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Tapping into core social motives to drive sustainability transformation

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Abstract and Figures

Fraternity pledges swallowing goldfish. Strangers donating kidneys. Suicide bombers. Individuals will do inconvenient, painful, and even deadly things that are not in their economic or biological best interest for people, groups and causes they care about. How can these powerful motivations be harnessed to promote sustainability? This talk will introduce the Core Social Motives, and present four key lessons the core social motives teach us about working with humans.
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www.thesolutionsjournal.org|January-February 2014|  Solutions  |31
Perspectives
Twenty-six year-old Robert 
Champion was a proud drum 
major in the famed Florida A&M 
University’s marching band, until 
one night his band members turned 
on him. On November 19, 2011, 
Champion participated in a band 
ritual called “crossing bus C” in which 
he had to try and make his way to the 
back of the bus while being kicked 
and punched by other band members. 
The game turned deadly, and within 
an hour, Champion died from internal 
bleeding. Thirteen band members 
have been charged with manslaughter.
As a society, incidents like these 
baffle and distress us. Why do people 
do things like this to themselves and 
others? But as a psychologist, I see a 
silver lining. Such irrational behavior 
points to a deep psychological power 
which—if harnessed—might be 
cause for hope. People will suffer and 
sacrifice for causes and groups that 
they care about. Sustainability could 
be such a cause.
Consider as a contrast the assump-
tions made by many pessimists about 
the environmental crisis: people are 
too driven by self-interest to make the 
kinds of changes required to create 
a sustainable society. Politicians, 
activists, and the lay public all assume 
that people ask “what’s in it for me?” 
first and foremost. They also assume 
that “what’s in it for me?” is narrowly 
defined by economic self-interest. In 
his analysis of the “tragedy of the com-
mons,” Garrett Hardin1 clearly makes 
this assumption, as his solution to this 
presumed state of affairs is “mutual 
coercion, mutually agreed upon.” 
From this perspective, we cannot 
count on people to do the right thing 
unless forced to.
Luckily, this paradigm is wrong, 
or at least incomplete. The rational 
economic actor model simply does 
not describe the majority of human 
behavior. Certainly, people are some-
times greedy, sometimes unwilling 
to be inconvenienced. And people 
are undoubtedly motivated and 
influenced by self-interest under many 
circumstances. But the sources of this 
motivation—or the ways in which 
people seek to fulfill it—are rarely 
rational, and only sometimes in line 
with economic self-interest.
Self-interest models completely 
fail to explain the behavior of Chris 
Burgess, a truck driver who in 2012 
drove his out-of-control rig into the 
Cuyahoga River rather than let it plow 
into a shopping mall full of people; he 
drowned, but no one else died. Self-
interest models do not explain why 
Christians smuggled Jews out of Nazi 
Europe, or why 115 Tibetans recently 
immolated themselves to protest 
Chinese rule.
The lesson is clear: Individuals will 
do inconvenient, painful, and even 
deadly things that are not in their eco-
nomic or biological best interest for 
people, groups, values and causes they 
care about. Only the most powerful 
motivators could drive such behavior. 
We need to understand these motivations.
We need to harness that power for the 
cause of creating a sustainable world.
Like all animals, humans are 
powerfully motivated to engage in 
behaviors that allow us to survive 
Tapping into Core Social Motives to Drive Sustainability Transformation
by Cynthia McPherson Frantz
Jesslee Cuizon / Flickr
A core social motive for people is the overarching need is to belong, to be part of a social group. Hanami or Flower Viewing is the Japanese traditional
custom of enjoying the beauty of flowers.
32  |  Solutions  |  January-February 2014 |www.thesolutionsjournal.org
Perspectives
and reproduce. Hunger, thirst, and sex 
are core biological motives—motives 
that will certainly drive behavior as 
humans struggle to adapt to climate 
destabilization and the resulting 
threats to food, water, and shelter. In 
many ways the “rational economic 
actor,” which assumes that action is 
largely driven by economic self-inter-
est, is an extension of basic biological 
motives with money serving as the 
vehicle for satisfying desires.
The biological motives are quite 
limited in their ability to motivate 
climate mitigation behavior, however. 
Climate change is chronic, pervasive, 
and large scale, and understanding the 
need for mitigation requires thinking 
far into the future and across the 
globe. The biological motives drive 
behavior that is immediate and local. 
By the time you are hungry or thirsty 
because of the effects of climate 
change, you are no longer in a position 
to address mitigation.
Luckily, humans evolved an addi-
tional survival strategy that equally 
drives our behavior: the strategy of 
living in cooperative social groups. 
Humans are social creatures. For our 
ancestors, the group meant survival; 
anyone who was not motivated to pre-
serve and protect their membership 
in their group would have perished. 
As a result, humans also evolved a 
set of social motives that were just 
as essential for survival—and just as
powerfully motivating—as the core 
biological motives. Those motives are 
still with us and drive our behavior in 
fundamental ways.
