Psychology & Psychiatry

5 pitfalls to understanding people’s motives

An educational psychologist reveals why it can be so tricky to interpret the behavior of others – and ourselves

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Madoff mugshot (Credit US Department of Justice, 2009)While watching the evening news a few weeks back, I encountered a fascinating example of why detecting and analyzing the behavior of others is so challenging. The newscasters were debating the motivation of Bernie Madoff, who was sentenced to 150 years in federal prison for perpetrating a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme that many believe is the most sinister white-collar crime in the history of mankind. The broadcasters had some intriguing ideas as to why Madoff would sacrifice his career, destroy his family, and risk the savings of thousands of investors for his own selfish gain.

The broadcasters concluded that Madoff’s motive was indisputably avarice and greed – a logical conclusion that is entirely wrong, at least based upon what Madoff told me, and what we know from research.

Madoff was one of 12 people I interviewed in conjunction with writing my new book, which delves into performance motivation and the role of self-beliefs – some of them unconscious – that underlie people’s behavior. In several instances, it became clear that the interviewee’s articulated motivations were not as obvious as one might assume, and in some cases entirely different than their behavior would logically suggest. All but one of these people I interviewed in person. In Madoff’s case, we exchanged hand-written letters and emails, his on ruled 8.5 x 11 pages mailed from the Federal Prison in Butner, North Carolina.

What really motivated him, he said, was the unbearable pressure from his clients, combined with unrealistic perceptions of his own ability to secure huge investment returns even during deplorable economic conditions, such as the market crashes of the mid-80s and the dot-com bubble burst of 2000.

The broadcasters’ behavioral analysis represented a phenomenon that we encounter almost daily: misinterpreting the reasons for behavior — combined with a lack of knowledge about motivational science (and the people we attempt to analyze).

Five reasons behavioral interpretations go wrong

Humans are subject to a number of interpretative biases that cloud rational thinking and the accurate interpretation of motivated behavior. An overriding obstacle is the problem of overexposure. In short, people observe behavior daily and make interpretations of motives based upon a vast network of personal experience and intuitive interpretation. If we observe behavior regularly, we become highly confident in our behavioral interpretations, even when wrong. The problem becomes much worse when evaluating the behavior of others, as demonstrated by the Madoff situation.

Motivational science identifies many reasons why appraisals of our perceptual reality are often incorrect:

1. Most people don’t know or understand their own motives.

The interpretation of motives is distorted for many reasons. Unlike pronounced physical attributes, psychological markers such as beliefs, preferences and dispositions cannot be examined directly. Complicating analysis is the reality that we assess the motives of others based upon the information and behaviors individuals prefer to present to us or based upon how people elect to publically portray themselves. Most people do not have the same “public” persona as they do in private, thus complicating accurate motive interpretation. The enigma of analysis is further exacerbated by the phenomena of social desirability, meaning that some behaviors are more culturally acceptable than others, and individuals will deliberately distort behaviors to meet the personal or societal expectations of others. For example, as Madoff had told me, one of his primary motives was how he performed in the eyes of his clients.

The author’s new book

In Motivation for Learning and Performance, published by Elsevier’s Academic Press, Dr. Bobby Hoffman explores why we do the things we do, including strategies to change our own behavior and exert greater influence on those around us. He outlines 50 key motivation principles based on the latest scientific evidence from the disciplines of psychology, education, business, athletics and neurology. For examples, he interviewed highly influential people, including Bernie Madoff, country music star Jessi Colter, Florida Senator Darren Soto, NFL veteran Nick Lowery, and actress Cheryl Hines.

Dr. Hoffman, Associate Professor in the School of Teaching, Learning & Leadership at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, draws on his expertise in educational psychology and a 20-year career in human resources management and performance consulting.

In addition, scientific evidence reveals that implicit motivations (those that are not in direct consciousness) are highly prevalent and exceedingly challenging to identify. These implicit motives are driven by habit and lack of conscious attention to what we do and why we do it and in many cases account for much of our daily behavior.

2. Behavior is interpreted through personal perspectives.

Let’s face it, most of us believe that our approach to the universe is the warranted, justified and most likely correct approach. Many people can relate to my favorite example of personal bias: driving. We all have colorful names to describe people who drive faster or slower than we do because we are of the belief our chosen speed is the correct speed. Consequently, we often evaluate the behavior of others by comparing the behavior to our self. The comparison often leads to flawed conclusions concerning the meaning of behavior because of lack of comparison to an objective standard.

Complicating the interpretation process is the human proclivity to focus on evidence to support our desired interpretations, while ignoring or rationalizing away the significance of disconfirming evidence. This phenomenon clearly applies to the Madoff case, too. Here, the example involves the media. Popular media continues to sensationalize the Madoff case with some sources erroneously contending he swindled $65 billion from his clients, when in reality the number of allowable claims was closer to $15 billion. In fact, in 2012, the US Government Accountability Office reported that 60 percent of Madoff’s clients were net winners, having had more money returned to them than they invested. Further, interpretation through a personal lens discounts the role of culture and the cognitive, emotional and social development of the individual being assessed. Exclusion of cultural factors alone can result in vast misinterpretation due to differences in normative behavior both within and between different genders, ethnicities and age groups.

