The control needs involve not only physical control of surroundings, but also understanding them. Like security, knowledge is a much wider and more basic need; every animal has to know enough to find food. But humans go much farther. We want simply to know. We enjoy learning facts simply because they may come in useful some day. We need to know what will happen. This is not just a want but a literal life-and-death need (Anderson 1996; Baumeister 2005). The desire to know and understand seems somewhat a separate system in the mind, though psychological studies show that it too grows from the control need. The need for knowledge is different from the need for outright social power. Enjoyment of learning appears to arise, ultimately, from the value of understanding the world for one’s control of one’s life. There may be two separate systems here; or, perhaps, we are merely judging components of one system by their different results.
The need for security can be sated in normal individuals. When they feel safe and accepted, they go on to something else. But the wider, derived control needs are somewhat open-ended; unlike (normal) thirst, hunger, or desire for sex, they do not get automatically satiated by gratification. Some people wind up constantly needing control: they are “control freaks,” “power junkies,” or “rigid personalities.” Some individuals, driven perhaps by deep insecurity, seem literally mad for power. Their need, like the fire in Ecclesiastes, is never filled, and the result has been a world history of disasters. Except for such people, Nietzsche’s claim that humans have a basic desire for “power” is simply wrong.
Fortunate those whose need for control is channeled into a need for understanding! They have the best of all worlds, a life spent in learning and in enjoying it. Possibly we can work at rechanneling the needs of the “control freaks” into healthy desire to accumulate more knowledge.
Finally, a dramatic recent finding by Brandon Schmeichel and Kahleen Vohs (2009) shows that one’s values are critical to maintaining this sense of control. In a wide range of experiments, they showed that loss of self-efficacy was repaired by simply listing and explaining one’s core values. A sharp and thought-provoking contrast with pleasant words and reassurance emerged from these studies: reaffirming core values made people feel not only a lot better about themselves, but back in control, confident of their personhood. Nice words reassured them about their social situation and disarmed anger and sulking, but did not fix the low sense of self. This reminds us of the advice of the stoic philosophers, especially Marcus Aurelius: keep your principles and you can endure the world’s harms. Easy for him to say—he was Emperor of Rome!—but it seems to work even for those of us who have much less real control of our world.
“One of the unpardonable sins, in the eyes of most people, is for a man to go about unlabelled. The world regards such a person as the police do an unmuzzled dog, not under proper control.” --T. H. Huxley (Gross 1983:58)
Randall Collins (2001) postulates an “emotional energy,” not really either emotion or energy, but the inner state produced by rewards and recognition in social interactions. Every interaction produces some if this commodity. Positive energy accrues to those who get approval and approbation. Common English recognizes many kinds of emotional flow in interactions. Approbation, status, warmth, affection, liking, and other good things contrast with criticism, censure, annoyance, and disapproval. Worse are rejection, anger, fury, and hate.
Warm and close sociability is the highest pleasure. The naïve may think “sex” is the highest; the experienced will recall the difference between sex-without-love and sex-with-love. The social needs include needs for love, recognition, sense of a “place” in society, and just plain ordinary socializing. We humans love gossip (Dunbar 2004). Our favorite recreation is hearing about (and, often, interfering with) the lives of other people. This finds modern expression in reading novels, watching movies and TV, or obsessively following the lives of “celebrities.”
How much of a typical human's enjoyment is solitary? How much is simply the enjoyment of social contact? Good sex is more about personal intimacy than about twitching. Conversation and most artistic activities are social. Good food and drink are more than doubly good when shared. Of all pleasures, perhaps only meditation and the enjoyment of nature are better when done solo. Art, dance, and sports have an ultimately rewarding and pleasant aspect quite apart from their social side, but they are more fun with others. An Arab proverb says that “God does not count against your life the time spent in good company,” and modern medicine agrees. It is literally true that the more good sociability one has, the longer one lives.
We need social life so much that people will endure any abuse, oppression, and cruelty to avoid ostracism or life in a bleak companionless setting. Women endure abusive relationships. Children removed from unspeakable family situations cry to “go home,” especially if they are put in a cold, impersonal shelter. The abject conformity of much of 20th century life, with its mass media, uniform clothing styles, and monotonously identical shopping centers with the same chain franchises, is apparently preferable to loneliness. Isolation and anomie are frightening, and people do anything to conform to what they see as social expectations. Those who do not observe the conventions are enemies, or at least untrustworthy. This was even more true in the 1940s and 1950s than now, so the best analyses come from that period: Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941) and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (Riesman et al. 1950).
