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Raw Concepts: Means-motives vs. End-motives

[Note: I edited this post from its original form for the sake of clarity.]

Two people can engage in an action that seems identical on the surface and in the short run but for each person has wildly different consequences and implications depending on whether that person views the action as a means to an end or an end itself, with no higher goal in sight.

Conflicts arise when people think they’re dealing with one type of motivation for the action when they’re actually dealing with the other. These misunderstandings lead to much frustration.

Here are some examples:

  • A woman regularly has sex with a man because she wants a permanent monogamous relationship. For her the sex is a means to an end. He is only interested in the sex for its own sake, making it an end in and of itself for him.
  • A man tolerates being sexually or emotionally teased by a woman because he wants sex and/or a permanent relationship. For him enduring the teasing is a means to an end. For her the ego boosting validation she gets from being chased is an end in and of itself.
  • A person is putting up with constant drama and emotional rollercoasters while dating a raging drama queen narcissist, believing that the drama is just something they need to go through short-term in order to grow together, and that eventually they’ll emerge stronger and closer with a more peaceful long-term dynamic if he just weathers the strorm. It’s a tumultuous means that must be endured to get to a peaceful end. For the narcissist however, causing the drama and emotional rollercoaster is the end goal. The narcissist needs the drama to (1) keep herself constantly distracted so that she spends no time alone contemplating the emptiness of her inner life, (2) to transfer frustration onto him because misery loves company and dragging people down is always easier than pulling yourself up and (3) it convinces her her life is much more interesting, emotionally meaningful and adventurous than it really is, thereby allowing her to remain convinced of her unearned sense of superiority.
  • One business partner is willing to tolerate the riskiness and incredible highs and lows of high-stakes entrepreneurship because of the larger, long-term payoffs of wealth and stability he pictures awaiting him on the other side. For him, the riskiness and unpredictability is a means to an end. For his adrenaline junkie business partner however, the riskiness and unpredictability is an end. Avoiding mundanity by getting thrills, even if they’re only short-term, is a higher priority for him than long-term stability. You can see this dynamic at play here.

Sometimes this incongruity of motives comes from mistaken assumptions. Other times it arises from unintentional or intentional double messages cultivated by one or both of the parties.

Treating actions that successful, well-adjusted, mentally healthy people would consider means to an end as desirable end goals is a type of pathology. Properly differentiating between and prioritizing means and ends on the other hand is the definition of strategy. Most self-defeating behavior and vicious cycles come from people mistaking pathology for strategy and never correcting that mistake throughout their lives.

We’ll delve into this deeper when I go into the most important raw concept, the one that will form the foundation of this blog’s postings in 2011, The Primary and Secondary Theaters of Operation.

Here’s where it gets critical. The concept I’m about to describe is so deceptively simple and common sense, it’s easy to overlook just how profound and integral to human relations it is. It’s the reason I posted the raw concepts in the order I did, as they all build on each other.

Actions viewed as means to an end often register to us as a loss, or more specifically a psychic sunk cost. And like I’ve mentioned before, human beings are very loss averse. Actions views as ends on the other hand register as a psychic win, even if it’s a goal that to most sane people would consider anything but positive.

When someone views an action or behavior as a means to an end, it’s considered a necessary evil, something that must be moved past as quickly as possible. They want to shorten the duration of this stage as much as possible, and if they could skip it altogether and get right to their desired goal they would.

When someone views an action or behavior as an end in and of itself, it’s considered a necessary good, something that much be achieved as quickly and often as possible, and should be draaaaaaagggggeeeed out as long as humanly possible (this is why drama queens, for example, hold grudges as long as they can and make people apologize repeatedly before forgiving). If they could make the action or behavior last forever they would.

If two people are engaging in an action or behavior, but one person’s motivation for it is to satisfy a means and for the other person it’s to satisfy an end, it has significantly different psychic effects on both of them and creates what I call the means/end paradox.

The means/end paradox occurs in when two people are caught in a dynamic where one person’s viewing his actions as means to an end, thereby accruing losses, or psychic sunk costs, while the person viewing his actions as ends is mentally maximizing wins. Thanks to the principle of loss aversion, the means-motivated person becomes more heavily invested and winds up in a sunk cost trap. And the end-motivated person increasingly feels less invested because he’s only been accruing psychic gains the whole time. As a result, the means-based person will usually have more trouble walking away from the relationship and being more tempted to invest more resources than the end-based person.

