Examples of Direct and Indirect Motivation

Let’s start out with a few examples so you get a sense of the difference between Direct and Indirect Motivation. On the way you will encounter the terms ‘Ego-References’, it being a concept in Indirect Motivation. I have chosen not to go into detail on that one here but for now refer you to the explanation in the Terminology List (Jargon – push the Owl button) and/or direct you to the special pages dedicated to this important concept.

Another new concept that is introduced in this page is ‘Substitute Sense of Self’. This is at length explained in the special page under the section Sense of Self. Please hover over the word for a short concise explanation or opt to go to the Terminology list or the page on Substitute Sense of Self.

Ex.1 Direct Motivation: I clean the kitchen because I find it unpleasant to work in a greasy kitchen with food scraps and dirty dishes all over the place. I can’t find countertop space to prepare my food. Also, I don’t like the chaotic look of it.

Ex.1 Indirect Motivation: I clean the kitchen because my parents are about to visit me, and I know how they always think that I can’t keep my house clean. I want to avoid their criticizing looks because that makes me feel as if I failed again. I can just hear my mother’s disapproving tone of voice, and I’ll do anything to avoid that.

Besides, she might smile when she sees the kitchen clean, and that would make me feel very good. (These motivations are not direct because they are not even about the kitchen being clean.)

My Hidden Agenda is parental approval that I need for ’feeling-good-about-Self’ as a Substitute Sense of Self.

Ex.2 Direct Motivation:  I want to be on time for my college class and be there right at the beginning of class because I don’t want to miss out on anything the teacher teaches. I like the subject and teacher, and I want to learn as much as I can because it’s useful and good stuff.

[Or:] I want to be on time for my college class because being late disturbs the atmosphere in class and the teacher or other students might suffer from it. I want to express my respect for them all.

Ex.2 Indirect Motivation: I want to be on time for my class because I’ll hate myself if I am late again; my self-respect depends on being on time, and I am sure everybody will reject me for being late again.

[Or:]I want to be on time for my college class, and in my head the following is playing: “I have to be on time! I have to be on time! I can’t afford to be late!” (But I have no clue what my motives actually are. I am just scared and stressed.)

My Hidden Agendas are all about me and what I think of myself and what others will think of me (Do I get a positive mirror back from others so I can ‘feel-good-about-Self’.)

Ex.3 Direct Motivation: I am having my kid take piano lessons because it is worth exploring whether he is going to like being able to play; if he does, it could be a lifelong source of fun for him. He has been tinkering around on the piano by himself and seems to enjoy it. Music is a fun part of our family life, and he seems to especially enjoy piano music.

Ex.3 Indirect Motivation: I am having my kid take piano lessons because I want her to start early in life with music education because I need her to be a great musician. There are things at stake for me. I’m a professional musician among all the other professional musician-mothers, and a kid who plays well would make me look good and give me a sense of being really ‘Professional’.  I’d get compliments from the other parents.

My Hidden Agenda is to bolster my own self-image (so I can ‘feel-good-about-Self’ and feel safe.)

(Note: None of these motives is about the kid at all. In my opinion, these kinds of indirect motivation are common among parents whose children attend places which teach dance and music lessons to toddlers. If not properly (directly!) motivated there are adverse effects on the children!)

The difference between Direct and Indirect Motivation

How Direct Motivation works is clear: the activity is in sync with the consciously chosen ‘ordinary’ goal of such an activity. The goal is overt and there is no ambiguity upon interpretation.

How Indirect Motivation works is not at all clear. The action is the same but there is a huge discrepancy between the seemingly ‘ordinary’ goal and the real but Hidden Goal.

The Hidden Goal of an Indirectly Motivated action is not visible at all and most of the time isn’t even known to the person herself.

Let’s take apart another example of each kind of motivation, to see the differences more clearly.

Ex. 4 Direct Motivation: My neighbor asks me to take him to a certain place as his car is out of order. I am happy to help him out, because in general I am a person who enjoys being helpful; for me the only downside is the loss of some time that I could have spent on something else. The basic human satisfaction in helping another and expressing my caring for my neighbor is all the reward I need.

Ex.4 Indirect Motivation: My neighbor asks me to take him to a certain place as his car is out of order. I could have one or more of these motives. They are almost certainly subconscious but if I could put them into words, I might say:

  1. I really do not want to do this as I am swamped with work, but what will he think of me if I say No? And what will others think, if he tells them?
  2. Hey, I can use this opportunity to prove to myself (and to others) that I am not egocentric. I feel guilty when others accuse me of being egocentric and selfish.
  3. Hey, I can use this incident to be on time for once. I need to learn to be on time so I can prove that I can be on time, because so often I am disapproved of for being late.
  4. Even if I didn’t sleep (well or at all) I will show that I can do this kind of thing anyway and that will prove I am ‘normal.’

In this case the neighbor might benefit if I decide to help him, but my motivation has nothing to do with benefitting him. In fact my action of ‘helping him out’ is just a ‘Vehicle’ to approve of myself and feel-good-about-myself which I normally don’t feel.

Later on in the day, I might even ‘happen’ to mention to my parents that “I dropped my neighbor off somewhere this morning…” and my motive would be to get their approval.

So the standard normal Directly motivated goal would be: to help him out. My actual but subconscious Hidden Agenda’s goal is to achieve one of my Ego-References in this case ‘being unselfish’, or getting my parents’ approval, or establishing my reputation for being on time so I don’t ‘feel-bad-about-myself’.

Actually the picture is even more complex than that. Achieving a positive outcome to the Ego-References of ‘being unselfish’, or getting parental approval, or having a good reputation has its own hidden goal and indirect motivation. There is even another layer of motivation going on.

For example, to get my parent’s real or virtual (internalized) approval has the Indirect Motivational goal of making me ‘feel-good-about myself’ which is my unhealthy ‘Substitute Sense of Self’, the closest I can get to ‘feeling alive.’

Understanding Motivation holds the key to good health and happiness.

Understanding the phenomenon of Indirect Motivation holds the key to understanding and thus dismantling so much unhealthy human functioning. Indirect Motivation is aimed at a complex, invisible, underlying psycho-emotional structure of motives and needs. To be fully healthy, we are going to have to face, discover, understand, and dissolve that structure: the Substitute-Sense–of-Self-oriented System.

Let’s take a closer look now at Direct Motivation. Then we’ll see what Indirect Motivation, with its Hidden Agenda is actually aiming at.

Where the reader goes next….