Unconscious motivation is one of the most longstanding mysteries in psychology. More than a century of research and theory has yet to fully explain what it is, how it works, and whether it is something human beings can ever control. If anything, the role of unconscious motivation seems to be getting bigger—shaping our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behavior in ways not previously imagined. Yet there are many theoretical – and empirical – challenges ahead. In my research, I try to understand the extent to which nonconscious motivational processes can explain the human experience, particularly those phenomena that may otherwise be written off as unexplainable or too profound for words.
In years past, I focused on motivational contagion and various types of implicit influence. I have, for instance, tested the implicit motivational influence of pro-drug peers. The idea here is that relationship schemas are stored in memory and in particular moments of weakness, mere activation of these schemas can trigger increased motivation to pursue or rationalize drug use. I have also tested the implicit influence of perceived indifference—the spreading of apathy—and what it takes to overcome such influence. Apparently, exposure to others who represent the absence of a particular motivation can sink one’s own goal-directed motivation if one already has doubts about the goal. Along this line of inquiry, I am now writing up a study that shows how the Orlando mass shooting may have had its own motivationally contagious qualities—specifically, on American gun owners’ beliefs that guns are a means to power.
I have two lines of work in the pipeline that probably best reflect where my work is headed: first, I am constructing a “compensatory competence” model to explain displaced aggression—per Dollard et al’s (1939) frustration-aggression hypothesis. The gist of this work is that the need for competence may be fundamental and when a goal is thwarted, displaced aggression may be a primitive, substitute means to interact effectively with the environment and experience efficacy. I show that opportunities for displaced aggression help to restore self-efficacy in the thwarted goal domain; I also show that the aggressive motivation can be attenuated or redirected altogether by providing alternative means to experience efficacy.
In another line of work, I explore subjective beliefs and experiences that seem to defy rational explanation. In years past, I tested how inappropriate amounts of nonverbal behavioral mimicry could give us “the chills” – a presumably primitive indicator that something wrong. I now have a very exciting project in the pipeline that attempts to explain faith as a psychological construct. I draw inspiration from James’ (1896) thesis on “ The Will to Believe”, wherein I consider where and why people develop faith in unknowable future outcomes. I find that faith in long-term goals can be modeled as an intuitive cognitive process—and it can be boosted by subliminally primed goal cues. I think this offers new insights into the evolutionary function of both faith and priming by linking them to the formation of intuitions that help one navigate distant goals. I also believe research on intuition is the best path forward for those interested in priming and nonconscious motivational influences in general.