Experimental Science of Human Motivations and Relations


Our starting point is that human nature is intimately wired for relationships and that when relationships work, humans thrive. Almost everyone hopes for social harmony, love, and peace, but personal and intergroup relationships are often bewildering. Despite best intentions, human relations, from the intimate to international, are often crippled by frustration and conflict. Our guiding premise is that relationship problems are often at the root of both personal and societal dysfunctions, from apathy to callous disregard for social justice and hostile extremism. This is because relationship goals are so chronically important for humans, even those who are not consciously aware of their importance or are defensively trying to live as though relationships are unimportant. When people feel alienated from others, even momentarily, the impeded relationship goals cause anxiety and powerful reactive approach motivation (RAM) outcomes (see the DESIRE and ANXIETY section for an explanation of how this basic process works). This can then make people rigid and antisocial in various ways. Classic theorists like Sigmund Freud, Karen Horney, and Carl Rogers noticed related defense mechanisms long ago, but we are only now beginning to understand their precise neural and motivational mechanics. 

The anxious arousal and rigid defenses are most pronounced among people who have personality traits that incline them toward relationship  insecurities in the first place. In one series of studies, for example, two-minute reflections on relationship uncertainties made insecure participants lose the capacity to perspective-take afterwards. Even after seeing a long list of alternative opinions about value-laden social issue opinions, these insecure participants became adamant that everyone should and would agree with their own personal opinions. They became almost bizarrely certain, convinced, and willing to argue that their own moral intuitions about capital punishment, abortion, and war were more correct than others’. In another series of studies similar relationship insecurity manipulations made people become more willing to kill and die for their religious beliefs. 

Thinking about relationship insecurities and other anxiety-provoking experiences also makes people more generally petty and hostile toward foreign or frustrating people. People who tend to feel insecure about their close relationships are again especially vulnerable to these reactions. These findings indicate how pivotal relationship security is for personal and societal resilience. A line of our lab’s research accordingly focuses on how short affirmations of secure relationship values and experiences can quell anxiety and eliminate or even reverse hostile and selfish reactions to anxious circumstances. 

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