Inquiry 52 (4):357 – 377 (2009)
Philosophy and its descendents in the behavioral sciences have traditionally divided incentives into those that are sought and those that are avoided. Positive incentives are held to be both attractive and memorable because of the direct effects of pleasure. Negative incentives are held to be unattractive but still memorable (the problem of pain) because they force unpleasant emotions on an individual by an unmotivated process, either a hardwired response (unconditioned response) or one substituted by association (conditioned response). Negative incentives are divided into those that are always avoided and those that are avoided only by higher mental processes—archetypically the passions, which are also thought of as hardwired or conditioned. Newer dichotomies within the negative have been proposed, hinging on whether a negative incentive is nevertheless sought (“wanted but not liked”) or on an incentive's being negative only because it is confining (the product of “rule worship”). The newer dichotomies have lacked motivational explanations, and there is reason to question conditioning in the motivational mechanism for the older ones.
Both experimental findings and the examination of common experience indicate that even the most aversive experiences, such as pain and panic, do not prevail in reflex fashion, but because of an urge to attend to them. The well-established hyperbolic curve in which prospective rewards are discounted implies a mechanism for such an urge, as well as for the “lower” incentives in the other dichotomies. The properties of these lower incentives are predicted by particular durations of temporary preferences on a continuum that stretches from fractions of a second to years
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