Immersed in the moment and here for the love. Zen, Flow, and the Art of Consumer Motivation.

Blog Post | Aug 19th, 2021

Men (people) are rarely aware of the real reasons which motivate their actions.
Edward Bernays
Propaganda (1928)

Simply put, motivation is the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.

Motivation is a cornerstone topic in the study of consumer behavior. After all, what brand, advertiser, or entrepreneur wouldn't want to know why people buy?

We know that understanding motivation is key to effective marketing, but how does motivation relate to zen and creative flow? How could an awareness of a connection between all three be of any use to marketers and entrepreneurs? I'll get to that shortly. First, let's take a quick look at the study of motivation in the context of the consumer behavior discipline.

First, a little background

Social scientists and marketers have come together to study consumer motivation in a formal setting since at least the 1940's, when psychologist and marketing expert Ernest Dichter opened The Institute of Motivational Research in Croton-On-Hudson, New York. By that time, brands were already applying the social sciences in advertising. Notably, Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmond Freud and the "father of public relations", famously leveraged and influenced societal change in 1929 to promote female smoking by branding cigarettes as feminist "Torches of Freedom".

To understand a stable citizen, you have to know that modern man quite often tries to work off his frustrations by spending on self-sought gratification. Modern man is internally ready to fulfill his self-image, by purchasing products which compliment it.
Ernest Dichter
The Strategy of Desire (1960)

Check out this video about Dichter's institute and the beginnings of motivational research.

At around the 4:00 mark in the video, the narrator shares Dichter's focus group work with Betty Crocker cake mix. The product was intended to make baking a cake easy, and while previous research indicated that consumers would welcome the product, it wasn't selling to its full potential. Dichter concluded that housewives (this was 1950) felt an unconscious guilt about the simplicity of baking a cake straight out of a box. The housewives' guilt had become a barrier to widespread consumer adoption. Dichter chose to remove the barrier by giving the housewives a greater sense of participation.

How was this achieved? By adding an egg. Dichter, an acolyte of Sigmund Freud, claimed that the egg would serve as an unconscious symbol, whereby the housewife mixed in her own eggs as a gift to her husband, effectively lessening the guilt. Betty Crocker updated the package by including "add 1 egg" to the cake mix instructions and sales soared.

It's important to remember that this discovery is from a different time. Perhaps there is truth to it. Or, maybe it is entirely outdated and inaccurate. Either way, to further understand motivation and motivational research we should remember the context within which each discovery is made. Each theory is a piece of history and part of a broader picture in which we're fortunate enough to also have new ideas and advancements in the science to consider.

More motivation theories

Many theories of motivation have been applied in business. Perhaps most notably:

  • Drive Theory. Biological needs produce unpleasant states of arousal. Our motivation to reduce this tension is responsible for much of our behavior.
  • Motivation-Need Theory. Marketers adapted Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to suit the business context. In essence, motivation is the driving force to pursue and satisfy one's needs up and down Maslow's famous pyramid.
  • Expectancy Theory (Victor Vroom). Consumer decisions are driven by “positive incentives” or a desireable result. Choosing a certain product rather than any other alternative provides a consumer with a more positive result, like a higher social status.
  • Impulse Buying (Hawkins Stern). Impulse purchases are primarily driven by external stimuli and can easily go along with or tack on to traditional purchases. Point-of-sale nudges, flashy packaging, and extended warranty offers are all examples of impulsive and externally stimulated motivation.

Self-Determination Theory

In the late 1970's and well into the 1980's, psychology duo Richard Ryan and Edward Deci developed the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation. According to Deci, "The term self-determination refers to a person’s own ability to manage themselves, to make confident choices, and to think on their own."

Driven by the need for growth

Self-determination theory assumes that humans are driven by growth. We actively strive to grow and to improve by gaining mastery over challenges. Three core needs facilitate this growth:

  • Competence. The need to feel as though we've done a good job.
  • Autonomy. The need to experience our behavior as voluntary, that we have control over what we do.
  • Relatedness. The need to have meaningful interactions and connections with others.

Try to remember these three components as we move along. They are fundamental to our connection between consumer motivation and the other topics we're about to discuss.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

According to self-determination theory, extrinsic motivationextrinsic motivation:
View in Glossary
is when people are motivated by external rewards. Anything we're promised (by others or by ourselves) or gain as a result of doing the work is an extrinsic motivator. Money, praise, acceptance and status are all examples of extrinsic motivation.

