theory explains that people vary in terms of their time orientation. Zimbardo developed an inventory for categorizing these different types, and if you are interested, you can learn more here: https://www.thetimeparadox.com/surveys/

For this essay, we will not delve into the specifics of Zimbardo and Boyd’s time perspective theory. Instead, I mention their work to note the emphasis they place on the influence time has on almost all aspects of our decision-making processes; furthermore, their work was driven by the acknowledgment that the influence of our time perspectives is so far-reaching that it has been overlooked (as is often the case with aspects of life that appear so elementary).

However, I will borrow a few of the terms from TPT to help integrate the theory’s significance into our discussion of goal construction, reward valuation, and motivation. TPT divides time perspectives into six categories: past negative, past positive, present hedonism, present fatalism, future, and transcendental future (Metcalf & Zimbardo, 2016). 

Each person presumably possesses all of these to some degree, but there are differences among individuals regarding which time perspective is dominant. While people typically do not have only one dominant time perspective, we will adopt this notion for the sake of simplicity.  

Let us imagine a person whose dominant time perspective is present hedonism. This perspective is associated with maximizing pleasure in the immediate while minimizing or avoiding potential pain; it focuses more on the short-term goals and payoffs rather than the long-term consequences. Conversely, someone dominant in the transcendental future TP would have the opposite priorities.

In my last essay, I concluded by stating that people diagnosed with schizophrenia have impairments with formulating mental representations of future events; consequently, the dysregulation in their motivational systems is mainly attributed to impaired anticipatory motivation (Der-Avakian et al., p. 237, 2016).

Interestingly, both Major Depression Disorder (MDD) and schizophrenia are characterized by diminished functioning of anticipatory motivation (or pleasure); moreover, the consummatory pleasure pathways are intact, at least for those with schizophrenia (Wu et al., 2017).

These findings suggest a connection between diminished or impaired anticipatory motivation and these individuals’ inability to construct mental representations of future events, resulting in the inability to formulate concrete behavioral steps directed toward a specific desired end goal.

To link this back to our initial thought experiment, individuals with these impairments may respond consistently despite manipulations to the time variable because their conception of the future is blended. For example, they may experience the same degree of motivation for the task regardless of whether the task’s time commitment is on the order of weeks or years because their time perspective for future events is undifferentiated.

That is, if we were initially able to manipulate the duration of time required for receiving the task-dependent reward ($1000, for the initial example), and alter our level of anticipatory motivation by increasing or decreasing the time commitment of the task, then we are demonstrating some degree of discrimination in appraising more shorter time durations with a more immediate reward and vice versa.

However, imagine the future is homogenous and undifferentiated. It comprises only unknown potentialities that cannot be weighted differently because the knowledge we possess for events next week versus those next year is, practically speaking, both equally unknowable. If we make mental calculations from this understanding of time, then it would be most reasonable to adopt the time perspective of present hedonism and focus on maximizing the pleasure in the present rather than sacrificing present-focused reward for a reward in the future, even if the future reward appeared to possess a higher reward value. To some extent, the magnitude of reward value depends on our ability to conceive of time.  

We can turn to one final thought experiment to conclude this exposition and illustrate this point of reward value’s dependence on time perspective (I am using this term loosely, not strictly in a TPT manner). Let us imagine we are given the choice of receiving $1000 in the present or $10,000 after five years. Now, there is no task commitment required for this hypothetical, isolating the two variables of reward value and time perspective; moreover, because this is a hypothetical, the value and purchasing power of the currency will not change over time.

Given these conditions, the decision of which to take is entirely constructed within one’s time perspective. For example, while countless subjective variables could affect one’s decision, all of these are embedded within a mental framework of how we perceive time.

You might have an upcoming bill that needs to be paid not to lose your place of living. In this case, the future reward is discounted relative to the immediate reward that could help your situation. Conversely, you may be doing well financially and plan to retire in the coming years, and the future reward appears like a worthwhile addition. Given no urgent need for the $1000 in the immediate present, this reward seems relatively less than the $10,000 reward.

Again, I could continue to write what-if examples that account for additional factors that would influence one’s decision; however, this is not the point of this hypothetical. Instead, I wish to highlight that the decision is based on probabilistic reasoning. The reward after five years relies most heavily on this type of reasoning because it accounts for a variety of what-if scenarios and factors that only apply when projected forward over an interval of time.

