The five core social motives: to understand

Aliens (1986): perhaps a lack of understanding resulted in this relationship.

In Social Motive‘s series on the five core social motives, we explore just what it is that drives us to feel, think and act.

According to social psychologist Dr Susan Fiske, the basis behind our decisions in social situations can be distilled into five core motives: trust, understanding, growing, influencing, and belonging.

Understanding these five core social motives is essential to any situation where we interact with other people; in essence, the five core social motives make up the very fabric of our lives.

To understand

Why is it that when we take the train/tram/bus, we get so edgy around people acting strangely? Why do you understand exactly what I mean when I say ‘acting strangely’?

We share a common understanding of what it means to ‘act normally,’ that is, within a range of expected behaviours. It is vital to life and a part of our evolutionary psychology.

“People are demonstrably motivated to develop a socially shared understanding of each other and their environment. A shared information framework allows people to function in groups and in any kind of relationship.” (Source: Fiske and Yamamoto)

Absent passengers acting strangely, a train/tram/bus ride can even, God forbid, become a relaxing part of the day.

Why is it important to understand?

Understanding underpins the social motive to belong. We need to understand first the intentions of another person/situation (good or bad) before then deciding whether they have an agency to act on those intentions, and therefore whether they are of value/worth avoiding. This knowledge – which can be garnered by body language, symbols, social customs, accent, costume etc. – informs and influences how we respond to others.

What does understanding look like?

As a social motive, understanding frees and guides our decision making process. It is like checking the weather forecast before going outside, or buying a book based on the author or genre – you know what you’re going to get. Understanding this makes easier the investment of time/effort/emotion/health.

The absence of understanding can be a dangerous thing for one or both parties. In fact, it can be terrifying to the point of inhibition. There is a reason the xenomorph from the Alien franchise is the stuff of nightmares: its motivations, morphology and modus operandi are alien in both the figurative and literal senses. It is a complete manifestation of the unknown.

A manifestation of the unknown

How do we understand?

The human experience is easy for us to understand. Across cultures and within our own, there are many basic human processes that we can recognise: body language, tonality, facial expressions (part of why the wearing of sunglasses can be intimidating). Shared experiences and knowledge transfer engender understanding between parties, which is why there are so many team-bonding activities within organisations that are about getting to know one another.

The necessity of understanding can be highlighted by the awkwardness of forced social situations. When you meet someone for the first time, how are you meant to relate beyond a comment on the weather? You don’t know what their sense of humour, if any, is like. What offends them? What are their taboos? Some of these are the reasons for unspoken, unwritten and commonly understood social conventions: they lubricate our decision-making processes.

What does it mean in the age of digital communication and social media?

The digital age has shaken things up. As my colleague Sophie pointed out in her discussion on the social motive ‘to belong’, we are now walking billboards of photos, hashtags, likes, forums, groups, selfies, metadata, comments, bios and aspirational images. It’s like standing in a bar with all the information you need to strike up a conversation emblazoned on each person’s clothing (this is what makes dating apps so successful). At a glance, you can see what makes the other person tick.

So, like creating your own profile on a dating app, the purpose of digital communications and marketing for a business is twofold: 1) to reach out to people, and 2) to help them reach out to you. At the business end, it’s a simple game: you need to concisely and clearly communicate your essence to your customers and clients. What are you about? What do you stand for? What value do you offer? But this is more than selling yourself or your image.

With so much information at so many fingertips, the age of the hard sell is over. Because the marketplace – along with information seeking – has largely moved online, customers are not placed in a position where they are forced to make an immediate decision. If they feel pressured or alienated, they will simply click on a different link, switch tabs or scroll on.

Subtler approaches to communication must be taken. Producing content, nurturing customer and client relationships and providing a consistent brand tone and voice is part and parcel of helping customers to understand what you are about, inducing a better relationship and a greater sense of community.

As a business, being understandable, being consistent and even being predictable allows people to make decisions. McDonald’s isn’t one of the most successful businesses in history because they offer the best burgers. They are so successful because everyone understands that when they walk into a McDonald’s they understand exactly what they’re going to get – a case of ‘better the devil you know’.

So put communication and understanding at a premium: understanding your customers and helping them to understand you. The last thing you want to do is to be bursting out of anyone’s chest unexpectedly and interrupting dinner.

Don't be the uninvited guest. Let your host prepare.

Follow up with a read on the social motives to belongto influence and to trust.

Written by Mason Engelander