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Understanding what motivates us in a time of crisis

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  • Leadership
  • Philosophy

The tools that enable us to understand the social impact of the pandemic could also help us build the world we’ll need after it has passed.

The 3 systems: authority, connectedness, and individual interest

Over the years, drawing on research in anthropology, sociology and psychology, I have argued it can be useful to think of societies as the interaction of three systems based on three core human motivations:

  • authority
  • connectedness
  • individual aspiration

In broad terms, we can see these systems represented by three institutions: respectively, the state, civil society and the market.

But all the systems interact constantly in all three institutions. This goes right down to our daily motivations – why do we do things? We do what we do because we are told to, because it’s what the groups we belong to do or expect, and because we choose to for our own reasons.

As these are core human motivations, generally the best way to solve problems and make progress is to find ways of combining them. This is harder than it might first appear. There are three main reasons:

  • Each motivation is internally complex (there are benign and malign forms of authority, solidarity and individual aspiration)
  • each tends to push against the other as theories about, and methods of, change
  • even when a balance is achieved, contextual change is liable to disturb things.

How our motivations balance each other in systems and organisations

True balance is hard to achieve. The three systems of authority, connectedness, and individual interest can end up in various configurations only one of which is optimal: 

  • I describe societies, organisations and interventions that have a reasonable balance of the systems/motivations as ‘fully engaged’.
  • Contexts where one system is under-expressed are ‘deficit cultures’. For example, public services tend to be under-powered on individualism/autonomy, while private corporations frequently (and generally fruitlessly) try to summon the power of connectedness/solidarity.
  • Contexts in which one motivation predominates are ‘monocultures’. Think of authoritarian regimes, of the individualistic monocultures of pre-crash investment banks or the largely futile attempts by communes to run themselves on entirely collectivist principles.
  • When ‘full engagement’ seems impossible to achieve we see the growth of a fourth perspective: fatalism.

How can understanding our motivations help us handle the COVID-19 outbreak?

So, how can this framework help us in the current crisis? Let’s think about our response and what it will need.

Our best response will combine and balance the power of authority, collective feeling and individual self-interest. 

Of course, at a time like this we allow those in power to exercise authority more freely and forcefully than we would normally, but the state should try to work with, rather than crowd out, solidarity and autonomy.

Getting this right is an art not a science. The more authoritarian and proscriptive approach to distancing being adopted in France and Italy runs the risk of eventually generating a community backlash or individual resistance, while the more permissive gradualism of the UK government may feel negligent and leave people feeling it’s each for themselves.

To align the three systems/motivations requires policy makers and opinion formers continuously to stand back and see the dynamics at play whilst remaining agile in their response; what the RSA refers to as ‘thinking like a system and acting like an entrepreneur’.

We can see some of the dynamics at a smaller scale in relation to the problem of panic buying.

The authorities are seeking to use appeals to solidarity to persuade people to stop stockpiling. However, having enough to eat and the nature of consumer behaviour speak powerfully to feelings of individual (or family) protection.

Thus, a solidaristic message that we should stop stockpiling is read through an individualistic lens as ‘if I don’t buy what I need now it will all be gone’. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that buying 14 days of provisions (which could appear to others to be stockpiling) is arguably entirely justified by the rules on social distancing.

Crises cause big changes. What kind of changes do we want to see?

Overall this ‘three powers’ framework offers a powerful way of mapping and interpreting what is happening all around us, of comparing the efficacy of different approaches and of guiding future decisions. But there is another important reason.

It has become a cliché that we should not let a crisis go to waste. There is already much discussion of what lessons we should learn and apply. Historical parallels should always be used cautiously but two spring to mind:

Many hoped that the response to the 2008 financial crash would take the form of progressive reform and social reconstruction. Instead, it has embedded inequality and fed the growth of public pessimism and political populism.

By contrast the conflagration of the Second World War led developed countries to channel the solidarity generated by wartime conditions to try to solve the structural economic and social problems which had created the conditions for the conflict. The outcome was three decades of economic growth, rising productivity, falling inequality and an expanding public sphere.

The post-war settlement generated its own contradictions and history cannot be repeated, but there is something important to note about what the French call ‘les trente glorieuses’. This was a ‘fully engaged’ era where a reasonably strong and legitimate state sought explicitly to balance the imperatives of social solidarity and the dynamism of the market.

Contrast this with the era of neo-liberalism. In essence, it was a system where the state serves the market while solidarity (both right and left varieties of communitarianism) were seen as irrelevant or impediments to progress. Populism can be understood as the political response to the consequent solidarity deficit.

Creating a new settlement for a post COVID-19 world

As we think of a post COVID-19 world, is it beyond us to imagine a model of full engagement that would work for the world of 2020? Such a settlement would involve

  • reform to renew democracy and enhance the legitimacy of government
  • building new foundations for local, national and international solidarity
  • and developing an ideal of individual fulfilment which emphasises personal fulfilment and well-being.

Many of us now have some time on our hands. Let’s use it to chart a better future and organise for it too.

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5 Comments

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  • Thanks this is interesting. The narrative of “recovery” and “back to normal” are unhelpful in supporting the development of new discourses and innovation. I work in the heath and tertiary education sector which i think will be vastly different as a result of COVID but there is a reluctance/anxiety/denial by many who think that with the addition of a few Digital novelties life will turn back to as before, for me the element lacking in public service is “authority”.


     Many are trained to wait and do what is asked of them and are nervous about unplanned, uncommissioned, ungoverned or untested innovation. How to give permission, to accept people wont all get it right and to support risk taking is where we need to be focussing?


  • Thank you for trying to make sense of all what is happening.
    With things changing rapidly everything can feel very fragmented.
    This article also made me think about Bion’s term “thinking under fire”.
    I agree with the first comment. Staying connected in times of crisis is more important than ever.

  • Thanks, Matthew, for a useful framework. Several writers are considering the post-COVID-19 reconstruction of society.  I will try incorporating your thoughts into future Action Pointers.  Here is a link to #2 which includes a link back to #1 : https://medium.com/search?q=The%20Post-Pathogen%20Reset%20Button%20-%20Action%20Pointer%20#2 


    • As promised: https://medium.com/@groupeintellex/the-post-pathogen-reset-button-action-pointer-3-1c10dce61c86?source=friends_link&sk=86cb767bcbdfa2ab3c11bd80447f0e71 


  • Well said Matthew. I think the RSA and our network of Fellows can contribute greatly to this debate about what a post COVID-19 world could look like - and how to build the many pathways we'll need to get us there. And in that debate we may also be able to forge some new relationships across the Fellowship too. 

    I know all the talk is of 'Social Distancing' - but whilst we certainly need to keep our physical distance at the moment and so can't come into RSA House, Social Connection is going to be more important than ever. 

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