Motivation: How the Reward System Economy Drives Your Behavior | MARAY

Wondering why you feel unmotivated and procrastinate? Turns out the midbrain’s reward system economy is responsible for such behavior.

Learning the reward system economy behind motivation boosted my productivity and consistency in my long-term goals.

When disorders, damaged receptors, and low dopamine levels cause procrastination, hardly any helpful technique will improve your motivation. The impairment of the dopamine reward system is serious and can take a lot of time and effort to train and restore.

Motivation is a way for the brain to guide your behavior based on the value and the cost of the task.

However, once you learn about ongoing processes in your brain, it will be clearer how to solve the problem. It is essential to build a good foundation first. Then you can improve it further with a set of helpful tips.

What is motivation

Motivation is a reason for actions, willingness, and goals. Most people set goals and have a clear intention to reach them. Everybody has goals with a different degree of complexity and ambition. Yet, not everyone takes action and makes them real.

There are many reasons. The most prominent one is the impaired reward system. It makes people procrastinate and seek instant gratification. Working on more valuable but long-term goals becomes irrelevant. Several brain regions are responsible for our motives and one neurotransmitter called dopamine.

Dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for motivation. The midbrain dopamine system translates the cost-benefit analysis into motivation by releasing dopamine. If the reward is valuable, the dopamine release sparks motivation for accomplishing it. However, if the analysis results in low reward and high cost then you lack motivation and procrastinate. It is that simple. The reward system answers a question: is it worthy of my attention with the current variables or not?

Dopamine levels spike in the anticipation of an important event, i.e the reward. When the reward is long-term, the cost increases which takes precedent over the benefits. The ancient part of the brain wants the rewards now and at a low cost. One of the main reasons a lot of people procrastinate is that we crave instant gratification. Activities such as browsing social media or watching a movie give us pleasure at a low cost.

Credit: WikiMedia. Some of the key components of the mesocorticolimbic (“reward”) circuit.

The midbrain reward structure

As you can see in the diagram above, all the parts of the reward system connect in pathways. The central part of the reward system is the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA). VTA is responsible for releasing dopamine to Nucleus Accumbens (NAc) when the reward is present. The mesolimbic pathway connects VTA to NAc and reinforces motivational processes and behavior. VTA also connects with Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) which handles cognitive functions, such as learning cues.

To rephrase, once you receive a reward, VTA tells NAc that something good happened to reinforce the same behavior in the future. It lets PFC learn the cues that precede such behavior. Part of NAc is involved in spatial learning, impulsive choice, and the long-term elements of rewards. Amygdala, with a connection to the hippocampus, receives dopamine signal from VTA and outputs to NAc. It is responsible for creating vivid emotional memories for rewarding events. The hippocampus makes a note, creates, and stores memories of those rewarding experiences. It is also implicated in finding cues and triggers for reward-seeking behavior.

The midbrain reward system works for one purpose: to remember rewards and seek them again. The good thing about the human brain is that it is flexible. We can train and adapt to our desired behavior.

Reward learning

The difference between humans and other animals is in preprogrammed behavior and instincts. Most mammals are capable of taking care of themselves from birth. Humans, in contrast, can perform basic things like breathing and learning. They need more care than other mammals. The advantage is that the brain is flexible for further development. During the first 4 years of life, humans can form certain neural connections and prune other ones. It depends on the environment, parental and genetic predisposition.

Those who did not learn how to strive for healthy rewards and form habits will struggle later. Motivation issues can arise from childhood habits and a biased reward system. If you learn to work for valuable rewards and be patient, your brain will form a more balanced system for setting and accomplishing goals.

For instance, my nephew in his early years used to spend time watching youtube and playing games. Such behavior hindered him from learning and getting valuable rewards. He was not motivated to study because his reward system is used for low effort and high pleasurable rewards. His reward system economy is skewed and will cause problems studying at school and in the future.

However, the human brain is quite flexible throughout most of the life span. It is never late to train neuroplasticity and acquire new skills. Upregulation of the reward system will make costly rewards more beneficial.

Reward system economy theory

To increase the chances of survival and reproduction, a system evolved in the brains of animals to guide the behavior. Its purpose is to seek beneficial stimuli and avoiding harmful ones.