Social psychologist Susan Fiske2
articulates five core social motives 
that have robust empirical support 
for their importance. The overarch-
ing need is to belong, to be part of a 
social group. Even now, when our 
physical survival is not directly 
dependent upon membership in a 
group (if your family disowns you, 
you can still go to the grocery store 
and buy food), we respond to social 
ostracism with intense psychological 
and physical distress. In fact, research 
by Kip Williams and Steve Nida3
demonstrates that we experience 
this distress in the same part of the 
brain—the dorsal anterior cingulate 
cortex—that registers physical pain. 
Rejection hurts.
In the service of the need to belong, 
humans pursue four other goals:
•  We are powerfully motivated to 
understand our world, to feel like we 
can predict what will happen and 
that it all will makes sense.
•  We also need to feel like we have 
some control, that we can execute 
plans and achieve goals.
•  We need to have some basic level of 
esteem for ourselves, a feeling that 
we are worthy.
•  We need to trust others, to feel like 
the world is basically a benevolent 
place.
As with biological motives, the 
need to fulfill core social motives 
drives humans to exhibit self-inter-
ested behavior. However, this is not 
self-interest in the classical economic 
or even narrowly biological sense. 
Indeed, there is often a discrepancy 
between the kind of self-interest that is 
driven by the core social motives and 
self-interest as predicted by rational 
economic and biological motives 
models. Consider fashion: what is 
rational about discarding last year’s 
style because the editor of Vogue 
says it’s not “in”? Nothing. However, 
when one considers the importance of 
self-esteem and belonging, the drive 
to dress in a similar way as your social 
group is more understandable.
But don’t forget: these motives have 
been fundamental in the enormous 
success of our species. There is great 
potential for aligning the self-interests 
that stem from satisfying these 
motives with efforts to establish a 
sustainable human existence on this 
planet. Indeed, we ignore them at our 
peril. For sustainability practitioners, 
the core social motives have at least 
four lessons to teach:
1. Recognize the underlying need(s)
driving resistance behavior. It is not 
just that corporations are greedy and 
profit-driven, or that governments 
and bureaucracies are rigid and 
inflexible (although they often are). 
They are also peopled with human 
beings who are powerfully motivated 
to belong within their institutions, 
to succeed within the system that 
rewards them, to maintain control 
over their assets, to preserve their 
understanding of the way the world 
works, and to feel like they can trust 
those around them to help them meet 
these goals. Challenging the corpo-
rate or government structure is not 
just taking money and power away 
from institutions; it is shaking the 
psychological lifelines of the people 
who work in them. Why should they 
be happy about that? Why should 
they cooperate? Would you?
As we rebuild our world, we must 
always remember that the systems 
that are leading to our destruction are 
also the very systems that currently 
fulfill vital psychological needs, 
albeit poorly and in an unsustainable 
way. Resistance to the psychological 
threat posed by making deep systemic 
changes is a reality we must contend 
with. As we work towards a decent 
sustainable future, we must do so with 
a constant eye towards managing this 
resistance with foresight, respect, and 
compassion.
Master negotiators Roger Fisher 
and William Ury point out that 
when dealing with recalcitrant 
others we often think “solving their 
problem is their problem.”4 Yet if 
www.thesolutionsjournal.org|January-February 2014|  Solutions  |33
Perspectives
we need those others to be part of 
the solution, their problem is our 
problem too. As we challenge and 
change unsustainable systems and 
institutions, we must do so in a way 
that acknowledges the problem that 
arises when others lose a sense of 
understanding, control, trust, and 
esteem. Our change efforts must 
have built into them efforts to meet 
these needs in new ways.
These efforts will be particularly 
challenging when dealing with 
fundamentalists of all stripes—lit-
eralist Christians and Muslims, 
arch-Conservatives, fanatic envi-
ronmentalists. Fundamentalism is 
essentially extreme rigidity about 
how core social motives are met, 
particularly understanding and 
control. Can concerted efforts to 
address these needs in other ways 
make fundamentalists more pliable? 
It remains to be seen.
2. Make the threat to core needs
visible, and then make clear that
sustainability is the answer to this
threat. Preserving a habitable planet 
is indisputably essential to preserv-
ing all the things that people care 
passionately about—not just their 
basic biological needs, but also their 
culture, their loved ones, equity and 
justice, the beauty of the natural 
world. However, modern society
currently masks the ties between 
the biophysical world that sustains 
us and our core physical and social 
needs (see Petersen et al. in this issue 
for a fuller discussion of this point). 
As the stories above make clear, indi-
viduals will in fact suffer and sacrifice 
for people and causes they care about. 
We need to make the threat to their 
needs that our current system poses 
as clear as possible, and make people 
realize that sustainability is the way 
to defend against that threat.
Unfortunately, the environmental 
movement has not been uniformly 
successful at conveying the threat to 
those who are not liberal, white, and 
upper-middle class. Conservatives do 
not yet see the threat to the things 
they hold dear—intact families, 
economic stability, freedom of choice. 
