Tom Arnold and Implicit Motive

Tom Arnold

When actor Tom Arnold was 4 years old, his alcoholic mother left the family. As he grew a bit older, she would occasionally visit and give Tom a dollar, which in the old days would buy 10 large candy bars. He would lay out the treats on his bed and tell himself, “I’m not going to eat them all,” convincing himself that he meant to share with his two younger siblings.

Interpreted through the filter of implicit versus explicit motives, it was a conscious and very socially acceptable intention. Of course, young Tom would binge on all the candy bars and achieve a state he describes as “out of it.” The implicit motive won, as it usually does. But this wasn’t simply about mouth pleasure and a sugar high. Those sweets represented the totality of available mother-love, and what kid doesn’t want to own the monopoly on that commodity? Arnold says he realized at a very early age that he was helpless before food:

My grandmothers were wonderful. They would feed me and watch me eat. I became that guy in the family that people like to watch eat because I ate so much, and you feel so loved, and that’s absolutely my first addiction, food, absolutely.

For this particular kid, another classic source of influence was in play. He was a victim of vicious child abuse, perpetrated by a neighbor who threatened to shoot any tattling little boy’s daddy right between the eyes. It is a psychological truism that people overeat to stuff their feelings down into some inaccessible place and hide them from sight. Kids who are dealing with that sort of criminal tampering have a lot of feelings to stuff.

The book Implicit Motives, by Oliver Schultheiss and Joachim Brunstein, contains an evocative comparison:

Trying to gain direct introspective access to an implicit motive would be like turning on a light in the attic in order to see what is in the basement. However, it is plausible that the various effects of implicit motive activation (e.g. thoughts, affects, and behavior) bear the fingerprints of the implicit motive lurking in the basement.

Later in life, Tom Arnold’s addiction was cocaine, and in periodic attempts to get straight he discovered that food is the go-to self-medication for former junkies of every variety. He says, “You kind of have to eat if you don’t want to do heroin any more.” He was in a film scheduled to debut at the Sundance Festival and formed a determination (explicit motive) to fit into a certain suit for the occasion. He lost a lot of weight but says:

[T]he moment that I got to 199 and three-quarters, I went straight to McDonalds and had two double quarter pounders with cheese, because it was over. I had reached my goal weight.

Implicit motive scores another victory! As Schultheiss and Brunstein put it, “By the time that explicit motives have developed, the implicit motive system may be particularly resistant to change.”

When Arnold was in his fifties, fatherhood approached for the first time. When his wife’s pregnancy was confirmed, he admitted to himself that “even though I’m sober with drugs and alcohol, I don’t eat soberly.” He realized that for the good of the child, he needed to live as long as possible. In other words, a very strong implicit motive, the survival of one’s own genetic stock, took over. As a prospective father, he changed to a healthier diet and lost 100 pounds in a year.

The human condition is easy for no one. Anecdotal accounts brought back from the outer limits of counterproductive behavior are valuable teaching tools and engines of compassion. People like Arnold, who are brave and generous enough to share the stories of their personal struggles, hold important keys that can help professionals, parents, and kids themselves to understand what’s going on with them.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Episode 474 – Tom Arnold,”, 02/27/14
Source: “Implicit Motives,”, May 2010
Image by Mark Gstohl


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