Goals vs. Rewards
Recently I asked myself, what do I want? My immediate response was that I wanted to be less stressed, particularly for financial reasons. So I started to affirm to myself that my goal was to become wealthy, and also to become less stressed. But then in a fit of cognitive dissonance, I realized that both money and relaxation are most easily considered in terms of being rewards, not goals. I was oddly surprised by the fact that there is a distinction between the two concepts to begin with.
It later occurred to me to wonder if some things work better when framed as goals and not as rewards. Freedom, long life, good relationships, and productivity seemed some likely candidates. I can’t quite see them as rewards because a) I feel everyone innately deserves and should have them (even though they might have to work for them), and b) they don’t quite give the kind of fuzzies that motivate immediate action.
These two kinds of positive motivation seem to work in psychologically dissimilar ways. Money for example is more like chocolate, something one has immediate instinctive motive to obtain and consume. Freedom of speech is more along the lines of having enough air to breathe. A person needs and perhaps inherently deserves to have at least a little bit of it all the time, and as a general rule will have a constant background motive to ensure that it stays available. It’s a longer-term form of motivation.
A reward seems to be something where you receive immediate fuzzies when you achieve it. Getting paid, getting a pat on the back, getting your posts and comments upvoted… Things where you might consider them more or less optional in the grander scheme of things, yet they tend to trigger an immediate sense of positive anticipation before the event which is reinforced by a sense of satisfaction after. Actually writing a good post or comment, actually doing a good job, being a good spouse or friend—these are surely related, but are goals in and of themselves. The mental picture for a goal is one of achieving, as opposed to receiving.
One thing that seems likely to me is that the presence of shared goals (and the communication thereof) tends to a good way to generate long term social bonds. Rewards seem to be more of a good way to deliberately steer behavior in more specific aspects. Both are thus important elements of social signaling within a tribe, but serve different underlying purposes.
As an example I have the transhumanist goal of eliminating the current limitations of the human lifespan, and tend to have an affinity for people who also internalize that goal. But someone who does not embrace that goal on a deep level may still display specific behavior that I consider helpful for that goal, e.g. displaying comprehension of its internal logic or having a tolerant attitude towards actions I think need to be taken. I’m probably somewhat less likely to form a long-term relationship with that person than if they were identifiable as a fellow transhumanist, but I am still likely to upvote their comments or otherwise signal approval in ways that don’t demand too much long term commitment.
The distinctions I’ve drawn here between a goal and a reward might not apply directly to non-human intelligences. In fact it might be misleading in the more generalized context to call a reward something other than a goal (it is at least an implicit goal or value). However the distinction still seems like something that could be relevant for instrumental rationality and personal development. Our brains process the two forms of motivational anticipation in different ways. It may be that a part of the akrasia problem—failure to take action towards a goal—actually relates to a failure to properly categorize a given motive, and hence failure to process it usefully.
Thanks to the early commenters for their feedback: TheOtherDave, nornagest, endoself, David Gerard, nazgulnarsil, and Normal Anomaly. Hopefully this expanded version is more clear.