Psychology Sociology

What Drives Behavior?

What drives behavior

Human behavior is shaped by a combination of cognitive, social, and biological forces. Although there are various theories of behavior, my own research into psychological and sociological forces had lead to me to the following simple but often neglected insight:
We are driven by our desire to feel significant.

Driven by our desire for significance, it can be achieved in two ways:
1) a sense of belonging and contribution; 2) a sense of winning and dominating

The former operates through communal integration, where individuals are valued as part of a community or team, whereas the latter operates through communal disintegration where individuals are valued based on their individual wealth or power.

Mental stories about our place in the world informs our sense of significance by pointing to families, occupations, or organizations we belong or contribute to. Our behavior is then driven by our internal assessment of this state of significance. If our assessment is positive, we are driven to continue contributing to these social groups. If our assessment is negative, we seek out groups to belong or contribute to.

But what if one’s sense of significance remains hindered by an ongoing lack of belonging/ contribution, or the mental story about one’s place in the world is distorted? In order to regain a sense of significance, the desire to belong/ contribute turns into the desire to dominate/ win. As traditional communities began to dissolve in the modern era, consumerism stepped in as a quick-fix to deeper social and existential issues.

In the book To Have or To Be, social psychologist, Erich Fromm illustrates how the modern West has taken on a “having orientation,” encouraging individuals to value themselves based on their acquisitions, whether in the form of consumer goods, their number of “friends,” dollars in the back, or educational degrees on the wall. Instead of focusing on being good by cultivating virtuous habits and quality relations, we have implicitly learned to gain a sense of significance through having.

A “having orientation” can allow one to gain a sense of significance through winning/ dominating, but this is, of course, not a solution to the deeper issue of lacking belonging/ contribution. As Fromm states: “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” Or as sociologist Émile Durkheim states regarding the pursuit of greed, “Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture.”

Lastly, when hopelessness sets in, the final solution to the problem of significance is to cover up the painful perception of reality through drugs, alcohol, or perhaps suicide. Thomas Joiner’s highly regarded recent empirical research on why people commit suicide demonstrates that the main motivators for individuals to commit suicide are the following factors: 1) perceived burdensomeness; 2)  thwarted belongingness; and a sense of hopelessness regarding these two states. When a person feels like a burden, the sense of contribution becomes its opposite. Feeling like a burden to those around, and feeling like one does not belong may be temporarily numbed through drugs. It may also be covered up and rationalized through creating a self-aggrandizing mental story of one’s materialistic superiority. But when hopelessness sets in, the mental pain can lead to suicidal behavior.

My humanistic social-psychological theory of human behavior builds on my previous post on human behavior. It is not intended to be an all-encompassing explanation of human behavior,  but rather, it is intended to build on other psychological and biological perspectives. Classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and biochemical factors all play a role in shaping human behavior.

Recognizing how the deep desire for significance influences our behaviors is powerful because it sheds light on many of the problems our society faces such as suicide and criminal behaviors. Being aware of this desire allows us to have compassion for those who are suffering from a lacking sense of insignificance. Solutions include cognitive-behavioral therapies to adjust mental stories that do not correspond to reality, and social programs to adjust realities that are not conducive to belonging or means of contribution.

It is important that we understand human behavior at the existential level and look for traces of this desire for significance and its distortions in ourselves and others. Not only will this create better individuals who are more self-aware and compassionate, but it will also create better flourishing societies conducive to integrating a populous into productive roles within complimentary organizations.

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  1. Steve,
    I liked this post. It gave me insights into my own behavior, a more thorough understanding of what each of us needs to feel significant, and why things can go awry. Thanks for stopping by my blog and for the follow.
    I will follow yours as well. It’s right up my alley. My educational background is in Sociology, Psychology and Social Work. Wishing you a happy and productive New Year!

  2. For those whose greater purpose is pursuing truth–be it a scientist, philosopher, artist, writer, poet–I’d suggest a combination of both 1 and 2. They are contributing to the human community something of value larger and more enduring than themselves. AND they are overcoming obstacles and struggling for a victory. I suppose they aren’t striving to conquer other individuals, but something far more difficult to contend with and more elusive.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I believe people are always driven by a combination of both, to varying degrees. Also, I’m realizing that my language of “conquer and victory” carries certain connotations, but what I mean to say is that its the drive to achieve status over others.

      Although both are always at play, normatively speaking I believe we should focus on building communities that facilitate a sense of belonging and significance through contribution so that individuals don’t feel the need to overcompensate for their lacking sense of significance by over-emphasizing the drive for perceived status over others.

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