Dr. C. George Boeree


Kurt Lewin (an important influence on social psychology) once said "There's nothing so useful as a good theory."  And, as long as you never lose sight of reality, it's quite true.

The problem in social psychology (and in psychology generally) is that there is no one agreed-upon theory!  So, in order to give you something to help organize your ideas, I've pulled together a number of ideas into a theory for "in-the-meantime."

Basically, this theory looks at human experience as a matter of interaction between the world and the self.  At its simplest, the world gives us events; we in turn give those events meaning by interpreting and acting upon them.

There are some obvious details here:  sensations (input from the world, stimuli) and actions (output to the world, responses).  There was a time when psychologists thought this was enough.  Now we know better, and we add two more details, which I will call anticipation and adaptation.

Anticipation is a little difficult to explain.  We have a certain knowledge of the world, a "model" of it.  This model includes everything from little details like which shoe you put on first to complex things like how you feel about yourself and your life.  We use this model to anticipate -- expect, predict -- what will happen in the next moment or in the next ten years.

If I close my eyes, I expect that when I open them you will still be there, the room will still be there, I will still be there, and so on.  If all you of you were to disappear on me I would be seriously surprised.

If I keep my eyes closed and focus on the expectation, rather than on you and the world "out there," I can imagine you.  We can understand images and thoughts as anticipations temporarily detached from the stream of events!

We also anticipate on a more long term basis:  We have expectations about what college will and won't do for us, about love being forever, and the sun rising, and so on.

Adaptation is also more difficult to explain.  Sometimes, we don't anticipate well.  For example, you think you see a friend coming at you and you prepare to give a hearty "hi!" but just as you raise your arm to wave and begin to open your mouth, you realize it's not your friend at all but a complete stranger.  (If possible, you convert the raised arm into a back-scratch, and the open mouth into a yawn.  If it's too late and you've already said hi, just pretend you know them.  This will drive them crazy.)

Whenever you make mistakes, you need to figure out what went wrong, what to do about it, how to make sense of it.  As you do, you are improving your understanding of the world and your relation to it; you are improving your "model."  This is adaptation.  In our example, you may now have a model of the world that includes look-alikes, embarrassing mistakes, and a tendency to hold-off a little in the future before being so exuberant with your hello's.  Adaptation is learning.

This additional layer to interaction of anticipation and adaptation is crucial:  It means that our behaviors and experiences are not  just a function of some common reality.  We, ourselves, our understandings of reality, are inevitably and intrinsically a part of our behaviors and experiences.  Without "self," reality would be meaningless.

Take a look at this drawing.  An infant is likely to react to this by sticking pieces in his or her mouth.  A young child may see them as little people or "finger-clickers."  An adult who does not play chess may see them as chess pieces on a board.  When asked what  the two pieces in the foreground are, they might call them castles.  A beginning chess player would call them rooks, and might add that the white bishop can take the black queen (or vice versa).  They "see" the moves of the pieces, the rules of the game.  A fair chess player might note that white could checkmate black in two moves if it's white's move -- or black could clear the board of white pieces, if it's black's move.

None of these is wrong;  they are simply different meanings applied to the same events.

You might ask:  What then is the event really?  But what do you mean by that?  “Really” to whom?  Somebody must always do the seeing, give the meaning.  A physical scientist looking at the pieces and noting their chemical compositions is still giving his or her meaning to the event.

Note, of course, that the "board" is 6 by 6 instead of the required 8 by 8, that there is no white king on the board, so there is no real game going on at all, and that in fact this is a drawing -- a set of lines -- and not a set of three-dimensional objects at all.  All of this is an indication of how much our interpretations add to what is "really" there.

So, in order to understand and predict and control people's experiences and behaviors, we have to understand the meanings they apply to reality.  No easy trick.

Social Interaction

All the preceding has been quite general and not particularly social.  Well, among the events that we give meaning to are other people--very significant events.  Often we treat people exactly as we treat other events:  abusing them, ignoring them, taking them for granted....  You've all felt it, I'm sure:  being treated like a thing instead of a person.  But more often, I like to believe, we treat people as something more:  We treat them as meaning-giving creatures like ourselves, as people.  This is social interaction.

Think about what this means:  I have to operate not only in my own "meaning system," but in yours as well, and you have to operate in mine.  In order to deal with you, I have to know a little about your mind as well as my own, and you have to know a little about mine.  We recognize this every time we talk about "psyching each other out" or when we say "I see where you're coming from!"