Means/end congruence on the other hand is when both parties are on the same page when it comes to motives and sunk costs and therefore feel similarly invested.

So returning to the examples above, the guy who was viewed the sex as an end has been accruing wins. In gambling terms, if he walks away from the table, he’s up considerably from when he started. The girl who’s been giving sex as a means to get a relationship is down considerably, so she’s not likely to walk away any time soon and keeps playing more and getting deeper in the whole thanks to the concepts of loss aversion and sunk cost traps.

The same sunk cost trap dynamics apply to the guy who’s been getting teased for a long time, the non-narcissist who’s tolerating extreme drama, and the responsible business partner who’s riding out a financial rough patch due to his irresponsible partner’s erratic decisions. None of them have been doing these actions for their own sake, but in hopes of an eventual payoff.

If they get fed up and try to assert themselves and demand their payoff, the other parties will have no problem unceremoniously dumping them and moving on. The other parties have been getting their needs met all along (be it attention, drama, sex, whatever) and are up considerably and have no losses to avert, so walking away from the table is no issue. This is why toxic people like drama queens and con men can unceremoniously dump nontoxic people the moment the game stops being fun for them. They’ve invested little to nothing, have repeatedly achieved their goals, and can just take their “winnings” and move on to the next <s>sucker</s> game.

Remember, something doesn’t have to be objectively positive to register as a psychic win to a specific person. There are plenty of damaged people for whom drama, failure, conflict, pain, financial loss, or mistreatment fills a very real psychic need for them. To healthy people, this is a very counterintuitive concept and creates a blind spot that toxic people take advantage of.

Recommended Reading:

Alfred Adler was one of Sigmund Freud’s peers in psychoanalysis, and his work is brilliant. Sadly he doesn’t get as much credit for his contributions as he should, especially compared to his contemporaries like Freud and Jung, but he’s currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity. His two biggest and well-known contributions to psychology are the concepts of inferiority and superiority complexes, both of which will be covered a lot more here in 2011. I recommend getting your hands on as many of his writings as you can, but if you need recommendations on what to start with I recommend Superiority And Social Interest: A Collection Of Later Writings and Understanding Human Nature. One of his recurring themes is that what may look like a loss to you or me may very well constitute a win in someone else’s mind.

And again, Eric Berne’s transactional analysis handbook Games People Play is a great source for seeing games in action where the payoff someone is going for is actually something most sane people would find self-destructive. Other good transactional analysis book include Scripts People Live by Claude Steiner, Transactional Analysis: 100 Key Points and Techniques by Mark Widdowson, TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis by Ian Stewart and Vann Joines, and Born To Win by Muriel James.

9 Responses to “Raw Concepts: Means-motives vs. End-motives”

  1. Kid w/Golden Arms on January 26th, 2011 at 11:33 AM

    very very nice, thanks for the book recs.

    This is very similar to how con men operate. They can differentiate b/n people who use things as an end or as a means.For example, the 1 million and 1 ads on tv for “get fit quick” schemes (ie the shakeweight),guys like that sell any means for people who desire certain ends. Same goes for the fleshlight,etc.


  2. excellent post. the misunderstood dynamic you mention between the drama queen and her victim is actually a lot more common in less exaggerated form: whenever guys and girls fight, girls seem to take perverse pleasure in reveling in the argument itself and continuing the argument just for argument’s sake (end in itself), whereas guys get progressively more agitated as the argument drags on, viewing it as an obstacle, and mistakenly keep trying to respond with logic.


  3. Great observation. Spot-on. I can see this dynamic at work all around me.

    Apollo’s comment is also salient.


  4. This is truly an amazing post- VERY infromative. You should talk about positive and negative feedback loops and relate them to this behavior mentioned in this post and in relation to ppls behavior in general. Im interested in knowing what your thoughts are on how feedback loops affect ppls actions in life. by feedback loop (not sure if my definition is rite or wrong so ill just post my thoughts on it) i mean patterns that people recive from certain behavior, ie the drama queen in this post sees a positive feedback loop from baiting guys into her drama and making them fight over her. as a means motivated person she continues being means motivated bc it makes her feel good, wheras say, one of the guys she baits into drama may see this pattern in his life and discontinue dealing with women, assuming they will all bait him into drama due to past repeated negative feedback loops.


  5. Excellent post.