Alternately, intrinsic motivationintrinsic motivation:
View in Glossary
means that the pleasure and reward are intrinsic to the activity itself. So, when strictly intrinsically motivated, people are doing something because they enjoy doing it and for no other reason. You do it for the love of the game or because you love doing the work. The task itself is satisfying. You'd do it for free and you do it for you.

Usually, intrinsic motivation also involves or serves as a foundation to naturally involve a dash of extrinsic motivation. For example, maybe you run because you enjoy running and you love being out on a run. But, you wear a certain style of running shoes or a favorite set of running clothes because they not only serve a functional purpose that enhances your enjoyment of the moment, but also because they're fashionable - you believe the style helps you look good to others or outwardly displays your love for the activity.

Flow: In the zone (for the love)

We're almost ready to make some connections. First, let's take a look at flowflow:
View in Glossary

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian-American psychologist well known for his work on happiness and creativity. Csikszentmihalyi is probably most known for his work on the concept of flow, an elevated state of mind you may also know as being "in the zone", "wired in", or "in the groove".

Nearly everyone has experienced flow at some point. To paraphrase Csikszentmihalyi, experiencing flow is to be fully immersed in an activity, wholly engaged to the point where we let go of or temporarilly suspend our awareness of time, food, and the self. One thought seamlessly moves to the next, and you are using your skills at a peak level performance. It happens when you stop thinking and just do. Many top athletes, artists, and thinkers have credited the flow state as key to their success.

Flow and intrinsic motivation

In at least one interview, Csikszentmihalyi has described a person experiencing flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake". This explanation is quite similar to how Ryan and Deci describe Intrinsic Motivation.

...It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Csikszentmihalyi dove into this area with his research on the "autotelic personality", where a person is motivated by intrinsic rewards rather than the achievement of external goals. Those with an autotelic personality are described as having "a disposition to actively seek challenges and flow experiences." Further research has also linked curiosity, persistence, and humility as traits of the autotelic personality, meaning a person with such inclinations may be more likely to have autotelic traits.

The pursuit of goals

Remember, a key component to Self-determination theory is that humans are driven by growth. We're trying to grow while gaining mastery.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, "a balance between challenge and skills" is a requirement to achieving the flow state. While experiencing flow, we're at a place of total concentration in the pursuit of mastery and we are challenged at the appropriate level. It's interesting to look at this through the lens of what Self-determination theory calls "competence". If we are over-challenged, meaning the task is too hard, we are less likely to feel competent. If we're under-challenged, we get bored. Our competence and growth needs are met when the challenge lines up with our ability.

We may fall out of flow when the challenge does not line up with our intrinsic goals or when the challenge is not suitable for our skill level at the particular task.

Being in the now: Mindfulness

The words zen, mindfulnessmindfulness:
View in Glossary
, meditation and zazen are loosely thrown around in contemporary American society. If you're not yet familiar with these concepts, you might initially picture someone quietly meditating while sitting upright on the floor with crossed legs. Or, perhaps yoga comes to mind. Maybe you think about guided meditations or mindfulness apps like Headspace.

Zen is actually a school of Mahayana Buddhism that emphasizes the practice of meditation and insight into the nature of the mind. Mindfulness, or the practice of being fully present and aware of where we are and what we're doing, is form of meditation with many similarities to Zen meditation (Zazen). Mindfulness is hugely popular today in western culture.

While there are some differences between zen and mindfulness, our definition today will exist at the cross-section where the two concepts overlap.

  • Being in the present moment
  • Concerned with self-awareness, both in mind and body
  • Awareness of the concept that suffering is caused by desire and/or a fixation on being somewhere other than where you really are
All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry - all forms of fear - are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.
Eckhart Tolle
The Power of NOW
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
While mindfulness is something we all naturally possess, it’s more readily available to us when we practice on a daily basis.

Motivation and mindfulness

According to the Center for Self-Determination Theory, "More mindful individuals are likely to focus more on intrinsic versus extrinsic life goals" and are "more likeley to have their basic needs satisfied and show autonomous motivation."

A few fairly recent studies have connected mindfulness with a greater focus on intrinsic (not extrinsic) life goals. People who are more mindful may be able to more easily notice and separate extrinsic goals, like being rich, gaining material posessions, or becoming famous from their life goals. Rather, mindful people may be more concerned with personal growth, developing meaningful relationships, and contributing to the community.

So, there appears to be a positive correlation between intrinsic motivation and mindfulness.

People often look outside themselves for happiness. It's fairly common for people to think that happiness will come with a new job, a new relationship, a move to a new city, or some new experiences.

Like Dichter implies, many of us try to fill some sort of internal void with purchases.

