The Four Basic Human Motivations

Most of us are familiar with only one model of human motivation: Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I have been researching some models besides this one trying to sieve new perspectives. One such model is Steven Reiss’s 16 Desires, which I plan to discuss in a separate blog post. This time, I was especially looking for a fresh reinterpretation of the four motivations as spelt out by the Vedic tradition in India. These are called Purushartha (Pursuits) and they are Dharma (Righteousness), Artha (Security), Kama (Pleasure) and Moksha (Freedom). That’s when I bumped into Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria’s 2002 book Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices. In this book, they bring in a new (yet not so new) model of understanding human motivations. they are the drives to acquire (obtain scarce goods, including intangibles such as social status); bond (form connections with individuals and groups); comprehend (satisfy our curiosity and master the world around us); and defend (protect against external threats and promote justice). The writers claim that these four drives underlie everything we do and are hardwired into our brains. The degree to which they are satisfied directly affects our emotions and, by extension, our behaviour.

  1. The drive to acquire.
    We are all driven to acquire scarce goods that bolster our sense of well-being. We experience delight when this drive is fulfilled, and discontentment when it is thwarted. This phenomenon applies not only to physical goods like food, clothing, housing, and money but also to experiences like travel and entertainment—not to mention events that improve social statuses, such as being promoted and getting a corner office or a place on the corporate board. The drive to acquire tends to be relative (we always compare what we have with what others possess) and insatiable (we always want more).
  2. The drive to bond.
    Many animals bond with their parents, kinship group, or tribe, but only humans extend that connection to larger collectives such as organizations, associations, and nations. The drive to bond, when met, is associated with strong positive emotions like love and caring and, when not, with negative ones like loneliness and anomie.
  3. The drive to comprehend.
    We want very much to make sense of the world around us, to produce theories and accounts—scientific, religious, and cultural—that make events comprehensible and suggest reasonable actions and responses. We are frustrated when things seem senseless, and we are invigorated, typically, by the challenge of working out answers. It is the drive to comprehend that makes us seek purpose and meaning in life.
  4. The drive to defend.
    We all naturally defend ourselves, our property and accomplishments, our family and friends, and our ideas and beliefs against external threats. This drive is rooted in the basic fight-or-flight response common to most animals. In humans, it manifests itself not just as aggressive or defensive behaviour, but also as a quest to create institutions that promote justice, that have clear goals and intentions, and that allow people to express their ideas and opinions. Fulfilling the drive to defend leads to feelings of security and confidence; not fulfilling it produces strong negative emotions like fear and resentment. The drive to defend is what makes people resistant to change. This drive makes us preserve, maintaintain, conserve, protect and insure what we have gained or ehatvwe have already- like profits, assets, health and wealth.

These four drives manifest in all of us – infants, children, adolescents, teens and adults alike. What changes is merely the content, quality and intensity of these motivation. Each of these drives when taken to an extreme can bring misery and bind us. There is no end to what one can’t aspire to acquire, there is no end to how many relationships one may bind oneself into, there is no end to how much knowledge one may acquire and one may go to any end to defend, hold on to what one values. Where one draws that line and what quality one pursues decides one’s level of wellbeing and fulfilment. At a macroeconomic level as well as at the individual level, it seems we are all in the race to maximize the output from these drives by constantly fueling them. But the key to happiness is to find a middle path, the key to success is to strike a balance and harmony across all the four drives in a person.

This model though largely applied today at the workplace, can make sense in the context of all pursuits of life. I will share more about them, in another post.

P.S.: This is how the four Purusharthas are defined in the Vedic tradition:

Puruṣārthaḥ: Human pursuit or goal; that which is sought by a human being

Arthaḥ: wealth; pursuit of security

Kāmaḥ: Desire; longing; love for; pleasure in; lust.

Dharmaḥ: There is no equivalent word in European languages; dharmaḥ is that which upholds; universal, natural, moral, law and order; ethics; universal values; disciplines; performance of one’s own duties, and secular and sacred activities; social service; acquiring puṇyam (good will) through the above factors.

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