Theory 1: Needs and Wants
Basic Biology of Knowledge
“[T]he economy, social structure, and beliefs of a historical era, like the fence restraining a baboon troop at a zoo, limit each person’s understanding of the world to a small space in which each day is lived” (Jerome Kagan 2006:253; cf. pp. 195-196). The simile is closer than Kagan ever thought: baboons too have their social metaphysics (Cheney and Seyfarth 2007).
Recent findings have firmly grounded our hypersocial life, our cultural learning abilities, and our unique language skills in evolutionary biology. The “killer ape,” and the “savage” in a permanent “state of warre” (Hobbes 1950/1651) are long dead. Instead, biologists have found much inborn mental equipment, including innate sociability. This includes some interesting parallels with birds as well as mammals. Humans are animals with a complex evolutionary history. (Only 40% of Americans accept evolution; 40% reject it totally; Miller et al 2006.)
Our behavior is, ultimately, the product of genes. These specify very few rigid instincts: dilating our pupils in the dark; closing our eyes when we sneeze; breathing even when asleep (and even that instinct fails in sleep apnea and sudden infant death syndrome). More often, our genes specify ability to learn. We learn some things much more easily than others, and which things are easy to learn is usually readily explained by our social needs and our former needs as hunter-gatherers in varied or savannah-like landscapes (Barkow et al. 1992). We have a genetic mechanism to learn language, but we can learn—with equal ease—any of the 6800 or more natural languages and any number of computer languages and artificial codes. We are genetically programmed to recognize blood kin, but we humans go beyond that: we have elaborated thousands of different kinship systems, and we adopt, foster, and otherwise create artificial kinship links with great enthusiasm. Biology produces general contours of thinking and feeling, while environment—notably including culture—fine-tunes these. Biological templates, grounds, or modules are shaped by learning. Jerome Kagan (2006, esp. pp. 234-245), who has done much of the relevant research, points out that the sorting is poor, the interplay complex.
The idea that humans are “blank slates,” without genetic programming, is long dead (Pinker 2003). John Locke usually gets blamed for the tabula rasa view, and indeed he used the phrase, but he was quite aware of, and indeed had a quite modern view of, innate information-processing capabilities. (Among other things, he draws interesting contrasts between normal individuals and “changelings”: autistic persons, thought by countryfolk to have been fairy-children “changed” for real children that the fairies stole.6knew they were not fairy-children but ordinary humans who were simply born different. See Locke 1979 ).
As one would expect from animals evolved as hunters and gatherers, we notice animals more than objects. Experimenters claim that children notice animals even more than internal-combustion-engine vans. (See Holden 2007—but they obviously weren’t testing my sons!) We also notice anything strongly patterned in nature. It is pattern sense that lets us pick out the snake from the grass, the fruit from the foliage. We notice flowers, guides to food for a primate. A walk with a dog reminds one of how much inborn preferences matter. Dogs care little about flowers, much about rotten bones that humans try to ignore.
Humans act to satisfy needs, and not only physical ones. Critical was the discovery in the 1950s and 1960s that all mammals would work for chances to explore, chances to see new and interesting stimuli, and even for chances to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain via electric currents. This discovery can be accommodated in an extended theory of “needs,” but only if one remembers that the old “drive-reduction” view is wrong (Anderson 1996; Baumeister 2005).
Humans have several broad classes of needs. Abraham Maslow constructed a classic needs pyramid in 1970; the lowest but most basic needs must be fulfilled first in order to survive. The others can be delayed progressively longer. Maslow’s original list (as summarized in Kenrick et al. 2010) was: Immediate physiological needs; safety; love; esteem; self-actualization. (The last was never well formulated and has tended to drop out; see Kenrick et al. 2010.)
In order of immediacy—how long it takes to die from lack of need satisfaction—we may expand the classic list a bit: breathing (oxygen); water; food; temperature regulation (fire, shelter, clothing…); health and physical safety; sleep and arousal; control over life situation; and social life from acceptance to social place (“esteem”) to love and belonging. In addition, reproduction is a need for society, though not for individual survival.
People have to prioritize getting air, water and food. Making a living, and coping with ordinary life, have to take first place. But social, control, and reproductive needs are more important to people. Thus people have to balance immediate, urgent, but less psychologically deep needs with things that can be put off but are more deeply significant.
These needs are not simple. “Food” is a complex of needs for protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. We have genetic programs telling us to eat, but no two human groups eat quite the same foods. Silk moths live only on mulberry trees, pinyon jays live on pine seeds in pinyon groves, but humans live anywhere, and, as we used to say in Texas, “will eat anything that won’t eat back faster.” Genes specify how our bodies lay down fat, but obesity incidence has skyrocketed in recent years. Faced with floods of fast-food, some overeat, others exercise and eat wisely and stay thin. All this makes nonsense of the claim for “fat genes.” Where were those genes in 1900, when Americans ate much more than now, but were almost all thin?
Sleep and arousal are not simple states; sleep ranges from deep sleep to highly creative dreaming, and arousal varies from doziness to passionate interest, wild excitement, and manic enthusiasm.
Reproduction is not just sex; it involves a few minutes of sex followed by nine months of pregnancy and 20 years of child-rearing. Human birth and child-rearing require assistance (see Hrdy 1998). Biologists, especially male ones, often write as if human reproduction was all “mate selection” and the sex act. Darwinian selection has operated on the entire process, including the whole social program associated with birth, development, and education (Hrdy 1998; Zuk 2002). Humans are programmed to learn from peers, elders, and indeed almost anyone, as well as from parents (see Harris 1998). Unlike many animals, we learn throughout life, and in a multiplicity of ways.
In the face of this, Douglas Kenrick and associates have recently redone Maslow’s classic table (Kenrick et al. 2010). Acknowledging the huge amount of attention to mating and parenting needs in recent years, they now see the list as: Immediate physiological needs, self-protection, affiliation, status/esteem, mate acquisition, mate retention, parenting. They provide a very thorough discussion of the recent Darwinian theorizing on all these. Oddly, they miss the control needs.
We return now to human higher-order needs. People everywhere clearly have a primary need to feel in control of their lives and situations (Anderson 1996; Heckhausen and Schulz 1995, 1999). The control needs presumably derive from primal fear and the basic animal need for security and safety. Humans need more: we need not only to feel secure, but also to feel we have autonomy, that we know enough to exercise it effectively, and that we have the physical and mental ability to execute the plans so constructed.
These needs for various aspects of control are the biological bases of the human need for feelings of self-efficacy. Albert Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy (Bandura 1982, 1986) is foundational to much of social science. Humans have to feel that they are able to manage enough of their lives, critically including their social lives, to give them what they need in the world, including social position. To the extent we feel out of control, we first fight against whatever is restraining us; even a newborn will struggle against restraint of motion. If that fails, people fall into despond, depression, and inaction.
What matters is perceived self-efficacy, not some objective “reality.” Most people are fairly realistic about it, but many give up in spite of obvious opportunity, and others keep fighting long after all is lost. Those who give up generally turn out to have had some major and unmanageable problem in childhood, such as alcoholic or abusive parents. Even certain success is foregone by self-handicappers (Bandura 1986). The perseverers turn out to have had the opposite experience: a background of fighting through, somehow, against long odds.