But rather than settle on this idea, that people are normally lacking in awareness or are deficient in some way and try to seek happiness outside themselves by buying, I'd instead like to look at the cross between mindfulness, flow, and intrinsic motivation as a foundation for something higher, more valuable, and sustainable over time. A golden opportunity.

What if?

What if your business were to encourage people to be happy with themselves as they are, even without your product? Maybe consider starting with a message like, "Look, we have this product or experience to offer. But before you engage in this, we think you might like to take a look at this mindfulness thing. We want you to know what it means to be fully present, in the moment, aware of your thoughts, and not worried about the past and the future. We want you to know what it means to be satisfied with how things are 'here and now' and to make the most of where you truly are."

We are so used to recieving messages that tell us we'll be more satisfied if we have some new gizmo or that we'll be better off if we finally get around to checking out some fabulous new brand, restaurant, diet, or vacation spot. Coming straight from this context makes encouraging mindfulness seem almost sounds anti-consumer, doesn't it? Why on earth would a business encourage this kind of thinking?

I encourage you to think about how these connected ideas - mindfulness, intrinsic motivation, and flow - may actually serve to drive consumer behavior. How could the combination of these concepts set the stage not only for brand longevity, but for creating a product your customers won't want to live without?

You can't get so hung up on where you'd rather be that you forget to make the most of where you are.
Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence's character)
Passengers (2016 film)

Imagine positive outcomes that would arise from people interacting with your product. Not only would you be providing a means for a happy disposition, but you are continuously and effortlessly preparing receptive consumers to become more fully immersed in your offering. These seem like desireable outcomes, correct?

The challenge of staying present

Meditation is not easy. Reaching a mindful state takes practice, and it takes continued practice to be able to effectively return to this state.

According to Eckhart Tolle, "Most human beings these days actually never stop thinking. So, what they experience is what I call a voice in the head... there's this continuous inner dialog taking place... there's a commentator in their mind. It spends much more time thinking about some other moment rather than this one, and usually it's the future. And some people, of course, carry the burden of the past... without realizing that it doesn't have to be this way. They are allowing their past, which after all is only certain thoughts that they carry around in their head, they are allowing the past to sabotage their whole life. They're carrying such a burden of past that they can no longer experience the present. So you're either burdened by the past or you're burdened by the future."

Tolle goes on in the video to describe how people become so used to their inner chatter that they attach their inner voice to their self-concept. He then says that true "spiritual awakening" occurs the moment you realize that "you are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are happening in your field of consciousness, but they are not who you are."

Can we be simultaneously mindful and in a state of flow?

Csikszentmihalyi's flow implies a state of engagement where there isn't enough attention left in one's mind to monitor a sense of self and presence. You are so engaged in the task at hand that you become unaware of everything else that's going on within you and around you. Since mindfulness is being fully aware of the moment, it must be impossible to be fully mindful and simultaneously in a complete state of flow.

But what if you're fully aware of your flow state? What if you're in this heightened state and you recognize it as where you are internally? Is that the same as mindfulness? Possibly.

Even if it is conceptually impossible for the two to occur simultaneously, mindfulness and flow likely have the power to enhance one another. At least, mindfulness may improve one's ability to flow by improving focus. Used together, mindful flowing people may reach a state of self-awareness where they realize what brings them joy and what activities are most likely to provide true joy along with a sense of total immersion.

Like with mindfulness, the concepts of autonomy, intrinsic motivation, and inclination towards the flow state can be viewed in relation to a person's ability to overcome undesirable emotional states. We don't feel stressed out when we're experiencing flow. Our sense of mental and emotional well-being is greatly improved.

To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Guided Meditations: A gentle reminder

Guided meditations are a popular tool for both beginners to mindfulness and to those who are already familiar with the practice. Classics like "Leaves on a Stream" encourage listeners to sit queitly, pay attention to their breath, and notice when thoughts arise. When any thought enters the mind, listeners are encouraged to notice and accept the thought, and then visualize gently placing the thought on a leaf and to watch the leaf slowly drift away like a leaf floating down a stream.

While wildly popular, the use of recorded media for the sole purpose of practicing mindfulness is still new. How else, besides audio recordings, might any form of electronic media aid in the practice of mindfulness?

True happiness and true power lie in understanding yourself, accepting yourself, having confidence in yourself.
Thich Nhat Hanh
The Art of Power

We want our customers to desire our products. Or, we want customers to desire the outcome our products or services will deliver.

