Underlying Motivations

The underlying premise of a concept like public choice theory is that people respond to incentives. Even the government, as insulated as it is from the market, is still driven by a self-interest that colors and shapes its decisions. It’s a fact that is manifested individually first, and then collectively in second order.

This is something I think about a lot. Asking: what’s behind this? why is it this way? what am I not seeing that influences this situation? The eye of the needle determines what gets threaded through it. And people and the constraints of their environment function much in the same way. I’ve always found that getting things done is about understanding the forces that are acting on the people involved. Ignore the actions; consider the factors that created and shaped them.

It’s funny because what makes people the angriest or the most disappointed was often the most understandable. Yet their energy is typically funneled towards the examples that are least typical (and least changeable). Take something like ethics in the media. People focus on rare but overt conflicts of interest, nevertheless letting subtle but pervasive biases stand and be rewarded. For instance, everyone would agree that journalists shouldn’t cover things they have a financial stake in. But to me, its this kind of brazen corruption we should be the least worried about—at least it is easy to spot. Meanwhile, we have no problem accepting that how journalists or bloggers cover is something from which they receive direct financial benefit. The choice to make a story more than it is, to extrapolate wildly or to create controversy are all part of how a writer makes a name from themselves, particularly in a world of pageview bonuses.

The idea is to make yourself a student of incentives and of motivations. To understand that this person is addicted to chaos, that another gets paid to distort, that what matters to you is not necessarily what matters to them, or that you know what, it just can’t be helped—their self-interest is too compelling. Because if you study it and accept it uncritically, you can position yourself to travel along with that current, instead of fighting hopelessly to make it upstream. But this is contingent acknowledging a simple rule of thumb: there is always more going on beneath the surface. There is always an incentive. And a response.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.