A reward system is a group of brain structures that are responsible for reward-related cognition. It includes associative learning, incentive salience, and positively-valenced emotions.

Types of rewards

There are several types of rewards that our brain wants. Primary ones are the kind of rewards that are related to our survival and reproduction, such as food, sex, and other biological needs.

Intrinsic rewards motivate our behavior because they are pleasurable and unconditioned. Extrinsic rewards are learned in associations with intrinsic ones. For instance, money itself does not bring pleasure, but it helps our intrinsic reward, thus, it is learned by association.

“Survival for most animal species depends upon maximizing contact with beneficial stimuli and minimizing contact with harmful stimuli.”
Wikipedia.

If rewarding tasks are beneficial for us, then why we avoid effortful activities and not reach the said goals? It is important to understand why thinking is effortful.

Allocation of working memory

Cognitive effort is the allocation of working memory. Lack of motivation happens when the reward system refuses to allocate working memory for a task. It turns out that working memory is limited and allocation is a motivated process.

Andrew Westbrook in a 2016 study suggests that “modulatory functions of the midbrain dopamine system translate cost-benefit information into adaptive working memory allocation.”

In other words, the reward system constantly calculates the cost and the benefit of a cognitive effort. It then either allocates the required working memory or sends us to a procrastination route. We remain engaged to the extent where benefits outweigh the cost. The reward system manages the allocation of working memory by computing the cost-benefit.

“In sum, working memory operations are treated as subjectively costly. … Cost-benefit decision-making thus underlies working memory allocation for cognitive control. We propose that during goal pursuit, individuals engage in costly control episodes, remaining engaged to the extent that benefits outweigh costs. Moreover, we propose that DA solves a core computational problem of control episodes: namely, value-based management of working memory for cognitive control that reflects not only prior reward learning but also instantaneous effects of the current incentive state.” — Andrew Westbrook, Dopamine Does Double Duty in Motivating Cognitive Effort

How motivation works

Motivation is a mechanism for translating the cost-benefit information to working memory allocation. Memory allocation is the most expensive cognitive effort. Once it is done, the proceeding mental effort is easier to perform.

All the procrastination and motivation frameworks serve a common purpose. How to make the reward bigger and the efforts smaller so that the cost/benefit is valuable for the reward system to motivate behavior? Thus, setting small goals, dividing & conquer bigger tasks, performing the small step rule, and so on.

The idea is to minimize the effort so that the brain releases dopamine each time upon the task completion. By repeating small actions that are followed by a reward, you train the reward system. Positive reinforcement will make it beneficial and more motivating.

Motivation is a mechanism for translating the cost-benefit information to working memory allocation.

It is effortful and costly to build healthy habits. When we do, though, they make the cost lower thus more profitable for the reward system economy. Consider the reward system as a quality control department in your brain. Think how much easier to complete a task if it is part of your identity. You spend less effort because the habit automates a part of the task since you established strong neural connections.

Every time you want to do something you provide the cost and the benefit of the activity for analysis. If the benefit is not instant, then the chances for the reward system to give the green light get smaller. On the other hand, if the benefit is instant and gainful, the cost is a minor factor.

A healthy reward system learns how to defer the reward and put effort into it.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation relates to associative rewards. When you go to work, and money is the only reason, you feel extrinsic motivation. Money is not the primary reward. You translate the earned money to the intrinsic rewards. It is a learned association. That is why when the money is no longer an issue people feel depressed about the choice of the profession. The reward and the motivation are gone which causes depression.

Intrinsic motivation arises when the reward is primary. For instance, when you play a game and you enjoy it. You receive a reward directly. When your profession aligns with your passion, i.e. intrinsic reward, you are less likely to get disappointed by your professional choice.

I mentioned profession as an example because it illustrates how extrinsic rewards play a role in our decision making. A lot of people chase money and later feel unfulfilled. The most successful career development happens to those who align the intrinsic rewards, i.e. what they enjoy to do, with their profession. What is better than enjoy work and cover your other needs by the lateral extrinsic rewards, such as money?

