Purpose in humans: a smart way to promote long-term rewards

On a personal level, purpose has a healthy effect on the cognitive processes that we use to make decisions.

Personal maturity is about making decisions and taking responsibility for the eventual consequences. One typical sign of immaturity—which biologically could last a lifetime—is to demand the freedom to decide, then make others (usually the State) pay the price for those decisions.

As adults, we have to make increasingly more decisions about important issues and accept the outcome. The ability to get those decisions right, and deal with the repercussions, is a complex, but necessary and important skill.

To develop this skill, we need to better understand the factors and variables that influence decision making.

Trying to simplify an inherently complex process, when making decisions we are operating on two different levels: the conscious and the unconscious; two reward mechanisms: short term and long term; and six emotional desires (security, connection, uniqueness, fun, self-improvement and contribution), which are what activate our reward mechanisms.

This process predisposes us—without forcing us—to make decisions with our heart (midbrain) and to justify the decision with our head (neocortex); this brings along the risk of opting for “apparent good” (short-term reward mechanism) without using our head to consider if it really is a “true good” (long-term reward mechanisms).

One reason is that the “discount rate” at which we usually bring future events to the present time is disproportionately high for most people. A second reason is that short-term reward triggers are more powerful in that they are more instinctive and more present in the neural circuits with which we operate.

The “logic” of the heart is governed by four desires (basic) whereas the “logic” of reason is ruled by two different desires (advanced), which are the ones that activate the two decision-making mechanisms; that of short-term rewards is triggered by basic desires, while that of long-term rewards is driven by advanced desires.

At the same time, the basic desires operate more on the unconscious level (in the midbrain, which is older and more emotional) and the advanced desires on the conscious level (the neocortex, which is more recent and processes more rational thought).

There are four basic emotional desires:

  • The desire for security/control, which usually implies the largely unconscious search for comforts, certainties, protection, but also for better knowledge, better analysis, a prudent attitude towards risk, etc.
  • The desire for connection/trust, which is the desire that fosters friendship, team building, solidarity, but also tribal sentiment, nationalism, ghettos, rejection of diversity, etc.
  • The desire for uniqueness/relevance, which often turns into the desire for dominance, power, recognition, money, aggressiveness, manipulation to achieve results, but it is also the desire that drives entrepreneurship, courage, fearlessness, effort, etc.
  • The desire for fun/novelty, which makes change attractive, fosters tolerance in the face of uncertainty, predisposes us to be entrepreneurial, makes us creative and open to different people, but it is also what can cause us to become superficial, promiscuous, disorderly, prone to excess, frivolous, etc.

The four desires are present in all people, with different levels of intensity. And, as the examples suggest, they can be channeled in very different ways.

Basic desires are radically legitimate in themselves, but the way we manage them has consequences for the future… some positive and others clearly negative. Everything will depend on the degree of compatibility or coherence with the advanced desires, of which there are only two:

  • the desire for self-improvement/growth, which leads us to seek personal improvement in areas such as kindness, willpower, intelligence, etc.
  • and the desire to serve and make valuable contributions, which translates into initiatives that seek the good of others in an unselfish way.

Basic desires allow them to be perceived as pleasant decisions with negative future consequences as they undermine our personal growth and our contribution to the common good.

For example: the decision to take drugs is based on the desire for fun; arrogance comes from the desire for relevance. Neither of these is consistent with advanced desires, and thus both are behaviors that complicate our future. They steal happiness from the future. They constitute apparent good, and future frauds.

Some more examples of fraudulent “apparent good”: mental rigidity or manias to feel more control; the lack of individual personality or the “everyone does it” argument to make connections; manipulation and lying to win and feel superior; shallowness or promiscuity for the sake of fun.

The heart is mistaken when choosing easy rewards that clash with advanced desires. Those decisions are nothing more than emotional fast food: they temporarily satiate the hunger for basic emotional desires, but are not healthy “food” in the long run. They are a fraud in terms of their consequences and thus future gratification as well.

Fortunately, there is also apparent good that turns out to be true good. For example, preparing well for a difficult test and doing so with real dedication. These types of decisions not only provide security, relevance, connection, etc. but are also compatible with personal growth and the desire to contribute.

These two decision-making mechanisms frequently conflict. This is part of our human imperfection. The winner of that contest will shape the future that awaits us and whether or not we build a better future. The role of good education is to make the long-term gratification system succeed on a regular basis.

What is a good education from a human point of view? On one hand, it is about developing better beliefs to endow the conscience with the clairvoyance necessary to activate advanced desires; and on the other hand, having the willpower necessary to postpone short-term rewards when necessary.

That is the education that opens the door to the best version of oneself, the one that creates possibilities for us to inspire and positively influence the progress of society.

NB: El original tiene la palabra consecuencias en 4 frases seguidas. He evitado esta repetición en inglés a propósito.