You Can Hack the Biology of Motivation, but You Might Not Like What You Find

A pill to boost motivation would have a profound impact on our society as a whole.

A motivated man exploring the South Pole on skis while dragging a ski bed
Getty Images

When recently asked if we could ever come up with a pill to stimulate our sense of motivation, I had to pause. It’s an interesting thought experiment to help us understand what motivation actually is, but it’s very difficult to get at the biology of motivation. I think we can start to crack the problem by breaking it down into components and looking at the way it generally manifests in people. This strategy of “reductionism” is often criticized, for better worse, as being problematic, because it isolates every component away from the system without evaluating them as a whole system. This is true, but we need a place to start! And any system we choose is bound to have drawbacks.

So for starters, motivation seems to be characterized by a general lack of satisfaction with your current state. Rather than appreciating the current “goodness” in things around you, you appreciate the potential of your situation to be somehow better than it currently is. Alright, well, we can start our Motivation Pill with some sort of serotonin inhibitor. Something that binds to serotonin, blocks its receptors, or just inhibits the biochemical pathway. Great. Off to a good start.

You’ll also need to derive less satisfaction from day-to-day pleasures and distractions. Something to steer you away from hedonism and toward goal-directed behaviors that require sustained effort. OK, the serotonin inhibitor should also help with that. You should generally experience less satisfaction from everything in life. Awesome.

Seriously, imagine if you could make yourself work this hard every day. At, like, regular stuff.


You’ll need a mind that will focus on the pertinent information of your goal without getting too distracted with extraneous information. Alright, we’ll add an alkaloid in there, like caffeine. Something that substantially improves focus.

You’ll also need enough energy to do the things you plan to do. Unfortunately, there’s really no way around it, you’ll need a good diet (and ideally a little exercise). OK, so we have to take our pill with certain dietary restrictions. Fine.

There’s also the issue of confidence. We need to eliminate things that can, consciously or unconsciously, stop you from pursuing your goals. This one’s more complicated. We might try to inhibit GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid). This won’t do anything to help your confidence, but it will stop you from stopping yourself, because GABA is major inhibitory neurotransmitter. It will also have widespread unforeseen effects, since GABA is one of the main molecules used to inhibit neural systems, and to thus keep your behavior under control. But every pill has side effects, so, you know, YOLO.

Well, we’ve gotten part of the way there, and anything that even slightly improves the chances of an effect over the course of your life is a good start. But now we’re into the intangibles. For example, we’ll need to give you a perspective that focuses on long-term but attainable goals. You can’t want something that’s too daunting to ever achieve. You also can’t want to just clean your room once, you need to want to clean it every … single … day. Why? Well, that’s the harder part.

How do we affect your perception of importance? You’re more likely to be motivated to action in a matter of life and death than by a long-term goal that feels like it has an infinite amount of time to accomplish. So we’ll need to also study the biochemistry of how to rouse yourself to action but without completely ignoring everything else in your life. And, while we’re at it, an understanding of the biochemistry of your perception of how valuable your time is.

Where's the fire? It wouldn't matter if you were on a pill of pure motivation. You'd be on, all the time. 

David McNew for Getty

But no pill can achieve everything, there will always be some aspect untouched. So this is probably a good place to stop and start planning which charities to give some of the billions of dollars we’re sure to earn with this pill. It’s also a good place to stop before we plunge into unabashed social engineering.

Ultimately, the problem with the biology of motivation is that it’s the biology of what you find interesting. That’s probably not something we really want to tamper with, since it’s part of who you really are. Why do you find certain topics interesting and not others? Do we really want to be able to force someone to get fired up about something they would not otherwise be excited for?

An enormous component of motivation is the social component. What might elevate you in the eyes of your peers and family, for example? This is a complex system we use to shape each other’s interests. For better or worse, if you find something interesting and no one else does, it has a real effect on your perception of its importance. If we circumvented this system with a pill that could get you amped for something you really don’t care about, we might lose our ability as a society to pivot and rethink what actually is important.

The closest thing to a motivation pill, for most people, is their paycheck. This is the level of social engineering most of us have come to accept: working for money that does buy interesting and valuable things, even when we would otherwise listen to our boredom and move on to something that truly excites us.

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