Choose your own adventure

What if you could choose...

Let's conduct a thought experiment. Imagine you had a chance to participate in the creation of your own self. The year before you are born your consciousness, in a nebulous form, gets called into a proto-birthing conference room and you are asked to float forward. Ahead of you, you see colorful diagrams showing body types, colors, sizes, facial features, and so forth. You know nothing about societal prejudices, whether it's generally considered preferable to be black or white, tall or short, heavy or light. Would you enjoy getting to choose for yourself what your physiology and appearance would be like?

If so, sorry for the disappointment. You didn't get a choice. You got the hand you were dealt, and now you get to play with that hand. (And foot, and elbows.) Personally, I'm happy I didn't have to go through the process of deciding every little thing about myself including height, weight, skin color, and so forth. While certain of those may give me advantages or disadvantages in society, for the most part they are just who I am, something to make me identifiable as an individual.

Let's go back to the proto-birthing room again for a moment. Now imagine you can choose your own personality. Would you want to give any input into the process? How does that even work? As you and I sit here right now we are seeing the world through the lens of our own personality, with our worldview shaped by our nature and our experiences until now. How could we even start to decide whether we should be introverts or extroverts, shy or bold, thinkers or feelers, quiet or chatty? Maybe you are thinking of some quality in yourself that might frustrate you. For example, sometimes I wish I didn't talk so much. If I could go back in time and move the dial closer to "quiet," would that make me happier today? What might be the result? I might be sitting here wishing I had an easier time expressing my thoughts. In my view we're back to the same issue we faced with choosing physical attributes.

Either way, I can't control the way I'm made, but I can take measures to deal with it. If I'm short, I can wear tall shoes, or I can get a job working in tight spaces. More importantly, I can choose to let go of resentment about society's stupid bias against short people and laugh with people who joke about it. If I'm an introvert I can either focus on things that don't involve a lot of interactions with other people, or I can try to develop the shadow side of myself. I can start reaching out to other people and look for ways to overcome my discomfort. I could try to be a more well-rounded person.

The crux of the thought experiment

We're not quite done with the thought experiment. Imagine you've had the option to either actively choose your physical and psychological traits, and you've either exercised your options or taken a pass. Now you get to the final question. It's a multiple choice question. Which do you want:

  1. To be motivated primarily by your instincts and drives. Basically, you're an animal.
  2. To be motivated by what your peers, your parents, your neighbors, and society around you want you to do. You're basically a puppet.
  3. To be motivated by free will. You get to call the shots. Decide what you want in life, when you want it, and why you want it. Then do it as much as you want.

Which one would you choose?

It seems like an easy question to answer, doesn't it? Can you imagine anyone not choosing #3? Like the other choices in our thought experiment, we didn't have to make this choice. At least, we didn't have to make it once and then live with it our entire lives. On the other hand, this one is different from the others. Excluding something like plastic surgery, we have no control over our physical appearance or basic temperament. But this is a choice we can make. In fact, it's a choice we have to make. Every single day.

Why does it matter?

I don't think there's a single person on earth who doesn't choose each of the three choices at some point in their life. But the ratio of these choices has a big effect on our place in society and on our happiness. For example, where do you think a large number of convicted lawbreakers would land on this scale? Many have made a large number of choices based primarily on #1. What about overachieving students and high-paid professionals? Many of them they might realize that choice #2 weighs much more heavily in their lives than they might otherwise want.

Psychological development goes awry when children are pressured into valuing the views of others over their own. A young girl works madly to maintain her high GPA because “my mom would have a breakdown if my grades dropped.” This girl might be an enthusiastic student under other circumstances, but her need to keep her mother’s anxiety at bay is bound to interfere with her capacity to work independently and with pleasure.... America’s newly identified at-risk group is preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families. In spite of their economic and social advantages, they experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children in this country.Madeline Levine, The Price of Privilege

The most lucrative jobs tend to be the most inorganic. Corporate lawyers, technologists, financiers, traders, management consultants, and the like assume a high degree of efficiency. The more that a person can submerge one’s humanity to the logic of the marketplace, the higher the reward.Andrew Yang, The War on Normal People: The Truth About America's Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future

Here's why this thought experiment is so important: Your choices in life might not really be your choice.

