The psychology of freedom

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The Psychology of Freedom

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I’d like to examine the concept of freedom in a somewhat unusual way — from the viewpoint of motivational psychology.

The starting point is to realize that there are basically four ways of influencing behavior: reward, punishment, restraint, and compulsion. Reward means offering the subject something good for performing an action. Punishment means threatening the subject with something bad for performing an action. Restraint means physically blocking the subject from performing an action, for example preventing the subject from walking on a lawn by putting a fence around it. Compulsion means physically forcing the subject to perform an action, as for example causing a man to get on an airplane by dragging him onto it. (Footnote: by rewards, I don’t just mean physical things like money or food. A smile, a kind word, or even a moment of attention also function as rewards. Conversely, punishment doesn’t just mean physical harm. A frown, a sharp word, a withdrawal of attention, or a time-out also function as punishments.)

The main point that I want to make is that each of these ways of influencing behavior has a different impact on our sense of freedom.

We never feel that our freedom is reduced when we are influenced by rewards. It doesn’t matter how compelling the reward is. If I go up to a homeless man on the street and hand him $1000, I can be virtually certain that he will take it, but nobody would say that I have reduced his freedom by making the offer. Rewards can create conflict situations, if they are offered for doing things that we otherwise wouldn’t, but even then we don’t think of them as reducing our freedom.

Punishment, restraint, and compulsion do, however, reduce our sense of freedom.

The greatest sense of unfreeness comes from compulsion. If we are physically compelled to do something, we feel a total absence of freedom, even if it is something we would willingly have done in the absence of compulsion.

Restraint and punishment are viewed as reductions in freedom in proportion to their severity. For restraint: If I prevent somebody from walking on a lawn by putting a fence around it, that’s a reduction in freedom, but not a terribly onerous one. If I lock a man in a jail cell, though, that’s a huge reduction in freedom. It is similar for threats of punishment. If I stop a man from talking by frowning at him, that’s a minor reduction in freedom. If I make him give me his wallet by pointing a gun at him, that’s a huge reduction in freedom. In fact, we tend to equate very severe threats of punishment with compulsion, even though logically they are not the same thing.

In summary, we regard reward motivation as maximizing freedom, restraint and threats of punishment as reducing it in proportion to their severity, and compulsion as totally depriving us of freedom.

It follows that a maximally free society would be one where people are influenced as much as possible by offers of reward, as little as possible by restraints or threats of punishment, and rarely if ever by compulsion. A Utopian society would be one where rewards are the only motivation ever used.

Unfortunately, such a Utopian society is never going to happen, at least until humans become a different type of organism. The reason lies in a basic property of reward motivation.

To understand that reason, it is necessary to make a distinction between doing and not-doing — that is, between actively initiating a behavior, versus refraining from initiating a behavior. Rewards are effective at motivating doing, but they are not effective at motivating not-doing. If you want a child to do her homework, offering a reward such as the ability to watch a TV show is a reasonable approach. But if you want a child to stop making noise, offering a reward doesn’t work very well. The reward needs to be unreasonably large to be effective, and doing that repeatedly actually encourages performing the obnoxious behavior in order to be rewarded for stopping. On a more serious scale, how could you possibly use rewards to influence people not to rob banks?

The flip side is that threats of punishment are effective at motivating not-doing, but they are not very effective at motivating doing. It is usually possible to get a child to do her homework by threatening punishment, but often the punishment has to be unreasonably large. Moreover, the use of punishment always gives rise to resentment and dislike.

So the bottom line is that if we want a society where people feel free, we should try to develop a society where people are motivated as much as possible by rewards and as little as possible by punishment or restraint — but we need to realize that punishment and restraint will always be required to some degree, to stop people from behaving antisocially. How do we achieve such a society? That’s the key question, of course, but it is beyond the scope of this short essay.


Footnote: The ideas here are my attempt to summarize in a few words a vast and vastly controversial literature extending over decades. The concept of dividing motivational factors into reward, punishment, compulsion, and restraint is implicit in B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, a book that is well worth reading, even though Skinner goes astray at many points and often obscures simple things by overcomplicating them. Skinner also believed that punishment is always counterproductive, but in my view his arguments for that are unconvincing.

The use of reward and punishment for motivating people has been particularly controversial in the literature. I believe this is largely because when people hear the word “reward”, they automatically think of large overt rewards such as money; when they hear “punishment”, they think of large overt punishments such as hitting. Human beings are actually hypersensitive to reward and punishment, and in many cases a smile or a frown are more than enough to do the job. We also readily generate internal rewards and punishments; adults more readily than children. Using large overt rewards or punishments often has the effect of flooding the system, producing a range of unwanted consequences. That’s why many writers have argued that rewards and punishments are not useful for teaching children — but it misses the point. If you really want to understand what it would be like to teach without reward or punishment, think about teaching without ever smiling or frowning; without ever saying an encouraging or discouraging word. But if you would like to see the argument in the other direction framed as strongly as possible, see the book Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn.