Incidentally, to anticipate a later section on “individualism” versus “collectivism,” the almost insanely abject conformists of Fromm’s and Riesman’s all-too-accurate accounts were precisely the people who talked most about “American Individualism.” The same is true today; those who claim to idealize “individualism” are those who are most paranoid about immigrants, homosexuals, Muslims, and so on and on. They endlessly agitate to outlaw all such deviant behaviors. They have even idealized junk food, simply because it is American, and denounce critics of junk food as “food Nazis.” The left-wing equivalents talk of “personal liberty” but enforce political correctness. All this proves once again the general principle that people idealize what they want for themselves, not what they actually have, and—conversely—tend to hate most in others what they secretly hate most in themselves (in this case, mindless followership).
All studies show that people are happy in proportion to their warm, supportive social group. Loners, rich or poor, are less happy than warmly social people. Change in social status makes the most difference in happiness. Loss of a loved one is the cause of the deepest grief, and that grief does not go away soon. Many people will not eat to live unless they are socializing. Meals on Wheels, an organization that brings meals to elderly or invalid shut-ins, has its workers stay to share mealtimes, knowing that people will often starve to death if they have no one to eat with.
Social place, social acceptance, social validation are all-important. Banishment and ostracism are the worst punishments short of death, and sometimes death is preferred; suicide is often the result of loss of social position, whether by shame (as in Japanese seppuku) or loneliness and isolation (as in many American and European suicides, especially of older people).
Humans have a powerful compulsion to establish, maintain, and when possible improve one’s social place. People live for social approbation. The American individualist or independent self-made entrepreneur reacts with fury and despair to the least threat or challenge to his or her social standing. This is not merely “belonging” and is not confined to “love.” It is a matter of having a defined, stable, secure place in a social group. One needs to have a secure position, with status, role, group recognition, reciprocity, authority, and nurturance more or less reliably assured. Conversely, a chance word can ruin a lifetime friendship.
All societies have countless rules and visible signs to tell who is “in” and who is “out.” Membership in the group is shown by everything from skin color and language to tattoos and ritual scarification. Status in the group is shown by the same: the higher-ups speak a different way (as Shaw’s Pygmalion reminded the world). Every society must have painful, unpleasant, or at least foolishly arbitrary markers of belonging. They are hard to fake, and no one would do them for individual satisfaction. These markers range from scars to uncomfortable clothing to rigid body postures to endless boring ceremonies. The obsessive watching of awful films and TV programs in the United States is arguably the same thing. One watches them to show that one will undergo any suffering in order to be “with it.”
Individual nonconformists (even those that cannot help themselves, like the mentally ill) and highly visible minority groups are united in a category of “foldbreakers.” Such people are not only hated and despised; they are “unacceptable,” “inappropriate,” “disapproved,” “sinful,” “shameful,” and so on and on. Social rejection is a quite different matter from ordinary personal hatred. Individual hatred can be controlled, but social rejection leads to genocide.
Failure of mutual aid and support follow lack of personal closeness, or accumulation of minor hurts and threats. These weaken social bonds and make cooperation difficult. Businesses are torn by rivalries and bickering. Academic departments are almost always riven by petty jealousies and lack of close bonding. This is devastating to work, but it always seems to happen, and very rarely is anything done about it. The world at large is ruined by lack of solidarity, lack of responsibility, and petty annoyances. Religion and morality exist largely to minimize this, but often make it worse. They bond the members of a group together, but often interfere with bridging to other groups.
Many, perhaps all, of us stay alive only because of some goal beyond ourselves—helping our families, for instance, or living for an ideal. Viktor Frankl, surviving a Nazi death camp, found his fellow survivors to be those animated by such higher callings (Frankl 1959, 1978). Those who had nothing to live for did not live. The higher callings were family or social group or a life-project relating to improving the human world. Thus, these wider goals seem to be the highest level of the social need (see also Seligman 2006; cf. “self-actualization,” Maslow 1970). The degree to which this need for meaning is inborn is controversial, but unquestionably these concerns tap something very deep in the human mind. Franklian meaning therefore seems to come from—though not to end with—doing something for one’s group, and from having a real place in that group based on this self-sacrificing action. Even very young children feel terribly proud and pleased when they do something for others, and more so if they get some recognition for it. Franklian meaning is important enough to have become a very effective component of therapy for depression and other cognitive problems (Seligman 2006).
So people do “not live by bread alone.” They do not live for bread at all. For the human animal, life is about maintaining family relationships, social place, and overall social security. Bread is merely a means of staying alive for that end.
Control and Social Needs in Conflict
The needs for control and sociability lie behind the notorious cross-pull between autonomy and affiliation that defines the human condition. People desperately want and need freedom. But humans also desperately want and need support, social acceptance, and warm social life. These needs are always getting in each other's way, since living in society involves checking one’s more disruptive individual desires (Bandura 1986). Only the most sensitive of families or communities can give people a reasonable balance. Failure is deadly; a job with high demands but low levels of control over one’s work greatly increases the chance of heart disease (Soares 2008).