Those who enjoy what they spend time on, do not hate going to work on Monday morning. It takes an extra step for motivation to translate money to your primary rewards, such as food and shelter. Intrinsic rewards motivate better than extrinsic ones because translation takes a mental effort. Sometimes we forget these rewards as it is not that natural for us to trade money for something we need for our survival.

A lot of articles misinterpret these two types of reward-driven behavior. They state that there is no reward in intrinsic motivation. They are wrong because pleasure is a reward that we seek.

The only difference is that intrinsic motivation aligns with your passion. Passion is the motivation for your intrinsic rewards.

If you want to make a choice, give priority to intrinsic rewards. They are better aligned with your personality and talents. Extrinsic rewards may diminish in time, but intrinsic ones will less likely.

Fear motivation

Fear is a primal instinct that helped our ancestors survive and it still does nowadays. Its purpose is to learn to avoid life-threatening events.

The fear of failure and shame drives our behavior. It makes us procrastinate, and only motivates us when the situation is critical. For instance, when the deadline is approaching.

However, most people do not learn from such experiences and repeat them again and again. One reason is that the initial cost/benefit of a task is not considered beneficial by the reward system until the consequences are dire.

Incentive salience makes the task enjoyable. Fearful salience, in the opposite, makes the outcome threatening. Fear drives our motivation because long-term rewards are not beneficial until the consequences outweigh the cost. In other words, instant gratification is much more enjoyable and it leads to procrastination.

The ancient limbic system has not yet evolved to understand that human life span increased. We are no longer in need of immediate rewards. Once the fear of failure or shame is threatening, it motivates us for breaking out from procrastination. Stress drives the behavior more efficiently than the expectation of long-term rewards. The benefit of avoiding shame or failure increases the value of the reward.

For as long as I remember, I have been late to meet friends. I missed deadlines and took action at the last minute. My behavior was controlled by the fear of failure and shame. I used to wait, postpone, or procrastinate so much that another minute would have caused a dire outcome. The undesired outcome would evoke fear that in turn would motivate me to do what I had to.

There are no benefits to procrastinate. It is not under your control. Stress-driven motivation is deteriorating for health and life goals. It is not reliable to count on stress hormones to be productive. The question is how can we learn to defer instant gratification and see value in long-term rewards?

How to get motivated & overcome procrastination

Understanding the reward system will help to achieve goals such as weight loss. A healthy state will also make Mondays enjoyable, the most unmotivating day in history.

To fulfill a goal such as loss-weight you have to think about 2 factors.

First, why is the reward of losing weight is important to you? It might be that society dictates the value. Is it your decision? What benefits will it bring to you? List and understand them so that your reward system acknowledges the value.

Second, what is the cost? Do the benefits of a healthy body outweigh the cost? Does the taste of delicious food more important than the final goal?

Think of actions you are willing to perform. If you are not used to physical exercises, your reward system will see it as a very demanding task.

It is important to remember that energy is perceived as scarce by our ancient part of the brain. It tries to preserve as much as possible. The trick is to reduce the cost of physical exercises.

Start small. 2–5 minutes warm-up will lead to necessary neural connections to form the habit. When the habit is formed, the cost of the exercise will become smaller. You will be able to build up complexity to reach the desired outcome.

In sum, to reach a goal you have to think about the reward and the cost of it. Make the reward as beneficial as possible and the cost as small as it can get.

Steps to healthy motivation

There are several reasons why motivation is essential to well-being. The lack of motivation hinders us from reaching goals, career development, and decision making. Deficient motivation can be a symptom of disorders such as anhedonia and ADHD. Cognitive effort avoidance leads to declining neural plasticity and functioning in the future.

The reason why most self-help books do not work is that they do not address the fundamental issues of the reward system. As soon as you eliminate the core problem, the symptoms will diminish. Self-help books and advice are like painkillers. They inspire but that feeling is gone once you hit the roadblock, i.e. the underlying problem again.

To improve the general well-being and motivation it is essential to help it on the fundamental level.