My perspective here is largely that of a neuroscientist. We don’t have a very good understanding of the neural mechanisms of motivation and decision-making yet, but we are learning fast, and it is clear that structures such as the prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia, and dopamine system play central roles. See the book Your Brain Is (Almost) Perfect: How We Make Decisions by Read Montague for a readable overview of recent progress.

In my short essay I only discuss the perception of freedom, and not the question of whether there is such a thing as true freedom. That is of course a very important question, but it is beyond my scope. For the moment I’ll simply point out that even if there is such a thing as true freedom, the perception of freedom would still be important. True freedom would not be very satisfying if it didn’t leave us feeling free. See Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves for a thorough philosophical discussion of these issues.

Image: Pascual De Ruvo

William Skaggs

About the Author: William Skaggs is a neuroscientist whose experimental work has focused on the role of the hippocampus in learning, memory, and spatial navigation, but he is interested in several other areas of science as well, especially the study of consciousness. He has ambitions to be a science writer, and has contributed extensively to Wikipedia under the name “Looie496”, mainly by writing articles about the nervous system. Follow on Twitter @weskaggs.

The Spirit of Independence:

Best 20 TED-talks

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I love being inspired, and therefore TED is my drug of choice when I need inspiration. I have not seen all the talks on this list, but I certainly will.

What makes this list so incredible is the fact that it spans so many areas of interest, from education to simOnhappiness, statistics to creativity, tech demos to illusions. We love that this list revels in the wonders of the human brain, as well as in the incredible creatures of the deep sea, and far beyond.

Here comes the list:

  1. Sir Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity (2006): 23,510,221 views
  2. Jill Bolte Taylor‘s stroke of insight (2008): 14,343,197
  3. Simon Sinek on how great leaders inspire action (2010): 14,228,854
  4. Brene Brown talks about the power of vulnerability (2010): 12,703,623
  5. Amy Cuddy on how your body language shapes who you are (2012): 12,682,694
  6. Pranav Mistry on the thrilling potential of SixthSense (2009): 12,068,105
  7. Tony Robbins asks why we do what we do (2006): 10,425,014
  8. David Gallo‘s underwater astonishments (2007): 10,266,221
  9. Mary Roach on 10 things you didn’t know about orgasm (2009): 9,435,954
  10. Daniel Pink on the surprising science of motivation (2009): 9.176,053
  11. Pattie Maes and Pranav Mistry demo SixthSense (2009): 8, 363,339
  12. Dan Gilbert asks: Why are we happy? (2004): 7,788,151
  13. Hans Rosling shows the best stats you’ve ever seen (2006): 7,685,726
  14. Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing your creative genius (2009): 7,593,076
  15. Steve Jobs on how to live before you die (2005): 7,223,258
  16. Susan Cain shares the power of introverts (2012): 6,807,240
  17. Keith Barry does brain magic (2004): 6,371,778
  18. David Blaine reveals how he held his breath for 17 minutes (2010): 6,359,084
  19. Pamela Meyer on how to spot a liar (2010): 6,256,589
  20. Arthur Benjamin does mathemagic (2005): 4,951,918

Recipe for change

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Recipe for change

                               Preknowledge for best results                               

This recipe is a favorite of mine.

                                                                    It uses readily available basic ingredients,

 and blend them together with fun and creative methods. Most has tasted it before, but few have tried this inspiration recipe handmade from a clinical psychologist. Make it with warmth, and the meal will be tasty and satisfying                                                                                       ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..


Get in the mood

  Make sure you a working on a clean table freed from any stressful mood Then, get in       the right mood for cooking, by turning the compassion knot upwards. You have the    freedom to turn it up at the maximum heat without any harmful effects. The recipient can  be both people you know, but the meal is also delicious for strangers. Everything can be  made from 30 seconds to five minutes, and you just have to cook it once a week. Feel free to  forward the recipe if you like it`s sweet taste. If you are severely busy, feel free to use the    basic ingredient Smile in creative ways. For those who really need to lift the mood, this    recipe is highly recommended since it the health-benefits are many: Lower blood-pressure,   more energy, a meaningful life and less psychological and somatic symptoms.

You can practice cooking everywhere, but be sure to always have some ingredients with you.


What you need: 

Basic Love: Sprinkle it over the end result5dfc79fbcb6371283b8595fff99e1eb5
1 cup of respect for yourselfcupof

Every cook is an artist. Have respect for the ingredients you have found, and use them with love. As an artist, be sure to scrub away left-overs from bad meals.

Basic ingredients: 

* one Smile pr. dish

* one fridge of Compassion

* Two ears (add hearing aid, if needed)

 *   Endless amount of creativity

* Two observant eyes

 * Five gallons of motivation

 * Five inches of belief extracts


 * If needed: Scraps of paper, with three ounces of nice words

  * A friend with terrible cooking skills (needs help)

  * Willingness to clean, carry things or surprise


     How to cook it together: 

           Cover yourself in self-love. Swallow compassion, and let it soar through your body.

