The Psychology of Communication



Education is learning to grow, learning what to grow toward, learning what is good and bad, learning what is desirable and undesirable, learning what to choose and what not to choose.

Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature

The humanistic concept of the person is presented as the system of five propositions listed below. Once again, since each proposition implies the next, those five propositions constitute a system rather than simply a set. Note that each of the five propositions negates the corresponding proposition in the behavioristic concept of the person. The two concepts are presented side-by-side in Figure 4-1.

  • The person has intrinsic needs
  • The person grows from the inside out
  • The person is responsible for behavior
  • The person has intrinsic worth
  • The person has intimate relationships

  • 3.1 The Person Has Intrinsic Needs

    Your nervous system is an element of you as a person and you as a person are, in turn, an element of your society. The nervous system has a very special role within this hierarchy of systems within systems, since it is the only system which can know your environment. It must know your environment in order to perform three broad functions - to mediate between your internal environment and your external environment (biological function), to interact appropriately with other people (sociological function), and to understand your environment and yourself (psychological function). Underlying each of those functions are certain organic needs - biological, sociological, and psychological, respectively - designed to ensure that your nervous system performs each of those functions.

    In a previous book [GARDINER 1987], I presented a model which evolved out of a case we worked on at GAMMA, a Montreal-based think tank. In this model, the person is seen as the triple overlap of ecosphere (natural world), sociosphere (social world), and technosphere (artificial world). The nervous system has to deal with all three worlds - that is, satisfy biological (ecosphere), sociological (sociosphere), and psychological (technosphere) needs. This triad model is presented in Figure 3-1.

    The biological needs and the means by which the nervous system satisfies them were described in the previous chapter. Need-reduction and activation theories explain how the nervous system mediates between your internal environment and your external environment to approach things which are good for you and to avoid things which are bad for you. No evidence for biological needs was presented. No evidence is necessary. The best evidence for a need is that failure to satisfy it results in damage to the organism. If an organism is deprived of food and water, it dies. Death is the dramatic documentation of the biological needs of hunger and thirst.

    Humanism does not dispute the existence of biological needs nor the behavioristic explanation of how they are satisfied. The humanistic concept of the person does not replace the behavioristic concept of the person (as Copernicus's theory replaced that of Ptolemy) but subsumes it (as Einstein's theory subsumed that of Newton). That is, humanism accepts behaviorism as far as it goes but argues that it does not go nearly far enough. There are indeed biological needs built into the nervous system, but there are also sociological and psychological needs.

    Since deprivation of sociological needs results in less dramatic damage to the organism than death, let us present some evidence here for their existence.

    Whereas biological needs are designed to ensure the survival of the individual, sociological needs are designed to ensure the survival of the species. Mother Nature loads Jack and Jill with hunger and thirst drives so that they will each survive as individuals, but she also loads them with sex drives so that we will survive as a species. Since an organism can survive without sex - a sad organism but a live organism - we tend to assume that the sex drive is less powerful than the hunger drive. However, Mother Nature is more concerned with the survival of the species than with the survival of the individual, and would thus provide a powerful drive as a means to this end. Like many mothers, she wants to be a grandmother!

    The sex drive ensures not only that Jack and Jill will get together for that delightful experience, designed to bribe us to procreate, but to stay together during the long period of infant dependency to care for the resultant offspring. This caring mechanism is built into the child during this period so that it will, in turn, care for its children. Our cooperation with other people is founded on this caring mechanism established within the family. It is cooperation rather than competition which has enabled our puny species to become, for better or worse, the King of the Jungle.

    Total deprivation of sociological needs, like deprivation of biological needs, also results in death. The human infant is so dependent that it could not survive without the care of other people. The few dubious reports of feral children raised by animals indicate that, even if this is possible, they become more like the animals that raised them than the humans who bore them. Later we will meet such a feral child and find that this “noble savage” was more savage than noble.

    Harry Harlow has studied the effect of total social deprivation on our close cousin, the Rhesus monkey [HARLOW]. Such deprived infants become highly neurotic, spending most of their time huddled in a corner of their cage. René Spitz has studied the effect of partial deprivation of sociological needs on human infants [SPITZ]. Many orphans, raised in foundling homes with minimum social contact, simply die. Those who survive are physically, emotionally, and intellectually stunted. They die a little bit. They fall somewhat short of becoming fully human.

    The psychological needs, unlike the biological and sociological needs, are not primarily concerned with survival. Our species is nature's de luxe model with trimmings beyond those necessary for mere survival. We have more needs than we really need. The psychological needs reflect organic potentiality rather than organic requirements. They enrich rather than simply maintain life, they ensure that we thrive rather than merely survive; they make us competent in our environment rather than simply adapted to it.

    Studies of sensory deprivation suggest that there is a need for stimulation [HERON]. Undergraduate students at McGill University were hired, at 20 1956 dollars a day, to lie in a comfortable bed doing nothing. They had visors over their eyes, pillows around their ears, and cuffs on their arms, so that nothing would disturb their leisure. Those who accepted the invitation into this paradise for students were soon clamoring to get out. Such sensory deprivation turned out to be a very disturbing experience. Their thought processes deteriorated, their emotional responses became childish, and they had terrifying hallucinations. It seems that the mind needs stimulation just as the body needs food.