All this leads to some imperfections in the human condition, dashing the optimism that comes from belief in human rationality. People insecure in their self-efficacy are defensive. This most obviously takes the form of open aggression, but most children are disciplined for that. They learn to be passive-aggressive, treacherous, or at worst vengefully self-destructive.
Control needs may add to the normal animal need for security. Notoriously, people will do anything to feel secure. But the opposite can happen too: teenagers show control by seeing how fast the family car will go. Indian ascetics strive for control over their bodies. Insecure, aggressive people strive for control over other people.
Few data exist on the different phenomenology of being at the mercy of natural forces as opposed to being controlled by other people. My Chinese and Maya rural friends, and the rural Americans among whom I spent my youth, lived very much at the mercy of nature: hurricanes, typhoons, floods, droughts, crop failures. Yet they felt fairly well in control of their lives. They shrugged off the disasters as “fate” and went on coping. Modern urban Americans are not subjected to such disasters, but their worlds are dominated by bosses, politicians, and giant corporations. Even their entertainment and diversion is canned in Hollywood. They seem to feel a quite different kind of stress from those who must create their own lives in the face of often-hostile nature. Facing the latter often breeds independence and self-reliance. Facing the urban social world is much more prone to create feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and alienation. In China I encountered a saying: “Better sink in water than among people; if you sink in water you can swim, but if you sink among people you can do nothing.”
This is the “learned helplessness” of Martin Seligman, who has emphasized that people can also learn optimism and get out of the despond trap (Seligman 1990). But helplessness in the face of control loss is not just learned. It is a natural response. The natural animal response to threat is to flee or fight, but if those fail, the animal cowers down and tries to stay as invisible as possible. It hides in a den or hole, or just crouches in the grass. (This is probably a main biological root of depression, though grief and loss are also important in that condition.) This is the passivity of people whose horizons are restricted and whose options are limited. Recently, Seligman’s coworker Steven Maier has learned that the response is mediated through the dorsal raphe nucleus (in rats and presumably all mammals; see Dingfelder 2009). This is a rather primitive and general emotional processor within the brain. Getting control and coping involves activity in the more recently evolved ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a structure highly developed in humans.
The control needs involve not only physical control of surroundings, but also understanding them. Like security, knowledge is a much wider and more basic need; every animal has to know enough to find food. But humans go much farther. We want simply to know. We enjoy learning facts simply because they may come in useful some day. We need to know what will happen. This is not just a want but a literal life-and-death need (Anderson 1996; Baumeister 2005). The desire to know and understand seems somewhat a separate system in the mind, though psychological studies show that it too grows from the control need. The need for knowledge is different from the need for outright social power. Enjoyment of learning appears to arise, ultimately, from the value of understanding the world for one’s control of one’s life. There may be two separate systems here; or, perhaps, we are merely judging components of one system by their different results.
The need for security can be sated in normal individuals. When they feel safe and accepted, they go on to something else. But the wider, derived control needs are somewhat open-ended; unlike (normal) thirst, hunger, or desire for sex, they do not get automatically satiated by gratification. Some people wind up constantly needing control: they are “control freaks,” “power junkies,” or “rigid personalities.” Some individuals, driven perhaps by deep insecurity, seem literally mad for power. Their need, like the fire in Ecclesiastes, is never filled, and the result has been a world history of disasters. Except for such people, Nietzsche’s claim that humans have a basic desire for “power” is simply wrong.
Fortunate those whose need for control is channeled into a need for understanding! They have the best of all worlds, a life spent in learning and in enjoying it. Possibly we can work at rechanneling the needs of the “control freaks” into healthy desire to accumulate more knowledge.
Finally, a dramatic recent finding by Brandon Schmeichel and Kahleen Vohs (2009) shows that one’s values are critical to maintaining this sense of control. In a wide range of experiments, they showed that loss of self-efficacy was repaired by simply listing and explaining one’s core values. A sharp and thought-provoking contrast with pleasant words and reassurance emerged from these studies: reaffirming core values made people feel not only a lot better about themselves, but back in control, confident of their personhood. Nice words reassured them about their social situation and disarmed anger and sulking, but did not fix the low sense of self. This reminds us of the advice of the stoic philosophers, especially Marcus Aurelius: keep your principles and you can endure the world’s harms. Easy for him to say—he was Emperor of Rome!—but it seems to work even for those of us who have much less real control of our world.
“One of the unpardonable sins, in the eyes of most people, is for a man to go about unlabelled. The world regards such a person as the police do an unmuzzled dog, not under proper control.” –T. H. Huxley (Gross 1983:58)
Randall Collins (2001) postulates an “emotional energy,” not really either emotion or energy, but the inner state produced by rewards and recognition in social interactions. Every interaction produces some if this commodity. Positive energy accrues to those who get approval and approbation. Common English recognizes many kinds of emotional flow in interactions. Approbation, status, warmth, affection, liking, and other good things contrast with criticism, censure, annoyance, and disapproval. Worse are rejection, anger, fury, and hate.
Warm and close sociability is the highest pleasure. The naïve may think “sex” is the highest; the experienced will recall the difference between sex-without-love and sex-with-love. The social needs include needs for love, recognition, sense of a “place” in society, and just plain ordinary socializing. We humans love gossip (Dunbar 2004). Our favorite recreation is hearing about (and, often, interfering with) the lives of other people. This finds modern expression in reading novels, watching movies and TV, or obsessively following the lives of “celebrities.”
How much of a typical human’s enjoyment is solitary? How much is simply the enjoyment of social contact? Good sex is more about personal intimacy than about twitching. Conversation and most artistic activities are social. Good food and drink are more than doubly good when shared. Of all pleasures, perhaps only meditation and the enjoyment of nature are better when done solo. Art, dance, and sports have an ultimately rewarding and pleasant aspect quite apart from their social side, but they are more fun with others. An Arab proverb says that “God does not count against your life the time spent in good company,” and modern medicine agrees. It is literally true that the more good sociability one has, the longer one lives.
We need social life so much that people will endure any abuse, oppression, and cruelty to avoid ostracism or life in a bleak companionless setting. Women endure abusive relationships. Children removed from unspeakable family situations cry to “go home,” especially if they are put in a cold, impersonal shelter. The abject conformity of much of 20th century life, with its mass media, uniform clothing styles, and monotonously identical shopping centers with the same chain franchises, is apparently preferable to loneliness. Isolation and anomie are frightening, and people do anything to conform to what they see as social expectations. Those who do not observe the conventions are enemies, or at least untrustworthy. This was even more true in the 1940s and 1950s than now, so the best analyses come from that period: Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941) and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (Riesman et al. 1950).
