Experimental Science of Human Motivations and Relations


In most psychological theories of human development, the pinnacle points toward compassionate social action. For Freud, Adler, and Erickson, maturity required the capacity for concern and devotion to others through some kind of
altruism, social usefulness, or generativity. Maslow’s self-actualizers were similarly oriented toward intimate relationships and social justice, and Erich Fromm and Carl Rogers both viewed the capacity to consider others’ perspectives and to act in others’ interests as the mark of full functioning and self-actualization. Non-psychologists have similar intuitions. When asked what their highest values are, most lay-people mention something related to relationships and helping others, and all major religious traditions have compassionate values and ideals at their core. Moreover, reminding people of their highest values, or religious beliefs eliminates hostile reactions to anxiety-inducing
threats, and replaces them with forgiving reactions.  

If love is such a consensual value, why are we not more routinely empathic and compassionate? Part of the answer appears to lie in habits for managing anxiety. Even seemingly minor uncertainties and insecurities can activate the anxiety system, and people reflexively react by becoming more hostile and tenaciously tethered to personal opinions, goals, and ideals (to activate approach motivated states that relieve anxiety, see the Desire and Anxiety section). Such habitual egocentric reactions help quell anxiety in the short term, but crowd others’ perspectives out of awareness, making them matter only to the extent that they help or hinder personal goals or ideals. In short, anxiety makes people more egocentric and more inclined to interact with others as if they were objects rather than people with their own perspectives and feelings. Narcissistic people, especially those with underlying insecurities, have particularly habitual egocentric reactions. This makes them especially callous toward the suffering of others after being reminded of either their own personal anxieties, or their own egocentric goals and ideals. Either way, the well-exercised ego crowds out consideration of others.

Compassionate ideals and values seem to activate the same basic approach-motivation-related processes as egocentric ideals and values, however. They may therefore be substitutable. Both can relieve anxiety, but compassionate ideals can do so in a more prosocial way. The trick is to figure out how to replace egocentric habits with compassionate ones. Exciting new experimental work by Christian Jordan and colleagues at Wilfrid Laurier University is revealing some promising strategies in this regard, related to communal primes that can take the edge off of narcissistically oriented people. This work, together with our own on the malleability of reactive approach motivation (see Desire and Anxiety section) suggests that people might easily become more compassionate if compassion cues were more salient in their environments and imaginations. 

*Note: to see in context of other research topics in our lab, click on the RESEARCH link at the top of this page.