How to Use Reason, Rather Than Emotion, to Determine Behavior

Almost inarguably, the biggest challenge that the general population faces in terms to getting a body they are proud of is a lack of motivation to do anything at all. There are a lot of people out there who have began their journey of developing a better body and are working very hard at that goal. However, in my observations, there are many more people who can’t even get started, or if they do, quickly give up or put in so little effort that it becomes futile.

Due to this observation, many of my posts on this site revolve around the idea of increasing motivation and generating action in the individual. Each article has its own little tip or trick, and each is a unique way of getting that individual a little more motivated. Certain articles will resonate better with some and less with others, but in general, I try to cover a broad range of ways to get you to take action.

This article will be a little bit different, in the sense that it will still be about getting you to take action, but ultimately I will be saying that you should just side-step motivation all together and not have to worry about it in order to take action. Now, that might seem a little strange presently, but after reading this article, you should have a clear understanding of what exactly motivation is, and why you don’t really need to have it initially in order to take action.

By incorporating the following into your life, you should be able to experience increased frequency of behavior that is in alignment with developing the body you are after, along with an increased sense of control over your life in general and a higher degree of self-esteem over time. Furthermore, not only can you apply the following to your fitness and nutrition goals, but by making this a general theory, I have broadened it to make it applicable to virtually any aspect of your life, whether that be work related, personal, social, etc.

A General Theory of Motivation

I am not the first person to come up with a theory of motivation, and I do not take credit for many of these ideas. Many of these ideas have been adopted from people like Maxwell Maltz and Nathanial Brandan. However, I will put here a condensed version with some of my own insights that might lead to a simpler definition of my “theory” than piecing together various books.

For most people most of the time, emotions determine behavior. If you feel like eating, you will probably eat; if you feel like taking a nap, and have the time to do so, then you will likely take a nap. The only reason that you might not perform one of these actions is if you had an alternative emotion that was stronger than the one stated and was in conflict with it. For example, you want to take a nap, but you have to go to an important business meeting and missing that meeting would cause you much more internal pain (fear, guilt, worry, etc.) than the pleasure you would experience from taking the nap. Thus, you opt to suck it up and go to the business meeting. However, if the meeting was deemed unimportant to you or that you just couldn’t stay awake any longer, you might choose to take the nap. Your action depended on which emotion was stronger at that particular moment.

It is important to note here that the emotions you would experience would not represent reality per se. Rather, they would represent your interpretation of reality at that particular moment or your estimation of your future emotions you think you would feel in the future, presently.

However, viewing this process in this light makes it seem as though the individual does not really have much of a choice in the matter, that the person does not really have free will to do as he pleases. Instead, he is just a reactor to his emotional responses.

Actually, in a certain sense, many people are very close to being nothing more than reactors to their emotions. If they experience emotions that benefit them most of the time, then they will, luckily, perform actions that benefit their lives and well-being. If, on the other hand, they experience destructive emotions most of the time, then they will, unfortunately, perform many destructive behaviors.

Nonetheless, one does not actually have to fall victim to his emotions. In order to rise above the firm grasp that one’s emotions has on his actions, one must recognize where emotions emanate from.

Our emotional response is determined by our values and how we judge the situation in accordance to our values at the present moment. Our values include anything that we either want to gain or want to avoid. For example, someone who decides to stay watching T.V. instead of getting up to go to the gym places more value on, all other things being equal, experiencing a feeling of comfort that he places on physical effort. However, another person who decides to get up and work out might place more value on growth than he places on comfort. Note that each of these two individuals framed the “going to the gym” situation differently, but I will expand on that further in a few minutes.

At this point, some may sill have the impression of man as a response machine. To say that emotions are only explainable in terms of the value-significance of the situation to the perceiver still does not give man a chance to change course. However, this judgement of value necessarily implies a process of appraisal, which can either involve thought or not, be conscious or unconscious.

A person’s values were most likely developed over time either consciously or unconsciously. The values chosen consciously, in principle, should never be in conflict with the person’s rational mind. However, if the value was chosen unconsciously, perhaps like the value of comfort from the above example, then this value might find itself in frequent conflict with other, consciously chosen values. This will obviously decrease the amount of motivation that the person experiences for perform the task that he consciously wants to.