However, suppose we adopt the mindset of the individual unable to mentally construct future representations, including the various likelihoods of certain potentialities occurring and accounting for other factors that may emerge over a futuristic time interval. This long-term, or distant, reward would likely be perceived as an ambiguous abstraction. Consequently, it would probably only be accounted for in comparison to the reward’s face value. With one’s ability to understand the present time intact, the immediate factors are experienced as more concrete and understandable. Therefore, the immediate reward value would likely be appraised as having a higher value than the futuristic one, despite this future reward value being several orders of magnitude more in objective weight.

This has been a lengthy and, admittedly, more muddled exposition than I initially had intended. However, I believe it has served to elucidate some of the nuanced connections among appraising reward value, constructing goals, and incorporating the significant influence exerted by the variable of time (and one’s time perspective).

Moreover, I would like to conclude with foreshadowing a topic that I wish to explore further in subsequent writings: Are there parallels between the mental processes for conceptualizing distant future events and distances in physical reality? For example, we use the phrase “far off” or “in the distant future” to describe events that are far away from the present moment, and, in terms of physics, there is an intimate connection between space and time. Therefore, I am curious to explore if we conceptualize physical distance similarly to how we mentally represent distances in time.  

References

Der-Avakian A., Barnes S., Markou A., & Pizzagalli D. (2016) Translational assessment of reward and motivational deficits in psychiatric disorders. In: Robbins T.W., Sahakian B.J. (eds) Translational Neuropsychopharmacology. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences. https://doi.org/10.1007/7854_2015_5004

Metcalf, B. R., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2016). Time Perspective Theory. In H. L. Miller (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Psychology (1st ed., pp. 937–939). SAGE Publications, Inc.

Wu, H., Mata, J., Furman, D. J., Whitmer, A. J., Gotlib, I. H., & Thompson, R. J. (2017). Anticipatory and consummatory pleasure and displeasure in major depressive disorder: An experience sampling study. Journal of Abnormal Psychology126(2), 149–159. https://doi-org.libproxy.txstate.edu/10.1037/abn0000244

Zimbardo, P., & Boyd, J. (2009). The Time Paradox. Adfo Books.

Understanding the Function of Motivation in Addiction and Information Processing

Continuing with the themes from my previous essay discussing motivation and functional autonomy, I will start by expounding upon my claim that this principle is a factor in addiction. Next, my goal is to provide a selective overview of pertinent topics related to reinforcement learning and perception before concluding with neuroscience and psychiatry topics that I will likely continue to investigate in subsequent writings.

To state simply, the principle of functional autonomy espoused by Gordan Allport (1937) is significant in that it demonstrates that not only does a complete set of instincts or inherent drives not exist but, in fact, initial motives for behaviors can be severed and replaced with novel ones that function to maintain motivation to conduct the same behavior. Therefore, there exists an expansive, diverse, and emergent set of potential motives that drive a person’s behavior at a specific point in time.

Since I first was introduced to the concept of functional autonomy years ago while completing my undergraduate degree, the connection between this principle and addiction has remained in my memory primarily due to an illustration my professor provided to explain functional autonomy. While I do not remember the specific class (or professor to give them credit), I recall the general gist of the example because of how directly it corresponded with functional autonomy.

Imagine there is a young person in high school or college who has never smoked a cigarette and is detested by the smell, in addition to being frightened of the health risks. However, they desperately want to socialize with a group of peers and realize that smoking cigarettes is a means to achieve this end. Let us assume this plan is successful, as this hypothetical peer group has only smoking as their shared interest.

At this point, this fictional person likely feels a sense of reward from attaining their goal of a sense of belonging; however, as time passes by, this person’s initial motive of smoking for social inclusion is replaced by the rewarding pleasure of smoking itself. It is here, at this point, that their initial means (smoking cigarettes) to the end (social inclusion) has been transformed into an end in itself. Consequently, this new end goal of feeling satisfaction from smoking is capable of functioning independently of the initial end goal of social inclusion—in fact, it may even be that smoking cigarettes is hindering social inclusion with desired groups, but this person now is driven by a motive that is exerting a more significant influence relative to this other potential desire.

With this hypothetical case study in mind, let us broaden our view to examine how the brain’s general processes function to navigate daily life.

