The Primary Motivating Force is Self-Actualization, Not Self-Preservation

Patrick Whitehead
Oct 14 · 7 min read

An Introduction to Self-Actualization (Part I)

Whitehead Farm, Fall 2017

My wife and I have nine goats. We don’t slaughter them to eat their meat or make cheese from their milk. We simply enjoy seeing them graze around our property, climb trees, and try to escape. When it gets really hot, the goats find a cool spot to nap in the shade. When it cools back down, they find a new section of the property to nosh on. At night, they retreat to the barn I built for them where they wait quietly until the sun rises again.

These are just a few examples of the things our goats instinctively do for self-preservation. They keep activity to a minimum during extremely hot periods to avoid dehydrating. They move together in a pack to avoid having any single goat isolated for a predator. They stay quiet when it is dark outside — the time their predators are out hunting.

If one of the baby goats gets stuck in the fence, his or her mom will wait nearby to provide strength in numbers. But this consideration only lasts so long. The screams of the trapped goat attracts predators, and mom doesn’t want to be around for that, so she will abandon her baby after only thirty minutes or so. It might seem a little every-man-for-himself, but, in the wild, there are no survival points to be earned for compassion.

Following Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection, biologists explain that the basic motivation of all living things is self-preservation. A flower will do whatever it can in order to survive the summer, and a pine tree will do what it can to survive a hurricane.

We can understand our goats’ behaviors through the biological theory of self-preservation. It can be used to understand their eating habits, infant care, and wound care. When a goat gets injured (such as with a broken leg), it doesn’t cry, grimace, yell, or anything. It’s almost as if nothing at all has happened. We can understand the motivation for this through the self-preservation hypothesis by asking “how does this behavior increase the goat’s probability of survival?” If it limped around moaning, then it would be like hanging a sign around its neck saying “if you’re going to get one of us, pick me!” Even when injured, the goats blend in with one another. This keeps them from being singled out from the pack.

It can seem like the self-preservation theory can be used to understand that motivation of any living thing from Spanish moss to human beings. But it breaks down when we try to understand the breadth of human behavior. It may well also break down when trying to understand Spanish moss, but since we cannot ask it directly, that will have to remain a vague suspicion.

Humans can act in ways that are outside of their own best interests. They can be selfless; they can dedicate themselves to a cause that is greater than themselves, and from which they cannot expect to gain; and they can be benevolent. They can interact with others not as generic humans, but as teachers, mentors, or guides. In short, they can fulfill potential outside of mere living. With humans, there is more to life than survival.

Of course humans can also be motivated by self-preservation. You and I need to eat and sleep, and we have to take care of ourselves when sick or injured. But there is also room to transcend these things. For example, food supplies us with the calories and nutrients we need to survive, but it is also something in which routinely take pleasure. Savoring a donut or sipping a delicious beverage are not purely about caloric intake. They are ways of being fulfilled. We do not just survive life; we enjoy it.

During and shortly after World War I, a neuropsychiatrist by the name of Kurt Goldstein opened a rehabilitation clinic where he helped brain-injured soldiers. Goldstein noticed how, no matter the severity of the injury, his patients always organized their experience around the most optimal goals. He called this motivational tendency self-actualization. The goals were not purely for the sake of pleasure, nor were they for the sake of preservation. They had more to do with the soldiers’ personal identities than their biology. They were not just living organisms, but fathers, husbands, friends, patriots, and so forth. The impairments they experienced to their brain and body were not limited to brain and body, but were absorbed in the identities these men had outside of their military service. For example, if given the choice between fleeing to safety and helping a fallen brother off the field of battle, few soldiers would choose safety, even though this goes against the principle of self-preservation.

Another example of this comes from the biography of Viktor Frankl, whom we’ll explore later in this book. Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist in the middle of the 20th Century. As a Jew, he was taken from his home and imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. He manages to survive for more than a year, and is eventually saved after the fall of the Nazi empire. Frankl explained that security in the camp became lax as the Nazi regime was losing its strength, and he found an opportunity to escape. Doing so, however, required that he leave behind an old man he had been taking care of. He stayed behind to look after the old man, and let the others go on without him.

In his story, what Frankl describes is not the principle of self-preservation; he describes something different. It is the same as with the soldiers on the battlefield and the patients observed by Goldstein. These motivations are in service to self-actualization. Self-actualization describes the tendency of a living thing to not only survive, but to actualize the best and most optimal version of itself. If a teenage girl wishes to become a dancer, then how she organizes her free time will be quite different from that of a girl who wishes to become a pianist or writer.

The motivational direction of life is not towards merely staying alive, but becoming something in particular. If you have ever had trouble sleeping at night, then it was probably because there was something exciting waiting for you on the following day. All of the organic processes that take place inside you — digestion, immune system activity, heart-beat — are directed towards the same goal. Imagine, for example, that you have a big interview at 9am. The interview will determine whether you get the coveted position in a graduate program or job. You have prepared for it as well as you could, and all that is left is to get adequate rest beforehand. You know the body requires a certain period of rest to rebuild and recover, so you crawl into bed at 10pm. But you’re too excited about the interview to sleep. You sit there, wondering about how it will go, and whether you will be rewarded with the position.

Everything about the situation indicates that you should be getting sleepy — you’ve turned off the lights, you’re lying horizontally on the bed, it’s late, and so on. But you’re not tired; you’re wired. Your heart is pounding like you have just finished a weightlifting routine as you run through dozens of interview scenarios in your imagination.

In order to understand your event of sleeplessness, we have to understand you. Your body is not disordered, nor is your heart. These are doing what they always do: working in service of self-actualization. The energy you experience is not towards sleep, but towards your interview.

As we examine self-actualization, we see it always at play. Our bodies are always directed towards a single, most significant potential. Once that potential has been actualized, or we realize that it cannot be actualized, a new one takes its place. This is easy to see during activities that are physically demanding, such as long-distance foot races. Marathons are 26.2 miles long — a long distance to cover. So long, in fact, that the human body has trouble running it continuously without needing to eat something. As the competitors complete the distance, their legs get tired. You and I would probably need to sit on a curb and rest until our thighs stopped screaming, but the runners continue. During the race, they are not motivated by comfort. After an hour and a half, they will start to get light-headed if they haven’t been taking in any calories. Light-headedness makes it nearly impossible to continue running. If it gets bad enough, the runner will eventually pass out. This has the effect of stopping them permanently.

When the runner’s goal is completing the marathon (or winning the race), momentary discomfort can be ignored since it does not contribute to that goal. But the discomfort is not random; it indicates muscular fatigue and general exhaustion. The body cannot maintain an intense effort forever. Exhaustion continues to climb and climb until it overtakes the goal of finishing/winning, and the runner slows down or stops.

This shift can be a dramatic one at the front of the race. At the 2018 Boston Marathon, Kenyan Geoffrey Kirui had an enormous lead — several minutes ahead of the next closest competitor, and he only had a few miles to go before winning. But it was cold, and his body began to shut down. He went from running five-minute-miles to seven-minute miles. On screen, it looked like he was stopping. He got passed by the eventual winner (the Japanese Yuki Kawauchi), but continued to jog. In the final stretch, he was about to get passed by American Shadrack Biwott, but something in Kirui changed. He started running faster again. The premise of a bigger pay day or a second-place finish suddenly became more important than feeling comfortable.

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