How vital is motivation in our lives?

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Raj Persaud uses examples of extraordinary success to discuss what forces are at work to help the apparent lucky few attain what the rest of us desire. Theories around luck, internal or external forces beyond or within our control and the relative roles of intelligence or motivation are considered. Using some real footage of a high stakes poker game in which the Professor takes part, the audience is invited to judge for themselves what is more important - forces you control or those beyond yourself.

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Professor Raj Persaud


My name is Raj Persaud, and I’m a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in South London, and Gresham Professor for public understanding of psychiatry. The topic I’m going to be talking about today is the vital role that motivation plays in our lives. Just to outline what I’m going to do, I’m going to talk briefly about the subject, and then I’m going to show you a clip from me playing in a high stakes poker game, where £25,000 was at stake, and where I’d made it down to the last three people in quite an extensive tournament, and I’ll be using this poker experience to illustrate some of the points I’ll be making about the psychology of motivation.

It has always struck me as curious that psychologists have not placed the emphasis that they need to on the vital role that motivation plays in our lives. I think motivation is the key factor that determines your success in whatever it is you might want to do in life, whether it might be to be happily married, or be a big success in your career, or be a great father or a great mother – whatever your ambitions and your goals, your motivation and the depth of your motivation are the key determinants of success. And yet curiously, psychology has neglected this vital feature of personality in favour of other things that I strongly believe are less important. Psychologists have placed, for example, a lot of emphasis on IQ, or intelligence, or talent as being the key determinant of your success in life. I think that motivation is much more important than intelligence.

But maybe one reason why psychologists have neglected motivation is because it’s so difficult to measure. Scientists have a natural tendency to be drawn towards studying things that are easy to measure, and the problem is that sometimes the things that are easy to measure are not that important. IQ is very easy to measure, and if I was to submit an IQ test to you this afternoon and then re-submit it to you in about a year’s time, most of you would get roughly the same score on the IQ test. So there’s great repeat reliability. Motivation, however, varies from moment to moment on an average day. Your motivation, for example, to attend this lecture hopefully is very high at the moment! But my experience of attending lectures is one’s motivation can sharply plummet as the lecture continues. So that’s one example of the fact that motivation varies a lot. Maybe because it varies so much and is difficult to capture scientifically, psychologists have neglected it, and that’s very dangerous.

But our motivational journey begins in the USA, in the year 2000. In May of that year, a multi-state lottery in the USA, shared across seven US states, had rolled over week after week for as long as anyone could remember, so that the jackpot prize that was available to be won by the purchase of a $1 lottery ticket had reached the dizzying sum of 340 million US dollars. Many of you will know, if you’ve read some of my books, that I’m very influenced by Zen Buddhism, but even Zen Buddhist monks have been known to go weak at the knees at the thought of $340 million! So I’ll just say that number one more time, because it gives one such a wonderful warm feeling inside - $340 million dollars!

This was statistically speaking the largest sum it was possible ever in the history of lotteries to win with the purchase of a lottery ticket. A few years earlier, some Ohio machinists, seven of them, had shared a jackpot prize of 170 million US dollars, but obviously that’s shared out amongst seven people so it’s a smaller sum. In Spain a few years ago, there was a famous lottery called – you’ll have to forgive my Spanish pronunciation – Il Georgino, (I think it’s Spanish for “the monster”). That had actually reached the sum of a billion, the equivalent of US dollars, but that had been shared out amongst a thousand winners.

So by May 2000, this multi-state lottery in the US called the Big Game, had reached a historic figure – 340 million US dollars. The draw for the lottery was due to occur on the evening of May the 9 th. On the evening of May the 8 th, an ordinary lower middle class Detroit couple, Steven and Peg Roberts, are watching the TV that evening while they’re having supper, and the big news on the TV news that evening in Detroit is the fact that there are queues round the block as people rush to buy a lottery ticket before the evening of May the 9 th when the draw occurs. Of course we’re getting into a vicious spiral here - because people are attracted by this big prize, they rush out and buy a ticket when they wouldn’t have done normally, and because they’re rushing out and buying a ticket, the jackpot prize gets even bigger, so you get into a positive spiral.

