73 – What Moves Us? The 5 Core Social Motives

What Moves Us? Why do we fear rejection? Why are we so motivated to want to belong? In this episode, I will discuss the 5 core social motives of Belonging, Understanding, Control, Enhancing Self, and Trust as presented by Susan Fiske. I will also correlate the idea of the core social motives with some Buddhist concepts and ideas.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 73. I’m your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m talking about What moves us? The Five Core Social Motives. Again, before, I jump into the topic of the podcast, I want to remind you of the Dalai Lama’s advice. Do not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are. This has always been a key message that I try to reinforce throughout the podcast and in my general approach to teaching Buddhist concepts.

A little bit about this topic. What moves us? The idea for this podcast episode started with an e-mail I received from a podcast listener, and I receive e-mails regularly with ideas for podcast episodes. This specific listener asked for a podcast episode addressing the topic of rejection. With a little bit of context and understanding a little bit about the idea of rejection, I thought, “You know, that’s a really powerful topic,” because to some degree, all of us fear rejection. We all know what it feels like to not be the one picked to be on the team or to not have the approval of parents or siblings or friends. To some degree, everyone has experienced some form of rejection. I think all of us fear it. There’s a reason why. I think we’re hardwired as social creatures to really fear rejection. When I saw this e-mail and I was thinking about the topic of rejection, I thought, “Well, it might be interesting to combine a little bit of Buddhism with what psychology teaches.” At least some of the findings and psychology and social behavior about what moves us, what motivates us.

I came across this book by Susan Fiske called Social Beings: Core Motives in Social Psychology. Now, Susan is a Professor of Psychology at Princeton University. She’s known for her work on social cognition, also work on stereotypes and prejudice, but social cognition is the overall topic of this book, Social Beings. It’s a really fascinating thing, and the topic of psychology has always been interesting to me. I think it’s one of the things that drove me to study Buddhism. Buddhism is a philosophy that delves into this topic of understanding yourself. Why do I think the things that I think and say the things that I say and do the things that I do and so on. It ties really well with what we’re finding in psychology. That’s where the topic for this podcast episode, What Moves Us, I wanted to present to you what the five core social motives are according to Susan Fiske.

I’m going to jump into this a little bit. According to Fiske, core social motives are fundamental underlying psychological processes that impel people’s thinking. It motivates, or its underlying the way we think, we feel and behave in situations that involve other people. The specific core motives described by Fiske are, you can memorize these with an acronym, BUCET, (like BUCKET but instead of K it’s C). These are the five core motives. The first one is belonging. The second one is understanding. Third is controlling. Fourth is enhancing self, and the fifth one is trusting, so you can see that acronym BUCET in there. All five motives orient toward making people fit better into groups, thus increasing their chances for survival. Now, this is where the evolutionary psychology part of it comes in.

Like I mentioned before, it’s like we’re hardwired to fear rejection, to avoid it at all costs. This fits in with the work that Susan Fiske has done with bringing to light these core social motives that govern everything that we do. I want to talk about these a little bit. Then, I want to correlate them a little bit with some Buddhist teachings and Buddhist concepts.

The first one is belonging, and this is … Belonging is the root-need. It’s the essential core social motive that the others are said to be in service to this core motive, facilitating or making possible the way that we function in social groups. This first one is the most important one, belonging. This is what came to mind when I was reading that e-mail about rejection. The opposite of rejection is belonging, and that happens to be the core social motive that Susan Fiske talks about in her book. I thought it would be a neat way to approach the topic of rejection by talking about belonging. Why do we have this intense longing for belonging?

According to Fiske, belonging is the idea that people need strong, stable relationships with other people. Belonging to a group helps individuals to survive psychologically and physically. Now, we know this from an evolutionary standpoint that at some point in time, our survival was literally dependent on whether or not we were able to belong with a group. Individuals had a much less likely chance of survival out in the wild than if they were in a cohesive group like a tribe. Think about this for a second from an evolutionary standpoint that we’re hardwired to want to fit in. We can’t help it. We can’t help it that we fear rejection, whether it be individual rejection from someone that we care about, someone that we like, or rejection on a bigger scale with a group. You can see. You can see this longing, this sense for belonging, how it can influence the way that we want to fit in with a group, a political group, a political ideology, a religious group or beliefs that might hold. Think about that in terms of this core motive of wanting to belong. There’s the first one, right? Belonging.

