A new study reports that there are four broad categories for the motivations that drive human behavior: prominence, inclusiveness, negativity prevention, and tradition.
What do people want? That’s a question psychologists have been trying to answer for a long time now, albeit with little agreement on the results so far. In an attempt to put the subject to rest, a team led by researchers at the University of Wyoming (UW) Department of Psychology looked at goal-related words used by English speakers. They report that human goals can be attributed to one of four broad categories: “prominence,” “inclusiveness,” “negativity prevention” and “tradition.”
What makes us tick
“Few questions are more important in the field of psychology than ‘What do people want?,’ but no set of terms to define those goals has gained widespread acceptance,” says UW Associate Professor Ben Wilkowski, the paper’s first author.
“We decided the best way to address the issue was to examine the words that people use to describe their goals, and we hope our conclusions will help bring about an ultimate consensus.”
The team started with a list of more than 140,000 English nouns, which they whittled down to a set of 1,060 that they deemed most relevant to human goals. They then carried out a series of seven studies in which they quizzed participants on their commitment to pursue goals. After crunching all the data, the team reports that human motivation is built on four main components (when it’s not drugs):
- Prominence: these goals revolve around power, money making ability, mastery over skills, perfection, and glory. All in all, these motivators underpin our pursuit of social status and our desire to earn respect, admiration, and the deference of others through our achievements.
- Inclusiveness: this represents our drive to be open-minded, tolerant, and accepting of other people, opposing views, different lifestyles, and values. In short, goals in this category revolve around accepting people of all types.
- Negativity prevention: while the other categories on this list push us towards a goal, negativity prevention is aimed at pushing away undesirable outcomes. It includes goals meant to avoid conflict, disagreement, isolation, or social discord. In short, it’s our desire to keep the peace in the group and avoid personal pain.
- Tradition: such goals revolve around our desire to uphold long-standing institutions or features of the culture we belong to. Religious affiliation and zeal, attitudes towards family and nation, cultural customs, attitudes towards other social groups are in large part shaped by the culture that raised us, and we each feel the need to nurture and pass on these cultural institutions — to a lesser or greater extent.
The more rebellious of you may have noticed that all these categories are externally-focused — the team did as well. Wilkowski says that the findings point to most of human motivation being “overwhelmingly social in nature,” adding that “the ‘need to belong’ and our ultra-social nature are reflected in all four categories.”
It has to be said, by this point, that the studies only addressed the English language as used within American culture. The team believes that their four categories apply to other industrialized cultures as well, but until that’s proven, they won’t say for sure.
“For example, ‘church’ would not serve as a good marker of tradition in non-Christian cultures; and ‘fatness’ would not serve as a good marker of negativity prevention in cultures where starvation is a larger concern than obesity,” they wrote.
“Nonetheless, we suggest that the deeper concepts underlying these four constructs are relevant to the human condition more generally — at least as experienced in large, industrialized cultures.”
The paper “Lexical derivation of the PINT taxonomy of goals: Prominence, inclusiveness, negativity prevention, and tradition” has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
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