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Social Motives

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Abstract

Social motives are the psychological processes that drive people's thinking, feeling and behavior in interactions with other people. Because social situations confront people with the preferences and needs of others, and not just their own, they require a broader perspective in which the interests of others are incorporated. Social motives reflect the way people value these interests in relation to their own. How they do so has a crucial impact on their understanding of the interaction and on the decisions they make within its context. For this reason, understanding social motivation is crucial for understanding social interactions. This entry explains how social motivation may be shaped by the features of the people who compose the interaction and the features of the interaction situation. It addresses how social motives may affect social behavior and, finally, explains social orientations or (fairly) stable tendencies toward particular social motives. Understanding Social Motivation In social life, people are continuously confronted with situations in which their individual preferences or interests are different from, or even opposed to, the interests of others. Consider, for example, interactions in close relationships, at the workplace, or on the larger societal level. In many of these situations, actions that correspond with individual preferences are incompatible with those of others. For example, one's partner may not share one's preference for symphonic heavy-metal music. One's friends may not share one's preference for showing up late at appointments. And a society's environmental policy may not correspond with one's preference for long showers. In each of these cases, the actions that are dictated by one individual's motives are incompatible with, or even harmful to, the interests of others.
Social Motives
Social motives are the psychological processes that drive people’s thinking, feeling and
behavior in interactions with other people. Because social situations confront people with the
preferences and needs of others, and not just their own, they require a broader perspective in
which the interests of others are incorporated. Social motives reflect the way people value
these interests in relation to their own. How they do so has a crucial impact on their
understanding of the interaction and on the decisions they make within its context. For this
reason, understanding social motivation is crucial for understanding social interactions.
This entry explains how social motivation may be shaped by the features of the people
who compose the interaction and the features of the interaction situation. It addresses how
social motives may affect social behavior and, finally, explains social orientations or (fairly)
stable tendencies toward particular social motives.
Understanding Social Motivation
In social life, people are continuously confronted with situations in which their individual
preferences or interests are different from, or even opposed to, the interests of others.
Consider, for example, interactions in close relationships, at the workplace, or on the larger
societal level. In many of these situations, actions that correspond with individual preferences
are incompatible with those of others. For example, one’s partner may not share one’s
preference for symphonic heavy-metal music. One’s friends may not share one’s preference
for showing up late at appointments. And a society’s environmental policy may not
correspond with one’s preference for long showers. In each of these cases, the actions that are
dictated by one individual’s motives are incompatible with, or even harmful to, the interests
of others.
These examples illustrate why it is necessary for people to reinterpret such situations
in terms of social implications in order to navigate their social lives effectively. Social
situations require that individuals move beyond their individual interests and understanding of
the situation to a social perspective on the interaction. This means reinterpreting the situation
to consider its implications for others, in addition to for oneself, and deciding how to value
their interests, relative to one’s self-interest. The relative importance one assigns to the
interests of oneself and others constitutes one’s social motives within the interaction.
The following major motives are typically cited:
- Self-interest or maximizing one’s personal outcome without any concern for the
interests of others
- Competition or maximizing the difference between one’s personal outcome and the
outcomes of others
- Cooperation or maximizing the joint outcomes of oneself and others
- Equality or minimizing differences between the outcomes of oneself and others
- Altruism or maximizing the outcomes of others without any concern for one’s
personal outcome
As a result of this evaluation process, people may shift from an individual
interpretation of the situation, and from individual goals, to a social interpretation of the same
situation, and to social goals. For example, one might decide to go to a concert that one’s
partner likes, too (equality), to leave earlier for an appointment (altruism), or to moderate
one’s time in the shower (cooperation) – even though none of these behaviors matches one’s
initial, individual preference.
Although a range of possible motives may exist, they will not be relevant to every
interaction. Rather, the features of the situation, in combination with the preferences and
needs of the individuals therein, determine the type of challenge the interaction represents and
the motives that are relevant to it. For example, if people share the same goal, the situation is
unlikely to evoke selfishness or competition, and a competitive setting, like a sports match, is
unlikely to evoke altruism. To better understand how the features of the interaction may
shape people’s social motives, I turn to interdependence theory.
How Patterns of Interdependence Shape Social Motivation
Interdependence theory understands social motives as the product of the features of
interacting persons and those of the situation in which they interact. Together, these features
determine the challenges the parties are faced with and the motives that therefore are relevant
to their interaction.
