Dr. C. George Boeree
Shippensburg University


Now we move from questions about what we feel to questions about what we want. As I said earlier, the "self" is what gives things their meaning. Some philosophers and psychologists suggest that the only thing that makes a person (or any living creature) different from a mechanical device is that a person gives things meaning.

We give things meaning because we have desires. Because of desire, some things have value to us, and some don't; some things are relevant to us, some are not; and value or relevance is just another way of talking about meaning.

Behaviorists and other theorists who take a fairly biological approach to psychology suggest that our desires all boil down to the desire to survive. So our most fundamental needs are for food, water, rest, and the avoidance of pain. More complex motivations are seen as derived from these by learning.

Freudians have a similar view, and refer to desire as libido. They, however, focus more on the need to survive beyond the individual's life-span through reproduction. Since the survival of all needs and the instincts that serve them in fact depends on reproduction, it is quite reasonable to make sex the key desire! Sociobiology - the study of the effects evolution on behavior - agrees with the Freudians on this.

Humanists use the word actualization, which means "the desire to maintain and enhance the self." "Maintenance" certainly includes survival, as long as it is understood that we are referring to the survival of the psychological self as well as the physical self. And "enhancement" means we do more than just try to survive.

For example, most "lower" animals react to problems and learn from their mistakes. But "higher" animals have certain extra desires -- such as curiosity and play -- that encourage them to learn about potential problems before any serious mistakes happen. Kittens and puppies and human children are notorious for this kind of "enhancement." It is sometimes referred to as competence motivation.

Social creatures such as ourselves rely on each other for much of their "maintenance and enhancement." One thing we need, especially early in our lives, is positive regard, meaning attention, affection, etc. At first, it's a matter of physical survival; later in life, it's a sign that we have support around us.

Human beings take this need a step further: Because we have an internal mental life (thanks to anticipation, etc.), we can internalize both the need we have for positive regard and its satisfaction or non-satisfaction. In other words, we have a desire and need for positive self-regard, also known as self-respect, self-worth, or self-esteem.

Poor self-regard - the inferiority complex - is one of the most common sources for psychological problems a therapist finds. Most of us have these complexes about one thing or another: looks, intelligence, strength, social skills, etc. Even the bully , the beauty, and the braggart - people with superiority complexes - can be understood as people with poor self-esteem who are taking it out on others!

I would like to suggest that all these motivations are real and relevant to understanding people. And we can differ with each other in regards to what motivates each of us: Some of us "live to eat;" others are "sex fiends;" others are curious to a fault; others are "people people;" and others still are driven by ego; and so on.


Another aspect of motivation that is hard to overestimate is habit. If you think about it, nearly all of the things we've been talking about involve returning to a unstressed state. When we talk about physical needs, for example, we often talk about homeostasis: Like a thermostat that controls a furnace, we eat when we are low on nutrients, we stop eating when we have enough.

The same thing applies to psychological phenomena: When our understanding of things is lacking and we fail to anticipate, we scramble to improve our understanding; Once we understand something, and our anticipations are right on target, we are satisfied. In fact, it almost seems that we spend our lives trying to be unconscious! After all, we feel distress when things go wrong and delight when things improve, but neither when things are going just right.

Habits are things that are so thoroughly learned, that work so smoothly, with so little distress or delight, that they are pretty nearly unconscious.

When habits concern social behaviors, we call them rituals. Coronations, marriage ceremonies, funerals, standing on line, taking turns when talking, saying "hello, how are you," whether you want to know or not - all are examples of rituals.

There are also ways of thinking and perceiving that are so thoroughly learned we tend not to be conscious of them: attitudes, mind-sets, norms, prejudices, defenses, and so on.

The key to identifying habits and rituals is that the acts are essentially emotionless and unconscious. A good example is driving a car.  When you are first learning to drive, you feel like you have to pay attention to a thousand different things.  But once you get some practice in, things like where the brake is and how far to turn the steering wheel are no longer concerns, and you can pay attention to other things, like traffic or text-messaging you friends.  Well, maybe not the latter.

When that happens, you experience some kind of distress. Go ahead, tell someone who asks "how are you" all about how you really are! Or stand the wrong way in an elevator. Or interrupt the smooth flow of a restaurant (e.g. by taking peoples' orders, "to help out"). This is called Garfinkling, after Harold Garfinkle, who invented it. It will reveal rules of behavior that are so ritualized that we've forgotten they exist.

An interesting thing to examine is our behavior in public restrooms.  There are rules that must be obeyed!  Men, for example, tend to spread out among the urinals as best as possible, and can feel quite uncomfortable if someone takes the urinal right next to them.  And make sure to keep your eyes forward!

Anyway, maintaining things the way they are, keeping social "law and order," is an extremely powerful motivation. In its most positive form, it's our desire for peace and contentment. In its most negative form, it is our resistance to anything new or different.

Higher motivations

At the other end of the spectrum are what we might call higher motivations, such as creativity and compassion.

