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Back to Basics: The Psychoanalytic Conceptualization of Motivation

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Reconsideration of motivation, a fundamental concept in psychoanalytic theory, engages us with basic assumptions and postulates of our field and draws us to the borders with neighboring scientific elaborations of the design, structure, and function of the mind. This paper presents a concept of motivation from a perspective in modern conflict theory and correlates this concept with current thinking in evolutionary biology. The challenges that this correlation raises for all psychoanalytic approaches to motivation are discussed. Natural selection has fundamentally organized motivation in accord with the principle of inclusive fitness. Adaptive motivations of self-interest achieved through social success are paramount. In mind sciences there is a growing appreciation of the innately modular mind with mounting evidence for domain and content-specific evolved psychological mechanisms, the modern term for instincts. In regard to motivation in modern conflict theory, evolved mechanisms and predispositions are innately linked to pleasure-unpleasure and include, importantly, motivations of self-interest. The pleasure-unpleasure principle regulates motivation throughout life. Early mother-child interactions are vital to the development and contextualization of motivation; however, these interactions themselves depend on mutually coadapted mechanisms that give vectors and impose constraints on every primary relationship. In evading innate contributions there is a danger of embarking on a new creationist paradigm.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Weill Cornell Medical College; New York Psychoanalytic Institute

Publication date: December 20, 2001

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