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Stress and Motivation

In physics, for a spring or piece of elastic, over the range in which the relationship is linear,
Young's Modulus = Tensile Stress / Tensile Strain

where stress is the pull on the elastic (more generally: force per area), and strain is how far the elastic has stretched from its neutral point (the deformation, expressed as a ratio)

In psychology the equation is different.  From the [Whitehall Studies] we get:
Job-Related Stress = Job-Related Demands / Job-Related Freedom

In other words, the more difficult your job is, and the less freedom you have in how you go about doing it, the more stressful it is.

This may be a special case of a more general principle: Expending high effort is not, in itself, stressful or correlated with having a shorter lifespan.  What is correlated is expending that effort if you don't also receive an appropriate level of reward for doing so.  The reward doesn't have to be financial.  It can be in the form of career opportunities, job security, promotion prospects and, most crucially, recognition - receiving a high social status for it among your peers.  (This is why the Whitehall study found that, contrary to previous expectations, the higher grades of civil servant actually had longer life expectancies, and that this relationship remained even after you factored out money.)  So on-the-job freedom might be seen as just one more way in which a worker can be rewarded, shown respect and receive status.

This ties in with Vroom's [Expectancy Theory] of worker motivation, which breaks the process of motivating workers to expend effort using rewards into three steps:
Motivational Force (MF) = Expectancy x Instrumentality x Valence

which roughly translates to:
How motivated a worker is to expend a unit of effort = their confidence that they are capable of using that effort to achieve a demanded performance objective x their expectation of what reward (on average) they will earn for achieving the objective x how much they want that reward.

So, for example, if the boss offers a promotion for completing a project on time, but the worker knows that promotion entails spending more hours away from her family, she won't feel motivated to expend much effort upon that task.

Needs and Utility

The value to a person of additional goods or money depends upon their circumstances, including how much they already have.  To one person, an additional bed sheet may mean the difference between live and freezing to death.  To a person who already has nine bed sheets, an additional bed sheet offers only an increase in aesthetic variety and the possibility of making a longer escape rope should the house catch on fire.  It is possible that, if a person had 99 sheets or 999 sheets, one additional sheet might actually be seen as a burden more than a benefit.  This curve is known as [the law of diminishing marginal utility].  The curve may be smooth or it may have certain defined points ("tipping points") such as the level of wealth that is, for a particular person [fuck you money], or would allow them access to a life saving organ transplant.

This is the basis of the [expected utility solution to the St. Petersberg Paradox] and it tells us something about the nature of utility.  It tells us that, to be useful, it must be (at minimum) [cardinal].  As a bonus, this also provides a solution to [Arrow's impossibility theorem].  And, as it relates to [intertemporal choice], it is the key to investment and economics.

With that in mind, let us turn to considering the various theories of 'need'.

Maslow - needs form a [hierarchy], and the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs.

Max-Neef - there is a flat list of [fundamental human 'needs'] which can be opposed to economic 'wants'.  This is similar to the list from [Doyal and Gough].

Graeber - has an [anthropological take upon the theories of value] and decouples consumption and destruction

If we discard the idea of 'needs' that can either be satisfied or unsatisfied and, instead, replace it with the idea of different types of 'goods' that each produce utility on separate curves of diminishing utility, we can achieve the same result: a rational person will allocate their effort between different avenues of increasing their total utility depending upon which avenues offer the best prospect of a net positive return based upon their curves and the total of the good the person currently has.

So, for example, consider an astronaut alone in a space ship returning to Earth after a long trip in space, still several months away from landing.  The ship has 1 hour of air and 1 hour of food in stock, but there is additional air and food being created by the recycling system each day.  Unfortunately, while in a 24 period the system is producing 25 hours worth of food to add to the stock, it only producing 23 hours of air.  During the next day the astronaut will likely spend 100% of their time upgrading the air recycling system, and not bother dealing with the food system until they are near 100% confident that they will have the air system fixed before the air runs out.  Maslow would model this as air being a higher priority need than food.  But the 'diminishing returns' model produces the same explanation, only it explains the behaviour as investment of time in increasing the store of the good "air" having a higher return than for "food" for the astronaut in that situation.  The distinction lies in two areas:
Firstly, it acknowledges that there can still be some utility in increasing the store of good beyond the minimum required (if only as insurance against the recycling system breaking down later on in the trip)
Secondly, it provides a mechanism whereby (for some people) a 'higher level' need, such as duty, can override a lower level one (such as the astronaut sacrificing their own air and food, to spend their time instead transmitting scientific data before a battery runs out)

This ties in strongly with the [capabilities approach] of Sen, which recasts negative 'needs' in terms of positive 'capabilities'.  A capability is defined as a freedom to achieve.  So, for example, instead of seeing humans as having a 'need' for food, he sees their motivating factor as being instead a desire for the positive capability:
Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one's life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.

