More meandering on the motivations of man


  • Social brain

In my recent annual lecture I made the case (drawn from Cultural Theory) for distinguishing three fundamental sources of social power; hierarchical authority, solidarity and individual aspiration (whilst also recognising fatalism as the expression of a real or perceived absence of social power). It is an idea which raises many questions, one of which is why these drivers of behaviour are paramount. One possible answer lies in evolutionary psychology; the search for the foundations of human thought and motivation in the circumstances of our species' evolution.

Debates about human evolution can be both technical and controversial, which makes life difficult for the interested lay person. For example, while I instinctively back the group-selection arguments of David Sloan Wilson and EO Wilson over the selfish gene perspective of Richard Dawkins I couldn't pretend this is a judgment based on understanding the science or maths of either position.

The evolutionary corollary of my argument is that individualism, solidarity and hierarchical authority reflect the importance, respectively, of self-interest, reciprocity and leadership/followership as necessities for the survival and development of the human race.

On the one hand, this implies support for the view that the interests of the group may have been as important and fundamental to our evolution as individual (or genetic) survival (thus the innate capacity for solidaristic feeling). On the other hand, it introduces a third dimension. Backing for the latter is offered by the work of Mark van Vugt who makes the case for leadership and followership being distinct traits and essential to the evolution not just of humans but of all species which require some kind of collective organisation.

Supporters of reciprocity as an independent and essential trait (ie not just a by-product of individual survival strategies) point to evidence such as the ultimatum game, or surveys finding apparently universal ethical instincts, to make their case. Similarly, von Vugt highlights studies showing how we follow leadership even when there is little or no obvious benefit from so doing.

So it seems there may be evolutionary grounds for giving a special explanatory status to the typology; hierarchy, solidarity, individualism (and fatalism). Choosing this framework invites us to reject or seek to amend other typologies. For example, last week David Priestland spoke at the RSA about his typology of soldier, merchant, sage and worker. While there are clearly overlaps between the two frameworks (individualism/merchant, sage/solidarity, soldier/hierarchy) the ambiguity over the idea of caste (which David himself recognised at the event) left me preferring to focus on shifting ways of thinking and acting rather than fixed social status or role.

One interesting parallel with Cultural Theory lies in Freud’s structural view of the psyche in which the id is equated with individual survival/appetite, the ego with hierarchical rationality and the super-ego with solidaristic duty. Fatalism could also be linked to the Freud’s idea of the death drive.

But even if the case is made for my preferred typology, questions remain over its explanatory and practical value. The universe is made from a small number of basic particles, but not only is this knowledge of limited everyday value but to talk about objects in terms of their sub-atomic make-up would be deeply unhelpful in almost all practical circumstances.

One of the subtleties of Cultural Theory (or at least my interpretation of it) is its fractal nature. So, for example, in an organisation which is dominated by hierarchical models of change there might be a group of people articulating a solidaristic critique, but within this group there may be someone arguing for an individualistic form of resistance. Yet all the people involved in this social drama are themselves capable of favouring any of the four predispositions depending on the circumstances in which they find themselves (thus the most hierarchically minded person at work may be a champion of solidarism in their community).

But this subtlety also adds to complexity and makes it more difficult to apply the framework formulaically in any setting. At this point the theory feels to be less a set of rules and more a form of sensitivity towards, and favouring of, a particular pattern (of motivations and drivers). At this point the boundary between reasoned analysis and aesthetic appreciation starts to blur, something which was I guess implied in my lecture when I described using a design rather than a policy making mind set to explore social problems and solutions.

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