Javon Behavioural Institute (JBI) on Motivation

Motivation and Seduction: “You don’t desire it enough”

We know that the human brain’s reward systems highly values experiences/behaviors that lead to pleasurable consequences. Our instinct is to move towards those behaviors that produce the greatest reward and withhold from acts resulting in punishment or no reinforcement (extinction).

Every single one of the behavior patterns you currently have in your behavioral repertoire (both the positive and negative behaviors) is associated with higher dopamine levels (pleasurable consequences: Reinforcement).

Scientists can now measure with great precision the exact moment that a desire/need occurs by measuring dopamine levels in the brain. The higher the spike of dopamine, the greater the desire/need. The greater the desire for something, the more likely it is that behavior will follow.

But why is it that sometimes even though there is a pleasurable reward waiting for us, we still do not have the motivation or willingness to engage in the behavior to produce the reward?

The short answer is that You don’t Need it enough”. It isn’t enough to like something; you must also desire it!

There is a significant distinction between liking something and desiring it. The human brain has far more neurocircuitry allocated for desiring pleasure than it does for liking them. The desiring centers in the brain are vast, but the liking centers of the brain are significantly smaller. When we engage in a behavior willingly, 90% of the desiring centers of the brain light up, but only 10% are activated in the liking centers. The fact that the brain allocates so much space to the regions responsible for desiring/needing/craving, provides further evidence of the crucial role that these processes play. Desire is the engine that drives behavior. Every action is taken because of the anticipation and desire that precedes it.


Even though Emmanuel likes green tea, he doesn’t go out of his way to get it. He does not desire/need green tea. Because of this lack of desire, he does not engage in green tea-seeking behavior.

Carmen likes Eric but does not make much effort to see him. She does not desire Eric enough to put in the required amount of effort. Her lack of desire leads to her lack of effort.

Bob has not had a job in years. Even though he would like to become independent and move out of his parent’s basement, he does not desire/need this independence. Because of this lack of desire, he does not engage in behaviors that could produce the said outcome (independence).

Why do our Needs/desires fluctuate so much?

We have discussed the significant role that present Needs/desires play in the Behavior we choose to engage/not engage in. We know that our internal needs and desires are the driving force behind Behaviors we engage in; however, the question remains, what dictates these internal needs, and why are they constantly changing? For example, why isn’t a loved one’s phone call always desirable?

Or why is it that we only sometimes feel an intense desire to do something and, as a result, feel a burst of energy (dopamine) as we move towards an anticipated outcome? But why does that not last? For many, their Behaviors depend on such “random” bursts of energy and motivation that seem to appear spontaneously and by chance.

From a Behavioral Analytic perspective, individuals’ state of Needs & desires depends solely on their past experiences with the reinforcer (reward). If the outcome/reinforcer has been too available, the internal Need for that reinforcer will be reduced. Consequently, if a need for a particular reinforcer has been reduced, the Behaviors that can produce that reinforcer will also be diminished.

Let’ break this down:


Need: Talk to a certain friend you have not talked with in a while (EO)

Antecedent: Friend calls

Behavior: Pick up the phone instantly with excitement

Consequence: have a pleasant 2 hour conversation (AO: desire satisfied)


Need: desire alone time

Antecedent: the same friend calls

Behavior: Avoid picking up the phone

Consequence: Enjoy time alone reading a book

As you can see in the example above, the avoidance of the phone call was tied directly to the consequence you received in the past, which reduced the value of that reinforcer (friend’s phone call). The availability of the reinforcer you received changed your need to be in touch with that friend the next day. This resulted in you not engaging in Behaviors that would produce the same outcome (AO). Even though this sudden shift in your current Needs changed the course of your Behavior, it is most likely a temporary change, meaning if another few days or weeks go by without you speaking to this person, the value of their calls will be increased once more (EO). Realize that the longer the time since speaking with this friend, the greater the value of their voice.

To describe this in an accurate Behavioral term, we would not measure your desire as it is a poor self-report measure. Instead, we could measure the amount of time that has passed since the last conversation in a very quantifiable and reliable manner.

When you desire or want to speak with a particular friend, this desire exists in the absence of that event; that is, you are not currently in touch with them. Also, there has been a certain amount of time where you have not spoken with the person. In other words, a state of deprivation exists. Suppose this deprivation is sufficient to motivate you to engage in Behavior that has historically produced a conversation with them. In that case, we could conclude that the value of the call has been“established.”


Dayton has been trying out a new 1 meal a day diet as recommended by his doctor. This means for an entire day he will not consume anything except for water. At 8:00 pm, he can indulge in up to 2000 calories. At 7:45pm, Dayton’s desire for food is at its peak because he has been deprived for several hours (Establishing Operations EO). However, by 9:00, when he has eaten a 3 course meal, he is fully satisfied, and the value of food as a reinforcer drops significantly (Abolishing Operations AO). In other words, because he no longer desires to eat, Behaviors that produce such an outcome (I.e., going to the fridge to get food) will be reduced.

What causes this shift in how much we desire something at any given moment has to do with how much or how long we have been deprived of something. We call this Establishing Operation (EO): when the value of a particular reinforcer increases because we have been deprived of it for a period of time.

On the other hand, the operation behind what causes us to avoid certain Behaviors can be explained by Abolishing Operations (AO): A motivating operation that decreases the value of a particular reinforcer often as a result of satiation. In the case of Dayton, because he had consumed plenty of food (AO), the value of food as a reinforcer decreased.


During the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, you may have experienced intense longing for loved ones whom you could not visit in person. Being deprived of social contact (Establishing Operation (EO)) increased the value of seeing your loved ones (reinforcer). For many of you, this increased the likelihood of you engaging in Behaviors that would get you a little closer to them: such as seeing them on zoom, or secretly inviting them over.

Prior to the pandemic, perhaps you did not engage in such Behaviors as frequently because you were not in a state of deprivation, and thus the value of loved ones as a reinforcer was not as high as the lockdown condition.

Thus, when we do (not) engage in certain behaviors, AO is often a key contributing factor: this means that we are satiated (satisfied), dopamine levels have dropped, desire/need has decreased, and therefore the probability of engagement in the target behavior will also significantly decrease.

But when we (do) engage in certain behaviors, EO is at play. This means that we are seduced by an environmental condition that has deprived us of a particular reward. This deprived state creates anticipation (and a spike in dopamine levels) which leads to greater desire/need. As a result, the probability of engagement in the target behavior will increase.

Javon Behavioural Institute (JBI)

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