If one thinks of it in terms of Quality-Adjusted Life Years ([QALY]s) one could split these capabilities into several factors that get multiplied together:

Simple Life Year Factors - do you have enough air, warmth, water, food etc. to survive the next day?

Complex Life Year Factors - insurance against threats to your long term survival: being outcast by your tribe, dying of heart disease, losing your job, being shot in a war or by criminals

Simple Quality Factors - esteem from yourself (confidence in achievements) and from others (wealth, fame and social status) leading to family

Complex Quality Factors - anything else the brain gets up to once the 'greeds' of the lower animal instinct shells have reached diminishing returns.  Maslow's metamotivations: Wholeness (unity), Perfection (balance and harmony), Completion (ending), Justice (fairness), Richness (complexity), Simplicity (essence), Liveliness (spontaneity), Beauty (rightness of form), Goodness (benevolence), Uniqueness (individuality), Playfulness (ease), Truth (reality), Autonomy (self-sufficiency), Meaningfulness (values)

It also ties in with the concepts of [positive and negative liberty]:

negative liberty - freedom from external restraint (such as imprisonment or not having a fair opportunity to access society's resources because of discrimination)

positive liberty - freedom from internal constraint, meaning having the internal power and resources to act to fulfil one's own potential, rather than being constrained by one's own fear or ignorance.

Social Welfare

So why, if Utility needs to be cardinal to solve problems such as the St. Petersberg Paradox, do some economists prefer the ordinal formulation?

The answer seems to be that they want to use money as a proxy for utility, and ignore diminishing returns.

Ordinal utility uses [indifference curves] to model the choices of an individual between various bundles of options.  These can then be compared between individuals using Pareto efficiency, which avoids having to on one hand decide how to [compare utility between people] or, on the other hand, having to [let Rome burn for Nero's pleasure].

However that 'solution' just stuffs the untidy bits under a carpet: [the social welfare function].  The question being tackled is "How do you divide income among the members of your society in such a fashion as to maximise the total utility of the population?"  Sen's answer was to multiply the average per capita income by (1 - G), where G is the [Gini index]. (see: [Economic Justice])

The alternative cardinal solution on how to compare is [Relative Utilitarianism].  If you stop trying to use money as a direct proxy for utility and, instead, assume a per person diminishing returns curve (so that 10 is worth fewer man-hours to a billionaire than it is to a pauper), then you get the same effect as with ordinal utility, but without the contortion.

Freedom and Equality

Governmental systems and individual politics can be placed on [a political compass] where one of the axes is "Freedom versus Security".

The book "[The Spirit Level]" makes the case that inequality of status is bad for society (and that this can be proxied fairly well by inequality of income or inequality of wealth).

However that's not to say total equality is the idea.  Going back to the section on motivation, and Instrumentality they found that people are not motivated if the reward is the same regardless of performance. 

So perhaps one solution is, if we can raise the number of resources in society for everyone, up to the point where the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy are down to minimal returns then, like Google's employment practices (lots of freedom, great working conditions, etc), non-financial motivational factors can make up a higher percentage of the 'reward'.  McClelland? was an interesting page on [Achievement-motivated people]

See also the middle section of [one of Stross's pieces], where he talks about a future society where people have moved up the Maslow hierarchy, and what will still motivate people.

See also the ToothyWiki pages: MoneylessFuture, HierarchyOfNeeds

Here's a question: if we flatten hierarchies and maximise the freedom people have to achieve ends how they want, and increase financial equality as much as is compatible with keeping people motivated, would having a reputation economy help, or would it just replace wealth as a marker for social status, and provide all the same stress and bad health problems that financial inequality currently does?

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Last edited November 1, 2011 4:56 pm (viewing revision 7, which is the newest) (diff)