Three Motivational Psychologies

[Epistemic Status: It all looks right, but I couldn’t prove it to you.]

In my review of Space Cadet, I approvingly quoted this speech from Matt’s academic advisor, Lieutenant Wong:

People tend to fall into three psychological types, all differently motivated. There is the type, motivated by economic factors, money . . . and there is the type motivated by ‘face,’ or pride. This type is a spender, fighter, boaster, lover, sportsman, gambler; he has a will to power and an itch for glory. And there is the professional type, which claims to follow a code of ethics rather than simply seeking money or glory—priests and ministers, teachers, scientists, medical men, some artists and writers. The idea is that such a man believes that he is devoting his life to some purpose more important than his individual self.

I want to discuss this passage in more detail because it cuts cleanly to the center of an idea which I’ve been trying to express for several months now, and failing. As usual, someone else communicated it better that I could, long before my birth. The critical mistake, of course, was failing to differentiate between motivational categories and therefore trying to coherently illustrate a false dichotomy.

The idea in question is motivational categories. My interest here is motivation by face, which is generally subsumed by what Ayn Rand called second-hand-living. We’ll be discussing this in-depth Soon™, but I bring it up now because it looks like a useful model.

Let’s enumerate the three motivational types Heinlein sketched out. We’ll number them in the order discussed.

Type 1 describes the sort of person who is primarily focused on achieving financial success and avoiding poverty. When Heinlein wrote Space Cadet, they were probably the most common sort by a wide margin. This is…. less true, today. I suspect this is why so little time was spent discussing them—everyone knew what that kind of person was like. They went to work each morning, sent their kids to school, saved their raises, and attended church on Sunday.

They’re a dying breed, and I’ll miss them.

Type 2 is far more common in the modern era, probably the majority by a wide margin, though that may be a matter of availability bias. They’re the sort of people who drive around blasting music in the middle of the night and seek out “experiences” they can share on social media. They want to have fun in a particularly public manner. We’ve all met some of these people.

Most commentators mistakenly reverse the etiology. MTV / Facebook / Twitter / Snapstagram are the result of this type’s prevalence, not their cause. Social media may serve as a catalyst, but it would not have succeeded in the first place had a critical mass not already been present. One of the upcoming books I’ll review is all about these sorts, but there’s a catch—it was published in 1943. Type 2 motivations have been around forever.


It turns out Snapstagram was a real company for a few years.

Type 3, finally, is “the professional type.” What this entails isn’t always clear. Generally, these people devote their lives to work for intellectual rather than pecuniary reasons. They include a lot of people in industry, some academics, a few artists, and a good chunk of the clergy.

Nobody falls entirely into any one category, as Lieutenant Wong admits. This is a pretty crude model meant to just grasp at a few broad distinctions. Within a given category, there are several sub-motivations and other, less prominent motivations might not fall into any of the three Types.

Few individuals fall solely within any one of these categories. The overlap is where a lot of interesting dynamics show up, far more than I could discuss properly in a short post. Forgive me for just outlining them.

Type 1 and Type 2 overlaps are extremely common—so common, in fact, that it wasn’t until this last reading that I differentiated motivation-by-face from motivation-by-money. My defense is I was considerably younger on my previous readings, and wealth signaling is absolutely rampant. The idea that people might want money for actually-selfish1 reasons didn’t really occur to me until 2009. All too many people see wealth as a means to second-hand ends than for their own benefit.

Type 1 and Type 3 overlap is a more natural and sensible mix. By producing value—which, in a free economy, implies currency—one can go about implementing moral ends. Charity is not possible without production, science is not possible without surplus, art not possible without patrons. Greater purposes are an end: they cannot provide the means. Only the human manipulation of nature can do that.

Note that this sort isn’t particularly visible. The only example that’s coming readily to mind is Bill Gates, and he’s the richest man in the world2. It’s somewhat challenging to estimate the prevalence of sort of person, because they generally aren’t seeking out fame for their own glorification.

The overlap between Type 2 and Type 3 is quite visible, in a perverted form of virtue signaling. These people are seeking fame for their own glorification, but pretending that they aren’t. You will see this a lot in professional circles. The six-day trip to Africa really changing one’s profile picture is a deservingly mocked form, but it shows up in a lot of other ways, too. People and organizations make a lot of noise about being leaders on “sustainability” or “giving back to the community” when it’s painfully clear that their real interest is being seen as that sort of person3. Now there’s nothing wrong with proselytization, but for the love of God be subtle about it!

I don’t know if this model is actually correct. It looks right and I may write more about why it looks write later, but for now it’s a useful thing to think about. Then again, scientific validity isn’t always the best grounds for constructing useful typologies, because categories are made for man, not the other way around.

1Selfish reasons included personal pleasure and trying to avoid destitution. Vanity doesn’t count, that’s a Type 2 motivation. Simple misers are the stereo-Type 1 person, but they’re a minority of people primarily motivated by money, and an uncharitable one at that.

2At the time of this writing, according to Forbes. That could change again in the future.