The second one is understanding. Understanding is the motivation of individuals to understand their environment, to predict what’s going to happen in case of uncertainties and to make sense of what doesn’t happen. We’re not very good with sitting with uncertainty. I’ve alluded to this before. I think this is why at some point in the past, I can imagine that when the first volcano started erupting, a group somewhere wasn’t content with not knowing what was happening, so they decided, “Oh, the gods must be angry. We need to cut people’s heads off,” right? Why would we draw faulty conclusions to what we don’t know? Because we’re so uncomfortable with uncertainty. It’s a core. One of the core social motives is to understand, to make sense of things. That can be a good thing, but the downside to that is, often, we find ourselves as individuals or as groups, as society, as a species assigning meaning to things that don’t have any meaning. That can create problems like the example I gave with the volcano. Those are the first two. Belonging, understanding.

Now, the third one is controlling. According to Fiske, this encourages people to feel effective in dealing with their social environment and themselves. Control entails a relationship between what people do and what they get. Now, what comes to mind for me with controlling is that we’re playing life as if it were a game of chess. We’re thinking that, the illusion of control is that if we could just be smart enough and figure this out, we can do a checkmate on life. The reality, like I’ve mentioned many times, is that life is a lot more like a game of Tetris. This need for us to control that is projected to an external thing like, “I need to control you or control my spouse or control my kids or control my work, control anything,” right? The world that we live in, we’re trying to control.

I think where Buddhism comes in as an effective tool here is saying, “This need to control can be turned inward.” It can be projected towards yourself. It’s like, “Why do you want to control the world if you can’t sit and just be with whatever you’re experiencing?” This sense of control that is a core social motive, a need that we have, we can still have but turn the focus inward rather than outward. I’ll talk about that in a minute. I want to move on to the next one.

The fourth one is enhancing self. What does that mean, to enhance, enhancing self? Well. According to Fiske, this involves either maintaining self-esteem or being motivated by the possibility of self-improvement. Now remember, all of these tie back to the first one, which is belonging. You can see how this sense of enhancing self, to me, correlates very closely with the first one. It’s wanting to prove myself worthy of belonging, so I’m going to do whatever I think you think I need to do to prove myself worthy to belong with you. You as the group, right? I’m just talking collectively here. This is a need that we have. It’s a need that arises naturally in us to want to enhance ourselves to the point where we no longer have this fear or doubt of not being worthy to belong. You can see how that can be affected tremendously when coupled with societal views, societal norms, religious views and religious norms. You can see how that starts to play a role.

This is countered in the Buddhist concept of Buddha nature, which is the understanding that people are basically inherently good. Our natural tendency, I don’t know if good is the right word. I want to be careful with how I word that, but our natural tendency is to want to be kind, to want to end or minimize the suffering that we see in others, right? You see a wounded puppy crossing the road. Most people, granted not everyone, but most people, this is their natural tendency, to want to help to minimize suffering. Most people can feel empathy if you’re telling them a story, and you become emotional and you’re crying. Most people will tend to empathize and feel those same emotions. That is the natural, the natural position where according to the Buddhist worldview, that’s the baseline. If that gets muddied up with concepts and beliefs and ideas, that can become difficult to see as the natural position because we become blinded to it.

A good example of this would be racism, right? It’s not a natural thing that you’re born with. It’s your concept that you develop or you acquire through conditioning, the cognitive conditioning, so this can be taught to you, whether it be through religious ideology or societal views. You can be taught to be racist, but that’s not a natural thing, so I’m correlating that to this concept of enhancing self. The Buddhist approach would say, “What is there to enhance?” If anything, we want to uncover, like I mentioned in a previous episode. We want to peel back the layers of clay that are preventing us from seeing that inherent nature of kindness and compassion.

The fifth one is trusting, and this is, according to Fiske, this is, “Seeing the world as a benevolent place.” Again, you can see why this is so important for us to want to perceive that the world is a good place because what would it be like to live without a sense of trust? We would be on edge all the time. We see this in societies where there’s a lot of fear. There’s not a lot of trust. Other things start breaking down pretty quickly, so one of the things that motivates us, according to all this work, is to want to be able to trust, to want to see the world as a benevolent place.

