Illustration by Jeannie Phan
Introduction: Networked beings with reason and language, striving to persevere
As most adequately described by Lev Vygotsky, we are social creatures long before we are individuals (Vygotsky & Cole, 1978). We depend on our families, our personal relationships, peers, communities, our culture and society to survive and evolve. The more complex the society we create, the more elaborate the social scaffold, the more options open up for its members to thrive in.
Plato still assumed the metaphysical existence of a ‘telos’, an intrinsic deterministic force that would drive people to build states in order to realise the good life. Aristotle did not go as far and took the more pragmatic view that, despite all suffering in life, people still hope for joy and happiness. The prerequisite to achieving happiness in life was for Aristotle represented by the idea that people build states by virtue of being capable of language and reason (zoon logon echon). On the downside, the failure to establish a social contract, as Hobbes described in his ‘Leviathan’, was synonymous with the regress into tribal communities, concluding in a war of all against all (‘bellum omnium contra omnes’) in what he called a state of nature. The most critical incentives for social motivation appear, in a philosophical light, in the form of goal-directed incentives for cooperation versus the threat of violent social conflict and the even grimmer prospect of perishing from the face of the earth.
What are human needs and how can we conceptualise them?
Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of needs’ (Maslow, 1954), builds on the intuition that social-physiological needs of survival serve as prerequisite fulfilling higher-order needs (mainly love, self-esteem, and self-actualization). Other psychologists, on many accounts, criticised Maslow’s hierarchy. One of the critical arguments states that individual self-realization does not necessarily identify the pinnacle of human need fulfilment. Self-realization may not play a significant role in collectivist cultures which are governed by collective well-being and the fulfilment of group norms (Hofstede, 1984). The utilitarian idea of the greatest good for the greatest number would be another example of an alternate goal. Not only do cultures create unique hierarchies, but people express different types of needs, for example depending on their age. Children need love the most, adolescents typically look to build self-esteem and older people may look for safety and financial security (Erikson, 1950, 1968; Goebel et al., 1981). A generalised assumption of universal needs fitting people of all ages, personalities and cultures may empirically hard, if not impossible, to prove. Still, Maslow’s model provides the useful intuition that social constructs build on the satisfaction of interdependent clusters of needs.
Due to their dependence on environmental conditions and changes, human needs appear to emerge as adaptive processes and are, as such, driven by probabilistic Bayesian logic. For this reason, human needs do not seem to evolve along any teleological hierarchy. A developmentally-open approach provides, so is suggested, an unbiased starting point on how to measure social motivation in a cross-cultural context. But firstly, we need to clarify what we mean when we talk about human needs, assuming that our underlying philosophical assumptions are sound, and secondly we need to justify with good reason how need-satisfaction can subsequently be measured in social context.
Photograph above: Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of needs’ still serves as a valid intuition when looking at the relation between income and need satisfaction, such as covering basic needs of survival versus the creation of new luxury needs. Beyond well-being, monetary resources relate to global Self-image, life opportunities as well as social power and influence.
In order to avoid arbitrary metaphysical assumptions of universal needs, we may look for generalizable, evidence-based criteria upon which a theoretical consensus can build. The most obvious intuition builds on the social construction of reality with the option of collectivist cultures diversifying into individualistic ones. Cultural diversification is based on variations how people use their brains differently based on environmental and social factors. Human development of cognitive, affective and behavioural faculties is malleable, allowing societies and cultures to branch into a plethora of realisations. The developmental potential of human agency is neuro-physiological innate and conceptually open, subject to determination by social scaffolding and starting from earliest development. For example, babies in Africa, Asia or Europe cry differently as they pick up the tonality of their cultural surroundings (Wermke et al., 2016). The later internalization of sociocultural norms has been thoroughly researched, such as in in Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977; Grusec 1992), Social Identity Theory (Haslam, 2001; Tajfel & Turner, 1986) and cross-cultural psychology (Hofstede, 2001; Nisbett & Miyamoto, 2005; Triandis & Gelfand, 1998).
Beyond single-group identification, a person can assume social memberships among multiple groups (Hogg & Vaughan, 2002). Overlapping group-loyalties determine a person’s motivation to comply with existing ingroup norms, to mediate arising outgroup conflicts and to establish forms of distributed commitments across groups. Material social conditions evoke correlated social motivation, not only in terms of individual payoffs (as conceptualised in game theory) but as identified behaviour. People do not only need getting along with others, they need to identify who they are and which group they belong to or how they construct their social self-image.