People of color and members of low-
income communities are faced with 
other, more immediate problems—
daily discrimination, putting food 
on the table, and keeping the lights 
on, to name a few. But whoever you 
are, whatever you care about, climate 
change poses a threat to it. The core 
social motive framework can help 
clarify how to talk about both adapta-
tion and mitigation in ways that make 
this connection clear (see Hirsch and 
Winter in this issue for examples of 
how to implement this approach).
I must also caution that this strategy 
has inherent danger. Threatening 
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jay C. Pugh
Sailors and other personnel pick up trash in Hawaii during a beach clean up in support of World Oceans Day.
34  |  Solutions  |  January-February 2014 |www.thesolutionsjournal.org
Perspectives
someone’s sense of control, understand-
ing, and trust is an excellent way to 
activate that person, but the behavior 
that results is not always constructive. 
Classically defined as a “fear appeal” in 
social psychology, making the threat to 
core needs apparent can easily trigger 
self-defense, denial, and avoidance. This 
is why it is essential that we…
3. Build our movements in ways
that maximize the extent to which
being involved in them meets core
social motives. Working towards a 
sustainable world together not only 
enhances our ability to meet core 
biological and social needs in the 
future, it also has the potential to 
help us meet core social motives in 
the present. This is how to combat 
fear and despair. Working on sustain-
ability issues has greatly deepened 
my understanding of the barriers to 
change and what is truly needed to 
succeed. It has expanded my circle 
of relationships and enhanced my 
sense of belonging to my community. 
As I have built relationships and 
deepened my understanding, my sense 
of efficacy has increased. Perhaps of 
greatest importance, these efforts have 
created an unprecedented level of trust 
between parties that in the past had 
seen themselves as adversaries.
All this means that talking to 
people, socializing with people, 
coming back to the meeting table 
even when people are frustrated, is 
absolutely essential in building a 
movement that not only maximizes 
its capacity to find good solutions, but 
leaves people stronger and happier as 
they work towards those solutions.
4. Include the enhancement of core
social need fulfillment in all future
solutions. Finally, we need to make 
sure that the new systems we put 
into place are intentionally designed 
to enhance humans’ ability to fulfill 
core needs—not just biological needs 
but also social needs. Technology that 
reduces carbon emissions but deprives 
people of autonomy and understand-
ing of how the world works will never 
realize its potential. No matter how 
ecologically sensitive, economic or 
political systems that perpetuate 
the grossly unequal distribution of 
resources and power will continue 
to undermine belonging and trust. 
Solutions that leave people feeling 
belittled and devalued will not endure. 
If humans cannot meet their core 
social needs in everyday life, we will 
fail to create a sustainable world.
Luckily, we have every reason to 
believe that sustainable communities 
can meet our core biological and social 
motives as well as or better than our 
present system. Local economies build 
economic resilience as well as control 
and trust; biking and walking promote 
health and community while reducing 
carbon emissions. Sustainability is a 
good product. Sacrifice of need fulfill-
ment is not required. If it were, all 
would truly be lost.
Humans are capable of rapid 
change and self sacrifice in preserva-
tion of their core needs. We need a 
habitable planet, and we need each 
other. We can do this. 
References
1.  Hardin, G. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162, 
1243–1248 (1968).
2.  Fiske, ST. Social Beings: Core Motives in Social
Psychology. (John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, 2009).
3.  Williams, KD & Nida, SA. Ostracism: Consequences 
and Coping. Current Directions in Psychological Science
20, 71–75 (2011).
4.  Fisher, R, Ury, W, & Patton, B. Getting to Yes:
Negotiating agreement without giving in, ed 2, 59 
(Penguin Books, New York, 1991).
Giampaolo Macorig / Flickr
One of our core social motives is the need to belong, to be part of a social group.
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"Technology is not the answer to the population problem. Rather, what is needed is 'mutual coercion mutually agreed upon'--everyone voluntarily giving up the freedom to breed without limit. If we all have an equal right to many 'commons' provided by nature and by the activities of modern governments, then by breeding freely we behave as do herders sharing a common pasture. Each herder acts rationally by adding yet one more beast to his/her herd, because each gains all the profit from that addition, while bearing only a fraction of its costs in overgrazing, which are shared by all the users. The logic of the system compels all herders to increase their herds without limit, with the 'tragic,' i.e. 'inevitable,' 'inescapable' result: ruin the commons. Appealing to individual conscience to exercise restraint in the use of social-welfare or natural commons is likewise self-defeating: the conscientious will restrict use (reproduction), the heedless will continue using (reproducing), and gradually but inevitably the selfish will out-compete the responsible. Temperance can be best accomplished through administrative law, and a 'great challenge...is to invent the corrective feedbacks..to keep custodians honest.'"
Social Beings: Core Motives in Social Psychology
  • S T Fiske
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