Control your Urges

Published by Valerie A. Curtis, Ph.D. in Don’t Look, Don’t Touch!

It’s tough being a human! We know it’s not good to lounge in the armchair when we should be out for that bracing walk. We know that second croissant for breakfast is more than we need, but it smells so good. We know that we should wash our hands after the toilet and before every meal, but somehow we’re just too busy to remember. Mothers everywhere know that breast is best for their babies, yet bottle feeding is growing globally, rather than falling. Most people know full well the dangers of disease from unprotected sex, but does that mean they always wear condoms?

Though we mostly know what’s good for us we just can’t seem to do it. What’s going on here? Sometimes it seems as though there are voices squabbling in our heads, telling us contradictory things. It can get quite noisy in there; and the rational arguments often get outshouted by the siren voices of temptation.

And indeed, the feeling that there are multiple voices telling us contradictory things is not too far from the truth. Our evolutionary heritage has given us fourteen motives, and they are pulling us in different directions.

So, for example, lust may tempt us to us to go out with the cute guy, but nurture says to stay home to look after the kids. The hoard motive tells us to save everything we can for a rainy day, but create tells us that our environments will become impossibly inefficient if we fill them with junk. Disgust tells us to avoid sick and odd- looking people but justice tells us that this can be hurtful and unfair. The play motive may tell us to try bungee jumping but comfort tells us it might be better to stay warm at home on that sofa. Each one of these motives evolved to do a particular job, which was to make our ancestors do the things that made more ancestors. The ancestors with a strong love motive for example, tended to pair-bond more successfully and hence were able to bring up more children on average than those who didn’t. And those more offspring were equipped with a love motive. Similarly those with a strong disgust motive were better at avoiding infectious disease, and hence they had more offspring – inheriting a healthy disgust motive. Those who craved status got more resources and hence had more offspring, again with healthy status drives. Motives evolved to make our ancestors do what was good for their genes.

One would think then, with all this clever motivational machinery designed by natural selection to keep us reproducing successfully that we would be optimally healthy. One might expect our brains to be tuned to make us behave adaptively, and so we would not need to struggle with our urges. And for the most part this is true. Comfort motivates us to seek shelter and warm clothes when the temperature falls, hence we don’t die of cold. Fear keeps us from falling off cliffs and running into the arms of wild animals, hence we minimise accidents. Disgust helps us to avoid food that has gone off and people with running sores, hence we avoid much disease. But the world that designed us and our motives is not the world of today. So if designing technology to satisfy our motives got us into this mess, can it help to get us out? Yes they can. The solution is not the one prescribed by governments and policy makers – more education about health. The endless preaching by governments and do-gooders telling us to do what’s good for us only adds to the cacophony in our heads. The answer is instead to work with human nature and not against it. We need new food technologies that we can gorge on without making us fat (thank you aspartame for helping me lose weight!). We need more opportunities to enjoy physical play, in warmth and comfort, preferably, so we exercise more, and get more rewards. For example why don’t running machines help one earn airmiles or amass charity donations? We need to make breastfeeding much more visible so the affiliation drive makes mums want to fit in, not stand out with that bottle. And we need to make handwashing with soap and condom wearing such an addictive experiences that we never forget to use them again. How? Well perhaps that would be a bit difficult, but technology can help move us in that direction, offering us a better answer than the self-control for the sake of health advocated by the health preachers.

Motives got us into this mess, now we need to enlist our evolved motives to help to get us out of it again.

Published by Valerie A. Curtis, Ph.D. in Don’t Look, Don’t Touch!

It’s tough being a human! We know it’s not good to lounge in the armchair when we should be out for that bracing walk. We know that second croissant for breakfast is more than we need, but it smells so good. We know that we should wash our hands after the toilet and before every meal, but somehow we’re just too busy to remember. Mothers everywhere know that breast is best for their babies, yet bottle feeding is growing globally, rather than falling. Most people know full well the dangers of disease from unprotected sex, but does that mean they always wear condoms?

Though we mostly know what’s good for us we just can’t seem to do it. What’s going on here? Sometimes it seems as though there are voices squabbling in our heads, telling us contradictory things. It can get quite noisy in there; and the rational arguments often get outshouted by the siren voices of temptation.

And indeed, the feeling that there are multiple voices telling us contradictory things is not too far from the truth. Our evolutionary heritage has given us fourteen motives, and they are pulling us in different directions.

So, for example, lust may tempt us to us to go out with the cute guy, but nurture says to stay home to look after the kids. The hoard motive tells us to save everything we can for a rainy day, but create tells us that our environments will become impossibly inefficient if we fill them with junk. Disgust tells us to avoid sick and odd- looking people but justice tells us that this can be hurtful and unfair. The play motive may tell us to try bungee jumping but comfort tells us it might be better to stay warm at home on that sofa. Each one of these motives evolved to do a particular job, which was to make our ancestors do the things that made more ancestors. The ancestors with a strong love motive for example, tended to pair-bond more successfully and hence were able to bring up more children on average than those who didn’t. And those more offspring were equipped with a love motive. Similarly those with a strong disgust motive were better at avoiding infectious disease, and hence they had more offspring – inheriting a healthy disgust motive. Those who craved status got more resources and hence had more offspring, again with healthy status drives. Motives evolved to make our ancestors do what was good for their genes.

One would think then, with all this clever motivational machinery designed by natural selection to keep us reproducing successfully that we would be optimally healthy. One might expect our brains to be tuned to make us behave adaptively, and so we would not need to struggle with our urges. And for the most part this is true. Comfort motivates us to seek shelter and warm clothes when the temperature falls, hence we don’t die of cold. Fear keeps us from falling off cliffs and running into the arms of wild animals, hence we minimise accidents. Disgust helps us to avoid food that has gone off and people with running sores, hence we avoid much disease. But the world that designed us and our motives is not the world of today. So if designing technology to satisfy our motives got us into this mess, can it help to get us out? Yes they can. The solution is not the one prescribed by governments and policy makers – more education about health. The endless preaching by governments and do-gooders telling us to do what’s good for us only adds to the cacophony in our heads. The answer is instead to work with human nature and not against it. We need new food technologies that we can gorge on without making us fat (thank you aspartame for helping me lose weight!). We need more opportunities to enjoy physical play, in warmth and comfort, preferably, so we exercise more, and get more rewards. For example why don’t running machines help one earn airmiles or amass charity donations? We need to make breastfeeding much more visible so the affiliation drive makes mums want to fit in, not stand out with that bottle. And we need to make handwashing with soap and condom wearing such an addictive experiences that we never forget to use them again. How? Well perhaps that would be a bit difficult, but technology can help move us in that direction, offering us a better answer than the self-control for the sake of health advocated by the health preachers.

Motives got us into this mess, now we need to enlist our evolved motives to help to get us out of it again.

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