Humans need society, but they find social stimuli to be daunting, and strong emotion to be downright threatening. Any strong emotion, even love, can seem invasive or aggressive. It brings the affiliation vs. autonomy conflict to the fore.
This leads to social codes that enjoin low-key, gentle social behavior, and discourage open expression of emotions. Politeness and civility codes always stress the need to seem tolerant and calm. Almost all that are known to me strongly discourage open expression of emotion, especially negative and aggressive emotion. One exception—the idealization of “talking about feelings” in America in the 1960s and 1970s—withered with amazing rapidity. People learned that they not only did not want to hear about others’ feelings, they were actually stressed and frightened by them. Even positive emotions were stressful, let alone negative ones. By 2000, people were back to status quo ante: idealizing the strong silent male and the warm but tactfully reserved female. Stephen Pinker (2007) argues convincingly that human sociability requires indirection, exaggerated gentleness, and pulling emotional punches. Humans simply cannot handle bluntly direct communication.
A better resolution is empowerment. This concept has languished long in the realm of dreams—a high-sounding word that somehow says what we all know we need, but lacks much real definition. Finally the team of Lauren Cattaneo and Aliya Chapman have given it a working definition (see Cattaneo and Chapman 2010). They see it as an iterative process in the direction of “personally meaningful and power-oriented goals” (Cattaneo and Chapman 2010:646). These are a problem; one normally has to fiigure out what one’s long-term and short-term goals really are. Most of us go through life without thinking enough about that. Then, to achieve said goals, we need “self-efficacy [Bandura again], knowledge, [and] competence” (Cattaneo and Chapman 2010:646). One then has to act, and then think about how well the actions work—what impact they have. Ideally, this gives one mastery over one’s life and ability to deal with social situations (the article goes on to make clear how one can actually do all this).
All societies have some degree of hierarchy; the most egalitarian hunter-gatherer group recognizes its elders, its best hunters, and its best group leaders. Yet when real status hierarchies emerge, few like them, and all too many amoral power-seekers take
advantage of them.
In all societies, the irreducible need for autonomy and control plays against the social system. All social systems find ways of managing it, but the ways differ greatly according to local circumstances. The social construction of resistance, power, and autonomy is a compromise between the strong and the weak, as well as between control needs and social needs.
Social-place jockeying often takes the form conspicuous consumption, often miscalled “greed” but really a major sacrifice of wealth in the name of social showing off. Alternatively, social-place jockeying involves the most unpleasant and infuriating of all social games: the endless worries about slights and imagined slights, cutting remarks, and so on. These are managed, with varying degrees of success, by ignoring them, attacking the perpetrators, displacing anger onto weaker people (especially minority groups), joining a monastery, or trying to talk things out civilly. The last is the only one with much hope of success, but is rarely used, because it can cause major fights. “Honor” (and its violent consequences; Baumeister 1997, 2005) is notoriously a socially damaging coping mechanism. The drive for “power” in the Nietzschean sense, and the oppression of minority groups, both stem largely from this general social insecurity. Real co-work is actually the best cure; people who have to depend on each other will work things out eventually.
This has parallels in other social animals. Gorillas drum their chests. Nightingales try to outsing each other; their night song is for the females, their dawn song for rival males.
Religions address group solidarity—even urging love or compassion—and attack the most notoriously bad coping strategies: selfishness, greed, and insensate drive for power. They also urge communicants to accept each other, and often to close ranks against everyone else. This is one more proof that religion is about social life, not about explaining origins or about managing “altered states.” Religion gets most of its traction from providing social place, support, and empowerment. At least, it should stop the cycle of social cuts and responses. Fascism, Stalinism, Maoism, and other fanatical secular movements have replaced religion in these areas in the last hundred years, but afford no improvement.
In short, social science in the last 200 years has stood Hobbes on his head. Instead of society forming from the “warre of each against all,” the “warre” forms from society gone wrong. Humans are naturally social; they fall into civil war when social hate and rejection get out of control and economic problems exacerbate the conflict. When a human society actually approximates Hobbesian “warre,” it has often gotten there through social rivalries and perceived slights (Baumeister 1997).
Reformers often want to improve material conditions, since those are most concrete, most easily fixable, and most immediate. But, pace the economists, it is the social and control needs that actually motivate people. Material conditions are created through politics. Improving material conditions is certainly desirable, but must wait on dealing with political problems: solidarity versus hatred,active helping versus passive conforming. Improving material conditions would help more people faster, but governments, businesses, and organizations will not help unless political and social forces make them do it. Politics is about regulating social life. In spite of Marx and the “public choice” writers, it is not primarily about material interests or individual amoral power-maximizing. It is about social place and group competition. Politics and other conflicts, especially in hierarchy situations, are more about group hate than about rationality. Public choice theorists who think that political behavior is rational live in a dream-world.
