Between debilitation and satiation: The behavioural space

This is the second part of series of posts describing what I call the Engagement Theory of Motivation and which I have found useful during my working career.

The first part was posted on 23rd July 2014: Manipulation, motivation and behaviour

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2: Between debilitation and satiation: The behavioural space

The space within which rational behavior can be expected and elicited is constrained by the debilitations of intolerable deficiencies on the one hand and needs which are satiated and incapable of providing further satisfaction on the other.

Eliciting desired behaviour lies at the core of all human social interaction. I take “manipulation” and therefore motivation merely to be tools for eliciting behaviour from our fellows. As tools they are neutral and neither good nor bad.

Since Maslov (1954) first came up with his hierarchy of needs there have been many theories and hypotheses of motivation proposed. I find his hierarchy is fundamentally sound. His approach is still the simplest, most practically applicable approach. It remains I think the most useful – if qualitative – way of addressing motivation and behaviour in the work place.

Hierarchy a la Maslow

Hierarchy a la Maslow

Fig 1. Maslov’s hierarchy of needs

I take Maslow’s lower-order needs (physiological and safety needs) to be mainly – but not exclusively – physical and his higher-order needs (social, esteem and self-actualisation desires) to be mainly – but not exclusively – cognitive.

The space for eliciting rational human behaviour lies in the planes of his satisfactions and dissatisfactions. I postulate that all conscious, rational human behaviour is aimed at decreasing  internally perceived deficiencies giving dissatisfactions or increasing internally perceived desires (needs) giving satisfactions. I take these planes to be that on which the “state of human condition”, at any given time, can be plotted as a representation of the individual’s satisfactions and dissatisfactions at a particular time. The axis of time is not explicit but it is implied since only one “state of human condition” exists at any given time. For an individual to go from state 1 to state 2 on the behavioural therefore implies – and requires – the passage of time.

Behavioural space 2

Behavioural space 2

Fig 2. The deficiency/desire behavioural plane

I take it as axiomatic that rational human behaviour is always directed towards reducing dissatisfactions or of increasing satisfactions or both.

Maslow’s hierarchies provides a third dimension to use when considering an individual’s states of satisfactions and dissatisfactions. In each of the various hierarchic zones it is possible for an individual to perceive that he has some deficiencies – each giving a dissatisfaction – or that he has desires that have been met – each giving a satisfaction.

Applying Maslow’s hierarchies gives a constraint on the eliciting of rational human behaviour due to the deficiencies the individual is experiencing. Where the deficiency is such that the dissatisfaction is at an intolerable level, the individual will be totally focused on reducing that dissatisfaction and will not be amenable to the eliciting of rational behaviour. Intolerable dissatisfaction I call “debilitation”. My empirical observations confirm that debilitation can occur at any level of hierarchical need.

I can only give examples from my own experience. I take the view that a debilitating deficiency is not restricted to the lower-order needs but can also occur in the higher-order needs (esteem and self-actualisation). My empirical observations confirm that intolerable levels of dissatisfaction can occur at any level of hierarchical need.

The evidence is anecdotal and qualitative. I can only take examples from my own experience:

  • Physiological – a person short of breath cannot be distracted from the survival task of getting the next breath and eliciting any other behavior is futile. In the last few months of her life my mother needed to have oxygen continuously and when she was short of breath, nothing else was important. I have experienced something similar during an asthma attack. I believe this applies for all threats to survival where in the face of such a threat the only behavior is to reduce that threat.
  • Safety – Some of my Japanese colleagues were already on their way to the office when the 1995 Kobe earthquake struck. At the office they were unable to even conduct a rational conversation while they were unsure of whether their homes were still standing or not. Their only concern was in getting information about the status of their families and their homes. But as soon as they had obtained enough information to reach a tolerable level of dissatisfaction, they were the epitome of rational and selfless behaviour. Inevitably the level of dissatisfaction – assuming it can be quantified – that is needed for it to be intolerable – and therefore debilitating – is higher than for the lower-order physiological needs.
  • Social – I have known of a suicide caused by an individual being ostracized from his core, peer group. The need to belong is very strong and exclusion or the threat of exclusion from the core group which represents an individual’s identity can be debilitating for rational behavior. Kids “mobbed” at school experience this as does the ostracized “salary-worker” in Japan who is relegated to a window seat and denied contact with his peers. Again I observe that the debilitating level of dissatisfaction here is higher than for a lower-order need.
  • Esteem – It could be thought that esteem as a higher-order need is not subject to a debilitating level of dissatisfaction – that it can be considered solely as a bonus on the satisfaction scale. But my experience tells me that this is not so. Someone used to and expecting a certain level of esteem or privilege or respect, for example, can be paralysed by inaction if such esteem is lost.
  • Self-actualisation – Even here, the loss of an expected level of self-actualisation or even the failure to achieve an anticipated level can take an individual out of the space of rational behavior. A favourite not winning a tournament or expected exam results not attained or even a failure to understand a lesson or to achieve a skill,  can be so traumatic (dissatisfying), that rational behavior cannot be elicited while the dissatisfaction lasts.