The thing you’ve got to know about Steven and Peg Roberts is they never, ever play the lottery. They know something of statistics, and they believe it’s irrational to play the lottery given statistically how unlikely you are to win it. In fact, Peg has a favourite saying, which is that there’s no point playing the lottery because you’ve got a bigger chance of striking oil in your back yard than winning the lottery. Not only do they never play the lottery, they are actually very strongly antagonistic towards the irrational behaviour that drives people to purchase lottery tickets, so they make fun of any of their friends who buy a lottery ticket, and they are rather scathing of anyone they discover who buys a lottery ticket. In telling you that story about Steven and Peg Roberts and the fact they never play the lottery, I think you can take a wild guess as to where this story is going!

So they’re watching the TV news on the evening of May the 8 th, the draw is going to occur on May the 9 th, and they’re seeing the queues round the block for purchase of lottery tickets, and all of a sudden, Peg turns to Steven and says, “You know, Steven, $340 million is a lot of money, and I was wondering, if you get a chance tomorrow, why don’t you buy a lottery ticket?” Steven was absolutely amazed at Peg’s sudden about turn in terms of her view of lotteries, but like any spouse trying to maintain a good marriage, he realised that the art of a great marriage is always to fight the initial emotional reaction you feel to something your partner says, no matter how incredulous or revolted you might feel! So struggling to maintain a Zen-like exterior, he agreed that he would try and buy a lottery ticket if he had the chance, but he sees on the TV screen that there really are people queuing round the block, and he’s a bit worried because he knows he’s got a very busy day the next day. He works as a swimming pool refurbishment engineer, and he’s got a very busy day full of appointments, and he thinks it’s very unlikely he’s going to have the time to buy a lottery ticket, given the queues round the block, but he also knows that the art of a successful marriage is always, always to obey your wife. So he agrees to try and buy a ticket.

The next day, he’s rushing around with his swimming pool refurbishment business, and forgotten he’d agreed to buy a lottery ticket the night before. Around midday, he’s getting a bit hungry, and he decides that he’s going to buy a hotdog and a Coke for lunch. He’s driving around Detroit suburbs seeing if he can find a place that sells hotdogs and Cokes, and he finally spots a store, pulls in his car, goes into the store, and as he’s about the buy the hotdog and Coke, he realises that this store doesn’t just sell hotdogs and Cokes, it also sells lottery tickets, and magically enough, there is no queue. He suddenly remembers his wife’s injunction from the night before, and excitedly, he reaches into his wallet, intending to buy a lottery ticket for a dollar, a Coke for a dollar, and a hotdog for a dollar. He discovers that the only thing in his wallet is a single $100 bill, so he tries to buy the stuff, but the man behind the checkout rather unhelpfully says he has no change for a hundred. Steven’s in a bit of a quandary here, but he remembers his wife’s injunction, doesn’t want to go back home without any lottery tickets, so in a mad impulse, given that up until this moment they’d never bought a lottery ticket in their lives, Steven says, “Okay, I’ll buy a Coke for a dollar, I’ll buy a hotdog for a dollar. Give me the change in lottery tickets.” So he buys $98 worth of lottery tickets. He stuffs them into his pockets and he goes on to his business for the rest of the day. As the day wears on, a very busy day, he forgets that he’s bought the lottery tickets.

He goes home, they have an early supper, Peg has forgotten she asked him to buy the tickets, and they go to bed without watching the TV that night, without bothering to watch the draw occur.

The next morning, they wake up, and they’re having breakfast watching the TV news. The big news in the Detroit area, the TV news that morning, is that someone in the Big Game lottery draw last night, someone somewhere in the Detroit area has won $280 million, but mysteriously, that person hasn’t rung in to claim the prize. The TV news anchors are feverishly speculating that maybe they haven’t rung in because they want to let the publicity die down before claiming the prize. But although no one has rung in yet to claim the prize, the technology available to the lottery company allows them to know where the winning ticket was bought, and the TV news camera crews have converged on the store that sold the winning ticket…and they’re interviewing the guy that sold the winning ticket. All of a sudden, Steve looks closely at the TV screen and says, “You know, Peg, that guy looks a lot like the chap who sold me my ticket.” Their eyes suddenly lock across the breakfast table, they race to the sideboard, they feverishly look through the tickets, and yes, they have got the ticket that wins them $280 million.