Incidentally, to anticipate a later section on “individualism” versus “collectivism,” the almost insanely abject conformists of Fromm’s and Riesman’s all-too-accurate accounts were precisely the people who talked most about “American Individualism.” The same is true today; those who claim to idealize “individualism” are those who are most paranoid about immigrants, homosexuals, Muslims, and so on and on. They endlessly agitate to outlaw all such deviant behaviors. They have even idealized junk food, simply because it is American, and denounce critics of junk food as “food Nazis.” The left-wing equivalents talk of “personal liberty” but enforce political correctness. All this proves once again the general principle that people idealize what they want for themselves, not what they actually have, and—conversely—tend to hate most in others what they secretly hate most in themselves (in this case, mindless followership).
All studies show that people are happy in proportion to their warm, supportive social group. Loners, rich or poor, are less happy than warmly social people. Change in social status makes the most difference in happiness. Loss of a loved one is the cause of the deepest grief, and that grief does not go away soon. Many people will not eat to live unless they are socializing. Meals on Wheels, an organization that brings meals to elderly or invalid shut-ins, has its workers stay to share mealtimes, knowing that people will often starve to death if they have no one to eat with.
Social place, social acceptance, social validation are all-important. Banishment and ostracism are the worst punishments short of death, and sometimes death is preferred; suicide is often the result of loss of social position, whether by shame (as in Japanese seppuku) or loneliness and isolation (as in many American and European suicides, especially of older people).
Humans have a powerful compulsion to establish, maintain, and when possible improve one’s social place. People live for social approbation. The American individualist or independent self-made entrepreneur reacts with fury and despair to the least threat or challenge to his or her social standing. This is not merely “belonging” and is not confined to “love.” It is a matter of having a defined, stable, secure place in a social group. One needs to have a secure position, with status, role, group recognition, reciprocity, authority, and nurturance more or less reliably assured. Conversely, a chance word can ruin a lifetime friendship.
All societies have countless rules and visible signs to tell who is “in” and who is “out.” Membership in the group is shown by everything from skin color and language to tattoos and ritual scarification. Status in the group is shown by the same: the higher-ups speak a different way (as Shaw’s Pygmalion reminded the world). Every society must have painful, unpleasant, or at least foolishly arbitrary markers of belonging. They are “costly signaling,” in psychological jargon: they are hard to fake, and no one would do them for individual satisfaction. These markers range from scars to uncomfortable clothing to rigid body postures to endless boring ceremonies. The obsessive watching of awful films and TV programs in the United States is arguably the same thing. One watches them to show that one will undergo any suffering, even watching Hollywood TV, in order to be “with it.”
Individual nonconformists (even those that cannot help themselves, like the mentally ill) and highly visible minority groups are united in a category of “foldbreakers.” Such people are not only hated and despised; they are “unacceptable,” “inappropriate,” “disapproved,” “sinful,” “shameful,” and so on and on. Social rejection is a quite different matter from ordinary personal hatred. Individual hatred can be controlled, but social rejection leads to genocide.
Failure of mutual aid and support follow lack of personal closeness, or accumulation of minor hurts and threats. These weaken social bonds and make cooperation difficult. Businesses are torn by rivalries and bickering. Academic departments are almost always riven by petty jealousies and lack of close bonding. This is devastating to work, but it always seems to happen, and very rarely is anything done about it. The world at large is ruined by lack of solidarity, lack of responsibility, and petty annoyances. Religion and morality exist largely to minimize this, but often make it worse. They bond the members of a group together, but often interfere with bridging to other groups.
Many, perhaps all, of us stay alive only because of some goal beyond ourselves—helping our families, for instance, or living for an ideal. Viktor Frankl, surviving a Nazi death camp, found his fellow survivors to be those animated by such higher callings (Frankl 1959, 1978). Those who had nothing to live for did not live. The higher callings were family or social group or a life-project relating to improving the human world. Thus, these wider goals seem to be the highest level of the social need (see also Seligman 2006; cf. “self-actualization,” Maslow 1970). The degree to which this need for meaning is inborn is controversial, but unquestionably these concerns tap something very deep in the human mind. Franklian meaning therefore seems to come from—though not to end with—doing something for one’s group, and from having a real place in that group based on this self-sacrificing action. Even very young children feel terribly proud and pleased when they do something for others, and more so if they get some recognition for it. Franklian meaning is important enough to have become a very effective component of therapy for depression and other cognitive problems (Seligman 2006).
So people do “not live by bread alone.” They do not live for bread at all. For the human animal, life is about maintaining family relationships, social place, and overall social security. Bread is merely a means of staying alive for that end.
Control and Social Needs in Conflict
The needs for control and sociability lie behind the notorious cross-pull between autonomy and affiliation that defines the human condition. People desperately want and need freedom. But humans also desperately want and need support, social acceptance, and warm social life. These needs are always getting in each other’s way, since living in society involves checking one’s more disruptive individual desires (Bandura 1986). Only the most sensitive of families or communities can give people a reasonable balance. Failure is deadly; a job with high demands but low levels of control over one’s work greatly increases the chance of heart disease.
Humans need society, but they find social stimuli to be daunting, and strong emotion to be downright threatening. Any strong emotion, even love, can seem invasive or aggressive. It brings the affiliation vs. autonomy conflict to the fore.
This leads to social codes that enjoin low-key, gentle social behavior, and discourage open expression of emotions. Politeness and civility codes always stress the need to seem tolerant and calm. Almost all that are known to me strongly discourage open expression of emotion, especially negative and aggressive emotion. One exception—the idealization of “talking about feelings” in America in the 1960s and 1970s—withered with amazing rapidity. People learned that they not only did not want to hear about others’ feelings, they were actually stressed and frightened by them. Even positive emotions were stressful, let alone negative ones. By 2000, people were back to status quo ante: idealizing the strong silent male and the warm but tactfully reserved female. Stephen Pinker (2007) argues convincingly that human sociability requires indirection, exaggerated gentleness, and pulling emotional punches. Humans simply cannot handle bluntly direct communication.
A better resolution is empowerment. This concept has languished long in the realm of dreams—a high-sounding word that somehow says what we all know we need, but lacks much real definition. Finally the team of Lauren Cattaneo and Aliya Chapman have given it a working definition (see Cattaneo and Chapman 2010). They see it as an iterative process in the direction of “personally meaningful and power-oriented goals” (Cattaneo and Chapman 2010:646). These are a problem; one normally has to fiigure out what one’s long-term and short-term goals really are. Most of us go through life without thinking enough about that. Then, to achieve said goals, we need “self-efficacy [Bandura again], knowledge, [and] competence” (Cattaneo and Chapman 2010:646). One then has to act, and then think about how well the actions work—what impact they have. Ideally, this gives one mastery over one’s life and ability to deal with social situations (the article goes on to make clear how one can actually do all this).
All societies have some degree of hierarchy; the most egalitarian hunter-gatherer group recognizes its elders, its best hunters, and its best group leaders. Yet when real status hierarchies emerge, few like them, and all too many amoral power-seekers take
advantage of them.
In all societies, the irreducible need for autonomy and control plays against the social system. All social systems find ways of managing it, but the ways differ greatly according to local circumstances. The social construction of resistance, power, and autonomy is a compromise between the strong and the weak, as well as between control needs and social needs.
