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Motivation Drug

Motivation Drug

    Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy or opinion. It is not intended to change anyone’s beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.


    Studies show that people have different levels of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is another way of saying a person’s body chemistry is such that it produces enthusiasm for doing hard work and creating great things. I predict that someday a drug will be able to mimic or stimulate whatever body chemistry produces intrinsic motivation. When that drug is developed – and I predict that it will be, or maybe it already exists – could it ever become legal and widely prescribed?

    For a drug to become legal it needs to be safe, and it needs to address a real medical problem in a way that benefits society. Let’s assume this motivation drug produces the same body chemistry that any naturally-motivated person enjoys. That sort of drug seems safer than introducing entirely foreign chemistry to a body. It would probably be no riskier than testosterone injections or other hormone therapies, meaning there would be some risk, but not enough to keep it off the market.

    The next hurdle involves labeling a lack of motivation as a medical problem. I think that would be the easy part. Any pharmaceutical company that creates such a drug would spend huge amounts to get that designation. And their argument would be solid. A lack of motivation can ruin a person’s life as well as the life of anyone who is economically linked to that person. That’s a strong argument. The definition of a medical need is fairly flexible.

    Obviously some unmotivated people are influenced by their circumstances more than their body chemistries. It’s hard to feel motivated if you’re surrounded by people who feel doomed, look doomed, and tell you that you are doomed too. Still, we see highly motivated people emerge from just about any form of poverty. So we know that chemistry – if it is just right – can overcome environment. As a practical matter, it might be cheaper and easier to tweak the motivational chemistry of people who are in bad circumstances instead of trying to fix their circumstances and hope that’s enough to stimulate their natural motivation.

    I can also imagine Republicans and Democrats being on the same page and supporting such a drug. Republicans think poor people lack motivation, so a motivation pill would fit right into their ideology. Democrats tend to go where the scientific consensus leads (evolution, climate change), and if science says unmotivated people can be helped by a prescription drug, why not?

    This idea is easy enough to test. I believe the medication for ADHD acts like speed (and feels like motivation) for people who don’t have ADHD. Just pick a poor community and put a random sample of volunteers on the drug and see what happens. If the drugged kids get better grades and the drugged adults increase their incomes compared to peers, and they have no worse side effects than ADHD patients, you have everything you need to allow doctors to prescribe the drug off label.

    I think you’ll see some version of this happen after science finishes chipping away at the glorification of free will, and society starts to understand itself as a bunch of moist robots that sometimes need chemical tuning.

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