Seeking and motivational systems: what desired adaptive experiences are sought in each motivational system?

The affect, intention, and goal that delineates each of the seven motivational systems involves a definable human desire or need: a desire for an attachment, an affiliation, and being a caregiver, a desire to explore and assert preferences and experience competence in the use of one’s capacities, a need to express aversion and regulate bodily needs, and a desire for sensual pleasure and sexual excitement. While the “I want” varies greatly in the intentions and goals of each motivational system, seeking is the fundamental experience present in the pursuit of what is wanted in each system. To seek is an omnipresent active or potentially active experience -including at night (as evidenced in dreams). But the intensity of seeking varies for each motivation system at any given age, context, or time.

Through our study of motivational systems, we have identified seven groupings of experience that infants, children, adolescents, and adults seek consistently with one another, dominating the path to awareness at any moment. Each motivational system becomes manifest as an affect, intention, and goal. Each of the three pathways to development involves several motivational systems. The experiences sought are

  • 1. closeness, trust, and affection for and with another person (attachment motivational system)
  • 2. having a connection with and belonging to a group - family, peers, team, country (affiliative motivational system)
  • 3. responding to the needs of another with caring, concern, compassion, and altruistic behavior (caregiving motivational system)
  • 4. being comfortably physiologically regulated, having physical health and strength and a good connection between mind and body (motivational system for the regulation of physiological requirements)
  • 5. being efficient, skilled, and confident in mastery over the environment, being able to learn, work, and play (exploratory-assertive motivational system)
  • 6. when encountering a situation felt to be aversive, being able to regulate conflictual seeking and intending by being able to withdraw to safety or oppose effectively (aversive motivational system)
  • 7. being able to find and enjoy the pleasure of sensual vitality and/or soothing with others or alone, and to find pathways for orgasmic excitement and relief (sensual-sexual motivational system).

In The Clinical Exchange (Lichtenberg, Lachmann, and Fosshage, 1996), analyst and analysand have to explore and understand the unfolding of their individual and mutual seeking. How free or inhibited, how recognized, or repressed, or denied, how compatible with other goals is the analysand’s seeking in general or in a particular instance? How does seeking influence expectations? Does the successful fulfillment of expectations lead seeking to intensify? Does the failure of expectations to be fulfilled lead to resignation and apathy? How do we work analytically with analysands who tend not to seek? Or with those who seek to derive all they desire not from their life outside their analysis but from the personal responses of the analyst and the treatment itself?

While we regard seeking as omnipresent, the influence of seeking on the experience of being an involved doer doing varies greatly. We can speak of this as the person having turned off to seeking in a particular context, or never having turned on, as with some autistic children who have never been turned on to seeking face-to-face emotional exchanges. When turned on, seeking activates interest ranging from a flicker to a sustained involvement based on deep curiosity. The expectations that emerge from past experience influence the direction and intensity of seeking. The rewards and stir of interest from positive experiences activate seeking for their repetition and easily expand to related intentions and goals. Negative experiences exert different influences on seeking. The negative influences that the individual is able to cope with and overcome lead to an optimistic belief that he will be effective in his seeking for solutions to obstacles presented by comparable negative experiences. Seeking solutions to negative experiences and disrupted activities and relationships increases in likelihood when a person’s interest is strong and when she has a sense that there is an adaptive purpose to the struggle. Negative experiences that are overwhelming or where efforts to overcome lead to repeated failures result in avoidance or aversion to seeking, and experiences of feeling powerless, pessimistic, resigned, and defeated. Alcaro and Panksepp (2011) state that “in depression seeking is reduced, while in addictions seeking is reorganized to focus on ultra-specific appetitive memories and compulsive activities.” In each experience, the actual or experienced presence or absence of others and the role they play as helper or hinderer will give a strong relational turn to seeking.

We can regard the source of negative experiences as emerging from opposition, hindering, demands for submission, being terrified, shamed, or humiliated. But another source is the absence of needed contexts for positive experience to emerge. Self psychology pointed to the absence of empathic responses of affirmation, commonality, the uplift of admiration, sponsoring, and mentoring. For the full adaptive development of affect, intentions, and goals in each motivational system particular relational, cultural, and physical contexts and provisions are essential. We have proposed that resilience is illustrated when a person actively seeks a needed experience that, implicitly or explicitly, he recognizes to be missing (Lichtenberg, Lachmann, and Fosshage, 2017).

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