Now, the interesting thing about Steven and Peg Roberts is, never having played the lottery before, and now winning $280 million, they now play the lottery every week, although they obviously don’t need to because they’re multi-millionaires. There’s an interesting psychological theory as to why they do it

If you ask Steven and Peg Roberts, they have a very interesting explanation. The reason they play the lottery now is because they say they believe in a mysterious force called luck, and they believe that they are lucky. The reason they believe they are lucky and there’s a mysterious force abroad called luck which operates around them, and one or two other significant individuals, is because if you think about what happened on that day, if you put aside for one minute the billions to one chance of having the correct ticket, they feel that luck was operating. After all, let’s review what happened. They suddenly decide after several decades of never playing the lottery that on this one occasion they’ll play the lottery. Then the next day, Steven’s very busy and would not normally have had the chance to stop and buy a ticket, but he decides to get a hotdog and a Coke, and at the very stand that sells hotdogs and Cokes, they happen to sell lottery tickets. They may not have happened to sell lottery tickets. So that’s two chance events that have had to occur. Then at that stand, there was no queue. If there had been a queue, he wouldn’t have had the time to buy a ticket. That’s the third chance event. The fourth chance event is he happens to have a $100 bill in his wallet. Suppose he’d had $3 and just bought the one ticket? He may not have bought the right ticket. These chance events upon chance events make them think there’s a thing called luck operating out there.

This notion about what forces you believe are abroad out there, psychologists believe is extremely important in determining your motivation and determining your success in life. Psychologists believe that you can divide people into two basic groups called internals and externals. This division explains people’s views about what controls their destiny. Internals believe that what controls their destiny is basically themselves. They believe whether they have a success or a failure in life, it’s completely down to them, or more or less down to them. Externals believe they’re the victim of circumstance. They believe that really whatever happens to them is not under their control and it is other things, other forces at work in nature, that determine the future of their lives. So if you think about internals and externals, if they go to a job interview and they fail the interview, an internal would leave the job interview thinking to themselves, I need to get better qualifications or I need to brush up my interview technique in order to try and be more successful in the future.” An external leaving a job interview they’ve failed would say, “You know what, I didn’t stand a chance. They’d already decided who they were choosing for that job. It’s not my fault that I failed that job interview.”

Now, whether you’re an internal or an external has dramatic implications on your behaviour. Internals tend to vote. Externals tend not to vote, because externals don’t believe they can have much impact on the world. They don’t believe they can make a difference. Externals tend to commit more crime, because externals don’t believe in the benefits of hard work. They like to take short cuts. Externals are more prone to a variety of psychological problems.

So this is clearly a very important personality dimension, and psychologists have been measuring the prevalence of internality and externality in the population at large since the early ‘Sixties when it was first devised. They discovered a dramatic and significant shift in the population at large in the Western world in terms of this dimension of internality and externality. The shift is that people are becoming dramatically more external in orientation, so much so that the average young person alive today aged between 18 and 21 is more external in orientation than 80% of young people of the same age alive in the early ‘Sixties. That is a dramatic shift towards externality in the population at large, and it has profound social implications in terms of crime rates, voting behaviour and declining motivational levels, because internal people are more motivated than externals. Teachers complain that they’re seeing declining levels of motivation in their pupils. This is partly a cultural phenomenon. Teachers in Western schools, in Britain for example, say they have to heap praise on their pupils for any marginally good piece of behaviour or any marginal effort they see in order to extract more motivation, whereas in Japan, a 12 year old has virtually got to get the Nobel Prize before they get any praise from their teachers.

So we’re seeing declining levels of motivation, and one possible cause is this shift in internality towards externality. Why is this shift occurring? Well, I’m going to do a very external thing, and blame some groups of people, because that’s what externals do. One group of people that are blamed for this dramatic shift are a group of people very popular with doctors and these are lawyers. Now, I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but I’m often at a cocktail party and a lawyer will come up to me, and they’ll say, “Raj, I couldn’t help noticing how fat you’re getting! Here’s my card. Let me sue McDonalds for you, because it’s clearly these fast food corporations that are making you morbidly obese.”