Social-place jockeying often takes the form conspicuous consumption, often miscalled “greed” but really a major sacrifice of wealth in the name of social showing off. Alternatively, social-place jockeying involves the most unpleasant and infuriating of all social games: the endless worries about slights and imagined slights, cutting remarks, and so on. These are managed, with varying degrees of success, by ignoring them, attacking the perpetrators, displacing anger onto weaker people (especially minority groups), joining a monastery, or trying to talk things out civilly. The last is the only one with much hope of success, but is rarely used, because it can cause major fights. “Honor” (and its violent consequences; Baumeister 1997, 2005) is notoriously a socially damaging coping mechanism. The drive for “power” in the Nietzschean sense, and the oppression of minority groups, both stem largely from this general social insecurity. Real co-work is actually the best cure; people who have to depend on each other will work things out eventually.
This has parallels in other social animals. Gorillas drum their chests. Nightingales try to outsing each other; their night song is for the females, their dawn song for rival males.
Religions address group solidarity—even urging love or compassion—and attack the most notoriously bad coping strategies: selfishness, greed, and insensate drive for power. They also urge communicants to accept each other, and often to close ranks against everyone else. This is one more proof that religion is about social life, not about explaining origins or about managing “altered states.” Religion gets most of its traction from providing social place, support, and empowerment. At least, it should stop the cycle of social cuts and responses. Fascism, Stalinism, Maoism, and other fanatical secular movements have replaced religion in these areas in the last hundred years, but afford no improvement.
In short, social science in the last 200 years has stood Hobbes on his head. Instead of society forming from the “warre of each against all,” the “warre” forms from society gone wrong. Humans are naturally social; they fall into civil war when social hate and rejection get out of control and economic problems exacerbate the conflict. When a human society actually approximates Hobbesian “warre,” it has often gotten there through social rivalries and perceived slights (Baumeister 1997).
Reformers often want to improve material conditions, since those are most concrete, most easily fixable, and most immediate. But, pace the economists, it is the social and control needs that actually motivate people. Material conditions are created through politics. Improving material conditions is certainly desirable, but must wait on dealing with political problems: solidarity versus hatred,active helping versus passive conforming. Improving material conditions would help more people faster, but governments, businesses, and organizations will not help unless political and social forces make them do it. Politics is about regulating social life. In spite of Marx and the “public choice” writers, it is not primarily about material interests or individual amoral power-maximizing. It is about social place and group competition. Politics and other conflicts, especially in hierarchy situations, are more about group hate than about rationality. Public choice theorists who think that political behavior is rational live in a dream-world.
If people have a fair, responsive government, they will solve their own material problems unless they are utterly destitute of resources. If they do not have a decent government, nothing helps much; they government rips off anything donated and the people sink into despair.
Ashley Montagu, many years ago, wrote a book called The Biosocial Nature of Man (1973; of course he meant to include women; “man” was the general term then). He stressed the biological grounding of human sociability. Indeed, we are the heirs of millions of years of evolution as a social species.
One of the more thought-provoking findings of biology is that people are individuals all the way down. No two people, not even identical twins, are identical in anatomy and physiology. The differences in nutritional needs, psychological predispositions, and even functional anatomy between unrelated individuals can be very striking indeed. As early as 1956, Roger Williams, in his book Biochemical Individuality (1956), emphasized this point, on the basis of his pioneering studies of nutrition. He found that, among armadillos, even identical quadruplets had slightly different nutritional requirements. He was also the discoverer of several of the B-complex vitamins.
People differ considerably within even very narrow compass. My identical-twin nieces, raised together and doing everything together all their lives, have startlingly different personalities and interests. Genes make them broadly similar, but growth and experience have had effects. Those media stories of identical twins reared apart who gave their daughters the same name, liked the same pickles, and so on, are highly suspect. Take any two people from similar cultural backgrounds and you will discover a lot of surprising resemblances. Add tabloid exaggeration and even downright invention, and you get those stories.
There is still room for a lot of thought about why genetics “allows” so much free variation. Even dogs and horses vary. Humans have increased the range of variation by selecting fierce and meek strains of dogs, “hot-blooded” and “cold-blooded” horses, and so on. Humans are about as genetically homogeneous an organism as the world affords. We, like cheetahs, seem to have passed through a narrow genetic bottleneck not long ago, probaby at the dawn of modern humanity some 100,000-200,000 years ago. Yet we have not only a great deal of physical variation, but also—cross-cutting it—a great deal of variation in basic personality. Both of these cross-cut cultural variation, ensuring that everyone is truly unique. We have the full range from introverts to extraverts, neat to sloppy people, leaders to followers, scoundrels to saints, happy-go-luckies to perpetually terrified neurotics, wild thrill-seekers and adventurers to stay-at-homes who never try a different restaurant. Not a few sibling sets show almost the full range.
Brain chemistry and physiology differ between individuals (Damasio 1994). Differences in experience—so obvious to us all—thus work on differences already “wired in” (Harris 1998, 2006). The differences are subtle—matters of secretion of a bit more or less neurotransmitter, or numbers of neurons in some part of the brain—but they may have profound effects. It is worth reflecting, when one reads about the pathological cases reported by Damasio, that these cases do not contrast to some uniform “normal” which can stand as the one “healthy” brain. Normalcy is a matter of approximation and degree.
Over time, also, individuals change, for reasons not well understood. Basic personality is remarkably stable over the life course—the shy baby will probably grow up to be shy at 90 (Kagan 1998; Kagan and Snidman 2004)—but much else can change somewhat. Everyone with much time on this planet knows many who have “shaped up” and many others who unexpectedly “went wrong.” The clichés tell us that the former “had internal strength” or “were saved by love,” the latter “had a fatal flaw” or “fell in with bad company.” Actually, we don’t know much about it. In the one good long-term study I have seen, Emmy Werner and collaborators (Werner 1989; Werner and Smith 1982) found that a strong family with solid values predicts success even after early troubles, while a dysfunctional family or upbringing can lead to disaster even after a good start. Werner and her group also found that the military or the community colleges turned around many kids who were headed down a dubious path. Studies of responses to illness or to loss of a loved one show similar variation.
Religious conversion often does not seem to have much effect, contrary to stereotypes. One of my students, Jean Bartlett, studied religious conversion in California (Bartlett 1984), and found that people usually stuck with the faith of their parents or some extremely similar faith. Failing that, they shopped around until they found a sect that was congenial to their lifestyle. Theology had little to do with it. Practical rules, such as avoiding meat or alcohol, mattered much more. Seekers eventually sorted with people of similar educational background, class status, emotional makeup, everyday habits, and even musical taste. Few of these seekers even understood the theology of the sects they joined—let alone cared about such abstruse matters. To the credit of religion, some converts did kick drug and alcohol habits and turn their lives around. Most, however, sought a religion that let them do what they were doing anyway.