If you like definitions, I must warn you that psychologists seldom agree on things.  But if we can agree that psychology is the study of behavior and experience, then social psychology is the study of social behavior and experience.  That is, it is the study of our behavior and experience when faced with other people.

I must add one more point in defining social psychology:  Since we give the world meaning, we can give it social meaning when it suits us.  This means we wind up engaging in social interaction in the absence of other people!  We obey traffic signals (some of us) on empty streets in the middle of the night; we laugh or cry with characters in books or figures on a screen; we respond to the works of artists hundreds, even thousands of years dead....  In other words, social interaction includes behavior and experience in the implied or symbolic presence of others, as well as in their actual presence.

We could go on, adding and subtracting and rearranging words in the search for a perfect definition.  Instead, let's move on and let the contents of the course do for a definition.


So far, our theory is rather cold and mechanical.  What about feelings?  Well, they're there, to some degree, in every interaction.

Imagine this:  In the middle of the night, you get a bad case of the mad munchies.  So you leave your bed and head for the fridge.  It's very dark, but you know your apartment like the back of your hand, so you don't bother with the lights.  The coffee table is in the middle of the room and you anticipate its presence and maneuver around it.  Perhaps you reach out your hand to touch the edge to confirm your anticipation.  You're almost there -- five more feet to the fridge -- when WHAM! you walk into a solid six foot...something:  The unanticipated!

What do you feel at that moment?  Perhaps fear, surprise, perhaps sheer terror.  Whatever it is, it is rather unpleasant.  Let's call it distress.

You are, at the same time, busy "generating anticipations" -- making guesses about the nature of the beast, taking actions that might alleviate some of your fears, dashing for the light switch.  The lights come on... you're expecting a sex-crazed psycho-killer....

And lo and behold, it's the fridge.  You cleaned behind it for the first time in 30 years and left it pulled out.  Now how do you feel?

Perhaps you feel relief, a sensation of pleasant resolution.  You heave a great sigh, perhaps laugh.  Things make sense again.  Life is on the right path again.  Let's call it delight.

(Note that you might still feel some negative emotion as well, as soon as the initial relief is behind you -- like annoyance at your own stupidity. That problem has yet to be resolved!)

Another example:  Notice the people coming off one of the "sooper-dooper" roller coasters.  Notice their frozen smiles.  That's their way of saying "yes!  I am alive!"

Let's be more precise:  When interaction is problematic, we feel distress.  For example, (1) when we fail to anticipate something--like the fridge in our face--we are distressed.

We also feel distress when (2) we anticipate more than one thing at the same time:  conflicting anticipations.  Which of your roommates is actually the chain-saw killer?  Each time you are alone with one of them, you don't know whether to feel secure or to run like the blazes.

And (3) we also feel it when we are faced by general uncertainty:  Which way is that cockroach, or rat, or snake going to move next?  Perhaps this is the root of our common phobias of these delightful creatures.

Distress can be mild, an irritation or annoyance:  When your pen runs out of ink just as you sign a check at the local supermarket.

It can be a bit more intense:  The frustration of you car breaking down; the fear as your car careens out of control on the highway; the disgust you feel when you discover that your lover bites the heads off of live chickens.

Delight is the resolution of our distressful problems.  We are, actually, developing or elaborating our understanding of the world when we feel delight.  Delight is the emotional side of adaptation, of (believe it or not!) learning.

It too can be mild:  The pleasant feeling of finishing a crossword puzzle or winning at a game or sport.  Or it can be a bit more intense, like the relief you feel when you realize that the roller-coaster only felt like it was leaving the tracks; or the joy of scientific discovery, artistic creation, or mystical experience.

Notice that since solving problems requires having problems, delight depends on distress.  Even physical pleasure seems to work like this:  You enjoy it more after doing without it for a while, whether "it" is food, drink, or sex!  Too much of it, and it doesn't seem to satisfy quite so well.  (Note that our response to this is often to try doing it even more!  Hence some of our neurotic attitudes towards sex, food, gambling, attention....)

Facing a problem doesn't cause distress -- it is distress.  The distress is just the feeling-side of the situation.  The same points apply to delight.  It isn't caused by problem-resolution, it is problem-resolution.  And distress and delight don't cause you to seek a solution; they are not "motivating forces."

But there's no doubt that the situations in which you feel distress may be ones that you avoid in the future.  Or, if they resulted in delight, they may be ones you seek out in the future.  It is the anticipation of distress or delight that is motivating.

