Friday, 5 October 2012



Social psychology is concerned primarily with human behaviour and emotions. Behaviour is simply what we do. My dictionary defines it, curtly, as “How we conduct ourselves” but that implies that we are always in conscious control of our behaviour and we all know that this isn’t the case.  I will say more about this later in the note. Our behaviour is externally observable whereas emotions are how we feel; they are experiential. They cannot be experienced externally although their existence in an individual can sometimes, wittingly or unwittingly, become apparent to others, e.g. blushing, facial expressions. This paper addresses behaviour rather than any concomitant emotions. It therefore sidesteps the complications that would be introduced by a consideration of the emotions and the interaction between behaviour and emotions. The subject of social psychology is also concerned both with ‘normal’, healthy behaviour and with pathological behaviour. This note focuses on healthy behaviour. However, the issues it raises are just as relevant to the study of pathological behaviour.

The question under consideration in this note is “What are the root causes, or ‘drivers’ of our behaviour?”  This is clearly a seminal issue for social psychology. A clear exposition would have the potential, not just to clarify and provide an analysis of the determinants of behaviour, but also to integrate a number of disparate approaches to the subject of psychology itself. Both the theory and practice of social psychology is bedevilled by schisms euphemistically called ‘perspectives’. For example, we have biological psychology that concentrates on the role of genes/ hormones in generating behaviour, social-constructionist psychology that emphasizes social and cultural factors in accounting for it, the psycho-dynamic (notably Freudian) approach that majors on early nurturing in explaining behaviour, cognitive psychology centred mainly on the role of attention/ cognition and humanistic psychology that considers the role of human free-will in regulating behaviour. Some psychologists regard themselves as just that; ‘psychologists’. Many more in my experience will use an epithet to qualify their professional descriptor; Freudian psychologist, humanistic psychologist, cognitive psychologist, etc. Pity the poor client looking for assistance from a psychologist! She doesn’t know or care about the particular epistemology favoured by the practitioner, she just wants help from someone qualified to diagnose and treat an unwanted psychological condition. In passing I would suggest that the profession would do well to move towards greater integration in this regard.

If this is to happen, we need more integrated hypotheses, theories and experimentation. The only relevant work I am currently aware of is called ‘Trimodal theory’ and is described in Stevens (1998). The author distinguishes three ‘bases (or sources) for action’; biological processes, symbolic processes and reflexive awareness. He relates these to a number of perspectives. For example, he notes that both social constructionism and psychoanalysis depend on symbolic processes to provide a basis for action. He concludes that “  --  Given the argument here that human personal and social life involves a mixture of all three sources, this would imply that we need a broad range of perspectives in order to represent all three modes, and that such perspectives are therefore to be regarded as essentially complementary rather than mutually exclusive.” From my previous comments you will be able to anticipate that I agree enthusiastically with this latter conclusion. I believe Richard Stevens is right; the perspectives do relate to “bases for action”. I would add, however, that they often operate concurrently.

The Drivers

Using a physical analogy, I hypothesize that the individual drivers are like a set of forces acting on an object. In physics, the resulting direction and velocity of the object is called the 'resultant' of the contributory forces. In the same way, behaviour may be thought of as the resultant of a number of these drivers that may be acting on the individual. Any particular behaviour will be the resultant of one or more drivers. Drivers may act positively, encouraging action, or negatively, inhibiting action. What are these drivers? The following seven are proposed:-

1. Genetically mediated propensities
Propensities to express certain types of behaviour are the result of basic, common human drives (e.g. to assuage hunger, sexual desire etc) together with other psychological propensities that arise from particular gene/allele patterns.
2. Concurrent somatic condition
Behaviour will be affected by concurrent hormonal levels and the general somatic condition.
3. Behaviour patterns learned from early nurturing relationships
Psycho-dynamic (Freudian) factors including ego defences.
4. Relevant learned social/cultural norms
The recognised norms within the culture and social 'milieu' in which the behaviour takes place.
5. Cognitively developed patterns of behaviour
Stereotypic attitudes that provide cognitive short-cuts to formulaic patterns of behaviour. These may have been 'inherited' from primary carers or from exposure to particular social representations during development. 
6. Free cognition
Free-thinking from basic principles and the detail of the particular situation. 
7. Reflexive consideration 
Critical reconsideration of past thoughts, feelings and actions.

An example will illustrate some of the points made.
I am walking down a crowded Oxford Street in London; on the pavement but close to the kerb. A man walking toward me does not appear to be giving me any room to pass. I don't think it's safe to step into the road so I push back at him as we collide and say, in a loud voice, "Why don't you look where you're going?" A few yards on I look back, and, for the first time, and to my horror and acute embarrassment, see he is carrying a white stick. I shout my apology and hope he hears me. Before I fall asleep that night I resolve to be more circumspect before losing my rag in future.
Walking down Oxford Street can be stressful and it is highly likely that my active stress hormones, such as adrenelin and cortisol, will be above ambient levels in the hypothetical scenario described above. If this is so, the 'Somatic' driver (Driver 2) will have played a part in my initial, somewhat aggressive reaction. The genetically mediated 'fight or flight' response (Driver 1) would also have played a part in this reaction. A Driver 1 component can be fast-acting and difficult to control; as in this case. It is also possible that a 'Cognitive Pattern', (Driver 5) was a component; e.g. "I won't be intimidated by inconsiderate walkers!"
My feelings of shame and embarrassment and my shouted apology when I see that the gentleman is blind, will have been generated from Driver 4, 'Social Norms' acting with Driver 6, 'Free Cognition'; while my nocturnal resolution to ensure that I have all the facts before engaging my big mouth would have involved 'Free Cognition', again, and 'Reflexive Consideration' (Driver 7). 
It is interesting to note that, at the time that the behaviour occurs, the model suggests that the only driver under full conscious control is ‘Free Cognition’ (Driver 6). I would suggest that this provides a possible answer to the time honoured question about the contribution of “freewill” to our behaviour. The possibility of engaging ‘Reflexive Consideration’ (Driver 7) at some later time is another aspect of freewill that enables us to modify relevant, subjective ‘Cognitive Patterns’ (Driver 5) and hence learn from our experience.


In this short paper I have suggested a model for approaching the aetiology of human behaviour. It may well need discussion and amendment. However, I believe that it makes a useful start and contend that the need for such a model is overwhelming in order to integrate the existing approaches to the discipline of psychology. As it stands, the various flavours – cognitive, psycho-analytic, humanistic etc are a source of confusion for our clients and a source of unnecessary discord within the profession.
It also suggests an answer to the question about how much free-will we have in the manifestation of our behaviour.


Stevens, R (1998), ‘Trimodal theory as a model for interrelating perspectives in psychology’. In Sapsford, R (ed.), Issues for Social Psychology, Open University.

John Jacob Lyons, 17 Jan. 2012

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