Our brains constantly receive and process information from our external environment via perception and our internal environment via interoception (or internal (Chen et al., 2021). For this paper, I will remain on the surface of these deep topics, but I hope to write about them in further detail in the future.

Throughout our days, these input data are being filtered, sorted, and processed for relevancy, particularly as it relates to the future. Our brains generate models based on past experiences and data from our current sensory inputs to create representational models that account for our current state of being and futuristic thinking. We conduct mental cost-benefit analyses for our future behaviors, taking into consideration the effort and energy required to perform some action or series of actions to obtain a given reward outcome; moreover, our brain seeks to minimize the energetic cost while maximizing the reward of our selected outcome (Peters, McEwen, & Friston, 2017).

These are topics rich in-depth that I hope to return to in the future. Still, this essay will focus on the more surface-level takeaways: Our brains process troves of information, and our values, prior experiences, future goals, and availability of environmental rewards all function to assist in sorting and filtering the stream of raw sensory data. This is by no means an exhaustive account of the cognitive process of perception, reinforcement learning, and decision-making.

However, embedded with this brief overview are core assumptions of human motivation that are applicable and well-documented for the general population; however, an additional inquiry is necessary for individuals who possess serious psychiatric disorders, particularly schizophrenia (though similarities are found in other psychiatric disorders).

For example, central to the mental processes I have highlighted for perception and predictive planning is the ability to create mental representations. Closely related (if not integral) to this process is reward valuation; that is, associating varying degrees of reward value with different reward stimuli, typically relying on past experiences and personal values to facilitate this determination (Der-Avakian et al., 2016).

The ability to formulate goals is indeed so significant that machine learning researchers Richard Sutton and Andrew Barto write in their 2018 book Reinforcement Learning: An Introduction:

“A learning agent must be able to sense the state of its environment to some extent and must be able to take actions that affect the state. The agent also must have a goal or goals relating to the state of the environment…Rewards are basically given directly by the environment, but values must be estimated and re-estimated from the sequences of observations an agent makes over its entire lifetime.” (pp. 5-6)

However, aberrant reward learning, dysregulated goal-directed behaviors as a result of inappropriate attribution, and the inability to accurately discriminate relevant stimuli from those irrelevant are precisely central areas of deficit identified by those researching the mechanisms of schizophrenia. In fact, researchers Der-Avakian et al. reported, “pleasure and valuation have been dissociated in schizophrenia, with patients showing intact capacity to experience pleasure, but deficits in properly representing the value of future rewards” (2016, p. 237).

Additional research findings further elucidate the implications of these findings and provide other intriguing points that extend the scope to incorporate other psychiatric disorders, such as mood and development disorders. The most intriguing aspect for me is discovering the common themes that exist across diagnoses. I believe this indicates overlaps in the underlying mechanisms responsible for the symptomatology of these different categories of disorders.

With this in mind, the theme that has become most apparent as a significant diagnostic challenge is further understanding how goals are constructed, what factors are involved in attributing and experiencing reward values as outcomes of goal-directed behaviors, and how does one’s time orientation affect their creation and implementation of futuristic goals. These are topics that I will seek to (or attempt to) unravel in my subsequent writings.

References

Allport, G. W. (1937). The Functional Autonomy of Motives. The American Journal of Psychology, 50, pp. 141-156.

Barto A.G., & Sutton R.S. (2018). Reinforcement Learning: An introduction (adaptive computation and machine learning series) (2nd ed.). The MIT Press: Cambridge.

Chen W., Schloesser D., Arensdorf A., Horowitz T., Vallejo Y., & Langevin H. (2021). The Emerging Science of Interoception: Sensing, Integrating, Interpreting, and Regulating Signals within the Self. Review Special Issue: The Neuroscience of Interoception. 44(1) 3-16. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2020.10.007

Der-Avakian A., Barnes S., Markou A., & Pizzagalli D. (2016) Translational assessment of reward and motivational deficits in psychiatric disorders. In: Robbins T.W., Sahakian B.J. (eds) Translational Neuropsychopharmacology. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences. https://doi.org/10.1007/7854_2015_5004

Peters A., McEwen B.S., & Friston K. (2017). Uncertainty and stress: Why it causes diseases and how it is mastered by the brain. Progress in Neurobiology. Volume 156, pp.164-188. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pneurobio.2017.05.004

Exploring the Nature of Motivation

Motivation is fundamental to understanding why people act in their unique manner; moreover, motivation is closely linked to one’s personality as a whole. However, the depth and nuance of an individual’s motivational system are often overlooked or oversimplified due to the scientific bias toward viewing and understanding human motivation solely in general terms.

