Personality Theory:
A Biosocial Approach

C. George Boeree, PhD
Psychology Department
Shippensburg University

© Copyright C. George Boeree 2009


The word "motivation" (like the word "emotion") derives from the Latin word "movere", meaning "to move".  The question every theory of personality asks is "what moves us?" What causes us to do what we do?  And, of course, every theory has an answer.

Early psychologists - behaviorists and the Freudians - tended to look to our physiology for motivations.  It is clear that when we are hungry, we are motivated to eat; when we are thirsty, we are motivated to drink; and so on.  These motivations are traditionally called drives, and they include, besides hunger and thirst, the need for air, sexual desire, the need for physical activity, the need for rest and sleep, and the avoidance of pain.

Each one of these is very complicated, involving a network of homeostatic systems.  For example, hunger as a psychological experience is in part based on the levels of glucose, insulin, CCK, leptin, and other substances in the blood that are detected by the hypothalamus.  Increased levels of glucose (released by the liver) and insulin (released by the pancreas) indicate that your cells are in need of energy, and lead you to feel hunger.  Increased levels of CCK (released by the small intestines as food moves from the stomach) and leptin (released by the fat cells) lead you to feel satiated.

On top of this, we also feel various forms of discomfort in the stomach: The pangs and rumblings of hunger, the comfort of satiety, and the bloatedness of excess.

All this interacts with your culture and individual upbringing:  Even when hungry, we are loath to eat things that we have learned are not to be eaten.  What those things are can vary enormously.  I personally like a juicy hamburger, but my vegetarian daughters get naseous at the thought.  But I get queezy at the thought of eating, say, live baby squid or fried tarantula, which are in fact eaten in some locals.

When and how much we eat also interact with our more physiological mechanisms:  Most of us in the modern world eat more because it is simply time to eat than because we are truly hungry.  We eat three meals, or two, or six, depending on our background.  We clean our plate, or make sure to leave much of our meal behind.  We eat alone, or in groups, quickly on the run, or lounging for hours....

And that's only one of our drives!  Similar complications exist for thirst and drinking, and the complexity of sexuality, both physiologically and culturally, is simply, well, exhausting.  Only our need for air seems pretty simple.

What's more, we are also capable of over-riding some of these needs.  One can starve oneself for a political cause, for supposed health concerns, or because of a psychological disorder.  One can go for constant sex, make a living with it, or give it up entirely.  One can intentionally cause oneself pain, for any number of reasons, reasonable or not.  Some people even stop their breathing in a bizarre and highly risky effort to enhance their sexual pleasure.

Play and curiosity

Perhaps survival and sex completely describe the motivation of "lower" animals (though I doubt it very much).  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.

Kittens (and cats generally) are notorious for their curiosity.  On the surface, poking your nose into everything might seem counter to survival.  You could get seriously hurt or even killed!  But by being curious, the kitten gets to know more about its environment - where the good places to hide might be, or where the mice like to hang out - than if it remained in the safety of its mother's presence.

Likewise, puppies are notorious for their playfulness.  Again, on the surface, jumping off of rocks, digging after insects, wrestling with your siblings all seem like they might be causes for harm.  But by playing, the puppy gets to explore its own body, its limits as well as its strengths, in relative safety.  The puppy that spends more time pouncing on frogs is the one that is likely to be more apt at hunting in later years.

But again, humans outdo other species:  Our curiosity has become our desire to tinker and explore and discover and invent.  It is at the root of science.  And our playfulness - continuing well into adulthood - has become art, literature, music, and sport.  It is likely that our curiosity and need to play is at the root of most of our advances as a species.

Social 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, Carl Rogers's term for attention, affection, respect, acceptance.  At first, it's a matter of physical survival;  later in life, it's a sign that we have support around us.

Dogs are very social mammals.  They are relatively helpless as puppies, and depend a great deal on the "good will" of their elders (which their elders provide, of course, because of strong instincts to nurture their young).  But later, as they develop, they don't lose this dependence on others in the way that many other animals do.  They continue to desire contact with their pack.  They look for approval from those more experienced than they.  They jockey for position in the pack hierarchy.  They attempt to appeal to potential mates.  In fact, a dog will not survive long outside of the social cocoon.  Dogs, having evolved in the context of millenia of interaction with humans, seem to have transferred those social motivations to the people around them - and many humans, to the dogs they own.