If people have a fair, responsive government, they will solve their own material problems unless they are utterly destitute of resources. If they do not have a decent government, nothing helps much; they government rips off anything donated and the people sink into despair.
Ashley Montagu, many years ago, wrote a book called The Biosocial Nature of Man (1973; of course he meant to include women; “man” was the general term then). He stressed the biological grounding of human sociability. Indeed, we are the heirs of millions of years of evolution as a social species.
One of the more thought-provoking findings of biology is that people are individuals all the way down. No two people, not even identical twins, are identical in anatomy and physiology. The differences in nutritional needs, psychological predispositions, and even functional anatomy between unrelated individuals can be very striking indeed. As early as 1956, Roger Williams, in his book Biochemical Individuality (1956), emphasized this point, on the basis of his pioneering studies of nutrition. He found that, among armadillos, even identical quadruplets had slightly different nutritional requirements. He was also the discoverer of several of the B-complex vitamins.
People differ considerably within even very narrow compass. My identical-twin nieces, raised together and doing everything together all their lives, have startlingly different personalities and interests. Genes make them broadly similar, but growth and experience have had effects. Those media stories of identical twins reared apart who gave their daughters the same name, liked the same pickles, and so on, are highly suspect. Take any two people from similar cultural backgrounds and you will discover a lot of surprising resemblances. Add tabloid exaggeration and even downright invention, and you get those stories.
There is still room for a lot of thought about why genetics “allows” so much free variation. Even dogs and horses vary. Humans have increased the range of variation by selecting fierce and meek strains of dogs, “hot-blooded” and “cold-blooded” horses, and so on. Humans are about as genetically homogeneous an organism as the world affords. We, like cheetahs, seem to have passed through a narrow genetic bottleneck not long ago, probaby at the dawn of modern humanity some 100,000-200,000 years ago. Yet we have not only a great deal of physical variation, but also—cross-cutting it—a great deal of variation in basic personality. Both of these cross-cut cultural variation, ensuring that everyone is truly unique. We have the full range from introverts to extraverts, neat to sloppy people, leaders to followers, scoundrels to saints, happy-go-luckies to perpetually terrified neurotics, wild thrill-seekers and adventurers to stay-at-homes who never try a different restaurant. Not a few sibling sets show almost the full range.
Brain chemistry and physiology differ between individuals (Damasio 1994). Differences in experience—so obvious to us all—thus work on differences already "wired in" (Harris 1998, 2006). The differences are subtle—matters of secretion of a bit more or less neurotransmitter, or numbers of neurons in some part of the brain—but they may have profound effects. It is worth reflecting, when one reads about the pathological cases reported by Damasio, that these cases do not contrast to some uniform "normal" which can stand as the one "healthy" brain. Normalcy is a matter of approximation and degree.
Over time, also, individuals change, for reasons not well understood. Basic personality is remarkably stable over the life course—the shy baby will probably grow up to be shy at 90 (Kagan 1998; Kagan and Snidman 2004)—but much else can change somewhat. Everyone with much time on this planet knows many who have “shaped up” and many others who unexpectedly “went wrong.” The clichés tell us that the former “had internal strength” or “were saved by love,” the latter “had a fatal flaw” or “fell in with bad company.” Actually, we don’t know much about it. In the one good long-term study I have seen, Emmy Werner and collaborators (Werner 1989; Werner and Smith 1982) found that a strong family with solid values predicts success even after early troubles, while a dysfunctional family or upbringing can lead to disaster even after a good start. Werner and her group also found that the military or the community colleges turned around many kids who were headed down a dubious path. Studies of responses to illness or to loss of a loved one show similar variation.
Religious conversion often does not seem to have much effect, contrary to stereotypes. One of my students, Jean Bartlett, studied religious conversion in California (Bartlett 1984), and found that people usually stuck with the faith of their parents or some extremely similar faith. Failing that, they shopped around until they found a sect that was congenial to their lifestyle. Theology had little to do with it. Practical rules, such as avoiding meat or alcohol, mattered much more. Seekers eventually sorted with people of similar educational background, class status, emotional makeup, everyday habits, and even musical taste. Few of these seekers even understood the theology of the sects they joined—let alone cared about such abstruse matters. To the credit of religion, some converts did kick drug and alcohol habits and turn their lives around. Most, however, sought a religion that let them do what they were doing anyway.