N Pontus Leander


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. In my research, I try to understand the extent to which nonconscious motivational process 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: 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. Accordingly, I also explore the factors that help people overcome unwanted implicit influences; it appears people can shield their fundamental motivations from implicit interpersonal influences that may threaten them.

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 find that opportunities for aggression against unrelated targets may even restore self-efficacy in the thwarted goal domain. This potentially explains why the aggressive impulse can be applied to unrelated or innocent targets: the primary goal is to have an effect. 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 can be boosted by subliminally primed goal cues. Particularly intriguing is that subliminal priming only boosts faith among those who otherwise lack conscious evidence to support their ambitions (e.g., students without good grades or other explicit cues to indicate eventual goal success). 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.

Social-cognitive models of motivation are becoming increasingly sophisticated and we may now be in a position to explain—and perhaps demystify—some of the more profound (and disturbing) human behaviors and subjective experiences. A continuing theme of my research is that such phenomena are linked to a broad, probably nonconscious motivational system, and over the course of my career I intend to better explain how such a system operates. Along the way, I hope to identify new, hidden, mental processes and ultimately open new theoretical doors that we have yet to realize are still closed to us.