To understand this process, the theory advances a classification system by which
interaction situations can be analyzed according to six key dimensions. First, level of
dependence indicates the extent to which people are exclusively dependent on the interaction
(and the interaction partner(s)) for their needs or outcomes. In effect, this dimension defines
whether persons have alternatives by which to fulfill their needs outside of the interaction or
are fully dependent on it. Interactions on which one is highly dependent (e.g., romantic
relationships) tend to evoke a longer-term orientation, which serves to perpetuate the
relationship and the fulfillment of one’s needs. Thereby, interactions characterized by high
dependence can evoke motives like cooperation and altruism, while interactions characterized
by low dependence may evoke motives like selfishness.
Mutuality of dependence indicates whether each person’s dependence on the
interaction is balanced or not. That dependence can be equal (i.e., both persons depending
much or little on each other) but also unequal (i.e., one person is more dependent on the
other). In a context of unequal dependence, the less-dependent person can display motives
like selfishness or altruism. In contrast, interactions on which both parties depend are
conductive to motives like cooperation and equality.
Basis of dependence indicates which person controls the outcomes of the interaction,
that is, whether people can influence their own outcomes or whether the outcomes are
controlled by the other. In case of partner control (e.g., the love one receives from one’s
partner in a close relationship), people cannot fulfill their own needs and rely completely on
each other. This tends to evoke exchange-based strategies (e.g., iteratively benefiting or
harming each other). In contrast, in case of joint control (e.g., buying a house with one’s
partner), neither person has exclusive control over the other, and each therefore must
compromise, which evokes cooperation.
Correspondence of outcomes refers to whether people’s preferences or needs
correspond or conflict in the interaction. In situations where each person’s needs correspond
(i.e., both persons want the same outcome) no tension exists, and motives like cooperation
and equality are likely to emerge. In contrast, in settings where each person’s needs are
opposed, their interests are irreconcilable, and motives like selfishness and competition are
likely to dominate. Particularly interesting are interactions between these extremes, where
people’s interests are neither completely in line nor completely opposed. Mixed-motive
situations like these can evoke both cooperative and competitive motives. Decisions in such
interactions, therefore, are particularly indicative of people’s personality and their social
orientations.
Temporal structure reflects whether the interaction represents a single event (e.g., an
interaction with a stranger) or is part of an extended interaction (e.g., interactions between
romantic partners). Temporal structure can have a powerful impact on people’s motives. In
single interactions, motives apply exclusively to the present interaction, and there is no direct
need to consider future consequences. Such contexts therefore evoke motives like selfishness,
targeted at attaining the best possible outcome for oneself (e.g., negotiating the best possible
price). In contrast, interactions that are extended are part of a sequence of interactions, such
that current decisions will also affect the future of the relationship with the other. Here,
people’s motives are also shaped by considerations beyond the present situation, such as long-
term strategies and goals. This often evokes more cooperative and strategic motives, whereby
immediate self-interest is sacrificed for better, long-term outcomes.
Finally, information refers to the extent to which people possess complete and
accurate information within the interaction. This dimension primarily conveys the extent to
which people understand or misunderstand each other’s dependence (for example, their
reliance on the relationship, potential alternatives, felt control), goals and motives. But it can
also refer to uncertainty in a broader sense (i.e., the scope of mistakes or misunderstanding).
Incomplete information can evoke selfishness and distrust. More generally, it may obscure
the relationship between people’s motives and their actions, as their decisions may produce
different outcomes than they intended.
Transformation of Motivation
What does this, admittedly complex, classification system reveal about social motives?
Importantly, by explaining how the structure of an interaction shapes or constrains
motivation, it identifies the motives relevant to a specific interaction and thus expressible
within it. The next step is to understand how the context may be meshed with people’s
preferences and needs to form their social motives within the interaction a process called
transformation of motivation, which is attributed to Kelley and Thibaut.
Transformation of motivation refers to the process by which people expand their
initial, self-centered interpretation of an interaction (i.e., the given structure of the situation
the options and outcomes that would suit their individual goals best, irrespective of the
consequences for others) to a social interpretation, which contains its meaning for others and
for people’s long-term strategies or goals. Depending on how people value these
considerations in relation to their immediate self-interest, the result is a re-interpretation of the
situation according to its meaning for their social goals (i.e., the effective structure of the
situation the options and outcomes that would suit their social preferences best). Following
this transformation, actions that would benefit one’s personal needs may seem unappealing,
but actions that may be suboptimal (or even detrimental) to one’s immediate self-interest now
may be preferred, as they may better satisfy one’s social goals.