3. The same behaviors may represent entirely different motives.

Observing behavior is insufficient to diagnose motive because similar behaviors may represent different motives, the same motive may prompt different behaviors, and people will react differently to the identical type of environmental trigger.

Compounding detection is the reality that people will often have multiple and simultaneous motives, with some goals being subordinate to others, resulting in what appears to be a hierarchy of motives. Primary, or ultimate, goals are often suppressed in favor of subordinate goals, which serve as a means to an end. For example, the person who enrolls in an adult education course under the pretense of advancing knowledge may actually attend class to demonstrate his or her capability, or for social reasons such as to find a suitable partner with similar interests.

With Madoff, even if his primary goal were to keep intact his idealistic self-views of his investment ability, as he stated, he was also motivated to commit financial fraud to appear competent in the eyes of his investors.

Accurately deciphering observed behavior requires an understanding of the specific reasons why motives and goals are pursued, which cannot be confirmed by observation alone, necessitating consideration of multiple strands of evidence to enhance the probability of accurate motive detection.

4. Motives are often conflated with personality and character.

Despite the fact that personality and character are more enduring than situational motives, many times individuals will erroneously conclude that personality traits can reliably determine motivational intent. While personality may be used to predict what a specific type of person will do under particular circumstances, the integrative nature of motivation may derail the predictive ability of personality. At times, other factors will override typical behavior patterns, such as when the typically introverted individual identifies someone at a social gathering with similar interests and spontaneously appears to become the life of the party. The practice of labeling individuals according to motivational type is very risky; contrary to “pop” descriptions of motivation types (e.g., thinkers, followers, challengers), motives are fluid, malleable and variable, fluctuating based on social and environmental factors in addition to dominant personality characteristics.

5. Emotions can disguise or disrupt normative behavior.

Emotions are a game changer and can quickly lead to false interpretation of motives. When people are under emotional strain, response patterns change. As the mind succumbs to the perception of elation, pressure, stress, discomfort or distraction, normative physiological and psychological patterns are hijacked by the prevailing emotion. Madoff knew what he was doing was wrong yet apparently succumbed to feelings of guilt based upon the relentless pressure from his wealthy clients. Accurate behavioral interpretations require the realization that all environmental events will be subjectively interpreted, activating a spectrum of emotions across individuals. Positive emotions will motivate individuals toward seeking out a target, while the exact same event can be negatively perceived prompting avoidance behavior.

If you are at all skeptical about the power of emotion, consciously focus on the deliberate and intentional manipulation of your own emotions. Turn on the television or listen to the appeal of lawyers, politicians, salespeople or advertisers, whose goal is to elevate your positive emotions, trigger snap judgments, and prompt impulsive buying decisions – deliberate strategies designed to circumvent objective deliberation and the typical motivational patterns that accompany behavior devoid of emotion.

Having identified some interpretive biases and potential pitfalls of assessing motivated behavior, we see that motivation identification is possible but often a precarious and imprecise science. The next step is determining which motivational beliefs about the self and others are most influential to help predict behavior.

A follow-up article will explore the beliefs that underlie our behavioral choices in more detail.

Common terminology in motivational research

Self-report — the reliance upon individuals to provide personal interpretation of their motives, typically gathered through surveys or interviews.

Implicit motive — automatic motives not readily recognized within the direct stream of consciousness of an individual.

Habits — deeply engrained motives, behaviors, and actions acquired through experience or practice which are highly difficult to override.

Spurious — an erroneous interpretation attributing causality to an unwarranted cause when examining the relationship between two or more factors.

Traits — a generalized tendency to exhibit behaviors that are consistent and predictable.

Self-serving bias — the process whereby success is often justified as internally derived, but task failure is attributed to external ascriptions.

Confirmation bias — occurs when individuals identify problems or seek solutions that support their pre-existing notions while implicitly suppressing other plausible explanations of behavior or motivation.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Bobby Hoffman, PhDDr. Bobby Hoffman is an Associate Professor in the School of Teaching, Learning & Leadership at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He is a 2006 graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) with a PhD in Educational Psychology. He has also earned a Master’s degree in Human Resources Psychology and a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. He joined UCF in August 2006 after a 20-year career in human resources management and performance consulting working with the world's most successful companies including GE, NBC, KPMG, the NBA, along with other global technology, insurance and pharmaceutical organizations. Currently, Bobby teaches a variety of classes at the graduate level in motivation, learning, cognition and intelligence. Dr. Hoffman has numerous scholarly publications in leading scientific journals in the field of educational psychology, performance consulting and technology.

In 2016 Hoffman will serve as Motivation and Cognition section chair for Division C of the American Educational Research Association, the world's largest educational research organization. Hoffman was program co-chair in 2011 for Division 15 of the American Psychological Association and serves on several journal editorial boards including Contemporary Educational Psychology, Educational Psychology Review, and Educational Technology, Research and Development.

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