Here is a simple guide to human motivation.

People play amusing games with Sari, the voice of Google. They ask to marry her. They ask her trick and obscure questions about history. They remark on how she never gets tired of giving you new directions when you have gone a block beyond where you were supposed to turn. What is funny about her is that she never loses her patience, even though she seems to be a human voice, and we know why that is true. She is, after all, a machine. People, on the other hand, get annoyed if you repeat a question more than a few times; they take offense at lewd remarks; they are displeased when they display themselves as ignorant. That is because they are reflective about where they fall short of their images of themselves, of their self-conscious selves. They know how they anticipate how they will act or have their actions looked at and so can measure where they fall short. This solipsism is the beginning of wisdom because it can be stretched to include all the many ways in which people anticipate the consequences of their actions and of collective action. Machines, on the other hand, are infinitely patient, never jumping to the future, because, after all, they are not exercising patience at all but merely being what they are, which is procedures whereby things get done through physical and electronic arrangements, whether that is a lever, always there to serve, or an automobile, whether or not it is driverless, and computers, that do get unplugged, but do not go mad, except in a metaphorical sense, as happens with any old fashioned IBM calculator when you tried to divide by zero: it just started jumping around the table. This distinction between people and machines, people having intentions and machines not, provides a lever into understanding motivation.

People bubble over with anticipation of what they might do or might not do. I may get out of my chair to get a cookie or turn on the television. I may decide to think about the President or about Hamlet. I may decide which bills to pay and which to wait on. I may decide to fire someone or change my job and go about the activities that would allow that to happen. I may decide just to feel good about how pleasant life is and postpone thinking about the future, though that is not very likely to last very long, because we are all awash in the future, in what might be, that will be created out of the knife edge of the present. There are so many possibilities out there to contemplate and to eventuate.

Living, therefore, as we must, in the immediate as well as in more remote futures, there is bound to be anxiety as well as pleasure in our expectations of how our contemplated futures will in fact work out: how a girl will respond to our advances, or whether a boss will think our new idea ridiculous rather than immensely impressive. Too much of this uncertainty can lead to debilitating anxiety. Freud was very good at pointing out how destructive the anticipation of failure can be. Revealing an interest in one’s mother as a sexual object can lead to the revenge of the father and so one is better off repressing those feelings towards the mother even though that can result in all sorts of symptoms that are mere by products of the impulse to repress. Managing one’s life turns out to be, much of the time, managing the symptoms of one’s failures and traumas. It makes you think you would be better off being like Sari, who has no anxieties but just responds in her bland way to whatever is thrown her way.

That anticipation is appreciated by all to be part of the human condition is reflected in the fact that anticipation is mimicked  and borrowed in art and literature where it is known as suspense. We read murder mysteries and great novels to see what will happen next, how what will unfold is always slightly different (if the book is any good) from what we expected to unfold, never mind whether the butler did it or not. There is always an unravelling that shows things are not what they seem, whether in John Le Carre or Leo Tolstoy, just as in life, the heart of anticipation is not knowing how things will work out once a contemplated action has been taken, the future therefore unknown even as it is also planned. Who knows how a marriage or a college education will turn out? You can have expectations, and sociology is very good at pointing out what is likely to happen between marriage partners who come from different social classes, or how likely it is that a certain major or college will produce a stable or ever rising income, but who knows whether that is the storyline that will prevail in a particular instance?

The underpinning for a theory that human motivation was primarily the result of anticipation long precedes Freud. That master psychologist, Thomas Hobbes, provided a sequence of emotions which began at what we would consider the beginning of the evolutionary chain, the attraction and repulsion evinced even in plants, which turn towards the sun, and more complicated emotions, which culminate in what makes people recognizably human, which is their ability to calculate what is in their future that might contribute pain or pleasure to them, and making plans accordingly. People are, in this way, fundamentally rational, even if they also come under the sway of other passions.

It makes a big difference whether a person thinks of their decisions as made in the light of the future rather than in the light of the past. Future orientation means that you are always invoking Hobbes’ implicit social contract, whereby you exchange allegiance for some good. You decide every day, once again, to remain faithful to a spouse or a friend or to a nation. You decide every day whether it is worth it to keep going to this job. In other words, more philosophical words, a person is free, has free will, when they are future oriented, while they are some kinds of prisoners to the past, to some authority, if they think otherwise. Burke, that eminent exponent of the Conservative point of view, said that the dead have a vote in that the burden of tradition is what makes life bearable. Other Conservatives invoke other harbingers of the past as a way to organize social life. A norm or a custom hangs over a person as an obligation in that a person is to guide themselves by the norms or customs of society even if they do not care to do so because norms and customs deserve respect and, even more than that, the prospect of violating them inspires fear, as it does for the no longer Orthodox Jew who for the first time tastes pork.

Norms and customs operate in this way because norms and customs are not really laws, in that they are not clear stipulations with recognized penalties, which is the case with murder or jaywalking, but a violation of a sense of propriety that always abides, even if it is also the case that one does not know that an act may be a transgression of norms and customs until it happens, that act now taken as a transgression or a serious transgression when it might not have been so before, such as occurs when zealots impose penalties for women going around with their faces uncovered, or zealots think that a United States Senator who grabbed a woman’s bottom should be expelled from the chamber. Norms and customs are funny creatures in that they do not specify what is a violation nor what is a suitable punishment except in very extreme cases, as when being raped merits being killed so as to sustain the honor of the family. In most cases, derision and shame is what greets the violator.

Indeed, it is fair to say that orientation in decision making towards the past or towards the future is at the heart of the difference between people who are politically Conservative and politically Liberal. Put aside where people stand on tax policy or the intrusiveness of the federal government. What matters is whether you are defending the past or advocating for the future. The Conservative looks back on a better time when society was properly regulated or had no need of regulation, and wants to restore that golden era, whether it was the time of the frontier, or of the Gilded Age, the latter being the idea of the Koch brothers, while Liberals look forward to a better time even if they draw inspiration from FDR or other figures of the past who were forward looking. And defenders of the past are likely to notice the advantages of regimes based on strict authority rather than on the putative equality of people that is always an unrealized goal. The basis of politics, I am suggesting, lies in a theory of psychology rather than in a theory of government.