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The Psychology of Communication


4.5 Intimate And Contractual Relationships

If the person has intrinsic worth, then the person has intimate relationships. Since each person is unique because of their intrinsic worth, no person can be interchanged with any other within any social system, including that small society of two, involved in an interpersonal relationship, and that little society of a few in a family. All relationships are potentially intimate, since we recognize all other people as members of the same species on the same planet in essentially the same predicament. A stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet.

On the other hand, if a person has only extrinsic worth, then people are interchangeable elements within a social system. There can only be contractual relationships between people. Let us say you stop at a grocery store to get ingredients to cook dinner for your mate. Your relationship with your grocer is contractual. It does not really matter to you that this particular person sells you food and to him that this particular customer buys it. You take this food home and cook it for your mate. Your relationship to your mate would appear to be qualitatively different from your relationship to your grocer. Neither of you are interchangeable. It is important to you that you cook the food for this particular person and to him/her that it is you who is doing so.

However, the behavioristic concept of the person implies that this relationship is also contractual. You simply present a longer and more complex shopping list and your mate retaliates with an equivalent list. I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine. This cynical view of human relationships is not some 1984ish vision of a dehumanized world but a necessary deduction from the behavioristic concept of the person. As we saw before, in Section 2.3, B. F. Skinner explicitly states this view in his book Verbal Behavior [SKINNER 1957]. There are two ways you can get things done - you can do it yourself (non-verbal behavior) or you can ask someone else to do it for you (verbal behavior). Verbal behavior is defined as behavior which gets things done through the mediation of other people. Other people are means to your ends.

The humanistic concept of the person implies that relationships are intrinsically intimate rather than basically contractual [MADDI & COSTI]. Instead of viewing your relationship to your mate as an extended contractual relationship, it views your relationship to your grocer as an unrealized intimate relationship. The latter is based not so much on an implicit contract to exchange food and money but on a tacit understanding not to realize the full potential intimacy. You each respect that fact that the other can handle only so much intimacy - even if only because the other has only so much time.

The shift from a behavioristic to a humanistic concept of the person is reflected in studies on pro-social behavior - that is, on caring, sharing, helping, understanding and other such positive behaviors which underlie intimate relationships. The cumbersome name is designed to contrast it with anti-social behavior, which has been the major focus of behaviorists, not only because it is more relevant to their concept of the person but because it is more urgent and more dramatic.

Paul Mussen and Nancy Eisenberg-Berg have summarized the research so far on the development of such pro-social behavior in children [MUSSEN & EISENBERG-BERG]. They conclude that pro-social behavior in children is increased by adults who

  • engage in pro-social behavior themselves (though not by adults who only demand pro-social behavior - do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do does not work),
  • reason with them as a means of discipline,
  • encourage them to reflect on the feelings and expectations of themselves and of others,
  • assign them early responsibilities for others (like teaching younger children),
  • make explicit demands that they act maturely,
  • provide them with role-playing and empathy-promoting exercises,
  • reward them for pro-social behavior.
  • Whereas the contractual relationship is based on the rules of human beings, the intimate relationship is based on the laws of nature. We recognize other people as members of the same species on the same planet in essentially the same predicament as ourselves. If God is dead, then there is no one here but us. Other people are the only personal element in an impersonal universe. They hold out the only hope of empathy, of understanding, of caring.7

    7   Those two basic attitudes towards other people are nicely represented by two gestures I encountered while traveling in Nepal. The traditional gesture is to hold your hands as in prayer, bow, and say "namaste" which means "I honor the divinity in you" . The other gesture - alas, in urban areas where Western values have pervaded - is to hold out one hand palm up and say "rupee". The shift from "namaste" to "rupee" is symptomatic of a shift from intimate to contractual relationships.