When the liberals of the 18th century fought and died for freedom of religion, many of them no doubt did so in the fond belief that, once people had a free choice, everyone would naturally see that the particular faith these 18th-century sages espoused was the “right” one. Things did not work out that way. Left to themselves, people opted for everything from Seventh-Day Adventism to Wiccan, depending on personal variables. The chef Louis Ude described the English as having “a hundred religions and only one sauce” (Anderson 2014) because religious uniformity was imposed—violently—on France. (Who imposed sauce uniformity on England?) In the modern United States, we have far more than a hundred, if we do as Ude did and count each sect separately.
Individuals differ so much that, when a market offers only one or two choices, one can safely infer that there is something very wrong with the market. People seem to want choices even when the differences are insignificant, as between commodities and brands that are tightly regulated.
These subtle differences between people may not make the obvious differences that cultural differences do. However, they provide a substrate for cultural interpretation. Even if two people were exposed to exactly the same cultural influences, they would come out with slight differences in behavior, because they would interpret and respond differently to the same stimuli. In practice, of course, they are never given the same experiences. Brilliant approximators that we are, we can always find common ground, and describe our culture in generally accurate ways. We all know that no two people speak English or Navaho in exactly the same way, or have exactly the same religious beliefs or personal habits. But we can communicate perfectly well and share understanding to a great extent.
These facts are rather devastating to much of social theory. Traditional anthropology, sociology, and related fields were usually based on the assumption of uniformity or near-uniformity among people in the group in question. Even the postmodern age, with its much more sensitive awareness of multivocality and diversity, has not really coped with the full implications of individual variation. We continue to talk about and relentlessly essentialize “blacks” and “whites” and even “Asians/Pacific Islanders” as if these were homogeneous populations.
Personality Shapes Knowledge
Innate personality characteristics, in the good old Hippocratic-Galenic medical tradition, were known as “temperament.” Originally, the humors—blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile—were supposed to be in balance. Relative excess of one or another caused disorders of thought. The balance was the “temperament” in question. We still use the Hippocratic-Galenic language today, to describe personality, though we have abandoned (only in the last two centuries!) the explanation. In Galenic thought, having too much bile (choler) resulted in what we still call a “bad temper” or being “choleric.” Phlegm makes one “phlegmatic.” Having a lot of blood makes one “sanguine,” but real excess of blood makes one manic. Having a lot of these humors (especially blood) made one “humorous.” Black bile, melancholia in Greek, is the dead blood that clogs the bile duct and neighboring intestine in serious cases of malaria or liver disease. Having too much of it was thought to produce melancholy. Indeed, having malaria or hepatitis is not great for one’s mood.
Several modern theorists have worked on issues of temperament and of inborn personality dispositions. We have come surprisingly close to the old Galenic ideas. Carl Jung (1969) recognized that their value as emotional classification outlived the inferred mechanism via body fluids. Building on Jung, modern four-factor theories of temperament (Keirsey and Bates 1978; Myers 1980) recapitulated some of the old ideas. Jerome Kagan’s more free-floating theory of temperament has also continued the tradition (Kagan 1998).
Modern five-dimension theories of personality drew yet again on this system, and independently rediscovered more of it (McCrae and Costa 1989; Wiggins 1996). Today, the basic factors of personality in the standard system are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (McCrae and Costa 1989). Liberals, or perhaps more accurately moderates, are higher in openness than conservatives; thugs are lower in agreeableness than most of us; procrastinators are low in conscientiousness.
These five seem all real traits, but their opposites are not always such. In particular, a person may be less than conscientious because of born laziness, or because of defiant hate of authority, or because of inability to get her life together, or because of disease. A person who is lacking openness may be defensive, or just raised in a very traditional community.
In terms of this theory, the sanguine personality is, in general, extraverted, agreeable, not very conscientious, open, and not neurotic—though manic when carried to extremes. The choleric is extraverted, not usually agreeable, not very conscientious, not very open, somewhat neurotic in that cholerics are sensitive and easily angered. The phlegmatic is introverted, somewhat agreeable, not very conscientious, not open, and not particularly neurotic. Phlegmatics are the slow, lazy, easy-going but serious ones among us. The melancholic is introverted, not usually very agreeable, quite conscientious, usually open, and generally rather neurotic—more to the point, the melancholic is depressed, even to the point of mental illness (see Robert Burton’s classic The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1932 ).
Those particular five are not necessarily cast in stone. There are several other systems, with three to seven basic factors. Cross-culturally, everybody seems to recognize extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, but not MacRae and Costa’s other two; conversely, many recognize honesty as a basic trait (De Raad et al. 2010).
A properly complex social life should provide lots of opportunities for different personality types to flourish. Another trait theory of personality, the Briggs-Myers theory (Myers 1980; McCrae and Costa 1989), is explicitly based on the assumption that personality polymorphy is desirable. Different personality types fit together to produce a successful society (Keirsey and Bates 1978 provide a superb discussion of this. Incidentally, the most sexist comment I have ever seen in a learned journal was a dismissal of the Briggs-Myers theory because it was developed by “a housewife.” In fact, Katherine Briggs (the developer of the Briggs-Myers theory) was a trained psychologist. In her day, the misfortune of being born female doomed her to “housewife” status).
The five-factor evaluative dimensions are all judgmental terms. The older Briggs-Myers test carefully avoided this, and did not assess for highly negative traits, but this fact rather narrows its application. We often want to test for evil. On the other hand, telling a testee that he is at the bottom on agreeableness and conscientiousness will not win his confidence. This is not helped by the vagueness of these factors; one can be disagreeable either by being a general curmudgeon or by loving some and hating others, and one can be conscientious either by being honest and above-board or by being highly loyal. A mafioso might test very high in conscientiousness. A sorry commentary on the human race is that a person at the 50th percentile on the OCEAN test is not a particularly pleasant or likable sort. Humans are sociable, but perhaps more because they are scared of aloneness than because they like people.
Fortunately, today, personality psychologists are escaping the tyranny of the “normal.” Increasing numbers argue that various innate and early-learned predispositions create quite different types of personality, all of which are equally valid and valuable (Keirsey and Bates 1978; McCrae and Costa 1989, 1997; Myers 1980; Ozer and Benet-Martínez 2006). These psychologists glory in difference. They argue that a well-run enterprise should have people of several different types, mutually supporting each other.
Differences in Big Five traits correlate with everything from success in business to crime and addiction (Ozer and Benet-Martínez 2006; Wiggins 1996). Business successes are extraverted and agreeable, criminals are high in openness (e.g. to lawbreaking) and neuroticism.
In the human career, there has been a singular lack of convergence on a single personality type. I sometimes debate with my old friend, personality psychologist Dan Ozer, whether individual variation was random fluctuation about a middle point (his position) or actively selected for by disruptive selection (my hunch). In fact, natural selection has selected for a range of skills, personality types, and inclinations, among animals as among people. Max Wolf and collaborators (Wolf et al. 2007) have provided an explanation for some of this. They point out that animals differ in behavioral commitment to a long future. Some, like mice, follow a live-fast-die-young strategy; others, like elephants, follow a careful strategy to insure a long life. Now, if these differences may be expected to occur within a species, we would see personality differences, at least in risk-taking and in risky behaviors like aggression and combat. Wolf et al. provide mathematical models of how this could easily happen.