The term ‘needs’ seems peculiar when used to describe social motivation since we typically associate needs, in common language use, with physiological needs, something that we inherently require but that is created by our organism and emerges independent of volition. When, e.g., Self-determination Theory (SDT) talks about the needs to relate, to develop competence and autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 2012; Deci & Ryan, 2000), we could substitute the term ‘needs’ by the expression ‘probabilistic processes and outcomes of optional developmental pathways’. The case is similar to Maslow’s example. For example, a person may feel the desire to develop competence and autonomy, but the involved social costs (by forces of relatedness and sharing limited resources with others) may keep him or her from taking the envisioned path. Different needs can compete with each other and they can reinforce as much as inhibit each other. At times, our vocabulary is limited. In Problem-based Learning (PBL), for example, Prof. Barrows, my colleagues and I had lengthy discussions about the negative ‘feel’ of the word ‘problem’. We tried many alternatives. ‘Challenged-based Learning’, for example, sounded plain wrong and implied a different focus, so we stuck to ‘Problem-based Learning’. A ‘need’ could also imply a personal desire, but may not simultaneously embrace the ‘need’ for social respect and recognition, unless we specify. Important for now is to note that ‘needs’, as employed by SDT, is not identical with our common language use of the word, but signifies a placeholder for optional developmental paths – the path to autonomy, to relatedness and to competence.
From conceptualising to measuring social motivation
In their paper ‘How to Measure Motivation: A Guide for the Experimental Social Psychologist’, Touré-Tillery and Fishback (2014) advocate to differentiate between outcome-focused motivation (“getting it done”) and process-focused motivation (doing it happily” or “doing it right”). As in many experimental approaches, behaviour is operationalized by the speed participants pursue a goal, task-performance (the better participants perform, the more motivated they indicate) and by the preferential choices they make. The authors suggest differentiating between intrinsic motivation, driven by enjoyment and interest with the focus on process, and means-focused, goal-oriented motivation with the focus on outcomes, such as e.g., finishing a project. Although we may see the merit in being able to analyse, e.g., an individual maladaptive pattern in learning processes this way, the social dimension of the concept remains unclear.
Measuring social motivation entails, by definition, investigating interaction effects between individuals, smaller groups and large populations as well as between-group interactions. In order to address effects of social psychology, the authors would need to extend their approach and take, e.g., individual- versus group-induced motivation into account (such as motivation with or without superordinate goals), or to compare e.g., the behaviour of competing groups.
There is certainly not a single ‘correct’ way of measuring social motivation. Methods of analysis range from qualitative studies among small groups to traditional, tried-and-tested statistics and data analysis of representative groups to big data models provided by computer science when it comes to very large sample sizes. What matters, in any case, is the relevance and meaningfulness of research: Does research help people to govern their lives? Do findings provide a deeper understanding how technology transforms our social identity? Can we predict and prevent harmful social behaviour? How can we support inclusive social norms, control social aggression and mediate social conflicts? How can we gain insight into issues such as bias correction and stereotype formation?
What does really drive people?
Historically, all of the world’s cultures, independent of their size and influence, started their foundation in religion and spiritual systems. People grow up in their respective traditions that are practised and internalised. In Western societies, we can add non-theist traditions such as rationalism, liberalism and socialism to the list of mental constructs that provide goal-directed motivation for people to act upon. Such mental systems, in short ideologies, are psychologically rich constructs since they combine affective, cognitive and behavioural determinants. The question is how salient such motivation appears within a culture, inclusive of ingroup variance. Besides official ideologies, it is complementary folk theories about the world, ranging from superstitious beliefs to common sense, that influence peoples’ judgment. Cultural ideologies are passed on by tradition. Generally, ideologies are internalised and become to this extent, according to the typology of SDT (Ryan, Kuhl & Deci, 1997), introjected regulation (see 2b): People identify with their cultural normative beliefs and do not merely act upon them for the sake of transactional compliance. Ideologies refer to the cognitive construction of mental worlds. The advantage to methodologically separate ideology from introjected regulation is that similar ideology (e.g., Buddhism or Islam) can entail very different cultural practice when it comes to managing social affect.
(2) Internalized regulation
(2a) Social norms: The fabric of society
Social norms are the most significant component driving actual group behaviour. Social norms represent the expectations that others have about us as much as we expect others to comply within a socially predictable pattern of behaviour. Albert Bandura, e.g., is most commonly known as the researcher who conducted the ‘Bobo the Clown’ experiment, but few know about his psychological interventions of changing social norms in Africa in AIDS/ HIV education and preventing female genital mutilation. Much social work today, e.g., projects conducted by the UN, is based on understanding and modifying local social norms (Mackie et al., 2015).
(2b) Introjected regulation: Honour, Face and Shame
Social norms and ideologies overlap in collectivist cultures, described in SDT as introjected regulation (Ryan et al, 2000). Examples are honor-shame cultures of the Mediterranean and the Middle East as well as face-based cultures in Asia. In such cultures, norms evoke strong personal consequences for the individual in terms of sanctions by shame or affective rewards for maintaining collective honour and ‘face’. Methodologically researchers need to decide to which degree ideologies, introjected regulation and social norms overlap, this is to measure their degree of congruence. Results can provide useful insights on the degree of collective-heteronomous versus personal-autonomous regulation. It is important to note that concepts of honour, face and shame relate to moral affect, whereby ideology refers to the cognitive construction of the mental world.