1. Improve neurochemistry. Upregulate dopamine receptors so that the process becomes more enjoyable. Years of instant gratification activities can lead to tolerance. It makes other activities less enjoyable because they demand effort.
Lack of motivation can be a symptom of neurochemical misbalance or disorder. If the problem is deeper on a biological level then it does not matter how long you will work with the symptoms. The main problem will bring back the problem until it is solved.
2. Sleep. Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and catathrenia lead to health issues that affect motivation. I recently learned that I might have a form of sleep disorder that causes me to breathe through my mouth. It leads to oxygen deprivation which makes me tired in the morning. I would wake up with no motivation to do anything. Forcing yourself to do something is extremely hard after a bad sleep. I addressed my health problems and motivation issues would be gone.
In a healthy state, it’s much easier to improve a few bad habits to make your life more productive. I have now improved my sleep and I feel so much better in the morning. I do not have muscle weakness, headaches, and a lack of motivation. When I do not feel like doing something I use a few anti-procrastination techniques. But overall, I do not feel unmotivated anymore.
3. Instant gratification is the whim of the ancient part of our brain. It is useless in the modern world. You will not starve without sugar. You do not need to be active in social media because nobody will kick you out of the tribe.
A good strategy is to use this weakness to your advantage. Replace instant gratification with a more delayed reward. If you value food, consider replacing harmful ingredients with healthier ones. Instead of browsing social media, consider producing content. Instead of seeking acceptance replace it with meaningful work to add value.
4. Decrease the cost and increase the benefit of a task. Make it simple and enjoyable. Prepare the environment so that working on the task is as least resistant as possible. Make the things you want to spend time with visible. Get rid of things that grab your attention and let procrastinate. Most habit-forming frameworks suggest making good habits attractive and easy. In contrast, if you want to give up a habit, you should make it invisible and unsatisfying.
To decrease the cost divide the task into small and easy steps. Something you can do in under 2–10 minutes. When the task is effortful, it is hard to start. It is easier for the brain to procrastinate.
The brain anticipates the amount of work and tries hard to delay the action. When I do not feel like writing, I promise myself that I will write for 15 minutes. My smallest step for daily reading habit is 10 minutes. My smallest step for morning exercises is 10 situps and 10 pushups. By doing that, I break the initial preparation barrier and oftentimes go beyond that. Once you are on track, it is much easier to get going. The hardest part is to come to an agreement with your brain about the cost of the activity.
5. Schedule. The more specific you are, the more committed you will be. It helps by allocating time and memory for work. For instance, sometimes, I distract myself on things that are not on my schedule. Once the specific time for the task comes, I know I have to switch to the more important one.
Cal Newport, in his famous book, suggests scheduling your day minute by minute to practice deep work. It might seem overwhelming for beginners. A simpler approach will be to start small and set the timeframe for your most important tasks.
6. Do not rely on inspiration. Inspiration, like appetite, comes in the process. At this point, you might know why that happens. The more you engage in the process, the lower is the cost of the task. Once the allocation of working memory is complete, the hard lifting is over. The reward is closer, thus, more beneficial. The task becomes manageable, the engagement increases, and it is more valuable to reach the reward.
7. Motivation is inconsistent. It is hard to stay motivated all the time. Many variables affect it, and it is not possible to control them all the time. When you feel unmotivated, take it easy and do whatever you can.
For instance, when I am tired after a long day at work, I do not feel like writing my next blog post. I still write a draft or a basic structure of the post. It is more important to be consistent than to produce high-quality work. The more you repeat, the easier to becomes. Habits alleviate hard lifting later.

Final thoughts

Initially, I had to write about a few tips that boosted my productivity and motivation. Later, it became clear that it is more valuable to understand why we, homo sapiens, even need these hacks? Turns out, that our ancient part of the brain did not catch up with our world and still thinks we live in a tribe a few thousand years ago. It wants immediate rewards, and it wants them now.

The reward system is fragile, and it drives our behavior. It wants pleasure and makes other parts of the brain to reinforce such behavior. Some people have a healthier reward system due to genes and relevant experience. Unfortunately, others, including me, do not. It requires some work to make the rewarding system to work the way we want it to. Once you understand the underlying processes, you will feel motivated naturally. You will no longer be a hostage of your limbic part of the brain. Learn and practice to train it, and it will lead you to the places you want to be.

Originally published at https://www.maray.ai.

Find me here: www.maray.ai