Humans are equally, if not more, social than dogs.  We are even more helpless as infants, and for a far longer period.  Without the attention and, preferably, affection from others, infants fail to thrive, as has occured in many overcrowded and poorly staffed orphanages around the world.  As older children, they are more likely to survive, but usually develop significant psychological problems.  In adolescence, the need for friends and, ultimately, a special someone, becomes paramount.  As many of us know from sad experience, the isolated teenager is nearly always an unhappy one, one who may well sink into the depths of clinical depression.

I will go out on a limb here:  The single, most compelling motive in human life is our need for affection.   Related to this is our need for respect.  And at the very least we crave attention.  The child who is always "acting up" may be a child who is getting little affection or respect from adults or other children.  We will discuss this more when we talk about social instincts, the social unconscious, and the roots of mental illness.

Human beings take this need for affection a step further:  Because we have an internal mental life (thanks to anticipation, etc.), we can internalize both the need 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!


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 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. Remember when you first learned how to drive.  You had so many things to think about.  Which peddle is the gas and which is the brake (not to even mention the clutch!)?  How fast and how far do you turn the steering wheel?  Odds are you took a few curbs with you, if not a garbage can or two!  But after a while, all these things became "second nature:"  so well learned that you don't need to think about them anymore.  Now, you can pay attention to the other cars, to the exit you need, or even to the conversation around you.  Some people even think they can drive so well that they can talk on their cellphones!  (They are mistaken, of course.) It has all become rather automatic - until things go wrong!

When that happens, you experience some kind of distress.  In the case of driving a car, you relive your early experiences when the automatic steering suddenly fails, or you blow a tire.  Or your  brakes cease to function!  Or consider the social rituals:  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 or bussing your own table). 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.

The hierarchy and the diamonic

Abraham Maslow is famous for his hierarchy of needs.  Working originally with rhesus monkeys, he noticed that if a monkey that was both thirsty and hungry were offered both water and food simultaneously, the monkey would choose the water first.  After all, you can live without food for weeks, but without water for only days.  If a hungry, horny monkey were offered food and sex simultaneously, it would tend to go for the food first.  You can only live without food for weeks, but you can do without sex your whole life - not that you would want to.  Clearly, a monkey deprived of oxygen would desire air before anything.  The need for air is prepotent over the need for water, which in turn is prepotent over the need for food, which is prepotent over the need for sex.  A hierarchy of needs.

Maslow extended this idea.  Given that your physiological needs are more-or-less taken care of, he theorized that you would become increasingly concerned with safety and security.  When those were more-or-less taken care of, you would become interested in social satisfactions.  Then, you would become increasingly interested in satisfying your need for self-esteem.  Finally, you become more and more interested in certain "higher motivations" he liked to call self-actualization.  We will discuss the latter later.

You can also look at it from a "negative" perspective:  hunger, thirst, and sexual desire trump anxiety; anxiety trumps loneliness; loneliness trumps the sense of inferiority.  Unfortunately, Maslow's hierarchy has far too many exceptions and reversals to serve as a mainstay of personality theory.

Instead of a hierarchy, it might be more helpful if we see motivation as a complicated web of motives.  All these motivations - from hunger and sex to curiosity and play to social acceptance - 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!

Rollo May's basic motivational construct is the daimonic.  The daimonic is the entire system of motives, different for each individual.  It is composed of a collection of specific motives May called daimons. The word daimon is from the Greek, and means little god.  It comes down to English as demon, with a very negative connotation.  But originally, a daimon could be bad or good.  May's daimons include lower needs, such as food and sex, as well as higher needs, such as love.  Basically, he says, a daimon is anything that can take over the person, a situation he refers to as daimonic possession.  It is then, when the balance among daimons is disrupted, that they should be considered “evil” -- as the phrase implies!  But May's basic idea is that there are many, many motivations which different people may or may not have, and to different degrees as well.  I like this idea.