The other experience you might have is you walk out your front door, you fall over a broken paving stone, and a lawyer magically appears to press his or her card into your broken arm, and says, “Let me sue the council for you for having this broken paving stone causing you to trip up. It’s not your fault.” There is a rise of blame culture, the rise of the idea that we can sue other people as a way of dealing with our problems.

Another group of people that are blamed, and I say this group in order to try and equalise the argument, are people like psychiatrists and psychologists and social scientists, who say the reason why you do what you do, that bad thing that you do, is because of your toilet training or your bad parenting or the beating they gave you at that awful school in that dreadful neighbourhood you grew up in, it’s your genes, it’s your hormones. What’s happening is that we’re gradually squeezing out personal responsibility. I have no doubt that genes play a role and your toilet training plays a role in why you do what you do, but this rise of explanation may be squeezing out personal responsibility at a dangerous level, so people don’t take personal responsibility for why they do what they do any more.

A third group of people that are blamed are politicians. At an election campaign, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, politicians find a group of people the electorate can blame for their problems – like it’s the Russians across the border that are why we’re in trouble, or the Communists, or the refugees, or the asylum seekers. The electorate is always on the lookout for another group of people to blame for their problems, and politicians are very adept at helping us find another group of people. Which politician is going to get elected if they suddenly said, “You know what, the reason why the country’s not doing so well is because you need to take a little bit more personal responsibility for your life and get your act together!”? Who’s going to get elected on that kind of ticket?

The final theory, a very interesting theory, is the TV news theory, and the theory is this, that you turn on the TV news at night and you see tsunamis, hurricanes, global warming, and these big events make us feel impotent, make us as individuals feel we are passive recipients of massive forces at work. 150 years ago, there was no TV news. The only news you became aware of in your village was local stuff. It took years for news of international affairs or national affairs to get to you. The only news you were aware of was local stuff that you could do something about, and because you could do something about it, it made you feel you had more control over your destiny. That argument isn’t to say you should turn off the TV. What it says is that maybe we should get more involved in local politics, local affairs. It might make us feel more in control of our destiny. That theory has interesting implications.

We’ve talked about the importance of internality and externality in motivation. Another key personality dimension I want to touch on briefly is your orientation to time. Psychologists believe you can divide people into three basic groups in terms of orientation to time, and that you’re either past-oriented, present-oriented, or future-oriented. Past-oriented people are people who are very influenced by a past event. They failed an exam ten years ago, and have decided they’re never going to take another exam again in their lives, because they don’t think they’re ever going to pass an exam. Present-oriented people live for the moment. They really enjoy life, but because they’re living for the moment, they hang the future consequences of present behaviour. So they smoke cigarettes, they enjoy the warm rush of heroin through their veins because they’re enjoying the buzz of the heroin today and they’re not worried about the future consequences of taking heroin. Future-oriented people worry a lot. They’re worrying about the future. They’re thinking a lot about the future. So they’ve got pensions, they’ve got insurance…they’re worried about the future consequences of present behaviour, and the fact they worry a lot is no accident. The technical definition of a worry is a negative anticipation of the future. Now, what’s very interesting is that successful people, motivated people, tend to be very future-oriented, but they also tend to worry a lot, because in negatively anticipating the future, they act now to prevent a bad thing happening in the future. So an exam is a year away, but future-oriented people feel the future’s very close, and they’re working hard for the exam now, they’re worrying about the exam, they’re anticipating a negative event in the future – failing the exam, and they’re acting now to try and prevent it.

So, if you were a neurosurgeon about to operate on my brain, I’d want you to be very future-oriented and to worry about whether there’s going to be a good outcome. Given that very motivated people are more future-oriented, anyone want to have a go at what’s the best thing to be for your overall mental health and wellbeing? A lot of people are shouting out present. Well, it’s great to be present-oriented because you have more fun and you enjoy life more than future-oriented people, but the problem with being present-oriented is this: if there is a massive negative consequence for a piece of behaviour, it is very wise to be future-oriented at that moment.