Gordan Allport espouses his principle of functional autonomy in his 1937 article, The Functional Autonomy of Motives. I will provide a general overview and selection of key points, quotes, and context from Allport’s article before concluding with a discussion of the role and application functional autonomy has in contemporary thought.

In fact, Allport believed “motivation is always contemporary” (p.144, 1937). This conviction about the nature of motivation is likely one reason he writes so critically of the scientific thought of his time. He stood opposed to the attitude of always seeking to generalize; however, he was still aware of the need for this attitude, in some regards, stating, “Science must generalize” (p. 154). Moreover, he explains how relying on generalizations can result in negative consequences, characterizing that “it is a manifest error to assume that a general principle of motivation must involve the postulation of abstract or general motives” (p.154).

Allport uses these critiques as a way to highlight the gaps present in the scientific foundation of his time, and he proceeds to explain how the principle of functional autonomy is both “general enough to meet the needs of science, but particular enough…for the uniqueness of personal conduct” (p.155).

This claim is likely related to an assumption central to the principle of functional autonomy: life is inherently dynamic. Therefore, the motivation that underpins a person’s behaviors is not a static entity that can be quantified, isolated, and said to be fixed, rather a fluid force that possesses the property of emergence (this concept will be further addressed, subsequently).

Allport uses a variety of everyday examples, among other kinds, to demonstrate that even if there exists an “unchanging set of original urges,” it comprises far less than the “plurality of constantly changing [motivational] systems of a dynamic order” (p.153).

At the core of functional autonomy is the notion that the initial motive driving a given behavior does not necessarily entail that it will be the same motive through which the behavior is maintained. Instead, Allport believes “original motives [can be] entirely lost. What was a means to end has become an end in itself” (p.150).

For instance, selecting one of the many everyday examples Allport provides, there is a description of “a businessman, long since secure economically,” yet this businessman continues to work himself into poor health because of a drive that is different from the original. Allport does not expand much on this example but rather explains how all of these examples illustrate “some new function emerg[ing]” (p. 146).

Not only does Allport put forth the notion of emergent motives, but he also describes these emergent motives as being “independently structured units” that function without dependence “upon the continued activity of the units from which they developed” (pp.146-147).

Allport writes about the maturation process of a seed into a tree, “The life of a tree is continuous with that of its seed, but the seed no longer sustains and nourishes the full-grown tree. Earlier purposes lead into later purposes, and are abandoned in their favor” (p.144).

Although this tree imagery is before Allport introduces functional autonomy, I believe it captures both the sophistication and simplicity possessed in the principle of functional autonomy. It is simple in that the tree could never have emerged into being if not for the seed’s existence, in addition to suitable environmental conditions for growth; consequently, there logically exists a point when the seed ceases to exist as a seed.

For the sake of sanity, I implore you not to become fixated on identifying the transitionary point where this identity change occurs—if you cannot resist, then research Sorites paradox—because the primary point that has practical significance is the notion that we are able to sever connections with even original and necessary causes. For example, the process of a child maturing and cleaving with their parents is analogous to the tree analogy (as well as an example Allport provides).

However, this can be applied in other domains than solely developing functionally autonomous drives after maturing to a particular biological or temporal point; in fact, I think addiction is the most straightforward application of the principle of functional autonomy.

While Allport acknowledges this as a domain where functional autonomy applies, he is brief in discussing the matter, and it does not seem to have received much attention to the present day. Nevertheless, the principle of functional autonomy assists in understanding how someone becomes addicted to a given substance or behavior and how it is maintained.

In future writings, I intend to further explore the potential descriptive and explanatory role the principle of functional autonomy may offer the issue of addiction. Additionally, I hope to incorporate relevant takeaways from further research into the Rescorla–Wagner model that is a contemporary model for understanding associative and reward learning.

References

Allport, G. W. (1937). The Functional Autonomy of Motives. The American Journal of Psychology, 50, pp. 141-156.