3This also applies in politics. Yes, my libertarian friends, I am still looking at you!


Introspection and Depression: Thoughts from the Edge

Two years ago this day, I stood at the third-floor railing overlooking the atrium of Armstrong Hall (yes, that Armstrong), and debated with myself whether I wanted to die. It was a warm Friday afternoon, the last day of classes in the spring semester before finals began, and I was on my way to office hours in the vain hope of getting enough points back on my latest aeromechanics exam that I wouldn’t flunk it. I had stopped briefly to look over the balcony when the thought of jumping occurred to me, and I nearly dismissed it, but in an unexpected show of honesty decided to stay and think it through, all the way.

Looking over the edge that day, I realized my problem was worse than I’d thought. The semester and indeed my entire time at Purdue University had not been very good for me, and I knew there was a very real danger I would stay on academic probation for a second semester, which was tantamount to being expelled. My spirits were low, my comprehension was worse, and my grades were something I actively didn’t think about. I was afraid of being expelled, unfit for anything beyond the sort of retail job I’d taken the previous summer (making dimes above minimum wage), and loaded with a pile of debt I was completely incapable of paying off. It seemed that my life was completely hopeless, still a month away from my twentieth birthday. Maybe I should just “get it over with,” I thought to myself.

It wasn’t hopeless, but we’ll get to that later. I felt terrible because for the past six years my self-worth had been almost entirely based on perceptions of my own intelligence, largely measured through school. I’d been an honors student in high school, done reasonably well on my standardized tests, very well on my advanced placement tests, and so on. I had every reason to believe in my own ability to succeed at the fourth-best aerospace engineering school in America.

But the results just didn’t add up. I was struggling from the first semester, completely disappointed with the first-year curriculum, still frustrated once I got into my major, and overall not having a good time. Going from high school, where I was a middle-to-low honors student, to a population comprised almost entirely of honors students, wasn’t exactly stroking my ego. My entire self-worth and vision of the future was rapidly crashing down around me, and there was basically nothing I could do about it.

I flunked that exam, and I flunked the class, and I flunked two other classes. That itself wouldn’t have been an entirely unworkable problem, but the long string of Cs and Ds stretching back to Calc II were enough for Purdue to kick me out. And to them I said “good riddance, a whole lot of good you ever did me.”

The obvious message here is about measuring self-worth, in that any attempt to measure yourself against an outside metric is explicitly opposed to the philosophy I held at the time. In the worlds of Nathaniel Branden, “If my aim is to prove I am ‘enough,’ the project goes on to infinity–because the battle was already lost on the day I conceded the issue was debatable.” Though no longer much of an Objectivist, this much I still believe today.

The more abstract lesson, however, is about the importance of introspection. While perfect self-awareness may be impossible, a certain degree is necessary for ensuring one lives a happy and fulfilling life. It is certainly possible that someone will accidentally manage to live satisfactorily, even probable given certain circumstances and preferences, but that is far from a guarantee. At this point it’s quite evident that that is not the case for me.

Knowing what I want is the first step in this process, but even that is a challenge to ascertain. In the weeks before my first semester at Purdue began, I was slightly regretting not making an effort to get into more prestigious schools like MIT or Caltech. (The only school I applied to more selective than Purdue was the University of Southern California, which rejected me no doubt in part due to my hasty and unimpressive application.) At that point in my life, it wasn’t an entirely unreasonable thought. Having spent four years now at various sorts of schools, I can say very strongly that a maximally-difficult curriculum is not what I want.

Furthermore, one needs to know how to get what they want. A significant factor in choosing Purdue was its record of producing astronauts, which has been my dream job since elementary school. Of course, the odds are stacked against me, which was pretty clear by middle school: I’m unathletic, not terribly motivated, haven’t the best health, and don’t particularly like to study. This isn’t a winning combination, and for a sample as small and selective as the astronaut core focusing on work ethic and executive function would have been (and still is–I haven’t given up, but adjusted my expectations) a far more sensible approach than applying to a difficult school that I didn’t know I could handle.

And one has to realize the limits of possibility. I didn’t push my limits very far in high school, taking only a moderate slate of classes that were ultimately well within my abilities (I graduated with an unweighted GPA around 3.8). I didn’t apply to a large number of colleges, which would have given me a better idea of where I stood in the 2012 class of incoming engineering students. I never asked myself if there was a significant change of failure. The notion never occurred to me.

Sometimes I wonder if I had pushed myself, or if my parents had pushed me harder, then would I have been able to handle Purdue? In retrospect, none of it seems all that difficult, though the workload was a little high–and even that could have been dealt with provided sufficient executive function and time management. After this summer, I’ll have retaken every class I failed at Purdue, and even covered some material I didn’t get to. I’m still worrying about my grades, but I’m worried about getting multiple Cs instead of multiple Fs. Despite regular complaints, my comprehension is orders of magnitude better. Was it the change in environment? Just practice? Something else?

We’ll never find out. My life is an experiment I can only run once. But as I continue my climb out of depression and failure, I’ll know just what I’m dealing with.