Now, you’re all going to go away and buy my book “The Motivated Mind”, and as a result, you will all have your own private aircraft at some point in the near future! So imagine you go out in the winter to have a flight in your private aircraft, and it’s a cold winter’s morning, and you get into the warm snug cockpit, and then you suddenly remember the pilot’s tutor telling you that on a cold winter’s morning, you must check the wings of the aircraft have been properly de-iced, because if you don’t, they will snap off at 30,000 feet and you will plummet to your death. But as you enjoy the warm, snug cockpit, you say to yourself, oh I don’t want to go out into the cold winter morning and de-ice the wings. Here we have a moment where it’s absolutely crucial that you are not too present-oriented enjoying the snug cockpit, and you start being a little bit future-oriented and get out there and check the wings.

So I’m going to argue that the correct answer in terms of wellbeing is the ability to shift from past, present or future depending on the context you find yourself in. The problem with being too future-oriented all the time is you never enjoy life. You’re going to be a great neurosurgeon and you’re going to have the private aircraft, but you’ll never enjoy it, because you’re always living in the future. It’s vital to be able to shift from past, present or future. I want to argue, and it’s a controversial argument, you don’t necessarily have to agree with it, that although it’s vital to be future-oriented in terms of motivation, it’s quite important to be able to shift context depending on the situation you find yourself in.

Now, a really interesting issue about motivation is that if you’re going to be future-oriented, which you’re going to have to be if you’re going to be very motivated, when you become future-oriented in the realm of relationships, then we enter interesting territory, because what that means is that you’re thinking of what you’re going to get out of the relationship in the future. There’s a term in psychology we use to describe that approach to relationships, which is Machiavellian, and Machiavellians are thinking all the time, whenever they enter a relationship with someone, what am I going to get out of this? I’m going to praise this person, I’m going to make them feel good because I’m going to get something out of them for that in the future. Whereas present-oriented people enjoy a relationship for the sake of the relationship; they’re not thinking too much about the future in terms of what they’re going to get out of it. So being future-oriented in the realm of relationships lends itself to a Machiavellian strategy in life.

This is important because we tend to think about motivation often in terms of attaining physical goals, like climbing Mount Everest, but actually, in the life that we tend to lead in urban culture, modern, complex, high-tech society, actually it’s social goals that are important, and what I mean by that is basically whatever you want in life, you’ve got to get people to give it to you. Let me boil down the art of life into a really blunt one line sentence which is you’ve got to get people to give you stuff. That stuff might be appreciation, it might be love, it might be respect, it might be money – whatever it is you want in life, you want a Bentley, somebody’s got to give you that Bentley. So, the problem of life boils down to getting people to give you stuff. How do you get people to give you stuff? That’s the number one conundrum. Psychologists have been studying this intensively for years and have come up with a really interesting answer. The way you get people to give you stuff is….you’ve got to give them stuff! And often, rather horribly, you’ve got to give them quite a lot of stuff before you get anything back, and you’ve got to give them quite a lot of stuff first before they give anything to you. So at the art of human affairs is the transactional nature of life. There’s a transaction going on: you’ve got to give in order to get. What’s fascinating about people who often don’t achieve their goals, is they’re really locked in to what they want to get – they’re locked into the fact that I want a Bentley, or I want to date Michelle Pfeiffer – all sorts of goals. They don’t say what am I going to give to get, because you’ve got to give something to get that kind of stuff, okay? That’s the key issue: what am I going to give in order to get, and that’s at the heart of the transaction.

