Tapping into Core Social Motives to Drive Sustainability Transformation


Giampaolo Macorig / Flickr
By the sea in Sicily.

Twenty-six year-old Robert Champion was a proud drum major in the famed Florida A&M University’s marching band, until one night his band members turned on him. On November 19, 2011, Champion participated in a band ritual called “crossing bus C” in which he had to try and make his way to the back of the bus while being kicked and punched by other band members. The game turned deadly, and within an hour, Champion died from internal bleeding. Thirteen band members have been charged with manslaughter.

As a society, incidents like these baffle and distress us. Why do people do things like this to themselves and others? But as a psychologist, I see a silver lining. Such irrational behavior points to a deep psychological power which – if harnessed – might be cause for hope. People will suffer and sacrifice for causes and groups that they care about. Sustainability could be such a cause.

Consider as a contrast the assumptions made by many pessimists about the environmental crisis: people are too driven by self-interest to make the kinds of changes required to create a sustainable society. Politicians, activists, and the lay public all assume that people ask “what’s in it for me?” first and foremost. They also assume that “what’s in it for me?” is narrowly defined by economic self-interest. In his analysis of the “tragedy of the commons,” Garrett Hardin1 clearly makes this assumption, as his solution to this presumed state of affairs is “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.” From this perspective, we cannot count on people to do the right thing unless forced to.

Luckily, this paradigm is wrong, or at least incomplete. The rational economic actor model simply does not describe the majority of human behavior. Certainly, people are sometimes greedy, sometimes unwilling to be inconvenienced. And people are undoubtedly motivated and influenced by self-interest under many circumstances. But the sources of this motivation—or the ways in which people seek to fulfill it—are rarely rational, and only sometimes in line with economic self-interest.

Self-interest models completely fail to explain the behavior of Chris Burgess, a truck driver who in 2012 drove his out-of-control rig into the Cuyahoga River rather than let it plow into a shopping mall full of people; he drowned, but no one else died. Self-interest models do not explain why Christians smuggled Jews out of Nazi Europe, or why 115 Tibetans recently immolated themselves to protest Chinese rule.

The lesson is clear: Individuals will do inconvenient, painful, and even deadly things that are not in their economic or biological best interest for people, groups, values and causes they care about. Only the most powerful motivators could drive such behavior. We need to understand these motivations. We need to harness that power for the cause of creating a sustainable world.

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jessleecuizon / Flickr
A core social motive for people is the overarching need is to belong, to be part of a social group. Hanami or Flower Viewing is the Japanese traditional custom of enjoying the beauty of flowers.

Like all animals, humans are powerfully motivated to engage in behaviors that allow us to survive and reproduce. Hunger, thirst, and sex are core biological motives—motives that will certainly drive behavior as humans struggle to adapt to climate destabilization and the resulting threats to food, water, and shelter. In many ways the “rational economic actor,” which assumes that action is largely driven by economic self-interest, is an extension of basic biological motives with money serving as the vehicle for satisfying desires.

The biological motives are quite limited in their ability to motivate climate mitigation behavior, however. Climate change is chronic, pervasive, and large scale, and understanding the need for mitigation requires thinking far into the future and across the globe. The biological motives drive behavior that is immediate and local. By the time you are hungry or thirsty because of the effects of climate change, you are no longer in a position to address mitigation.

Luckily, humans evolved an additional survival strategy that equally drives our behavior: the strategy of living in cooperative social groups. Humans are social creatures. For our ancestors, the group meant survival; anyone who was not motivated to preserve and protect their membership in their group would have perished. As a result, humans also evolved a set of social motives that were just as essential for survival—and just as powerfully motivating—as the core biological motives. Those motives are still with us and drive our behavior in fundamental ways.

Social psychologist Susan Fiske2 articulates five core social motives that have robust empirical support for their importance. The overarching need is to belong, to be part of a social group. Even now, when our physical survival is not directly dependent upon membership in a group (if your family disowns you, you can still go to the grocery store and buy food), we respond to social ostracism with intense psychological and physical distress. In fact, research by Kip Williams and Steve Nida3 demonstrates that we experience this distress in the same part of the brain—the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex —that registers physical pain. Rejection hurts.

In the service of the need to belong, humans pursue four other goals:
• We are powerfully motivated to understand our world, to feel like we can predict what will happen and that it all will makes sense.
• We also need to feel like we have some control, that we can execute plans and achieve goals.
• We need to have some basic level of esteem for ourselves, a feeling that we are worthy.
• We need to trust others, to feel like the world is basically a benevolent place.

As with biological motives, the need to fulfill core social motives drives humans to exhibit self-interested behavior. However, this is not self-interest in the classical economic or even narrowly biological sense. Indeed, there is often a discrepancy between the kind of self-interest that is driven by the core social motives and self-interest as predicted by rational economic and biological motives models. Consider fashion: what is rational about discarding last year’s style because the editor of Vogue says it’s not “in”? Nothing. However, when one considers the importance of self-esteem and belonging, the drive to dress in a similar way as your social group is more understandable.

