Behaviour as directed by motivations

How much can we explain what we do by our desires to know more, reaffirm we are more, or seeking to reconcile two things that cannot both be so?

All case references herein originating or cited per David Dunning “On the motives underlying social cognition”  Chapter 16 of A. Tesser and N. Schwarz. Blackwell handbook of social psychology. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 2001

Behaviour derived from need

We have begun addressing motivational factors in social psychology this week.  The basics of life to keep the body functioning; safety; then belonging, social climbing, and culminating in actualisation – being the best that we can be (cf. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs 1954) or what Carl Rogers called “autonomy” to explain what it is that makes us seek out tasks beyond such basic need (Rogers, 1960).

Behaviour derived from desire not need

But we were asked this week to examine another origin of motivation.  What in social psychology is referenced as Social Justice, to explain the motives which direct us to act.  It offers explanation for those less obvious motives we may be hiding, or reason for questions we ask, the people we seek to acquaint, and perhaps secretly berate.

  • desire for knowledge
  • desire for affirmation
  • desire for coherence

I briefly describe each.

Desire for Knowledge.

If we know a little, we will seek out more.  Trivia, or answers to things we are almost certain we know, we will spend resource to have confirmed anyway (think of the cliff hanger question before the advert break).  We will invest time and effort in dismissing or reconciling what is unexpected, just to trivialise if need be.  We invest more time in people we think we need to know, whether that be for upside, to avoid downside, or with whom we must compete.  We take more interest in causal reasoning after an event, and recall past failures to inform future event.  We are proven to be more mindful of our opinions and our actions when we are likely to have to account for them.  We will be more critical of argument, more resistant to stereotype, and be more insightful and thoughtful in integrating information when it has impact that leads back to us.  We respond more openly to information that aids our own control, but seek information to support our deeds if retrospectively sought.  By variance of preference some of us live happily with uncertainly, whilst others routinely seek to narrow fields of interest, compromise or look to shut down too many separate lines of enquiry, or hold stronger to category stereotype to get to certainty quicker – even if quick is less complete.  This motive towards closure, plus the underlying trade-off or need for more cognitive detail, combine to make some people judge situations quickly, confidently, but belligerently, and others to not know when to form a judgement at all.

Desire for affirmation

Not all is knowledge based, however.  We are also driven by our pride.  We may have attributions that explain our success, but external factors to blame for the rest.  Our decisions on whether to seek more information and our analysis of the information sought, can be determined by the control we have over the state of affairs this will inform.  This can become a deliberative vs implementation mindset – helping a decision vs justification of what was decided upon.  In analysis we may be “reality constrained” but nonetheless intent on neutralising information not presenting us in good light.  We can spend time elaborating on the merits of traits we possess, and trivialising those we do not.  Short-comings demonstrated as common flaws in us all, or seeking to present someone worse at it than ourselves.  We may do this directly.  We may also do it by implication.  Higher performing people shown to be less gracious in praise or assessment of others – unless it is in something of no consequence to themselves.  Our choices in social groups, friends, and our just causes, all directed toward our sense of self-worth and our pride.

Desire for coherence

Cognitive dissonance is explained as a felt agitation when two beliefs are inconsistent but both owned.  By example, when we are forced to act against our principles we may convince ourselves of validity of both, change one to fit to the other, or find wider reason to hold one in lower regard.  The coherence we worked hard to own, we may work equally hard to defended.  And if choice has been made between two equally valid alternatives, we will denigrate the one we did not choose.  The counterargument here is that we perhaps simply find new perspective.  However, where there is clear distance between position taken and belief held, it is demonstrated the dissonance felt will prevail.  Such dissonance only felt however if negative impact could arise. Sometimes such dissonance appeals, where such wider view is coveted and we therefore wish to become.  Or it may be reduced where wider behaviour could mitigate any negative impact the dissonant conflict may suppose.

v | behaviour | t

All of these summaries are taken from David Dunning as referenced above. He leaves us with a few areas of research to continue.  Some I hold as contemporary challenges. And connected to projects.

There is the question of which of these three motivational sources acts with greatest influence.  Or indeed if we situationally need to consider all three. He asks at what level does motivation influence social judgement.  Is it explicit with conscious control?  Or is it implicit, without awareness and therefore presenting less opportunity for individual control?  My question, when considering these influences upon our project behaviours, and against our control environments in such a complex arena, is why are we not just assuming it is both?

Dunning reports that research into motivation consistently returns to individual differences.  More often so than does cognitive behavioural change.  He ponders upon why this would be.  And whether it is actually the motives of certain classes of people, rather than human judgements as a generalisation, that give potential to better clues.  In my opinion, one possible upside to this observation is if we can extend this premise to project settings. Such as the subsets of project actors in complex construction.  Can groupings be found to begin addressing motivation types that can pull interest into or away from a project goal? This I have previously identified as a possibility, per my MSc dissertation from 2020. 

A second possible area of further research he identified as cultural differences.  Dunning highlighted geographical culture, citing research that had given explanations to individual nuance comparing Japanese and North American differing motivations when faced with self-image threats.  Japanese reaction being one of self-development flags vs. North Americans deeming these triggers to defend self-image.  That could be considered directly in cultural terms in multinational projects.  But I think we could consider industry sectors as having cultural norms too.

Perhaps these two research lenses can be combined.  Could projects be typed to give idea of internal dissonance? Differences of understanding between parties themselves?  Varying the project settings, this could be layering of the supply chain, and across commercial interfaces between parts of government hierarchy, or the interfaces between the buyer and seller in procurement.  Other categorisations of comparison could be available across horizontal sector analysis, or vertical management analysis.  Or we could consider this temporally at various stages of a project.  Categorising motivations across knowledge, affirmations, and coherence between project actors.  Relative power and influence, compared to specifics of motivational themes.  Or more closely examining the variance within a single actor and its parts.

The comparisons I am providing of the Construction Playbook, the means of managing accountability within role and responsibility allocations, or the comparison of the High Reliability Organisation to other forms of safety concern, each providing places to pitch such research.

In all cases, perhaps opportunity to research this appropriately will come knocking.  Or through my ongoing research and learning, I can formulate an academically sound case to make the enquiry come around the other way.  Either way, I continue to find new comparisons and synergies between my risk orientation into the project management world, and that of psychology.

More than this however, I am now observing need in both camps.  This social psychology is evolving science, and the project world is a complexity of human process desperately in need of new perspectives.  These seem to me two parties in need of some mutual research. One as arena to the other.

In the interim, it remains more than enough to keep me asking more, upskilling more, challenging more, and seeking better perspectives on necessary wider change.

To be continued…

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

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