I want to come back to this transactional notion in a moment. I want to just divert very briefly to talk about another aspect of achieving your goals, which is that there are three things you’ve got to get motivationally right if you’re going to achieve your goals – three relatively simple things. People who don’t achieve goals are getting one of these three things wrong, at least one. The first thing you’ve got to do is track your progress. Tracking means if you want to lose weight, you’re going to have to weigh yourself, and actually weigh yourself quite a lot, perhaps weigh yourself every day, and in weighing yourself every day, you’re tracking your progress. You’re getting a sense of the fact you starved yourself today, you weigh yourself, and low and behold, you’ve not lost any weight. That is tracking your progress. It allows you to get feedback on your performance that allows you to adjust your performance. You know what? People hate tracking! They hate starving themselves all day, and standing on the weighing scales and finding they haven’t lost any weight. Tracking often involves getting news you don’t want to hear, negative feedback, but actually that’s very valuable information, because only with that kind of information can you adjust your performance. You’ll find very motivated people, whatever branch or field of discipline they’re in, are really involved in tracking. The people who win the gold medal in the 100 metres in the Olympics have been tracking their progress at the nought point nought, nought, nought, one second level, day in day out, for decades, and that’s how come they get the gold medal. So tracking is vital.

Unfortunately, the government likes to use a word I don’t like called testing. Testing is not a great word because people don’t like to be tested, but tracking denotes the idea you are moving towards a final target. People don’t go and win the gold medal for 100 metres just like that. What’s happened is they’ve been tracking their progress towards the goal and targeting and narrowing in on the goal over a period of time. So you’ve got to track your progress.

The second thing you’ve got to do is to have certain resources. If you want to get the gold medal for the 100 metres, you’re going to have to have a stadium to practise in, a good coach, time off, an understanding wife or husband, understanding kids – you’re going to need certain resources. A big flaw with a lot of people who decide they want a goal like the 100 metres gold medal at the Olympics is they embark down the process, and half way along the line, they suddenly discover they haven’t got the right resources. Get the resources first, and then embark on the attempt to attain the goal.

But the final and most important thing psychologically is a thing called goal conflict. Most people who don’t attain their goals are suffering from what we call in my trade goal conflict. If you want the gold medal at the 100 metres in the Olympics, you’re going to have to have – and this is the case in particular with the most difficult goals – zero goal conflict, because you cannot win the gold medals for the 100 metres Olympics and have that as a goal but also have the goal of being a great husband and a loving father. Those are goals that are in conflict with each other, and you’re going to have to sacrifice one goal or the other in order to attain the goal, particularly if it’s a difficult goal. You will find that people who achieve really difficult things have minimised goal conflict in their lives. That explains an interesting phenomenon. When the gold medal winner of the 100 metres at the Olympics is interviewed, having won the gold medal – I don’t know if you’ve noticed this – what’s really obvious about the fact they have had no goal conflict in their lives and they’ve only had that one goal for the last two decades, is the fact that when they’re interviewed, they’re really, really boring people. They’ve got nothing to talk about other than the fact they’ve just won the gold medal in the 100 metres in the Olympics. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that? A lot of sports stars, people who achieve a lot, are incredibly boring, and that is a little sign of the zero goal conflict in their lives.

We’ll come back to the issue about goal conflict in just one second. I want to just finish the point briefly, which is that now, a lot of people say that they are unable to achieve their goals, and they’re not quite sure why that is. They need to do a goal clarification exercise that I call the perfect day exercise. I’ll illustrate this with a patient of mine, and I will disguise his details to protect his identity. He came to me and he said he wanted to be a novelist, and he could never finish any novels though, but he desperately wanted to be a novelist, but he must have started and not finished about 20 novels. He said, “Dr Persaud, what’s the problem here? I really desperately want to be a novelist. I’m very motivated. I start all these novels, but I never finish them. What’s going on?”

So I asked him to do this exercise called the perfect day exercise. The perfect day exercise – you might want to take part in it – is an exercise of the imagination. I’m going to give you a blank cheque and you can do anything, be with anyone, but I want you to tell me a little bit about what your most perfect day would be like. I want to construct the most perfect day of your life. If on the most perfect day of your life, you would spend the day with the Queen in Buckingham Palace, tell me about that. I don’t mind how bizarre or unusual or strange the day is, but you have literally got a blank cheque, you can do anything, be with anyone, and you can have any skill or talent that you don’t have now.