It is, however, also possible to summarize all these many and various motives under the umbrella of a single overarching motive.  Alfred Adler was the earliest to make this suggestion.  He postulates a single motivating force behind all our behavior and experience. By the time his theory had gelled into its most mature form, he called that motivating force the striving for perfection. It is the desire we all have to fulfill our potentials, to come closer and closer to our ideal.

"Perfection" and "ideal" are troublesome words, though. On the one hand, they are very positive goals. Shouldn't we all be striving for the ideal? And yet, in psychology, they are often given a rather negative connotation. Perfection and ideals are, practically by definition, things you can't reach. Many people, in fact, live very sad and painful lives trying to be perfect!

Striving for perfection was not the first phrase Adler used to refer to his single motivating force. His earliest phrase was the aggression drive, referring to the reaction we have when other drives, such as our need to eat, be sexually satisfied, get things done, or be loved, are frustrated. It might be better called the assertiveness drive, since we tend to think of aggression as physical and negative. But it was Adler's idea of the aggression drive that first caused friction between him and Freud. Freud was afraid that it would detract from the crucial position of the sex drive in psychoanalytic theory. Despite Freud's dislike for the idea, he himself introduced something very similar much later in his life: the death instinct.

Another word Adler used to refer to basic motivation was compensation, or striving to overcome. Since we all have problems, short-comings, inferiorities of one sort or another, Adler felt, earlier in his writing, that our personalities could be accounted for by the ways in which we do -- or don't -- compensate or overcome those problems. The idea still plays an important role in his theory, as you will see, but he rejected it as a label for the basic motive because it makes it sound as if it is your problems that cause you to be what you are.

The last term he used, before switching to striving for perfection, was striving for superiority. His use of this phrase reflects one of the philosophical roots of his ideas: Friederich Nietzsche developed a philosophy that considered the will to power the basic motive of human life. Although striving for superiority does refer to the desire to be better, it also contains the idea that we want to be better than others, rather than better in our own right. Adler later tended to use striving for superiority more in reference to unhealthy or neurotic striving.

The biologist Kurt Golstein developed a holistic view of brain function, based on research that showed that people with brain damage learned to use other parts of their brains in compensation.  He extended his holism to the entire organism, and postulated that there was only one drive in human functioning, and coined the term self-actualization.  Self-preservation, the usual postulated central motive, he said, is actually pathological!

The American psychologists Snygg and Combs adopted this idea and defined it so:  "The basic need of everyone is to preserve and enhance the phenomenal self, and the characteristics of all parts of the field are governed by this need."  The phenomenal self is the person's own view of him- or herself.  This view is developed over a lifetime, and is based on the person's physical characteristics (as he or she sees them), cultural upbringing (as he or she experiences it), and other, more personal, experiences.

Note that it is the phenomenal self we try to maintain and enhance.  This is more than mere physical survival or the satisfaction of basic needs.  The body and its needs are a likely part of the self, but not an inevitable one.  Teenagers who attemps suicide, soldiers seeking martyrdom, or prisoners on a hunger strike are not serving their bodies well.  But they are maintaining, perhaps even enhancing, their own images of who they are.  Their physical existences no longer hold the same meanings to them as they might to us.

And note that we are talking not only about maintaining, but about  enhancing  the self.  We don't just want to be what we are.   We often want to be more.   Snygg and Combs' basic motivational principle contains within it Alfred Adler's ideas about compensation of inferiority and striving for superiority, May's daimonic, and all sorts of related concepts.

The American psychologist Carl Rogers has a clinical theory, based on years of experience dealing with his clients.  Unlike Freud and many of the early personality theorists, Rogers sees people as basically good or healthy - or at very least, not bad or ill.  In other words, he sees mental health as the normal progression of life, and he sees mental illness, criminality, and other human problems, as distortions of that natural tendency.

Also not in common with Freud is the fact that Rogers’ theory is a relatively simple one, and Goldstein's self-actualization is the reason.  Rogers see it as the life-force, the built-in motivation present in every life-form to develop its potentials to the fullest extent possible.  Again, we’re not just talking about survival:  Rogers believes that all creatures strive to make the very best of their existence.  If they fail to do so, it is not for a lack of desire.