To illustrate, consider the earlier example of going to a concert with one’s partner.
Should transformation of this situation favor one’s interests over the partner’s (e.g., one really
wants to see the symphonic heavy-metal band, and whether one’s partner will have a good
time is less important), this situation is likely to evoke selfish motives, which will best be
satisfied by going to the concert. In the event that transformation values the partner’s
interests as much as one’s own (e.g., one also wants one’s partner to have a good time), the
situation is likely to evoke cooperative motives, which will best be satisfied by visiting a
different concert that also appeals to the partner. Here, transformation therefore leads one to
prefer an outcome that in fact is adverse to one’s immediate self-interest.
What if the situation does not afford outcomes that match one’s preferences? For
example, imagine having a nasty fight with one’s partner and wanting to deny him or her a
good time subsequently (i.e., to act spitefully). If the partner generally likes to go to concerts,
this situation is unlikely to produce outcomes that are truly negative for him or her (i.e., the
situation does not provide the opportunity for spite). In this case, spite is likely to be
manifested as selfishness: Although one’s self-interest may no longer be important in the
present context, the symphonic heavy-metal concert is the least desirable option for one’s
partner and thus will be the most personally appealing. Therefore, when one’s preferences
are not directly afforded by the situation, people’s transformations will favor the outcomes
that best approach their outcome preferences.
In sum, by understanding social motives as the product of the structure of the situation,
the features of the partner, and one’s own preferences, it is possible to explain why the same
individual may pursue different motives in different interactions in his or her life and may
display behaviors that, at first glance, seem inconsistent.
Habitual Transformations: Social Orientations
Although I have primarily discussed social motives as a product of a specific interaction,
people’s social motives are also shaped by their experiences or history of interaction. The
idea that people may adapt to their prior experiences means that people may consistently
display particular motives in repeated interactions with specific partners (e.g., self-sacrifice
for one’s children). However, it also means that people may display a general tendency
toward specific motives across a range of situations and interaction partners. Such motives
are defined as social orientations.
Social orientations represent fairly stable preferences for specific types of outcomes in
one’s interactions with others. They are adaptations that result from one’s upbringing and
one’s history of interactions. The outcome of this process is that people may habitually
transform their social interactions according to a particular perspective (for example,
interpreting them in terms of their self-interest or in terms of their meaning for the collective)
and thus may display consistent preferences and behaviors across a range of situations and
partners.
The concept that has been studied most extensively in relation to social orientations is
social value orientation (SVO), which distinguishes between people with a consistent
preference for maximizing their self-interest, irrespective of consequences for others (an
individualistic orientation), people who seek to maximize joint interest and equality in
outcomes (a prosocial orientation), and people who seek to maximize their advantage over
others (a competitive orientation). These types of orientation have been shown to have
substantial stability and to predict behaviors across a range of situations, such as social
dilemmas, negotiations, workplace behavior, donations to charitable causes, volunteering,
pro-environmental behavior, and political preferences. So-called prosocials show greater
cooperativeness and self-sacrifice than do those with the other orientations. Note, however,
that SVOs are only relevant to situations that afford the motives (cooperation, selfishness, and
competition) they correspond to. Even then, their expression may be contingent on other
factors, such as partner impressions or behavior, interaction history, and so forth. For this
reason, recent models of SVO characterize these orientations more as probabilities that people
will display specific motivesa conceptualization that acknowledges that preferences may
not be absolute and unchangeable, and that not everyone may hold the same orientation to the
same degree.
Chris Reinders Folmer
See also: close relationships, cooperation, motivation and personality, perception and
motivation, personality traits versus situations, reasoning and decision making, relational
theory, social influence.
Recommended Readings
Fiske, S. T. (2004). Social beings: A core motives approach to social psychology. New York,
NY: Wiley.
Kelley, H. H., Holmes, J. W., Kerr, N. L., Reis, H. T., Rusbult, C. E., & Van Lange, P. A. M.
(2003). An atlas of interpersonal situations. New York, NY: Cambridge University
Press.