I’ll illustrate the purpose of this goal clarification exercise with this guy who couldn’t finish any novels. I asked him to tell me about his perfect day. The other thing about the perfect day exercise, I want you to tell me about the day in as much detail as possible. I want to know the colour of the toast that you have for breakfast on the perfect day. There’s an interesting gender difference that occurs when I ask people about their perfect day. Women have incredible detail about things like interior decoration. When I ask women to tell me about their perfect day, they say “I would wake up in a bed with Egyptian cotton sheets”. That’s the level of detail you get from women about their environment. Men just say, “I’d wake up somewhere.”

Now, in this guy’s perfect day, he would wake up on his own private island in the Caribbean. In your perfect day, you’re allowed to wake up anywhere. Interestingly enough, when I’ve asked people to recount their perfect day, no one has ever woken up in Britain! They’re always waking up somewhere millions of miles away, usually the Tropics. So this guy wakes up on his own private island in the Caribbean, and he’s in his own private luxury villa. It’s on the beach, and at the end of the pier of his villa, bobbing gently on the sea, the aquamarine sea, is his own private seaplane, because in his perfect day, he has a private pilot’s licence. You’re allowed any talent or skill that you don’t have now. He flies off in the seaplane to a neighbouring island, and he has breakfast with the Spice Girls. I will now draw a veil over the more pornographic elements of this man’s perfect day, and I often have to do that with the male perfect days, interestingly enough. He then flies to Rio de Janeiro, and around midday, in a tensely fought world cup soccer final between England and Brazil, he scores the winning goal in the closing seconds of extra time. He has a press conference, he’s feted throughout the world because he scored the winning goal, and he flies by Lear Jet to New York and he dances the night away with various supermodels in an exclusive nightclub.

Okay, so that’s that man’s perfect day. How does his perfect day tell us why he can’t finish any novels? There’s nothing literary about this man’s perfect day, is there? I mean, he doesn’t mention a book once. There’s no books in the villa, he doesn’t meet any authors, he doesn’t go and pick up a literary prize, have a literary lunch – there is nothing literary about this man’s perfect day. The themes that run through this man’s perfect day are sex, fame and money, and that’s what the perfect day reveals he’s really interested in. He doesn’t care how he gets them, that’s what he wants, and the perfect day exercise clarifies what his goals are. If I was just to ask you what your goals are, people tend to tell me worthy goals they think I want to hear about, like they want to help small kittens or set up a charity. But actually, the perfect day, if it really is perfection – and that’s the key point: it can’t be a good day or an above average day, it has to be absolute perfection – reveals sneakily, because I’m a sneaky psychologist, reveals sneakily what your goals really are. What was revealed about this man’s perfect day is he had massive goal conflict over two goals. At one level, he wanted to be taken seriously by the London literary establishment, wanted to write serious books that were reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, but on the other hand, he wanted to sell so many books that he had his own private island in the Caribbean and he was world famous. Those goals were in conflict. Some people get away with that, but it’s tough to achieve both goals. The perfect day exercise clarified what his goals really were. He decided, reviewing his perfect day and analysing it with me and deconstructing it, to go for the pot boiler fiction route – he was going to write trashy novels that sold millions – and actually he is today a very famous novelist!

So goal conflict is very important to resolve, and the perfect day exercise illuminates what your goals really are, and might illuminate some goal conflict. You might want to sneakily try this on your partner later on this evening without revealing it’s a goal clarification exercise. A lot of people tell me about their perfect day, and I have to say to them, I think there’s something very interesting about your perfect day – your husband doesn’t turn up in it. Or your kids aren’t mentioned in your perfect day. So that can be quite revealing.

So you’ve got to get those three things right. You’ve got to have the resources to achieve your goals, you’ve got to have tracking, and you’ve got to have zero goal conflict, or very little goal conflict, or minimised goal conflict. If you get those three things right, motivationally you’re likely to attain your goals.

