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

Squid Game: A Psychological Analysis

Squid Game has swept across the internet and quickly infiltrated our collective and individual consciousnesses. As the various means for social connection and interconnectivity increase in speed, I have noticed this repeated trend to jump over the initial premise, or the basic and banal elements that comprise the foundation for whatever is the cognitive infrastructure for what’s being discussed and leap toward some broader idea.

Likewise, As the show’s popularity has swelled, I have observed the increased production of articles analyzing the reasons for its popularity, exploring the societal and economic implications.

In the specific case of Squid Game, it has manifested as articles, videos, comments, and so forth about what this series showed about this or that economic system. My point here isn’t about the merit of these various connections between Squid Game and economic structures; rather, it is, firstly, to highlight a gap within the current analysis of the show, and, secondly, I hope to offer an exposition that, at the very least, takes aim at this area that has been overlooked. However, I remain stuck on a more elementary aspect of this cultural phenomenon: money—specifically, how do we relate to money? What is our relationship to money? And, crucially, why is money so important to us?

Yes, these are basic questions, almost clichés, but their connection is directly apparent as a core premise to Squid Game. One doesn’t need to research economic systems, such as, meritocracy or brush up their defenses of capitalism to address these fundamental questions;

Instead, the price is far steeper: time, attention, contemplation, and self-reflection. All aspects of our consciousness requiring more start-up energy than becoming emotionally charged with some sort of righteous indigitation for economic systems. Strangely, it’s almost as if we’d prefer to engage in these more ostensibly complex discussions rather than address these other questions—though they underlie our interest in this series. It is likely that shifting to this broader focus functions to distance ourselves emotionally through rational abstraction.

Nevertheless, I could not escape these core questions as I watched the Squid Game. Particularly, my interest in understanding the underlying psychology intensified with scenes depicting the direct connection between one player’s demise and the almost instantaneous transformation of their worth into monetary value, which the players gazed upon with lustful eyes and single-focused minds. These were the scenes that stuck for me, and I haven’t been able to square away their meaning sufficiently to dare and generalize to the societal level of either endorsements or critiques at the level of economic systems.

How could the players be so easily distracted from the death of a person by the allure of money? If you strip away the value of money to analyze these scenes objectively, then you’re left with those alive, those who are dead, and clusters of paper amassing with each additional player’s demise. Put in this crude way, it would seem that the question then becomes why is paper so important to us?

Of course, money isn’t about the actual paper—as fiat currencies have taught us. The form money takes, whether that be paper, metal, digital, and so on (NFTs?), is not what matters. This is both true in reality and for the players in the game.

Changing the form of currency wouldn’t have reduced the players’ indiference toward the death of one of their competitors, so long as a simple condition of monetary value is met: Can that something be exchanged with others for that which perceived of value?

In my opinion, these specific scenes require deeper analysis on the individual level and are fundamentally transformed when generalized to the level of society, shifting from the drives, wants, and desires of the player’s to the policy and politics of a society. By making this transformation to the collective level, an abundance of new variables emerges that aren’t necessarily present in the analysis of the individual. For example, if the form of currency doesn’t matter, then what makes it so captivating? It must be what it represents.

In psychological terms, money is a secondary reinforcer. Contrary to primary reinforcers, like food, drugs, sex, etc., a secondary reinforcer doesn’t have inherent pleasure embedded within it. This isn’t to say that watching your cryptocurrency stocks surge in value doesn’t spike your levels of pleasureful chemicals—it likely does by significant margins, especially when present in a competitive gamified context. However, the reward produced in this example requires some general agreement from others about the specific token’s shared value. Conversely, when you indulge in your favorite dessert, or something of this kind, your physiological reward isn’t contingent upon other’s valuation of this dessert; rather, there is an intrinsic reward value to this latter experience.

Returning to Squid Game scenes, where players stare in awe of the growing amount of prize money at the expense of other players’ lives, it must be presumed their responses are not about the actual, material prize.

As the series progresses, the audience gains further insight into the characters’ backstories. This additional context illustrates how the players’ desire toward the prize money is connected to something intangible, imaginative, and futuristic. The amassing of material paper doesn’t transfix the players; their imaginations’ are activated by the expanding possibilities that of what the prize increase represents to them, personally. The players even discuss what their plans are if they were to win the prize money. In most cases, the player’s future aspirations could be accomplished with substantially less than the total prize amount, yet they all know the game is an all-or-nothing one.

This brings me to my main point: At what cost are we willing to reduce and/or resign from our humanity? The show presents the audience with a context that allows us to witness the most brutal of choicest that a human being can be faced with. Our collective interest in the series is an effect of our identification with the characters, We utilize our imagination’s to perspective take into the fantastical, but disturbing close to being real, situations and, secretly, wonder what we would do for money—what would be our limits? We console ourselves with the fact that, especially in the case of Squid Game, it is doubtful that we will ever find ourselves in such circumstances. Nevertheless, we cannot help but entertain the possibilities dormant within our capacity for self-preservation. It is dangerous to become transfixed upon this; it is worse to be willfully ignorant of fact that this possibility exists. this capacity’s existence.