A “Whole Brain” Theory of Human Motivation – Part 1

In 1947 the founder of the Humanistic Psychology movement Abraham Maslow published a paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation.” It is from this paper that perhaps his most famous idea originated – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The theory that he proposed, culminating from his qualitative research studying exceptional and admirable human beings, was that all human behavior was primarily motivated as an attempt to meet needs. From the most basic needs for survival, to needs for ongoing growth, and ultimately the needs to realize our full human potential. This was a new idea and approach at the time, differing from the ideas of Freudian psychoanalysis whose theories were formed by observation and interpretation of a person’s weaknesses and flaws as opposed to their strengths. Psychoanalytic theories regarding motivation suggested that human behavior was driven by choices made through the “ego” that attempted to balance the instinctual, primitive, and subconscious drives of the “id” and the idealized and sometimes unrealistic desires of the “superego.” The Humanistic Psychology movement also stood against another school of psychology, Behaviorism, which in its purest form through advocates such as B.F. Skinner, believed that all human behavior was dictated by forces outside of one’s self, “proven” by experiments done by researchers that could change the behavior of non-human subjects based on conditions controlled by the researcher.

Influenced by Maslow, another humanistically inclined psychologist Marshall Rosenberg (who only passed away recently) developed his own theory, still connected to the idea that human behavior was motivated by the attempt to meet needs, but deemphasizing the hierarchical structure, and describing a more dynamic and flexible experience – that we all have different needs at different times at different levels that can be met in different ways for different people. His emphasis, which also made this theory more accessible and applicable, was to see the relationship between needs and feelings. Needs that are met create positive feelings, needs that are unmet create unpleasant feelings. He also emphasized the importance of relationships in meeting needs, and developed a strategy of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to help people facilitate the meeting of their needs through their relationships.

Today, in the era of Neuroscience, it’s interesting to see how what we’ve learned about the human mind has aligned with many of the core conclusions discovered intuitively by the schools of thought associated with Maslow, Freud, Skinner, and Rosenberg. What’s most interesting is that looking through the lens of our current knowledge about how the whole brain works, though they appeared to have conflicted with each other, each of them correctly described aspects of human motivation, but only in looking at the larger picture can we best describe what is most accurate about all of human motivation.

B.F. Skinner and the Behaviorists believed that all human behavior was initiated from the outside world, that external forces dictated everything that we did. Essentially, our behavior was always a response to a stimulus. They showed that through experiments involving classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and random intermittent reinforcement you could get a mouse, pigeon, or dog to learn new behaviors that could become permanently integrated into how that animal behaved. Extrapolating from these experiments and drawing parallels to corresponding human behaviors, they concluded that humans were just like their animal counterparts. And the legacy of Behaviorism still reverberates today in almost every area of our existence – parenting, education, law enforcement, medicine, business, and even religion. For an idea that seems so controversial, that we are no better than our animal kingdom cousins, and to have such reach in places as diverse as schools, prisons, and churches – how did this happen? Because a Behaviorist perspective “makes sense” and “feels right,” and by our human nature, when our intellect and our personal experiences agree, we tend to believe. Even when things are hard to accept and even when things aren’t actually quite true, such as with the Behaviorist perspective. Unlike the psychoanalysts and Humanistic psychologists, the Behaviorists had scientific “proof” to support them. Skinner and his colleagues famously demonstrated academically rigorous results that could be replicated in animal and human behavior. Also, when we think about how in our own life experience we are driven by the promises of rewards (recognition, performance bonuses, once in a lifetime opportunities, addictions) or by fear of punishments (shaming, legal consequences, bad credit, spankings) it also feels correct that we are just like those mice pushing levers or avoiding electrocution. Well despite this overwhelming evidence, both scientifically and experientially, why is Behaviorism still incorrect? Because what these experiments demonstrate is that human behavior can be identical to animal behavior sometimes, but not all the time. And it is in the differences that we are uniquely human, and to truly understand what moves us, we need to look at a complete picture that accounts for all of human experience.

As we continue on in this series, we’ll examine what aspects of these different theories of human motivation got right. When we put the pieces together we’ll come to understand: 1) the different ways in which we are motivated, 2) the best and healthiest ways to stay motivated, and 3) how it all fits into our larger goal to grow towards genuine healthiness. In Part 2, we’ll discuss the important differences between external and internal motivation, and even though both may be effective in changing behavior, only one is healthy, sustainable, and consistent with an authentically human experience.

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