The problem with following emotions, and motivation in this case, so blindly is that your emotions might not have any real basis in reality. If your values were chosen unconsciously, with out rational descrimination, then following the emotions that they produce is just like taking a chance. Thus, emotions are not tools of cognition nor are they adequate guides to action. A desire to do something is not adequate proof to do it, and a fear to do something is not proof to avoid it. Emotions, by their very nature of origination, are not criteria of judgement.

People run into problems when they DO view emotions as a signal to act. Emotions are passive and are often automatic judgements of the subconscious, judgements that are not necessarily based in reality. More precisely, people view emotions as guides to actions when they opt to not think for themselves, when they suspend their own rational reason and judgement.

Instead of following one’s emotions, the other choice one has is to think critically about the matter using reason, and come to a conclusion that is independent of emotion. This way, his conclusion will be based in reality and will be rational. Furthermore, it allows his to determine his values presently and consciously, instead of relying on some values that could have been determined subconsciously in the past.

If after coming to a logical conclusion on which action to take, this conclusion is in opposition to the action offered by emotions, one has to choose either to follow reason or his emotions. This is where self-confidence and self-efficacy come into play. If one has developed the habit of choosing the action that he knows it right, based on reason, instead of the action that might be wrong, based on emotion, then he will most likely have developed high self-confidence. To the extent that one characteristically makes the right choices in issues such as these, one experiences a sense of control over his existence – he experiences self-confidence.

If one has developed the habit of choosing the action offered to him by his emotions, then in the short-term he may experience pleasure given by relinquishing the responsibility to reason and make conscious judgements, but he will be setting the stage for similar choices in the future which will surely, over time, demolish his self-confidence, thus making it difficult for him to ever follow his reason over his emotions.

However, the good news is that regardless of the extent of self-confidence that one possesses presently, one can always opt for the choice that reason has offered, rather than emotion. The difference is that making this choice will have to be even much more conscious and thought-involving than it would need to be for someone with high self-confidence; for them, the choice will be more automatic. Since, though, one always fundamentally has the choice to either think or not think, focus or not focus, and judge using intellect or judge using emotions or other people’s judgement, one can always start reversing the habits that he has built for himself up to this point. All he must do is stay conscious much more frequently and must adopt the habit of being aware of his emotions. He must take note of his emotional reactions, identify their reasons (the values he has subconsciously), and immediately change those values presently by involving reason if the values that he has discovered are, in fact, not rational.

At first, this process will need to be forced by staying conscious. However, if applied successfully, this process will become more automatic over time, which will lesson the amount of effort it will take to make the right choice. Furthermore, by following this process over time, one will experience enhanced self-confidence, a necessary component to high self-esteem.

As a note for clarity, healthy self-regulation does not consist of dismissing one’s emotions as unimportant. It consists of recognizing that emotions are value-judgements and of being concerned with the nature of those judgements and the degree of their validity in a given context.

If one has not trusted his intellect rather than his emotions frequently in the past, then it might be hard for him to choose to go with the conclusion of reason rather than the emotional response. In such a case, it might be helpful if one reframes the current situation so that his subconscious is using different automatic values to judge the current situation with so that the emotional force of pull towards the irrational behavior is lessened.

If we look back to the example earlier, for example, we can see that one guy watching T.V. viewed going to work out as physical effort and nothing more. He was thinking completely in the short-term of the amount of effort that he would have to exert to while at the gym or even by just going to the gym. The other guy framed the situation completely differently. Instead of focusing on the amount of effort that he would need to exert, he was concerning himself solely with the growth potential that going to the gym offered. He was thinking long-term, and what he was focusing on relating to that behavior of going to the gym lead him to experience positive emotions rather than negative ones. Note that by changing his focus, he was able to change which values were being used to judge the situation.

However, even if he did not reframe the situation an only focused on the effort he would have to exert, he could still rationally consider both options, sitting watching T.V. or going to the gym, and choose the option he felt was most rational, which we are assuming is going to the gym. In this sense, without any reframing, choosing the rational option is often called will power. However, a difference could be resolved when determining how conscious this whole process was. If the process was only semi-conscious, in which the person did choose the rational decision but only reluctantly, still being torn by the emotional response, then the effect afterward might be one of regret, sadness, anger, or indifference.  On the other hand, if the choice was made completely consciously, then the person should be firm in that their decision was the right one to make and experience a sense of pride for taking the right action. Moreover, they should experience some sort of increase in self-esteem and foster a sense of control over their lives.

I am going to end this post here because it is starting to diverge into an article that I wanted to write separately, as its own topic. Until that time, get started on taking right, rational action!

Sean Golden