But don’t forget: these motives have been fundamental in the enormous success of our species. There is great potential for aligning the self-interests that stem from satisfying these motives with efforts to establish a sustainable human existence on this planet. Indeed, we ignore them at our peril. For sustainability practitioners, the core social motives have at least four lessons to teach:

1. Recognize the underlying need(s) driving resistance behavior. It is not just that corporations are greedy and profit-driven, or that governments and bureaucracies are rigid and inflexible (although they often are). They are also peopled with human beings who are powerfully motivated to belong within their institutions, to succeed within the system that rewards them, to maintain control over their assets, to preserve their understanding of the way the world works, and to feel like they can trust those around them to help them meet these goals. Challenging the corporate or government structure is not just taking money and power away from institutions; it is shaking the psychological lifelines of the people who work in them. Why should they be happy about that? Why should they cooperate? Would you?

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U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jay C. Pugh.
Sailors and other personnel pick up trash in Hawaii during a beach clean up in support of World Oceans Day.

As we rebuild our world, we must always remember that the systems that are leading to our destruction are also the very systems that currently fulfill vital psychological needs, albeit poorly and in an unsustainable way. Resistance to the psychological threat posed by making deep systemic changes is a reality we must contend with. As we work towards a decent sustainable future, we must do so with a constant eye towards managing this resistance with foresight, respect, and compassion.

Master negotiators Roger Fisher and William Ury point out that when dealing with recalcitrant others we often think “solving their problem is their problem.”4 Yet if we need those others to be part of the solution, their problem is our problem too. As we challenge and change unsustainable systems and institutions, we must do so in a way that acknowledges the problem that arises when others lose a sense of understanding, control, trust, and esteem. Our change efforts must have built into them efforts to meet these needs in new ways.

These efforts will be particularly challenging when dealing with fundamentalists of all stripes – literalist Christians and Muslims, arch-Conservatives, fanatic environmentalists. Fundamentalism is essentially extreme rigidity about how core social motives are met, particularly understanding and control. Can concerted efforts to address these needs in other ways make fundamentalists more pliable? It remains to be seen.

2. Make the threat to core needs visible, and then make clear that sustainability is the answer to this threat. Preserving a habitable planet is indisputably essential to preserving all the things that people care passionately about—not just their basic biological needs, but also their culture, their loved ones, equity and justice, the beauty of the natural world. However, modern society currently masks the ties between the biophysical world that sustains us and our core physical and social needs (see Petersen et al. in this issue for a fuller discussion of this point). As the stories above make clear, individuals will in fact suffer and sacrifice for people and causes they care about. We need to make the threat to their needs that our current system poses as clear as possible, and make people realize that sustainability is the way to defend against that threat.

Unfortunately, the environmental movement has not been uniformly successful at conveying the threat to those who are not liberal, white, and upper-middle class. Conservatives do not yet see the threat to the things they hold dear—intact families, economic stability, freedom of choice. People of color and members of low-income communities are faced with other, more immediate problems—daily discrimination, putting food on the table, and keeping the lights on, to name a few. But whoever you are, whatever you care about, climate change poses a threat to it. The core social motive framework can help clarify how to talk about both adaptation and mitigation in ways that make this connection clear (see Hirsch and Winter in this issue for examples of how to implement this approach).

I must also caution that this strategy has inherent danger. Threatening someone’s sense of control, understanding, and trust is an excellent way to activate that person, but the behavior that results is not always constructive. Classically defined as a “fear appeal” in social psychology, making the threat to core needs apparent can easily trigger self-defense, denial, and avoidance. This is why it is essential that we…

3. Build our movements in ways that maximize the extent to which being involved in them meets core social motives. Working towards a sustainable world together not only enhances our ability to meet core biological and social needs in the future, it also has the potential to help us meet core social motives in the present. This is how to combat fear and despair. Working on sustainability issues has greatly deepened my understanding of the barriers to change and what is truly needed to succeed. It has expanded my circle of relationships and enhanced my sense of belonging to my community. As I have built relationships and deepened my understanding, my sense of efficacy has increased. Perhaps of greatest importance, these efforts have created an unprecedented level of trust between parties that in the past had seen themselves as adversaries.

All this means that talking to people, socializing with people, coming back to the meeting table even when people are frustrated, is absolutely essential in building a movement that not only maximizes its capacity to find good solutions, but leaves people stronger and happier as they work towards those solutions.

4. Include the enhancement of core social need fulfillment in all future solutions. Finally, we need to make sure that the new systems we put into place are intentionally designed to enhance humans’ ability to fulfill core needs – not just biological needs but also social needs. Technology that reduces carbon emissions but deprives people of autonomy and understanding of how the world works will never realize its potential. No matter how ecologically sensitive, economic or political systems that perpetuate the grossly unequal distribution of resources and power will continue to undermine belonging and trust. Solutions that leave people feeling belittled and devalued will not endure. If humans cannot meet their core social needs in everyday life, we will fail to create a sustainable world.

Luckily, we have every reason to believe that sustainable communities can meet our core biological and social motives as well as or better than our present system. Local economies build economic resilience as well as control and trust; biking and walking promote health and community while reducing carbon emissions. Sustainability is a good product. Sacrifice of need fulfillment is not required. If it were, all would truly be lost.

Humans are capable of rapid change and self sacrifice in preservation of their core needs. We need a habitable planet, and we need each other. We can do this.