He asks us, why do we want air and water and food?  Why do we seek safety, love, and a sense of competence?  Why, indeed, do we seek to discover new medicines, invent new power sources, or create new works of art?  Because, he answers, it is in our nature as living things to do the very best we can!

Rogers applies it to all living creatures.  Some of his earliest examples, in fact, include seaweed and mushrooms!  Think about it:  Doesn’t it sometimes amaze you the way weeds will grow through the sidewalk, or saplings crack boulders, or animals survive desert conditions or the frozen arctic?

He also applied the idea to ecosystems, saying that an ecosystem such as a forest, with all its complexity, has a much greater actualization potential than a simple ecosystem such as a corn field.  If one bug were to become extinct in a forest, there are likely to be other creatures that will adapt to fill the gap;  On the other hand, one bout of “corn blight” or some such disaster, and you have a dust bowl.  The same for us as individuals:  If we live as we should, we will become increasingly complex, like the forest, and thereby remain flexible in the face of life’s little - and big - disasters.

Decisions, decisions

Last time I visited Holland, I went to see a game of firehose soccer. Two companies of firefighters use their hoses to try to drive a soccer ball into the goal. Think of it as the ultimate pissing contest.

Or think of it as a good metaphor for motivation. If only one motive - one firehose - is present at any particular moment, it turns into action - a moving soccer ball. If more than one motive is present, then things get more interesting.

Of course, if one motive is much stronger than any other, the conclusion is obvious. But sometimes two or more motives are relatively equal. For each individual, there is a certain range of "pressures" where, instead of the strongest winning, everything stops until the conflict is resolved. The soccer ball, if you will, is suspended above the ground by two streams of water. If both (or all) the motives are relatively weak, it isn't a big deal - like when you have to decide between a burger and a pizza. If both (or all) are powerful, then the indecision can be quite painful - like when you need to decide between two job offers, or whether to get married or not.

As the last examples demonstrate, things can get very complicated. If you have two job offers, it isn't just a simple matter of two biological needs in conflict: sex or food? Okay, bad example. But with something like job offers and marriage proposals, there may a hundred and one "hoses" that come into play. You may well list all the pros and cons for each choice, and spend endless hours agonizing over making the best decision. This could be the opportunity of a lifetime! Or you could be miserable for years to come.

At some point, you will in all likelihood decide on one or the other. The soccer ball finally moves! The last few thoughts that nudge you in the one direction is what we experience as "will". Notice that, during the period of indecision, we feel as if we have a free choice. But really, it is nothing more than the feeling that goes along with the back and forth movement of decision under the "pressure" of your various motives.

What about will power? Well, sorry to say, will power simply does not exist. Every notice that only people who have will power talk about how important it is? What is really going on is that they possess a relatively strong motive to do what you find so difficult.

I've been overweight most of my life. I failed at every diet I ever tried. People kept telling me: "You have to use willpower!" When I would ask them where I can get some, they always say it comes from inside. In other words, it might as well be some magical power as far as I'm concerned. It made me feel very bad to think that I was so deficient.

But, I finally realized that I did indeed have this magical power - just not when it came to dieting! I could read and study day and night and get As in my classes and end up with a nice PhD. Not bad, if I do say so myself!

In other words, if looking good, or playing sports, or being healthy is a powerful motive for you, then that motive may indeed win over your desire for food, just like my enjoyment of studying and desire for a professional career was much stronger than my desire to drink beer and watch cartoons. (I do sound a bit bitter, I have to admit.)

Does all this mean we are just victims of our genetics and upbringing? Up to a point, yes. But keep in mind that other people can also motivate us with encouragement, advice, suggestions, and so on. And we can seek out those friends to support us. We can even explore the internet for better ways of achieving our goals or resolving our indecision. We may even discover alternative goals we never considered and for which our motives are better suited. It may not be free will, but it is self-determination.

After the game of firehose soccer, we were all soaking wet and knee-deep in mud. Good times.