So let’s go back to social goals now, and the Machiavellian approach to life. Machiavelli was a Florentine courtier and he observed the Mafia-like violent tactics of various wealthy families vying for power. He wrote a book called “The Prince”, which was an attempt to get work. It was like a CV or a kind of calling card. “The Prince” is a guide to a young ruler who’s just attained power, and it’s a guide about how to hang on to power, how to grow your power, and how to obtain power. Machiavelli advocated the Machiavellian approach to life if power is your game. Machiavelli unfortunately has got a rather unfortunate reputation over the years. They say that “The Prince” as a book is on the bedside table of all the world’s dictators. However, Machiavelli himself never advocated Machiavellianism as an approach to life, the Machiavellian approach being one of manipulativeness and deceit and thinking about the transaction – what am I going to get out of giving; he merely observed that in any competitive situation in human affairs where people desire something badly, and only a few people are going to get it, and you’re dealing with social goals, in other words, other people are going to give you stuff, then the people who tend to get these goals are Machiavellian in their approach.

Psychologists have now devised questionnaires that measure how Machiavellian you are as a personality characteristic, and psychologists divide people into high-Mac, and low-Mac, depending on your score on the Machiavellian test. My favourite though is Big Mac, which is an old joke in psychology, and psychologists often say would you like that with lies, or without, because Machiavellians are always lying their way to the top.

Now, one of the things that Machiavellians are doing, which the rest of us aren’t doing, they’re doing something very important in a field of psychology called theory of mind. Theory of mind is a branch of psychology that’s attracting a lot of interest, because it’s the theory about why people suffer from autism and schizophrenia. Theory of mind is about the idea that in human affairs, to engage with other people, negotiate with them, seduce them or manipulate them, you have to have some idea of what’s going on in their mind. The first thing you’ve got to do of course is have an idea of what’s going on in your own mind, and that’s called first order theory of mind. Going back to the guy who couldn’t finish novels and wanted breakfast with the Spice Girls in his perfect day, actually he wasn’t doing so well on first order theory of mind, about knowing what his true goals really were. It’s not as easy as you might think. So there’s first order theory of mind, having a clear idea of what’s going on in your own mind.

Then one level above that is second order theory of mind – having a good idea of what’s going on in other people’s minds. That’s the level at which most people stop. Machiavellians operate in another realm altogether beyond that called third order theory of mind, and that’s thinking what the other person is thinking about what you’re thinking. Let me illustrate that with a story that comes from poker.

Poker, as many of you may know, is a game played with cards which involves bluff and deceit, because in poker, there are rounds of gambling, you bet heavily into the pot, if you want to stay in the pot, you’ve got to equal the bet or you have to raise it, and if you bet aggressively other people will fold their cards and you can be left at the end of the game with the only person holding cards, having bet aggressively, and you will scoop the pot without ever having to show your cards. That’s a vital part of poker that no other game has. That means the issue isn’t how good your cards are, the issue is how good other people think they are.

There’s a story that comes from poker and third order theory of mind, which is a true story. The gold prospectors in San Francisco in the Gold Rush of the 19th Century would mine a massive fortune in gold nuggets, and then get on the slow boat from San Francisco to New York to cash in their gold nuggets for cash. What else is there to do on a slow boat between San Francisco and New York than play poker with your gold nuggets? So the prospectors are on the deck of the boat playing with their gold nuggets, they’re playing poker, and they’re betting heavily into the pot, and the pot has now reached a small fortune. There are several rounds of betting, and then the last round of cards are dealt to each gold prospector. One prospector catches a brief glimpse of his card when it’s blown overboard by a sudden gust of wind. He immediately dives overboard to retrieve the card. He nearly drowns grabbing hold of the card, and is dragged, sodden wet, back on to the deck of the boat. Clutching the damp card to his chest, he makes a big raise into the pot. All the other players go, mmmm, that must be a great card. I mean, he nearly died trying to get that card. So they all fold, and he scoops the pot, and of course he had nothing, but what he was doing was third order theory of mind. He was thinking what they’d be thinking about what he was thinking. If you’re going to be Machiavellian in terms of social affairs, you have to be operating at a level of third order theory of mind.


© Professor Raj Persaud, Gresham College, 6 October 2005


This event was on Thu, 06 Oct 2005


Dr Raj Persaud

Visiting Professor of Psychiatry

Raj Persaud is a Consultant Psychiatrist. Unusually for a psychiatrist he also holds a degree in psychology that he obtained with First Class Honours, and...

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