Some striking evidence for the value of personality differences comes from the fact that even bees show them, and there is a clear advantage for the bees. Some bees, when foraging, are much more prone to seek out new sites. These have more catecholamine, glutamate, and gamma-aminobutryric acid in their brains, pretty much like novelty-seeking humans—people who score high in openness. The neurotransmitters involved in this seem highly conserved from the common ancestor of insects and people.
Daniel Nettle has argued that natural selection has operated to maintain a large amount of variation along these dimensions (Nettle 2009). Even animals display personality differences (Ley and Bennett 2007). Nettle argues from the differential successes of human types in mating and social life. Extraverts get more sexual partners but introverts tend to be steadier at staying with a mate. Agreeable people obviously do better than disagreeable ones in ordinary social life, but disagreeable ones may protect themselves better in bad situations or when conformity backfires.
We can see the advantages to hunter-gatherers of having different types of people in the group. Extraverts organize hunts, but introverts are better at lone searches. Agreeable people cooperate in the search, but disagreeable ones fight off raiders and enemies. Neurotics stay home and have visions, and may become curers. Openness leads to more exploration, but its opposite leads to patiently working over the same old root-and-seed patch, day after day. Conscientious people take care of others, but off-the-wall types and ADHD youths take chances on new hunting grounds, wander about spotting game trails, and imagine new possibilities for toolmaking.
Personality traits seem generally distributed in a vaguely “normal” way, in the statistical sense: they produce bell curves. So do the traits to be discussed below, like intelligence. But we usually have little knowledge of why this is so.
An interesting, but tentative, study by Aurelio Figuerdo and colleagues (2007) found evidence that the “good” ends of the Big Five scale (agreeableness, conscientiousness, etc.) correlate with health, good self-care, stable marriage, good care for children, and stable social life; this is not surprising (it fits with Big Five theorists’ findings). The investigators go on to see this as all produced by selection for stable family caretaking. Investing a great deal in a few children, rather than a very little in a very large number of young, used to be called “K selection” in biology, and Figuerdo et al. hypothesize a new genetic style of “Super-K.” Humans are very K-selected relative to, say, codfish or sponges, or even monkeys. Some humans appear to be more K-selected than others—though any genetic differences are blanked, in practice, by the horribly damaging effects on family life of chronic poverty and social instability. Poor people in traditional village settings tend to act K, or Super-K, but the slum-dwelling poor, homeless poor, and others in unstable contexts may become less K (or more “r,” to use the old jargon).
However, obviously, the “bad” ends of the Big Five would have been selected out of the human species long ago if they didn’t have value in raising children. Less conscientious parents may be more fun and rewarding. Less agreeable and open ones will discipline their children more, which may be necessary in many contexts. Neurotic parents will make sure their children take no chances. The group that prospers is the one that has enough variation that it is prepared for anything.
A long literature on Big Five traits as adaptive has now developed, especially since even the biologists have admitted that animals clearly show them. Every dog owner knows that some dogs are more extraverted, some more neurotic, and certainly some more agreeable, and finally some attention has been devoted to evolutionary aspects of this. Moreover, personality traits have various adaptive values in humans (Alvergne et al. 2010—a source which reviews the literature, including the animals studies). Extraverted males leave more children in polygamous societies, as one might expect. In one case, neurotic women had more children but took less good care of them; however, in this study it is possible that the women became “neurotic” because of having many children and inadequate resources, rather than the other way round (Barbara Anderson, personal communication).
Jerome Kagan (Kagan 2006; Kagan and Snidman 2004) adds concern about “high arousal” and “low arousal” types of people. The former are more nervous, excitable, and easily scared under some circumstances; “low arousal” ones are more relaxed, outgoing, and able to cope with stress. Kagan, however, wisely emphasizes the problems of simple categories such as “fear” or “arousal.” He points out that we are betrayed by such vague, general words. A stimulus may produce fear in one situation, not in another. Fear in a fish probably doesn’t feel like fear in a human. Also, there are different types of fear; a sudden encounter with a rattlesnake on a narrow trail is not the same as brooding over rising sea levels caused by global warming. Kagan also unpacks “self-esteem,” noting that an extremely ambiguous, complex set of concepts is measured in standard psychological studies by a ten-minute test (Kagan 2006:232).
All this leads to a conclusion rather astonishing to anyone of my generation: personality cross-cuts culture, rather than being caused or formed by it (see below under Culture).
Moreover, there are still many areas of personality left unsampled by the Briggs-Myers and Big Five measures. Courage is left out, to say nothing of the distinction between courage, bravery, and foolhardiness. Aesthetics is left out. It is a complex diminesion; some peole are highly competent, apparently “naturally” (whatever that may mean), at music or painting or other arts, but show no inclination to follow up and work at it; others are inept, but live by art anyway. I am one of the latter; untalented at music, I love it to the point of being utterly unable to live without it, and thus sing and play guitar a good deal of the time, in spite of the fact that no one but my wife can stand the result. Of those who are gifted, they take different tracks. My son the artist designs sophisticated computer websites, interfaces, and systems instead of painting.
People also differ in levels of awe, reverence, devotion, and other spiritual emotions. Psychologists rarely want to touch this, though there are some studies of mysticism. Sociological studies routinely confuse religiosity in the sense of going to church (the ones I have seen were done on American and European Christians) with emotional spirituality. Going to church may measure nothing more than conformity, or boredom on Sunday, or peer pressure. It does not necessarily measure anything deeply religious or spiritual. (I am writing a book on religion, and defer further discussion and citation to it.)
Motivation is also, broadly speaking, left out, though the received personality types do somewhat track it. Particular ambitions are left out. Above all, interest is left out. Why are some people interested in everything (like Leonardo da Vinci) while others are content to watch sports on TV forever? Why are some interested in philosophy, some in Civil War history, some in birdwatching, and some in sleeping in the shade? We can trace interest to influence—people usually pick up their interests from older peers, or parents, or sometimes from books—but we do not really understand more than that.
As a professor, I found the most maddening, disappointing, and draining of my tasks was dealing with student disinterest. It is simply impossible for an ordinary professor, given the short contact times we usually have, to get most students interested in a subject. Many students are interested only in parties. A few gifted and charismatic professors can really whip up student interest, but this really is a rare skill and hard to learn. Yet, in spite of obvious need, there are—to my knowledge—no studies of why people differ in levels of interest in general, and precious few on why they differ in their hobbies and obsessions.
The same is true of differences in intelligence. I have purposely left “intelligence” out of this book, because the literature on it is a nest of nightmares. But the point must be made here that there is still no believable evidence for significant differences in intelligence—however defined—between ethnic groups or any other large segments of the human race. Conversely, there are obvious and huge differences in both the level and the type of intelligence between individuals even within one family. Specific types of intelligence crosscut culture, bringing people close together across cultural lines.
The much-vaunted “g” factor that measures “intelligence” and is hereditary remains awfully hard to pin down. Being quite verbal and utterly inept at math, I am living proof that there is no “g factor” that makes one good at both. I know many mathematicians who are not especially verbal. The hereditary component of “g” remains refractory when socioeconomic status is ignored (in spite of claims to the contrary in the more extreme literature).