    This need for stimulation persists even when you are asleep. The discovery that rapid eye movements accompany dreaming has enabled psychologists to do objective studies of this subjective state. Nathaniel Kleitman awakened subjects every time they started dreaming during several successive nights [KLEITMAN]. On subsequent nights, when they were allowed to rest in peace, they dreamed significantly more than before. When you are deprived of eating, subsequently you eat more; when you are deprived of dreaming, subsequently you dream more. You have a need to eat; you have a need to dream. We need sensory stimulation day and night.

    The satisfier of the need to eat is food; the satisfier of the need for stimulation is novel stimuli. Just as you seek food when you are hungry, you seek novel stimuli when you have a need for stimulation. A number of studies have demonstrated that organisms explore and manipulate their environment in search of novel stimuli. Rats will often choose the long, scenic route over the short, dull route from the start to finish boxes within a maze. They spend more time around unfamiliar than familiar objects when they are placed in their cage. Monkeys will work hard to unfasten latches to open windows to see what's happening outside. Indeed, they will work hard to see nothing. They enjoy learning to open latches as an end in itself. The activity is its own reward. One psychologist tried to study monkeys through a keyhole in their room. All he saw was one large, brown, baleful eye. A monkey was studying him!

    This need for stimulation may perhaps be explained in evolutionary terms. As long as things remain the same, you are in no danger. It is only novel stimuli which are potentially dangerous.1 Exploration and manipulation of the environment makes the unfamiliar familiar. If it is indeed dangerous, then you can remove it or remove yourself; if is is not dangerous, then you have removed the threat of danger.

    Besides removing danger or threat of danger, exploration and manipulation incidentally enables you to get to know your environment. One peculiar property of novel stimuli may help explain why we have come to know more than we really need to know in order to merely survive. As we explore and manipulate a novel stimulus, it becomes less and less novel, and therefore less and less able to satisfy the need for stimulation. We must continually search for new stimuli in order to satisfy this need.

    Perhaps this helps explain how such luxury needs evolve. As our environment got less and less threatening, then the incidental function of getting to know the environment got more and more important. The luxury needs thus evolved our of survival needs. We need to know our environment in order to survive in it but, as the threat to survival decreased, we needed to know our environment simply in order to know our environment. Psychological needs were means to an end but became ends in themselves. This process is called functional autonomy.

    Psychologists once arranged to have observers infiltrate an organization whose members believed that the world would end at a particular time on a particular date. They were curious to discover what happened when that time came and went and the world remained. They found that those members of the group who were only peripherally involved ceased to believe, whereas those members who were strongly committed to the group (that is, those who had stated their beliefs in interviews with the press, who had sold their possessions, who had cancelled their life-insurance policies, and so on) continued to believe. Those true believers argued that the destruction of the world had been postponed, that there had been a mistake in the date, that the apocalypse had been cancelled because of their vigilance, and so on.

    Leon Festinger, the leader of the group of psychologists, explained those findings as cognitive dissonance [FESTINGER ET AL]. When two items of information do not fit, there is a tendency for one of them to be changed. For example, the two items of information - I smoke and smoking causes cancer - are dissonant. Festinger found indeed that significantly fewer smokers than non-smokers believed that smoking causes cancer. People, with those two dissonant items in their subjective maps, either stop smoking or stop believing.

    Rather than spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars doing research, your grandmother could have told you that right away for nothing. However, research on cognitive dissonance has lead to a number of findings which your grandmother would not have predicted:

  • Not only do we own a car because we read ads for it, but we later read ads for it because we now own it,
  • Not only do we say what we believe, but we come to believe what we say,
  • Not only do we own things which we like, but we come to like things which we own,
  • Not only do we know what we like, but we come to like what we know.
  • All of those findings point to a need for consistency.

    Whereas the need for stimulation provides the organic basis for knowing our environment, the need for consistency provides the organic basis for understanding our environment. Not only do we need to know, but we need to know what we need to know. What we know must be organized into a consistent body of knowledge. That is, we need not only to know but to understand. The need for stimulation and the need for consistency thus provide an organic basis for psychological growth. As we will see in Section 6.3, Jean Piaget describes the process of mental growth as a series of alternating assimilations and accommodations. You assimilate information from your objective world and adjust your subjective map to accommodate that information if it does not fit. The need for stimulation is the organic basis for assimilation, and the need for consistency is the organic basis for accommodation. The need for stimulation ensures a fresh supply of new information from the objective world, and the need for consistency ensures that this information will be integrated into a consistent subjective map of that objective world.

    The shift from a behavioristic to a humanistic concept of the person is, thus, at its foundation, the shift from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. The evidence above leaves little doubt that the need to know and to understand our environment and ourselves is built into the nervous system of our species. There is no need, therefore, for some elaborate system of rewards and punishments to bribe and threaten us into knowing and understanding. Indeed, it is surprising that the burden of proof is on those who advocate intrinsic motivation. The basic characteristic of an organism, as opposed to a mechanism, is that it is intrinsically motivated. No mother of a two-year-old child requires any experimental evidence that our species, the most intrinsically motivated of all, will explore and manipulate the environment without rewards and despite punishments.

    1   I once developed a Scale of Technophobia for the Department of Communications of the Canadian Federal Government only to find that it was actually a Scale of Neophobia. What was feared was not technology but new things. It just happens that recently most new things have been new technologies.