Rusbult, C. E. & Van Lange, P. A. M. (1996). Interdependence processes. In E. T. Higgins
& A.W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (pp. 564-
596). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Rusbult, C. E., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2003). Interdependence, interaction, and
relationships. Annual Review of Psychology, 54, 351-375.
Van Lange, P. A. M. (1999). The pursuit of joint outcomes and equality in outcomes: An
integrative model of social value orientation. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 77, 337-349.
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Article
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Foreword Part I. Introduction and Theory: 1. Interpersonal situations: the context of social behavior 2. Outcome interdependence 3. Interaction conditions and person factors 4. Exploring the geography of the outcome patterns Part II The Situations: Preface to the Entries for the Situations Single Component Patterns: 1. Independence: we go our separate ways 2. Mutual partner control: I scratch your back, you scratch mine 3. Corresponding mutual joint control: getting in sync 4. Conflicting mutual joint control: match or mismatch Two- and three-component patterns: 5. The prisoner's dilemma: me versus we 6. Threat: trading loyalty for justice 7. Chicken: death before dishonor 8. Hero: let's do it your way 9. Conjunctive problems: together we can do it 10. Disjunctive problems: either of us can do it 11. Asymmetric dependence: you're the boss Time-extended patterns: 12. Iterated prisoner's dilemma: united we stand, divided we fall 13. Investment: building for the future 14. Delay of gratification: resisting temptation Incomplete information situations 15. Negotiation: can we agree on a deal? 16. Encounters with strangers: lack of information about a partner 17. Joint decisions under uncertainty: bird in the hand 18. Twists of fate: coping with an uncertain future N-person Situations 19. Third parties: effects of an outsider 20. N-person prisoner's dilemma: tragedy of the commons Movement from one situation to another 21. Movement among situations: where do we go from here? Part III. Epilogue.
Article
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The author provides a conceptual framework for understanding differences among prosocial, individualistic, and competitive orientations. Whereas traditional models conceptualize prosocial orientation in terms of enhancing joint outcomes, the author proposes an integrative model of social value orientation in which prosocial orientation is understood in terms of enhancing both joint outcomes and equality in outcomes. Consistent with this integrative model, prosocial orientation (vs. individualistic and competitive orientations) was associated with greater tendencies to enhance both joint outcomes and equality in outcomes; in addition, both goals were positively associated (Study 1). Consistent with interaction-relevant implications of this model, prosocial orientation was strongly related to reciprocity. Relative to individualists and competitors, prosocials were more likely to engage in the same level of cooperation as the interdependent other did (Study 2) and the same level of cooperation as they anticipated from the interdependent other (Study 3). (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Article
Full-text available
Interdependence theory presents a logical analysis of the structure of interpersonal situations, offering a conceptual framework in which interdependence situations can be analyzed in terms of six dimensions. Specific situations present specific problems and opportunities, logically implying the relevance of specific motives and permitting their expression. Via the concept of transformation, the theory explains how interaction is shaped by broader considerations such as long-term goals and concern for a partner's welfare. The theory illuminates our understanding of social-cognitive processes that are of longstanding interest to psychologists such as cognition and affect, attribution, and self-presentation. The theory also explains adaptation to repeatedly encountered interdependence patterns, as well as the embodiment of such adaptations in interpersonal dispositions, relationship-specific motives, and social norms.
Article
[presents] a theory of social psychological processes that deals not only with the individual social agent, but also with the fabric of the social milieu in which the individual is enmeshed begins with a discussion of basic concepts, reviewing key properties of interaction, the nature of self-interest, and standards for evaluating interactions and relationships / address the structure of outcome interdependence, describing the properties that define all possible patterns of interdependence—degree of dependence, mutuality of dependence, correspondence of outcomes, and basis for dependence / introduce the concept of transformation of motivation, describing this process, the primary types of transformational activity, and the main embodiments of transformational tendencies—dispositions, relationship-specific motives, and social norms consider the role of internal events in summarizing and directing interdependent behavior, including cognitive interpretations and emotional reactions / self-presentation processes are also relevant to understanding how internal events shape interdependent experiences / discuss interdependence processes in larger groups (e.g., social dilemmas, intergroup relations, stereotype maintenance) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Social beings: A core motives approach to social psychology
  • S T Fiske
Fiske, S. T. (2004). Social beings: A core motives approach to social psychology. New York, NY: Wiley.