Instead, people seem to show different interests, abilities, and energies. My university has math geniuses from China, Russia, America, and India, communicating perfectly with each other (but not with me). On the other hand, I am in blissfully perfect communication with Maya woodsmen and Chinese fishermen over plants, animals, and weather; we share a mentality highly attuned to natural kinds. Indeed, intelligences, personality types, culture, and genetic background totally crosscut each other, with absolute abandon. The horribly vexed questions concerning “intelligence” have prevented social scientists from looking at this astonishing fact. It requires explanation. Why do we have math geniuses occurring at about the same rate everywhere? Why do we have verbal artists in all climes and places? Why do we have poor simple souls, unable to learn even ordinary facts, in all cultures and communities?
Personality Gets Serious: Culture and Mental Problems
Recently, controversy has swirled around such terms as “autism,” “Asperger’s syndrome,” and “ADHD.” These show diagnosis creep: they are diagnosed more and more often, for less and less cause. When I was young, autism meant complete shutdown: a child who was unable to speak or interact and who banged his (more rarely, her) head on the wall. Now, via “Asperger’s syndrome” (“mild autism”), it is used to label anyone slightly unsocial, thus creating a “false epidemic” (Frances 2010; see also Grinker 2008). ADHD has similarly crept up on us (Frances 2010); suffice it to say it is diagnosed ten to twenty times as often in the United States as in European countries (Dennis 2006). Some have cynically commented that it is sometimes merely an excuse for drugging “uppity” children, usually minority members, into calm, or for saving taxpayers’ money by eliminating recess and playgrounds (Dennis 2006).
People have always recognized mental illness—a strange, often incurable inability to manage life emotionally and intellectually. Traditional cultures generally regard it as some sort of supernatural condition; the mentally ill are “fools of God” or faery-children or victims of demons. Modern psychology has not always done better. Heredity has long been known to be a factor, but environment is also certainly involved, since identical twin studies show only about 50% or less congruence. Now it appears that extreme malnutrition can be involved in causing schizophrenia. Famines double the incidence (Reedy 2006).
Social theory has undertheorized the role of personal differences. The fall of the Great Man theory, so popular in the 19th century, led to an overreaction. So did the failures of early psychology to produce good personality theories. This led to a social-science assumption that all people are the same, or have to be treated by theorists as if they were. Moreover, Max Weber and others showed that situations—especially, the nature and number of followers—greatly influence leaders. This led to an idea that any reasonably competent person could be a leader; all that was needed was available followers (see Vroom and Jago 2007). Good leaders—not only successful, but morally good—appear in all societies, and really differ, to varying degrees, from us ordinary folk (Zaccaro 2007, and related articles in that issue of American Psychologist). Unfortunately, poor leaders are also universal (Kellerman 2004), and truly evil leaders are not only universal but common and successful (Lipman-Blumen 2006). Particularly interesting are the leaders who start out reasonably tolerable, or even good, and progressively decline into horrific evil. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is a recent example. Did he go mad, or senile, or did he simply get caught up in his own power? Other leaders seem in hindsight to have had fatal flaws that led in the end to apparently insane behavior. Zhu Yuanzhang, the brilliant founder of the Ming Dynasty and one of the most fascinating characters in history, was clearly paranoid-schizophrenic. He declined from erratic but spectacularly successful youth into mad old age. The same could be said of Emperor Theodore (Tewodros) of Ethiopia in the 19th century. Mao Zidong became more extreme and murderous throughout life.
In every culture, evil leaders can appeal to group hate. This always attracts vast numbers of people, especially young men willing to die for the cause. By contrast, leaders who want to do good have to depend on skilled and reflective secondary leaders who have the knowledge to carry out the mission. Whether the campaign is public health, economic development, organized military effort, or education, a leader-for-good has to rely on a pyramid of other leaders. Public health requires highly trained, highly motivated, independent, self-reliant medical personnel. Education requires similar ranks of teachers. This is notoriously rare, providing yet another reason why evil triumphs in the world. Institutions theoretically help the situation, providing platforms and training possibilities. Unfortunately, institutions become corrupted easily, by bad leaders or simply by ordinary foot-dragging and corner-cutting. Hierarchy, too, has its costs.
Age Shapes Personhood
Finally, age, life status, and other developmental factors shape the way culture plays out in individuals. The Big Five personality traits change over the life track; people get better (thank goodness), becoming more agreeable, open, conscientious, and and less extraverted and neurotic. However, all the first four of those decline dramatically from 10 to 13, picking up slowly after 14 or 15. Neuroticism rises during the same period, but only in young women; in men it just steadily and slowly declines, as it does in women after 15. Parents of teenagers will not be surprised by these findings (Soto et al. 2011).
The developmental cycle in individuals and in families changes all the ways culture is experienced. Children have their own subcultures. Youths have theirs, and are maximally open to learning about wider cultural matters—theirs and others’—but are also at the most headstrong stage of life. Aging brings wider life experience, and theoretically brings “wisdom.” However, it notoriously makes most people more rigid and defensive—“crotchety,” we used to say. Few indeed are those who can keep open minds and keep learning after 60. This should make worrisome the increasing dominance of world politics by the very old. (The average US Senator is now around 70). Older people often identify more and more tightly with a reference group that often is shrinking, or folding back on itself; they may return to the group of their childhood, or become more caught up in the micropolitics of their work or neighborhood. Rare, but not unknown and certainly valuable beyond all wealth, is the elder who can keep broadening his or her perspective and humanity throughout life.
Sudden successful fulfillment of an urgent need is one main source of human pleasure. We all know this about sex and about cold beer on a hot day, and practically every culture seems to have a proverb equivalent to “hunger is the best sauce.”
Arousal—whether by stimulants or by dangerous sports—can be a pleasure in its own right. The pleasures of sex seem usually to involve more effort in heightening desire than in satisfying it.
Feeling in control is a good feeling; pushing one’s sense of control to or beyond the limit (as on a roller coaster or in extreme sports) is exciting, and not just because of the physiology of “adrenaline rushes.” Learning and understanding satisfy a need and are truly enjoyable. We humans like to whip up curiosity and then satisfy it; consider the pleasure of mystery tales. Almost everyone seems to have a hobby: some one thing they want to learn about just because they enjoy learning.
Normally, however, such curiosity is structured by immediate need. People, like all other mammals, are usually interested in things only to the degree that they have a material or social reason to be interested. Throughout history, the vast majority of people, when faced with the need to know about anything beyond their social group, have simply accepted conventional wisdom or ancient book-learning. Always there is some interest, explaining the slow but steady progress of knowledge in all societies, but only in the west since 1500 has the drive to accumulate new knowledge become a major industry. The origins of this remain obscure, but correlations with the expansion of trade, business, and religious enquiry are obvious.
Among academics, learning is often a goal in itself—a pure pleasure, not just a way of knowing enough to cope. Academics forget that this is unusual, and make sour remarks about students who have a normal, instrumental attitude toward knowledge.
