A constellation of seldom recognized motivations underscores individual and collective human behaviour. For countless millennia we evolved in small bands whose dynamics have shaped our psychology. Our success and survival have always been tied to the group. That long experience still resonates today in our deeper motivations.
We look at two pillars of human motivations that can manifest in political behaviour. The first are those related to the pursuit of innate emotional needs that are common to every human being.
The second pillar of motivations consists of dynamics, sometimes expressed collectively, that are either closely tied to those needs, or are expressions of deep (but unconscious) reflexes and habits tied to our survival and adaptation as race. Those include, but are not limited to: cult-behaviour, tribalism, binary thinking, moral reasoning, brainwashing, conditioning, and numerous other culture-specific drivers.
In terms of innate human needs, all of us feel the need to belong to a wider community, to have a sense of status within social groupings and to feel that we are competent and capable of achievement. Those things once signalled one’s good standing within the group – and ultimately survival. We would be valued by the collective, and thus there would be no reason to be cast out.
Our often dangerous and unpredictable world instilled in us an innate need for security: safe territory and environment which allows us to develop fully.
The group was a tightly knit social unit. As social beings we have a deep need to give and receive attention. The need for all of us to feel a sense of autonomy and control is partly reflective of the volition exercised by our ancestors in their respective group roles.
The need to feel a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, which is what makes any suffering we might experience tolerable, is undoubtedly one of our deepest drives.
These motivations can drive us as relentlessly as do our physical need for food, water and shelter. Our evolution necessitated them. In one sense it’s what makes us human.
As individuals, when our innate physical or emotional needs are thwarted, anxiety and further personal turmoil arises: anger, depression, even illness. The same applies to collectives and countries. These motives are behind many international actions and conflicts:
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is one example. A sense of historical insecurity for Jews and the geographical proximity of adversaries drives Israel’s need to achieve security. The Palestinians, who are militarily occupied by the security-minded Israelis, are deprived of a sense of autonomy and control. This is the deep basis of the vice-like grip of conflict between the two – and it is unlikely to relent until this underlying scenario is addressed.
Anyone who has worked on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows this, but the greed and power obsessed game of politics obviate this fundamental solution. Nevertheless, the solution continues to be there.
Israel and Palestine serve as a lesson about this reality. When these basic needs are not met, they find recourse in more destructive paths, including extremism and suffering on both sides.
This is happening in other many places as well. The rank and file of rebel and extremist groups like ISIS or Turkey’s PKK, are swelled by people who lack meaning, purpose, attention, community and a sense of competence. What we call “cults” are collectives that offer to meet some of those needs – in exchange for total obedience. More than a few groups on the international stage qualify for this moniker, and they are particularly attractive havens for having needs met when healthy alternatives are unavailable. Young men and women, drawn to the excitement and other qualities these groups offer, need meaningful work and initiatives at their community level in order to be less liable to join such cult groupings. These are most effective if they also offer youth a sense of autonomy and empowerment.
Just like a child who “acts out” when its attention needs are unmet, so do collectives. The internationally isolated North Korea makes threats, launches rockets, and issues ultimatums for just the same reason: it seeks to meet its attention needs. Both Iran and Russia, whose sense of status, competence and achievement is low relative to their perceived potential (Iran, owing to a glorious cultural past; and Russia to its strength and influence as an erstwhile empire), overcompensate on the world stage and thus rail against the international order.
The missile tests and take-overs of land are, in some ways, attention-seeking devices, claims of unrecognized greatness. These countries have a sense of being denied something. Policy and diplomacy can be effective if they attend to what is being denied, through discussions with the other side, which may mitigate much of the grandiose behaviour. Of course, what is also required are leaders on the other side who are sober minded enough to know the limits of their needs. What remains true is that international conflicts will never be properly resolved nor prevented as long as these basic human motivations are denied, or unaddressed.
Our culture of diplomacy and politics do not sufficiently address, let alone see, these deeper eddies and currents driving our behaviour. We look at surface events and tend to broker deals and solutions rooted in economics and power relationships that mostly cater to elites. And yet the underlying causes of conflict, the needs and motivations of human beings that make up society, remain unchanged. Those unmet needs then remain prey to the predations of unscrupulous leaders and dreamy ideologies.
Other factors will trigger disputes. But by addressing this level of root human causes, we are clearing away the underbrush, and thereby simplifying the field of conflict resolution. Over a long term process of education, we can establish a new and more solid foundation for preventing conflict in the future, as well as improving the quality of international relations.