You’ve probably never heard of TestingMom.com. It’s part of a new generation of test-prep companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review –– except this one is for toddlers. Competition for slots in kindergarten has gotten so intense that some parents are shelling out thousands to get their four-year olds ready for entrance tests or interviews. It’s just one more example of the pressure that got celebrity parents arrested for falsifying college applications a few years ago. In this case the battle is over getting into elite elementary schools or gifted programs. While such admissions pressure is widely known, what’s new is how early it’s occurring. Equity issues aside, the demand to improve performance is being drilled into youngsters before they can spell their names. All of this bespeaks the competition for grades, school placement, and eventual careers that has transformed the normal impulse to do better into an obsession for students and their families. Much like the drive for perfection, an insatiable hunger to be quicker, smarter, and more acceptable to admissions officers is taking its toll in many ways.
What explains this obsessive behavior? Brain science has been proving what advertising long has known –– that wanting something is far more powerful than getting it. School admissions and other markers of success are part of an overarching mental wanting mechanism. That new iPhone might bring a thrill. But soon comes the yearning for an update, a newer model, another purchase. Neuroimaging shows that processes of “wanting” and “liking” occur in different parts of the brain, with the former more broadly and powerfully operating than the latter. This reverses the common wisdom that primal hungers and “drives” underlie human motivation. Unlike animals, the motor force driving human beings is imagination –– with anticipation of something more important than the experience itself. This partly explains why merchandizing deals more with feeling than facts. Slogans like “Just Do It” and “Think Different” bear no direct relationship to shoes or computers, but instead tingle feelings of desire. In the fuzzy realm emotion pleasure is a fungible currency.
Especially in the contemporary world, anticipation is a bigger animating force than what follows. Researchers believe the dominance of wanting affects all manner of everyday behaviors, from reaching for a candy bar or playing a game to calling up a friend or striving for success.[i] So powerful is this expectation mechanism that it gets people wanting things that give no benefit. As it turns out, brain mechanisms for “wanting” are bigger and more complex than the ones for “liking,” and they carry more unconscious baggage. This helps explain the addictive consumerism throughout American culture, as well as why money and achievement often bring little lasting meaning. It’s also one reason why people eat to the point of obesity or habitually do things they don’t really enjoy. Put another way, it’s a key to understanding the update impulse explored throughout this book.
In a broader sense this brain function can shed light on how major life decisions get affected by emotional desire. Economists generally assume that people work hard at their jobs so they can buy things. Neuroscience increasingly shows how chasing money and even work itself can be their own rewards. In a now famous experiment, researchers watched a certain region of the brain –– the nucleus accumbens –– as study participants reacted to the prospect of receiving money. As reported in Harvard Business Review, the higher the potential monetary reward, the more active the accumbens became. “But activity ceased at the time the subjects actually received the money—suggesting that it was the anticipation, and not the reward itself, that aroused them.”[ii] So just think about this. If people can be so misguided about something as fundamental as why they work, what other things might they be getting wrong?
“The brain seems stingier with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire,” stated Kent Berridge, the scientist primarily known for these findings.[iii] Berridge’s main discovery was that dopamine, the so-called “feel-good neurotransmitter,” had little to do with the pleasure of eating sweets or winning a game. Instead, dopamine’s real power lay in the expectation of enjoyment experienced in desires, unconscious thoughts, and even the memories of pleasure. Building on this, Berridge concluded that the brain’s pleasure system also drove motivations for pursuing success, the good life, and well-being. Yet often these motivations rested on a fundamental misunderstanding of genuine pleasure –– a failure to see that true joy was mainly a mental construct disconnected from actual experience. In this sense, achievement is more a matter of attitude than an objective reality. Just as importantly, the same process of wanting is the engine of anxiety –– when people expect the worst or worry about bad outcomes.
These questions about wanting and liking have a lot to do with the will to improve –– and why we invest so much of ourselves in school, work, relationships, and society. So often in life people simply assume they are on the right path, their goals rational and self-evident. Caught up in climbing to the next rung of the ladder, few ever take time to ask just why they are climbing. But philosophers and psychologists have spent a lot of time on this issue, and some of what they say might surprise you. The topic of “motivation” has a long history and has gone by many names: the will to live, the survival instinct, the competitive impulse, the drive for self-preservation, following God’s plan, or striving, struggling, seeking pleasure or comfort.
[i] Kent Berridge and John. P. O’Doherty, “From Experience Utility to Decision Utility,” Neuroeconomics (2014) p. 337.
[ii] Gardiner Morse, “Decisions and Desire,” Harvard Business Review (Jan. 2006) https://hbr.org/2006/01/decisions-and-desire (accessed Feb 2, 2021).
[iii] “Why ‘Wanting’ and ‘Liking’ Something Simultaneously is Overwhelming,” University of Michigan (Mar. 3, 2007) https://news.umich.edu/why-wanting-and-liking-something-simultaneously-is-overwhelming/ (accessed Feb. 2, 2021).