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Understanding Motivation

Understanding the mind has been a continuing challenge since at least the time of the Greek philosophers. In many ways, it's a central concern of psychology, anthropology, and sociology. And without some understanding of the mind and how it works, psychotherapy would be impossible. Theories abound.

When I first thought about this section of the course, Abraham Maslow's needs hierarchy seemed an obvious starting point. He proposed that motivation [see Wikipedia article] could be explained in terms of a needs hierarchy:

  • Physiological Needs – We all face some physical needs if we are to survive. We need to be fed, and to be protected from the elements. Air, water, food, clothing and shelter are basic. Meeting those needs comes first.

  • Safety Needs – Finding protection from threats to one's safety is the “next” need. After basic physiological needs have been addressed, we are driven to protect ourselves from threat. Safety comes next.

  • Love and Belonging Needs – With the first two needs addressed, we driven to interpersonal and group needs. We need others for our sense of self and to meet basic psychological needs at both the individual and group level.

  • Esteem Needs – We need to feel esteem and respect. We have a “lower” need for the esteem and respect of others, and a “higher” need for self-esteem and for self-respect. We will work to meet these needs next.

  • Self-Actualization Needs – When all of the basic needs have been addressed, we seek ways to express ourselves. What is our full potential and how is that best realized? Self-actualization is the last level in the hierarchy.

This hierarchy has almost become an accepted truth. I've repeatedly seen it presented in a management context, … and rarely questioned. It fits with our general understanding, our “folk” psychology. But the hierarchy is a far from strict ordering of needs. I could be strongly driven by a need for love and a need to belong, even in the face of serious threats to my safety or physical needs. Moreover, the ordering of needs may change with age and within different cultural settings.

Maslow came to recognize a serious limitation in his highest level of need. Yes, self-actualization is important, but some people, some of the time, go beyond to what could be called self-transcendence [see Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow]. Maslow pointed to the potential importance of religion, values and peak experience. Such concerns led him to become one of the founders of humanistic psychology and a source of continuing inspiration to that branch of psychology [see Maslow's Religion, Values & Peak Experience - introduction].

My goal in this section is to eventually get to the existential model for human motivation. I was hoping to provide a brief history of how important psychologists and psychotherapists viewed motivation. Then I actually dipped into the published histories of those two areas. Psychology, certainly in the US, spent a long time fixated on the behvioural approach. Psychologists took to measuring everything about behaviour. The subjects were often students in psychology classes and the measurements were often taken in the classroom or the laboratory. The results may have said important things about students, at least about students in that time and place, but generalizations were difficult to support.

Somewhere after the second world war, psychologists began to recognize that ignoring the mind led to relatively uninteresting models for meaningful behaviours. And meaningful behaviour was, and is, what should be one of the things of greatest importance to psychology. The psychotherapists didn't initially have this problem. People came to them with their troubles. Understanding those troubles required that the theropist understand something of their mental cause.

Freud, Adler, and Jung all developed models for what motivates us. Rollo May wrote an insightful 1958 chapter on an alternative to then traditional American psychology and psychotheorapy – The Origins and Significance of the Existential Movement in Psychology. We turned a kind of mental corner. Psychology changed from “The Science of Behaviour” to “The Study of Mind and Behaviour”.

When planning this course, my thought was to provide a brief history of the changing models for mind. Unfortunately, no brief history can hope to present a useful picture of how our model for the mind changed and developed. Strange and mysterious things were seen to happen in the unconscious. May quotes Strauss as saying that the “unconscious ideas of the patient are more often than not the conscious theories of the therapist.” There isn't enough time to follow the many theorists down into (their view of) the unconscious.

It makes sense to jump straight to existential psychotherapy. But a note of caution is in order. Existentialism is often used as a label for a certain kind of 20th century philosophy. Problem is, there is no one existentialism, nor is there one central philosopher who is accepted as the parent of existentialism. And it gets even more complicated when moving from existential philosophy to existential psychotherapy. The Wikipedia article on Existential Therapy provides one brief overview of the field. But there's a veritable library of texts which explain existential psychotherapy, and they largely do not agree amongst themsleves. (For those interested, Tthe Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides one overview of Existentialism (55 pages).)

I have extracted a simple summary for existential psychology. First, the one fundamental starting point is reality as experienced by the individual. People necessarily impose a shape, a character, a texture on the nature of their lived experience. That individual perceptual frame (or frames) provides the only sure foundation for understanding the person. We ill-serve our fellowmen by projecting our theories onto their realities.

But many of us are forced to confront what has been called our existential angst.

  • Death – We are mortal and there is no way to avoid this mortality. We are all going to die. That's a reality we need to accept, lest the tension between our fear of death and the reality of death impose a harsh cost on our well-being.

  • Freedom – We are free to make life choices. Even the refusal to make choices, to take decision, is its one form of decision making. We are what we chose to be. This freedom can be a frightening thing.

  • Isolation – We are fundamentally isolated. Our life-world can parallel, for a time and to a degree, the life-world of others, but we are fundamentally alone in our life experience.

  • Meaningless – Many of us find it important that we have a purpose, that our lives be meaningful. But there is no meaning which is automatically conferred on us. If it is to exist at all, we must find and work towards our own purpose.

Is this the one, true universal picture of the mental tensions that we all face? I would say “no”. Someone who is starving may have very little concern for her isolation. Someone who faces major physical limitations may not see freedom as a central issue in his life. But these four existential dimensions are common in our strongly modernist world.

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