Anxiety is the distressful anticipation of distress.  From experience, you expect that the situation before you will be unpleasant.  This expectation is itself unpleasant:  it conflicts with your desire to be a happy, carefree individual.  And, often, you try to avoid the situation.

Hope is the delightful anticipation of delight.  From experience, the problem before you will be resolved, and this is a happy thought.  Depending on details, we could also call this eagerness, or even anxiety, as in "I'm anxious to get started!"

Now, the "basic" distress and delight don't usually happen at the same time--since one is the problem and the other the solution.  But anticipatory  distress and delight -- that is, anxiety and hope -- often happen at the same time:  We call this "mixed emotions."

Skimming across deep water on little sticks at 30 miles per hour can make you nervous; water-skiing, on the other hand, sounds like fun.  You feel both anxiety and eagerness.  You decision whether to try it will be based on how these two balance out for you.  Notice I said "for you."  The decision is very much a subjective one, based on what makes you anxious and eager.

Anticipation can also help us make sense of other emotions, like this:

Anger is distress with an expectation of external change.  The problem is "out there" and anger is the build-up of energy needed to solve it.  Just try to hold back a baby from crawling, and see what you get.

Sadness is distress with an expectation of internal change.  The problem is "in here."  I realize that I must adapt to it.  Grief is the most obvious example:  You can't get them back; you can only learn to live with their absence.  Many of our major learning experiences involve sadness, such as coming to understand our own limitations, or the limitations of our loved ones, for example.

Notice that anger is a little more hopeful; sadness is a little harder to take.  People tend to be angry at things before they settle down to accept what they can't change.  That says something very important about us:  We resist major changes in the self; if we can, we try to make the world fit our expectations.

Sometimes people persist in these emotional states.  A person who is always trying to make the world -- especially others -- fit his expectations we call aggressive, and his emotional state hostile..  Often, what he really needs to do is change himself, adapt.  But for some reason -- his culture, for example -- giving-in is taboo.  Like physical pleasures, when it doesn't work right, we do what we always do, only more!

Likewise, a person who is always trying to make himself fit the world -- and especially others' expectations -- we call compliant and his emotional state is commonly depressed..  He is always trying to adjust himself to others, when often what he needs is to get angry.

In our society, we see some differences between men and women in this area:  Men have typically been taught from childhood on that giving-in is bad; women have been taught that being pushy is bad.  So men are more likely to get stuck in aggressive patterns, and women in compliant patterns.  Of course, it doesn't have to be this way, and often enough it's reversed.  But ideally, we should all, men and women alike, "give-in" when that makes sense, and be "pushy" when that makes sense!

Most common of all is avoidance:  When we see a problem coming, we give in to our anxiety and run away, physically or psychologically.  With avoidance, we are really trying to get out of an emotional situation and back into a peaceful state.  Unfortunately, if you avoid problems and their distress, you also avoid the delight of solutions.  Think of some of the common "psychological" ways we avoid life's problems:  Alcohol, drugs, television.  The goal of avoidance is to be unconscious, or at least unconscious of problems.

These three "types" -- aggressive, compliant, and avoiding -- are so common that a number of theorists have independently come up with them (Adler, Horney, Fromm, and others).  These types may even have a genetic component to them, so that some of us are more likely to deal with our problems by turning to aggression, others with compliance, still others with avoidance.

A more mature person tends to take on problems with an eye towards their solution:  They face distress and anxiety with hope and eagerness.

This takes a little something--an ability to focus on your goals, and to ignore the pains of getting there.  This has been called will-power, self-discipline, need for achievement, and delay-of-gratification.  I just call it will.  We will come back to this idea later.


In this section, 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 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 social 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!

Humanists use the word actualization, which means "the desire to maintain and enhance the self."  So "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 -- 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-esteem -- 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!

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, and yet is rarely discussed at all, is "inertia."  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.

Things that are thoroughly learned are unconscious.  Concerning small behaviors, we call them habits.  Brushing your teeth, for example:  Odds are that you brush them in pretty much the same way every day, as if you were playing-out a program.

When they 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 (hence unconscious).  Mind you, things “around" the habit or ritual may be emotional (i.e. a funeral!), but the things done are done rather automatically -- like driving a car, once you've caught on -- until things go wrong!

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.

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 for the first time. 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 (see Czentimihalyi), 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 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 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... -- choice.

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 for a hard science of social psychology.  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!

Copyright 1999, C. George Boeree