A professor who has built her life on analyzing the proteins in the fur of the two-toed sloth can never understand how students can fail to be absolutely fascinated, and can be hurt and angry when students persist in being bored with sloth proteins. What is astonishing is how many students do become interested in them if the teacher is inspiring. Truly, social charisma can do anything.
Some of us even have made a hobby of understanding everything! If only life were long enough…. Yet, worldwide, even among academics, the most interesting thing is always one’s social group, and gossip remains the major topic of conversation (Dunbar 2004).
Throughout history, hedonists have lived for their key pleasure, puritans have lived to stop them. The hedonist lives to eat. The puritan eats to live, and lives to blame the hedonist for immorality. Some people have sex only to produce children, others only for pleasure, others only as part of a love relationship. Such “revealed preferences”—the things people actually do, or spend their money on—keep surprising us.
Happiness in an activity can come from many sources, only one of which is the intrinsic pleasure of the activity. More often, the happiness or pleasure comes from social approbation. Something intrinsically unenjoyable seems pleasurable because “everybody does it,” or because we get respected for doing it. In fact, the whole point of many activities is that they are so unpleasant, difficult, and demanding that others are impressed by our ability to do them at all. Just as believing the preposterous is a great way of proving one is truly religious (Atran 2002, 2010), so torturing oneself to follow the latest media fad is a great way of proving one is part of the group. (The technical term for this is “costly signaling,” and it is almost universal among animals.)
Extreme sports are an example. Some people climb mountains just because they enjoy the activity and the view. Most of us who have this persuasion climb rather small mountains. Others want to triumph over nature, or over themselves. The most serious climbers, though, usually seem to have social approbation on their minds, however much they may also enjoy the peaks. They want the respect that comes from doing a “hairy” climb, especially if they can be the first to solo up south face in winter, or something of that nature.
Once a need is satisfied, further satisfaction is not usually pleasant. Our bodies tell us when we have had enough to eat, enough to drink, enough sex. They err less than you might think; eating 100 calories more than you burn up, every day, will make you gain a pound a month. Very few people do that.
The major exception here is the control need. It has no obvious satiation point. This is fine when one asserts control by knowing. It is less fine when one feels the need to control everyone and everything in the vicinity.
Money does indeed fail to buy happiness; it can buy “life satisfaction”—relative content with one’s life—but real positive feelings depend on “fulfillment of pscyhological needs: learning, autonomy, using ones skills, respect, and the ability to count on others” (Diener et al. 2010). In other words, on social and control need satisfaction. Even the “life satisfaction” seems to be more about keeping up with the Joneses than about the pleasures of wealth, for rising incomes do not cause notable rises in it, unless one moves from genuine want to genuine comfort.
On the whole, most of us are content to hold even, but people find real meaning in more demanding activities. The old German formula for a good life, made famous by Sigmund Freud, is “work and love.” Most people who seem deeply satisfied with life do indeed get their satisfaction from these two things (see Frankl 1959, 1978). They also get their real social place from those two, and social place is far more basic and deeply important than happiness or satisfaction. Thus, even correcting someone at a task is often taken as a deadly rejection, and produces anger that often seems highly disproportionate to the scale of the correction. This is one of the reasons administrators often burn out.
One might note how progressive restriction of level of explanation can operate in analyzing foodways (see Anderson 2014):
At the most basic biological level, we need the calories, protein, fats, vitamins, minerals.
We then need to avoid poisons and stay healthy.
We then need to figure out how to get all that for minimum effort or expense—to do “optimal foraging,” in the jargon.
This means, in an agricultural society, looking at crop ecology and other agricultural issues.
In a civilization, one has to worry about money and prices.
Then, that done, food always gets involved in social bonding: sharing, reciprocity, generosity. It marks religious and ethnic affiliation. It diffuses among neighbors.
It marks class, region, occupation, gender, age, and so on.
On a still smaller and more restricted level, it marks occasion: birthday, Christmas, business deal.
It allows individuals to show off and jockey for status.
It reveals social knowledge via ordinary etiquette.
Then, at all levels, it is affected by contingent histories and just plain accidents, including personal taste.
Social scientists have explained social systems in dozens of ways, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. We will find it useful to classify these, very roughly and crudely, into four types.
Mode 1 consists of rational need-satisfaction theories. Most of them are broadly materialist. These include straightforward biological functionalism: society seen as a way of getting food, shelter, and reproduction. It includes more complex materialist theories like Adam Smith’s cultural evolutionary dynamics, Marxism and other political economies, “rational choice theory,” and modern enviromental and ecological theories.
Mode 2 consists of explanations resorting largely to human instincts or innate tendencies. People clearly have inborn behavior. A smile is a smile everywhere, even if the Mona Lisa had her own brand.
Mode 3 consists of explanations that are broadly idealist—not in the sense of having high ideals, but in the sense of living according to ideas rather than material needs or evil wants. Most religious leaders thought, and think, this way. In western social science it was the view of Immanuel Kant, and since he essentially created most of modern social science, he had a truly profound influence on us all. His straight-line intellectual descendents included Dilthey, Boas, Parsons, Lévi-Strauss, and most of the other makers of modern sociology and anthropology.
Social functionalism, from Marx to Durkheim and the later functionalists, is a Kantian offshoot with considerable cross-fertilization from Mode 1. Social functionalists see that a society needs communication systems, a law code, a calendar, a leadership and power system, allocated roles, status and prestige, morals, festivals, and so on. These emergents cannot be predicted directly from physical needs; they have a social and interactive history.
Mode 4 is a broadly empirical tradition. Pure empiricists hold that one can simply observe and count behaviors, and get along by inferring minimal thought-processes behind the actions. Pure empiricists form a grand chain, from John Locke to B. F. Skinner. Locke was the least extreme, and in fact is really more an ancestor to Kant—an early scholar of cognitive processes. Since Kant, empiricists have been less and less able to resist taking account of thought processes. The pure-empiricist trend in social science ended with Skinner’s attempts to equate pigeon behavior in the lab with language learning (see Skinner 1957, 1959). This was so patently hopeless, and so memorably demolished by a famous review by Noam Chomsky (1959), that the pure empiricist program could not survive. However, modern experimental psychology, especially the heavily biological forms like neuropsychology, are derived from this lineage. They now take explicit account of ideas and mental phenomena, however (Damasio 1994; LeDoux 1996).
All four of the above have merit. Theories, as Michel Foucault (2007) reminds us, are a tool kit, not a religion. Every worker needs a whole set of tools. Unity comes in the result—fixing the house or the world—rather than in the means. You can’t fix even a simple toy with only one tool, and social theorists might reflect on that.
Theorists find their favorite level to explain. Biologists like the whole-species level. They prefer to explain the things that all people do everywhere. Human ecologists and political scientists are more restrictive, but still prefer the big picture: variations and history dynamics on a world scale. Interpretivists and cultural anthropologists like to look at cultures. Psychologists (except those who are basically biologists) like to look at individuals. To get the whole picture, one has to integrate all these.
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