Exposition of Modern Discourse

Technology has provided a medium through which we are allowed opportunities to feel a sense of social connection and communal belonging; however, real or actual these people or interactions may be, the objective reality of this activity is often overlooked or ignored: it is still mediated through an individual’s interaction with a piece of technology; that is, it is still me, the individual author, typing away at this keyboard, viewing words on my screen, and conceptualizing a general audience who will read these words.

However, no matter my degree of precision or accuracy, there will always be a degree of disconnect between my intention and the audience’s interpretation. Nonetheless, the medium of the written tradition using expository prose has far deeper roots than those of Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, or other modern-day, internet-based forms of communication.

The historicity of the linguistic form of prose provides my expression a higher probability of concordance between the audience’s reception and my intention as the author. Conversely, these new social media platforms lack this kind of historical foundation yet are treated as if they are the same. As a result, tools of rhetorical analysis and logical examination are employed while using these platforms that I argue demonstrate an invalid usage of such analytical tools.  

For example, one common distortion that I believe social media platforms have allowed to become rampant is conflating particular and universal statements. These platforms are intended to provide an outlet for truncated expressions, yet we utilize them as if they may also allow us the nuance of having an in-person debate. Moreover, we forget how arduous it is to use language precisely and employ logic even during in-person interactions.

Using nonverbal communication, oral expression, and gauging the reception of our message through analyzing our audience’s demeanor, serve to highlight the complexity of in-person interaction, despite this medium being biologically hardwired. However, we have somehow found ourselves assuming that this same level of human communication can be experienced via technological mediums.

Yet, is reading not different than hearing? Is interacting through Zoom not different than interacting with someone in person? Is it not different to interact with someone one-on-one rather than to interact in front of a group?

Social media platforms are so often vilified for promoting division and groupthink among people—and I am not here to defend these mediums—instead, I desire to point out that these platforms are nothing more than a technological medium that has amplified and underscored fundamental issues within human communication that were present before these platforms existed.

Therefore, my emphasis is to not place our hope in the notion that abandoning the usage of these platforms or refining the etiquette of how they are used will solve the divisions we are witnessing as a collective society. Even if we were to leave these platforms altogether and return to a prior state of communication standards, we still would be plagued by our challenges with wielding language, our proclivity toward fallacious arguments, and reliance on personal biases.

While technological interconnectivity may have accelerated these ailments, even accentuating them to new levels, it is nonetheless exploiting weaknesses in human communication and social discourse that have long existed.

The emphasis should be placed on understanding the tools of rhetoric, the structure of logic, and the importance and purpose of argumentation as a medium for discovering the truth. To place the burden on social media platforms or even news sources is to fall, once more, into the trap of oversimplification, treating everything as either a friend or foe in a perpetual fight on one side or the other of a raging societal debate—all the while glossing over or willfully ignoring the deficits of discourse that continue to result in arguments premised on false dilemmas, misunderstandings stemming from conflated terms, and so forth.

I believe we are desperately craving conversations that are deeper than those mediated through social media platforms. Unfortunately, these platforms also serve as the easiest and most accessible way for us to connect with a vast number of others; moreover, social media has become integrated into our social lives and does allow for genuine social connection, despite it being a novel medium for it.

However, the structures of these platforms are not neutral. Even for those who set out with the sincere desire to engage in an authentic social interaction can easily find their desire for a meaningful discourse devolve into debates and diatribes, serving only to increase their sense of isolation and wish to find a community that provides a sense of belonging.

Meaning is use: Wittgenstein on the limits of language

An Interesting Read About Language & Words

Philosophy for change

LudwigWittgensteinLudwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. Wittgenstein made a major contribution to conversations on language, logic and metaphysics, but also ethics, the way that we should live in the world. He published two important books: the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (1921) and thePhilosophical Investigations (1953), for which he is best known. These were major contributions to twenty century philosophy of language.

Wittgenstein was a difficult character. Those who knew him assumed he was either a madman or a genius. He was known for working himself up into fits of frustration, pacing about the room decrying his own stupidity, and lambasting philosophers for their habit of tying themselves in semantic knots. In his favour, Wittgenstein was not afraid to admit his own mistakes. He once said: ‘If people never did anything stupid, nothing intelligent would ever get done’. He also said:…

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