There are times when we are, for a moment, "transported outside ourselves," or, to put it another way, when we feel an identity with something greater than ourselves. Many people experience these moments when they stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time, or walk into one of the great cathedrals of Europe. The ocean, the acropolis, sequoias, hummingbirds, music, even a great book or movie can do this as well. We could call it a peak, spiritual, or mystical experience, or just call it awe.

This kind of thing also happens with certain behaviors. Mountain climbers talk about the flow experience (a word introduced by the popular psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi) when their minds are fully occupied with the task at hand and they become "one with the mountain." Dancers, actors, musicians, and athletes mention similar experiences of involvement.

Creative activities can also give us these feelings. Artists, musicians, writers, scientists, and crafts people talk about a point at which their are led by their creation, rather than the other way around.

And we feel it when we truly love someone, when they become more important than ourselves. Albert Schweitzer said that only those who serve others can be truly happy. This is called compassion.

In all these examples, we see not just "maintenance and enhancement of self" but a transcendence of self, a loss of self that paradoxically leads to an expansion of self. Most religions and philosophies make these their highest values.


There is something very peculiar about people: While, from an outside view, it may seem as if our behaviors were being completely determined by the various forces that bear down on us - genetics, the physical world, social pressures - we seem to be capable of "pulling back" now and then, for a moment or two, from the stream of events. We can pause to reflect on things. And we can imagine and think about things that aren't immediately present.

For example: Sometimes one part of us - say our inherited physiology - wants food or sexual gratification, and wants it now. Another part of us - say our social upbringing - wants respect, safety, virtue, affection, or whatever. If we were completely determined, we would simply go with the stronger force, and life would be easy. Instead, we have the ability to weigh the forces.

Sometimes this is a less-than-fully conscious process. We can weigh two forces emotionally, in terms of the relative anxiety and eagerness. But we can step back a bit and add certain rational considerations, and consider things like the meaning of sin, the odds of getting caught, or whether the urge will go away if you ignore it. Worrying about things this way may be unpleasant, but it is a sign of our freedom to choose!

We can also create new options. Only people deal in possibilities as well as realities! When things seem to be a matter of either-or, damned if you do and damned if you don't, we can pause, and reflect, and create a third - or fourth, or fifth... - option.

Even when alternatives seem totally absent, some freedom remains. The writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, after being faced with Gestapo torture, discovered that he could always say no! You at very least have a choice of the attitude you will take towards your suffering, hard though it may be.

All this is very frustrating to anyone looking to make psychology into a "hard science" like chemistry or physics. True, much of the time we are as determined as falling bricks. But at our best, we don't follow "laws of human behavior" - we create ourselves!

A Hierarchy of Needs.

It is clear that some needs are far more demanding than others:  If you are hungry, thirsty, and gasping for air, you have to take care of the air first, the water second, and the food third.  Abraham Maslow took this idea and created his now famous hierarchy of needs. Beyond the details of air, water, and food, he laid out five broader layers:  the physiological needs, the need for safety, the need for belonging, the need for esteem, and the need to actualize the self, in that order.

1.  The physiological needs.  These include the needs we have for oxygen, water, protein, salt, sugar, calcium, minerals, and vitamins.  They also include the need to maintain a pH balance (getting too acidic or basic will kill you) and temperature (98.6 or near to it).  Also, there’s the needs to be active, to rest, to sleep, to get rid of wastes (CO2,  sweat, urine, and feces), to avoid pain, and to have sex.  Quite a collection!

2.  The safety and security needs.  When the physiological needs are largely taken care of, this second layer of needs comes into play.  You will become increasingly interested in finding safe circumstances, stability, protection.  You might develop a need for structure, for law and order.

3.  The love and belonging needs.  When physiological needs and safety needs are, by and large, taken care of, a third layer starts to show up.  You begin to feel the need for friends, a sweetheart, children, affectionate relationships in general, even a sense of community.  Looked at negatively, you become increasing susceptible to loneliness and social anxieties.

4.  The esteem needs.  Next, we begin to look for a little self-esteem.  Maslow noted two versions of esteem needs, a lower one and a higher one.  The lower one is the need for the respect of others, the need for status, fame, glory, recognition, attention, reputation, appreciation, dignity, even dominance.  The higher form involves the need for self-respect, including such feelings as confidence, competence, achievement, mastery, independence, and freedom.  Note that this is the “higher” form because, while the adoration of others can come and go, self-respect is a lot harder to lose!

All of the preceding four levels he calls deficit needs.  If you don’t have enough of something - i.e. you have a deficit - you feel the need.  But if you get all you need, you feel nothing at all!  In other words, the need ceases to be motivating.  As the old blues song goes, “you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry!”

5.  The last level is a bit different.  Maslow called it self-actualization or the being needs.  Self-actualization as Maslow uses the term refers to the kind of things we have called higher motivations -- creativity, compassion, the appreciation of beauty, truth, justice, and so on.  They differ from the deficit needs in that they become a part of your being, part of who you are.  Maslow once said that the being needs were the desire to "be all that you can be!"

© Copyright 2003, 2009 C. George Boeree