My cousin Ian and I were still impressionable pre-teens when my Dad took us to the Gettysburg Civil War battlefield. I vaguely remember passing various granite markers and spoke-wheeled canon as we strolled the uneven hills. More vivid in my memory is a tour guide explaining how General So-and-So got his head blown off by a cannon ball where I was standing. That got my attention and not in the most comfortable sort of way. It must have set the stage for me to ruminate long and hard when we got to the Cyclorama - a huge 360 degree mural painting of the battle. In particular of Pickett's Charge.

I stared at the mural and for the life of me, couldn't get my head around Pickett's Charge. As all Americans learn in school, the field the Confederate infantry had to cross that day was flat, open and long. It was basically a slow, methodical walk into a meat-grinder, and I couldn't get over the sheer stupidity of it. I wasn't thinking of Lee and Pickett so much. Commanders have to gamble, I knew, and if the thing had worked they'd only be remembered as brilliant and daring. But whether they could collectively take Cemetery Ridge or not: what on earth made those fool infantrymen line up to be artillery target practice for almost a mile? (General Trimble's estimate) At twelve, I was confident I would have shown General Pickett my middle finger or worse. Nowadays, of course, I know differently and am just thankful to be too old to take part in such nonsense. 

I'm only picking on poor Pickett (who in fairness, was opposed the charge) because it's the earliest memory I have of what used to be a great mystery to me: what on earth makes us humans tick in the first place? What really motivates us to do stuff at all? I thought the whole evolution game was about survival and having babies - where does deliberately getting your head blown off by a cannonball fit in?

If you've ever hung around marketing or psychology people, you'll have heard of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It's a triangular shaped mini-bible with the supposed laundry list of our priorities. In reality, though, it's a list only a Vulcan from Star Trek could love, because it's so apparently rational 1) survive and have babies 2) gather food, shelter, safety 3) love and be loved 4) feel good about yourself 5) realize your dreams. Sounds so utterly reasonable until you realize it's meant to apply to real-life human beings. 

I think it's deeply ironic that Abraham Maslow published his work "A Theory of Human Motivation" in the middle of World War II, just when millions were motivated to kill and die for anything BUT the first three items on his list. In fact, if Maslow's pyramid were really true, almost nothing about human history would make any sense. Maybe Stone Age humans killed and died for sheer survival and procreation, but since then it's been pretty much abstract ideas that have driven people to that kind of behavior. During the Bronze and Iron Ages, one side was usually fighting for glory, the other for freedom. Nowadays of course, moral standards have changed, so everybody says they're fighting for only the latter. Either way, they're only fourth or fifth on Maslow's list. 

So much for survival. What about the having babies part of our supposed Number One priority? Hhmm. I guess that's why millions live and have lived in monasteries and nunneries throughout the centuries. Or why birthrates are constantly declining in the developed world. 

A lot of other not-that-uncommon behavior shouldn't even exist under the Maslow scheme. Substance abuse, anorexia, suicide - in fact any behavioral disorder that becomes debilitating enough to short-circuit items 1) - 3) on the list shouldn't be possible. But here again, in real life, 4) and 5) very often dominate. Honestly, in the face of such obvious and overwhelming counter-evidence, I severely don't get how the pyramid meme ever propagated beyond Maslow's desk. 

We've known for some time that humans are not Star Trek Vulcans carefully weighing their decisions under classic rules of rationality (say, by weighing expected cost vs. benefit). The psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman  worked out that kinda-shoulda-been-obvious fact in the context of economic behavior. Or maybe it wasn't that obvious - Kahneman got the 2002 Nobel in Economics for the work. (Tversky sadly died before the prize was awarded). But really, folks: it only takes a smidgen of self-awareness to know that all of our individual decisions are emotionally weighted in all kinds of directions, just not in the direction First Officer Spock would approve of.  

In fact, without emotional affect, decisions would be impossible at all, as the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio discussed at length in his book Descartes Error. After all, how else does the brain know what few bits of data out of gazillions to pay attention to? But as always, the ancient Greeks of the Axial Age were already there. Aristotle is far from my favorite Greek philosopher, but he did manage to get the point right when he wrote "There can be no knowledge without emotion". But it's not as simple as our animal instincts overriding our higher intellect either. On this I have to politely disagree with a guy who is one of my favorites, David Hume, when he wrote "Reason... is the slave of the passions." No, it's not that we're in a state of constant Pon Farr, as Spock might say. Our inner drives are vastly more complex and opaque. We should be clear that it's not about a lack of data, or even knowledge, experience or expertise that makes us so seemingly irrational (If you doubt that, I refer you to the last US Presidential election and the losing side's astonishment at the result)

So let's ditch the whole pretense that we even know what 'rational' is and whether we are even any good at it. We'll start from scratch with the original question: just what does make humans tick? 

Part II to follow.

bhavya nain
6/17/2013 04:28:13 pm

Maslow was wrong. See SSRN Article : Nain, Bhavya, Nain's Hierarchy of Needs: An Alternative to Maslow's & ERG's Hierarchy of Needs (June 14, 2013). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2279375


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