(3) Integrated regulation: Intergroup consensus and cooperation
People’s ability to interact with outgroups and to integrate their personal perspectives with those of others is described in SDT as integrated regulation (Ryan et al, 2000). In a globalised world that is building on highly interconnected economies, groups don’t operate in isolation any more. Integrated regulation demands the accommodation of outgroup perspectives and, unlike ideological and identified regulation, requires the modification of people’s cognitive models as it entails the negotiation, compromise, consensus and maintenance of social contracts with outgroups.
Amotivation and metacognitive control: High dependence versus high independence
Besides these three mainstream types of social motivation, behaviour is potentially driven by two other types of regulation. One type is amotivation (characterised by the lack of intentionality), such as e.g., in the case of forced labour or imposed rules of a majority onto a minority. In such cases, motivation is exercised as social control and it is typically regulated by external forces. The last type, arguably most significant for a society’s progress, are metacognitive competencies. They describe a population’s capacity to reflect upon their collectively held assumptions about the justification of social norms beyond simply abiding by them. By exercising metacognitive evaluation, people are able to reflect upon the consequences of their actions, motivated individually (a) ‘due to myself’ (individual metacognition) as well as socially (b) by keeping others in mind, being motivated ‘due to others’ (social metacognition) (Kim et al., 2013). Metacognition was originally defined as the ‘thinking about thinking’, (Flavell, 1979), meaning in social context the distributed ability among a given population to regulate cognition.
An example of how a spectral analysis of a population’s social motivation could be conducted is visualised in Figure 1 in the hypothetical comparison between two populations.
How would Hofstede’s categories fare in such a new model?
Hofstede’s 6D model (Hofstede, 2001) measures the parameters of cultural power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long-term orientation and indulgence. Individualism can be assessed by the presence of personal norms (versus social norms) and individual metacognition as a typical trait of individualist cultures. Power distance correlates with ideology and, arguably, a combined measure would be more insightful since we could draw inferences between official ideological agendas and actual socio-economic and political hierarchies, inclusive of cultural practice (introjected regulation). Such triangulated measure would describe more adequately what people think, how they behave (cultural practice) and how they feel about social interaction within their culture. Long-term orientation is related to planning and can be subsumed under metacognitive regulation, which applies equally for uncertainty avoidance. This leaves only the cultural clusters of masculinity-femininity and indulgence to further discussion. Below an example comparing British and Thai culture (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Comparing British and Thai culture. Source: Geert Hofstede Centre (2016), available at https://geert-hofstede.com
Hofstede’s assumption of feminine-masculine cultural differences is methodologically doubtful since gender roles (as the main determinant) are by themselves defined by culture, leading to a circular argument: In more gender-equal societies, differences dissolve, rendering the premise of salient masculinity-femininity categories unreliable. Hofstede writes that “A low score (Feminine) on the dimension means that the dominant values in society are caring for others and quality of life. A Feminine society is one where quality of life is the sign of success and standing out from the crowd is not admirable. The fundamental issue here is what motivates people, wanting to be the best (Masculine) or liking what you do (Feminine).” (Hofstede, 2016).
The association with women as predominantly caring and men as predominantly achieving appears to be a biased and outdated assumption for modern pluralistic societies as much as for many traditional-collectivist cultures. On a cultural level, it would be more useful to measure gender-roles in association with cultural practices (e.g., equal access to education, equal pay and rights etc.) contrasted against prevailing ideology since these factors relate more meaningfully to social motivation, attitudes, behaviour and the gap between official ideological agendas and social reality.
Photograph above: A woman in Congo carrying firewood. Across cultures, women care for their children and simultaneously ensure the family’s survival by hard work. How would Hofstede’s categories of masculinity versus femininity make sense in such cases? Source: AP/ Jerome Delay
Given the social construct of reasons for people’s behaviour, it is doubtful that experimental social psychology is able to address complex, real-world problems within a single step. What works under controlled conditions in a laboratory still requires validation in actual social context. To obtain a comprehensive picture of a population’s social motivation types, research would need to take into consideration instances of amotivation, ideological motivation, social norms, introjected regulation, integrated regulations as well as metacognitive competencies. Most types of social regulation work heteronomously from an individual’s perspective since regulation is evoked via ingroup dynamics, not by personal agency. It is only integrated regulation and metacognitive regulation that requires groups to adjust their mindsets according to changing environmental conditions. Hofstede’s 6D model can be redefined more meaningfully by collapsing uncertainty avoidance and long-term orientation under metacognitive competencies and by avoiding biased implications in categories such as femininity and masculinity.
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