What if marketers and entrepreneurs aide customers in becoming more fully aware of their own self-motivation by pointing out activities for which they are intrinsically inclined to carry out in a joyful and present state of mind? Think of this as a way to frame your product or service. The possibilities, the options for what you actually offer, are endless.

You're already happy. Do the things you love.

We've explored and made a few connections between motivation, flow, and mindfulness. We've reframed our mindset and we can see this as a viable approach. So, what are some concrete way we as entrepreneurs, marketers, and developers can use this information to enhance our work?

Appeal to the autotelic personality

Remember, people with an autotelic personality are described as having "a disposition to actively seek challenges and flow experiences." These people already experience it. They're already inclined. No explanation, demonstration, or persuasion necessary.

  • Autotelic people are internally driven. Appeal to your customer's sense of self.
  • Offer opportunities to get lost in the moment. Experiences that are fun to do and that offer a sense of self-discovery.
  • Allow for varying levels of challenge so more people can be engaged at a level that is appropriate to their skills and abilities.

Focus on the process

Self-determination, flow, and mindfulness are all focused on process. The practice, the doing, the engagement are the reward itself. People do for the sake of doing, and they find the process rewarding in itself.

When imagining a new business model, try thinking about how the customer will experience and interact with you and your product or service. Is it relaxing? Enjoyable? Is it worth doing just to do, or is the incentive instead some sort of extrinsic goal?

Is the process appealing enough that your customers wouldn't blink an eye before sharing their experience with others? How might you bake a natural social spread into the process itself?

Engage your customers

Gamification, or rather "gamification done well" may be the most clear route to engaging your customers in a state of flow. Good game designers are fully aware of the power of flow and frequently design their games around the flow experience.

Maybe your offering is itself a game. Or, perhaps you have an idea for an app that uses gamification to engage your customer.

Remember, to be in flow means to be fully focused and engaged in an activity. It doesn't need to be super complicated. It simply needs to satisfy the needs we've already discussed regarding flow and intrinsic motivation.

Encourage mindfulness

Walking the Earth in a flustered state is no way to live. Yet, so many of us do this and are completely unaware of the power their inner chatter has over them. Help out your fellow human by encouraging a mindfulness practice for a more healthy and peaceful state of mind. Design your product to incorporate mindfulness. You don't need to encourage meditation at all. You can simply use language in your branding that encourages presence and awareness.

Foster community

American bands The Grateful Dead, Phish, and Pearl Jam are well known for their sense of community. Imagine going to a concert and the band starts to play a song. The crowd erupts in applause. Why? Because the level of interaction aside from the music itself is so high. A good portion of the fans in attendance know that this is the first time the band has played this song in nearly a decade. They know this because of information they get from the community, and they feel close with the community because they get to share experiences like these with other people who also deeply care about the same music.

The same goes for sports. Why do fans care so deeply and become so emotional when a highly esteemed player breaks a record or hits a significant milestone? What is it about the roar of the crowd that draws us closer to each other and to the team?

Think long term

Imagine an activity that someone might want to pursue as a lifetime goal. Sports, musical instruments, creative arts, horticulture, and various forms of engineering are all great examples.

Picture a musician who plays for the pure enjoyment of playing rather than one who plays for money, fame, or some other external reason. To this person, music is a lifelong pursuit. What makes this activity so enjoyable?

Why do people do these things over and over and over again?

Think big

Too many entrepreneurs sell themselves short. Rather than accept the challenge that comes with doing something potentially groundbreaking, they lower the bar to a level they perceive as more likely to attain. They ignore the big picture and instead settle for what they think they can pull off with the resourses available to them now.

What if "available resources" is not a constraint? What if your only constraint is your ability and willingness to dream and think big? What kinds of ideas would you come up with then?

Inspired? Quick -- this might be the ideal time to do our divergent thinking exercise.

Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.
Abraham Lincoln

Remember to enjoy your own process

Did you make it through this entire post and all you're left with is an index finger scratching a head full of questions? It's a long post. I completely get it.

A good place to start might be to put yourself in the mental space you'd like your customer to occupy.

  • Take a break, take a long breath. Play a guided meditation like "leaves on a stream" (video is above) or stream some other guided meditation. YouTube, the web, and Spotify are full of them.
  • Do something you love. Maybe you haven't done it in awhile. Maybe you do it every day. Whatever the case, allow yourself to get lost in the moment.
  • At some point while you're doing what you love, pause and take note. Why am I doing this? How does it make me feel?

Let's discuss this!

In the spirit of the web, please join our conversation on this topic in the reddit.

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Written by brian kerr
"Existentialism Is a Cyborgism"
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