This allows me to use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as one dimension along which to illustrate the constraints on the behavioural space (desires / deficiencies). First consider deficiencies and dissatisfactions  plotted against hierarchy of need.

Behavioural space 3

Behavioural space 3

Fig. 3.  Using Maslow’s hierarchy as an axis of behaviour

For the two lowest-order needs I take the tolerable level of dissatisfaction to establish a line where “survival” is threatened (the survival line). If this level of dissatisfaction is exceeded, rational behaviour is no longer possible. Similarly for the higher order needs I take the tolerable level of dissatisfaction to be the point at which identity is threatened – “identity” line – and the boundary between rational and irrational behavior.

I construct the survival and identity lines as shown in the diagram below. The survival line shifts according to the welfare safety-net available to the individual. The survival line would therefore be – for example – higher in Sweden than it would be in the US. Similarly the identity line shifts according to the level of repression the individual is subject to in the society he operates in. Thus the identity line would appear higher in the US than in Sweden. The survival line and the identity line are lines of “threat” beyond which an individual’s behaviour is dominated by the need to reduce the threat and this “wall” of threat delineates the boundary between rational and irrational behavior. These threat lines are not quantitative but conceptual – but they do exist. I take the break-point to be above the lower-order needs (physiological, safety needs) and this point can also be considered as the transition from largely physical needs to needs in the cognitive field.

Behavioural space 4

Behavioural space 4

Fig. 4. Constructing the lines of threat

I combine the survival line and the identity line to then give a “debilitation” line separating the space of rational behavior from the debilitation zone.

Behavioural space 5

Behavioural space 5

Fig. 5. The line of debilitation

But it is not only deficiencies and intolerable levels of dissatisfaction which constrain the behavioural space. It is my contention that rational behavior is also “ignored” when a particular course of behavior only brings more “satisfaction” of a need which has already been satiated. The “satiation line” is reached at relatively low levels of satisfaction with the lower-order needs – “physically satiated” line – and increase sharply (hyperbolically) as higher-order needs are considered – “mentally satiated” line. At the highest orders of self-actualisation, needs can never be satiated.

(Point of language – “sated” and “satiated” are identical in meaning. For consistency I use “satiated”, “to satiate” and “satiation”).

In a similar manner to the construction of the survival and the identity lines, the satiation line can be constructed for different order needs on the satisfaction of needs scale. Again I take the break-point between physical and mental satiation to correspond to the transition from the lower-order to the higher-order needs.

Behavioural space 6

Behavioural space 6

Fig. 6. Constructing the lines of satiation

And this in turn leads me the line of satiation as being the delineation between where rational behavior can be expected and a satiated zone where behavior gives no value to further “satisfaction”.

Behavioural space 7

Behavioural space 7

Fig. 7. The line of Satiation

The space within which rational behavior can be expected and elicited is thus constrained by the debilitations of intolerable deficiencies on the one hand and needs which are satiated and incapable of providing further satisfaction on the other.

Behavioural space 8

Behavioural space 8

Fig. 8. Between debilitation and satiation

It follows that the space available for eliciting rational behavior on the deficiencies/desires plane varies with increasing order of hierarchy of need. This space available (the area) is that contained between the debilitation line and the satiation line and increases sharply when moving up the hierarchies of need.

Behavioural space 9

Behavioural space 9

Fig. 9. Behavioural space increases with hierarchy of need

 References:

Maslow, Abraham,  “A Theory of Human Motivation” Psychological Review #50(1943)

Maslow, Abraham , Motivation and Personality NY: Harper, 1954.
Next Part 3: Behavioural Force

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