At least, many of them might not be if you had the opportunity to see them from the right perspective. According to a 2015 study by Wolfram Schultz, "The activity of reward neurons shapes behavior, constrains voluntary decisions, and thus restricts free will."Neuronal Reward and Decision Signals: From Theories to Data

What this means: Our free will is constrained. And it's constrained by whatever is rewarding us. And the other side of the coin, which psychologists call punishment, affects our free will too. This isn't news. We all know that when someone dangles a carrot in front of usthat is if by "us", I were referring to a horse, or shakes a stick, it makes it harder to choose what we really want.

What this really means: If you want to be motivated primarily by your own choices, rather than by your base desires or other people's opinions, it pays to understand how the reward system of the brain works.

Why we should be thinking about value and rewards

The nucleus accumbens, known as the reward/pleasure center of the brain is considered the key area for the valuation process, that is, it encodes our value system. And it responds to dopamine like a horse responds to a carrot. An object has a value from a neurobiological perspective if you would work to obtain it. For example, an animal will work for a reward and it will work to avoid a punishment. In the case of animals, a reward could be a food pellet and a punishment might be an electric shock. In our case, a reward could be money, prestige, or opportunities, and punishments could include disapproval or social isolation.

We should take a look at what we are already working for, either working to gain or working to avoid. This applies whether we are being paid for such work or not. I believe it's worth analyzing every action in my life, at least briefly, and asking myself, why did I do that, or why did I avoid doing that? What reward do I anticipate for doing it? What negative consequence would I expect if I did what I'm avoiding?

Along with work we can add another dimension that would be difficult to measure in a laboratory: experience. A lot of what we do, we do for the fun if it, for the positive experience. But in either case, whatever we do, we do it because we are anticipating, even craving, a positive outcome. The more we want or enjoy something, the more we crave it, and the more we expect a reward from doing it. Dopamine is triggered in the brain, and like a rat, or a puppet, we jump without reservation.

An important connection

Science distinguishes two kinds of rewards: primary rewards (e.g., food, water, sex) and secondary rewards. Secondary rewards are associated in some way with primary rewards, but the brain reacts to them in much the same way.Neurobiology of Sensation and Reward, Chapter 4 What Can Different Brains Do with Reward? For example, a person may associate a certain individual with sexual desire. A job becomes connected with the need for food and shelter.

Do you see any connection between what we just discussed and the three-option choice in the thought experiment above? The first two are just variations of the same issue. The first question involves primary rewards and the second centers on secondary rewards. We want and need the approval of people around us because without them we would have no way of satisfying our fundamental needs. Maybe there's no difference between people who primarily choose #1 and those who choose #2, other than their level of trust in other people.

Does this mean that we'll never really be able to make the third choice? It may seem so, since we are fundamentally reward-driven creatures. Can you think of anything you do that doesn't offer some kind of reward or that doesn't threaten to take something away from you if you avoid doing it? If someone claims to do something that isn't rewarding (or avoiding negative consequences) in some way, we logically assume they are lying to us or to themselves.

Choose your own rewards

What, then, can we do? We can choose our own rewards. These are called intrinsic rewards, an internalized drive rather than an automatic response to rewards or dynamics of the outside world. "People who have high EQs also generally possess more intrinsic motivation," says Courtney E. Ackerman at

I'll be writing more about this subject in the future. Science currently links intrinsic rewards with two systems in the brain that affect our behavior: a goal-directed system and a habitual system. While these are a subject of continued research, there's enough information available to help us understand how to use these systems to actually move us toward what we want.

In the meantime, let me conclude with something I've highlighted already in my posts. To really choose the third option, we need to understand what we really want and why. That means taking a close look at our personal values. This, too, will be a continuing topic on this blog.

If you truly understand your personal values and are taking steps to set goals and form habits that will move you toward them, you have a bright outlook. You are already in an elite group of self-selected individuals. But the brightest outlook comes from continually seeking a greater understanding of true freedom.

What adventure are you choosing?