                      To be sure that enough energy is available, feel free to spice it up with motivation and                                 belief. When this is done properly, you are ready to accomplish the central step: Use your two ears and eyes, scan the area for people and find a person that will receive your help.

You are now ready for the central step: Find an idea based on validation (for example: Smile, deliver compliment, do something helpful) by stirring in a lot of creativity. Be sure that this is done while having fun., but remember that you still can do this if the mood is bad, while enjoying the good feelings afterwards. Be sure to add your idea with sprinkles of love, and be sure that the idea is observed when accomplished. Knead in your and their happiness, and repeat this process as many times as possible.

                                    Extra tips: 




Thanks to the Weekly Challenge for this opportunity

How to get things done: Four inspirational tips for motivation

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Getting It Done: Even when you don’t feel like it

09 Tuesday Jul 2013

If you’re like me, you experience days when knowing that you have to get things done doesn’t matter at all…you just don’t feel like it! Even with a “to-do list” a mile long and despite the second cup of coffee, there are those times when I can’t crank my engine.

Andmot if you’re more like me, you probably don’t have too many clients who are okay about you running a bit low on motivation, however. They don’t really care if I feel like finishing their projects or not. They just want them done in the agreed upon time frame and that is that!

I don’t want to just sit here and stare at my computer screen, but for some reason, it seems as if that’s about all I’m getting done. It’s not that I don’t have any motivation I tell myself, but if I’m going to be honest with myself and with you, that is exactly what it is.

So, what’s a girl to do?

The most I can offer up is a short list of some of the things I have found that help me kick-start myself. They may just help you, too.

1. Whistle a happy tune.

No, I’m not suggesting that you dance around the house at 6:00 a.m., but if you wake up and start complaining about how much you don’t want to have to do the things you have to do, you won’t stand a fighting chance. You’ve got to help give yourself the drive to get things done and negative thoughts and feelings do just the opposite.

By presenting your brain with some positive imagery as soon as you get up, you’re fueling your motivational tank. Imagery is unbelievably powerful. Try it. Before you get out of bed, visualize the way you want your day to go. You can imagine yourself checking item by item off your daily “to-do list.” Make your mental pictures as specific as you can and then start your day just the way you imagine.

Research show that mentally imagining that you succeed at something, actually make it more likely that you accomplish what you want. The reason for this is that our mirror-neurons response when thinking about doing something, as well as when we watch somebody else or do it ourselves. For example, watching somebody play the piano, will activate motor areas of the brain in the person who plays, and the one just watch. That is maybe why watching people do good deeds, and looking at violent movies, might be bad for us, because watching actually activates the areas of the brain necessary for callousness, altruism or hurting someone. This is especially so if like the person we watch. Mirror-neurons have been called he basis of civilization,

It can also help to think of yourself accomplishing what you want in the “third perspective (trying to look at the success the way other people would ) would.because this makes us feel life has meaning, and this feeling can in turn affect your motivation.

2. Rub elbows with positive people.

There’s an old expression my father used to say about sleeping with dogs and waking up with fleas. (I’m a die-hard dog lover, so please, don’t think I’m being literal here.)But there is a lot to be said about surrounding yourself with the type of people who have what you want. By watching how motivated people stay motivated, you will increase your chances of staying motivated too. We are creatures of habit and attitudes are contagious. So, the more often we see positive behavior around us, the more likely we are to pick it up.

3. Get into motion.

Another way to say this is “DO IT NOW!” In this case, “it” means something….anything. One of the best antidotes to inactivity is action. So, when you get an idea about what you’d like to do, start working on achieving it.

Inspiration can flow once you start working on a project and you may find momentum you didn’t know you possessed just because you set yourself in motion. Sometimes this occurs from the smallest of actions, so don’t worry about how much you do, just get moving.

4. Eliminate your options.

People almost always choose the path of least resistance and look for things that are most comfortable and easy. Getting things accomplished is no exception. When we convince ourselves that we are in a “do or die” position, most of us try harder to “do”.

This is not about perfection or about having things turn out exactly the way we want. It is about persevering. Having a Plan B in place is motialways smart and can only help make sure we stay in motion.

Everybody’s motivation is different. Not only do different people have different things that motivate them and different levels of motivation, but there are differences in our motivations from time to time. It is not a steadfast thing. So what gets us going one time may not work the next.
In order for goals to be accomplished, we have to work toward them, and the ‘fuel’ that makes that happen is our motivation. We need to know what it is that makes our motivation strong enough to see it through to the finish line and we need to know where to recharge and get that extra motivation when we need it.

If these tips help give you that little extra push that you need, I’d love to hear from you. Let me know which work the best and how you found the experience. I’m hoping to hear all about your fully crossed off list of things to do soon.

About the guest blogger:

I’m a licensed clinical social worker and have worked extensively as a counselor with children, adolescents, couples and families. I combine professional experience in the mental health field along with my love of writing to provide insight into real-life experiences and relationships. I hope my down-to-earth approach to living a happier, more meaningful life is easy to understand and just as easy to start implementing right away for positive results!

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