Turning a vegetarian – The power of motivation

My wife and I are in many aspects a terrific couple. Sharing a lot of similar views, opinions and interests, we have these exceptional conversations in which we understand each other with only few words. Also, because of our comparable background and education we can empathize more easily and comprehend better what the other was experiencing through the day. Yet, even more important than the parallels are our differences in thinking, attitude and world views. The ability to complement each other is probably one of the biggest open secrets of our marriage. I digress.

One of our most obvious differences is our respective preference for the main component of our meals. While I know how to appreciate the occasional meat of better quality, she is a vegetarian – every once in a while pescatarian – since she was fifteen. Although there is nothing wrong with that, ever since, two years ago, I met a guy in a downtown bar in Toronto who happened to succeed in converting his wife from the “flowery” to the “beefy” banks of the culinary river, I was at least excited if not convinced to do the same. The prospective accomplishment of this feat always put me in a good mood and a smile on my face.

Recently we visited friends during the weekend who, as usual, indulged us in excellent food and beverages. Among other things we – with the obvious and sole exception of my wife – had a prime roast beef from Ireland. Of course, it was my marital duty to try to convince her once more of the beauty of the beef. Strongly convicted she refused yet again. With a dangerous mixture of disappointment from another failed attempt and intoxication from the good atmosphere among friends I desperately channeled all my efforts and, in front of two pairs of witnessing ears, expressed the following wager: “If I lose 20 pounds until our wedding day [end of September], will you go out and have a first-class steak with me?” Now I don’t know if it was because she didn’t believe in the success of my venture (she could remain loyal to her convictions) or if she truly wanted to motivate me (she would literally need to swallow that pill), but she agreed and motivated I was.

How come that I wholeheartedly intended to revise my lifestyle if the result was putting a plate of steak in front of my wife; but when my doctor cautiously suggested the same since in the long-run my health could be at stake, I was not as eager to change? This puzzle led me to examine the underlying characteristics of motivation and which aspects we need to motivate ourselves and others.

Two kinds of motivation

I identified two related but in essence slightly different kinds of motivation. First-order motivation is concerned with our ambition to actively change the current situation (i.e. to lose weight, to stop smoking or to go berserk less often when we receive an unpleasant gift at Secret Santa). The other kind is a second-order motivation that builds upon your momentum to pursue a certain state. If I chose, for example, to give 2% of my income to charity (because I am already convinced that it is a good, helpful and morally superior thing to do – first-order motivation), the second-order motivation would let me keep on giving instead of nixing my intentions.  Dan Pink, in his excellent book “Drive – The surprising truth about what motivates us”, discusses this second-order motivation and, among many exciting things more, the distinguishing aspects between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

As this article is primarily concerned with the initial act of changing, I will put the concept of second-order motivation aside and return later more extensively.

First-order motivation

Very often, when we talk about first-order motivation, the idea of psychological strain is mentioned. According to this concept, people tend to change when the suffering of maintaining the status quo weighs stronger than the expected suffering of the new situation.

Sc > Se —> Change

Sc: Current suffering ; Se: Expected suffering in the future

The unknown that lurks in the future frightens us less than enduring the pain we currently feel; we can no longer maintain the state we’re in and escape it. When my doctor told me to regularly check my weight, the potential dangers to health and heart did not occur to me – after all I still could breathe effortlessly during running, playing tennis or climbing stairs. Kotter’s famous eight steps to leading change start with creating a sense of urgency. Although I do care for my health, this immediate urgency was definitely not a given in my case. But why then did I change for a random dinner with my wife nine months from now? Probably because this dinner is not that random after all. Remember that I was convinced to turn her into a carnivore like my temporary Canadian role model did with his wife. In my case, this fateful wager opened the door like never before. I changed because the chance of one “meaty meal” shared with my wife mitigated my expected suffering of going through exercises and a healthier diet and suddenly it became less strong than my current suffering of having to eat meat on my own.

A second concept that helps understand first-order motivation better is what I call the “ABC of Change”. In essence it says that behavioral changes are intimately influenced by both our affects (emotions) and cognitions (knowledge).

Affects —> Behavior <— Cognitions

I definitely knew (cognitions) about the benefits of a balanced diet and regular exercises. But only when my emotions (affects) were addressed with it could I change. This powerful concept deserves an article on its own. But for now I leave it with that. 


Implications for all of us

If you are striving for initiating change – be it in yourself or in others – you now have two powerful tools at your disposal. First, emphasize the comparison between the contemporary situation and a future, preferably more desired, state. A positive difference in favor of the latter should get you in the right direction. Addressing emotions as well as increasing the stock of knowledge about the consequences of a certain change in behavior you want to achieve will, in most cases, do the rest.

Bear in mind, however, that these tools are no sure-fire means to succeed in bringing about behavioral changes. But most of the times they take you very far.

What are your own experiences in motivating yourself or others to change? Do you have a go-to option that has successfully helped you or your team? How do you achieve the transition from having to change to wanting to change (coming from push to pull)?

Get in touch with us if you want to speak and learn more about first-order motivation. Simply send me an email at philipp.kitterer@iak.de

We are excited to hear from you and looking forward to exchanging ideas with you.

In the meantime, you might find the following articles of particular interest to you:

What Maslow’s Hierarchy Won’t Tell You About Motivation

How to Leverage the Power of Reflection to Build Momentum

Who’s Responsible for Creating Your Sense of Purpose at Work?

A Leading Psychologist on Three Mistakes You Make When Trying to Motivate Yourself