When we start to look at these five core social motives in the context of, or through the lens of impermanence and interdependence, which is the Buddhist way of trying to understand things, it can be a powerful way of understanding ourselves. Now, just as an example, again, going back to belonging. If belonging is the core social motive of all of these, all of these tie into that one, belonging, the fear of rejection, we can start to see in ourselves a lot of the decisions that we make, the things that we say and the things that we think and correlate them to this core social motive to want to belong or the flip side of the same coin is the fear of rejection. This is why I wanted to present it this way because the fear of rejection is not really any different than the desire to belong. It’s two sides of the same coin. I think almost everything that we do in our lives is motivated by one or the other side of that coin.

We’re trying to belong, or we’re trying to avoid not belonging. We’re trying to avoid rejection, whether that be in personal relationships or in group relationships. For me, it’s been fascinating to sit and analyze my own actions and words and thoughts, and to think of it with this length of, “Why am I doing this? Where do I see? Oh, there’s this core motive inside me that I’m just trying to belong. I’m trying to not be rejected, to not risk being rejected.” Now, again, I bring this up because, like I said, we’re hardwired this way. It’s not like we can just not be this way. We would be going against millions of years of evolution here, so rather than thinking, “Okay. If this is how things are, I need to make sure that I don’t think this way anymore or feel this way anymore.” We want to approach this a little bit from a different angle.

Earlier this week, I posted my thoughts on the Heart Of Mindfulness Practice. I think this correlates with what we’ve been talking about with what moves us. Everything we perceive with our senses, sounds, sights, tastes, smells, physical sensations, and then of course thoughts, especially thoughts, gives rise to feelings about those perceptions. For example, we end up liking or disliking the experience. We feel comfort or discomfort about what we’re perceiving. If we like what we see, for example, we keep looking at it. If we don’t like what we see, we close our eyes, or we turn away. If we’re talking about taste and we taste something that we like, then we want more of it. If we don’t like it, we’re going to probably spit it out oro never taste that again. We do this with thoughts. We cling to the comfortable thoughts, and we feel emotional distress about the uncomfortable thoughts. This is the process that we go through with all of our perceptions. Craving and aversion, right? We’re craving after some of these perceptions and aversion towards others. We’re pushing and pulling. We’re liking and disliking.

The Heart Of Mindfulness Practice is to first see and recognize our tendency to pull toward or push away from these feelings. Second, instead of reacting out of habit to these feelings, try to remain steady with the feeling that arises. Now, the benefit of practicing this is that we can become more adept at placing a gap between the direct experience and our reaction to the feeling that arises from the experience. If we were to correlate this with the five core social motives, what we’re trying to understand here is, “Okay. Well, if I understand that this is the nature of what motivates me in how I work, the goal here isn’t to change it. Okay. Well, I’m going to rewire myself.” That’s not going to work. The goal here is that mindfulness practice is not about changing the feeling that arises. It’s not about changing the nature of how things are, but instead, understanding the relationship we have with the feelings that arise.

Now, this is a critical understanding because when I understand what motivates me in the context that at least these five core social motives, for me, it’s helpful to know, “Okay. Oh, this is why I felt this way. This is why I said this. This is why I reacted the way that I did.” We just see it. That starts to change the relationship that we have with it. It’s not about changing the thing itself. As a quick example, last week, I went down to Mexico to my 20-year high school reunion. It was fun getting together with everyone, but I had this experience that I want to share quickly with you because one of the things I struggled with in high school, about halfway through, being a twin was … I started to have this feeling that most of my friends aren’t really my friends. They’re our friends. They’re only friends with me because they’re friends with my brother. I have this perception that my brother is the funny one. He’s the one everyone likes, and I’m just the sidekick. I’m the one that’s stuck there because I’m the twin.

Some people had ways of identifying us in a joking way that aggravated this problem for me. They’d always call me the serious one and him the fun one, and this was evident in the nicknames that we were given. I started to really struggle with this concept. I can see now, right, as I study psychology or as I study concepts from Buddhism, and I see these core social motives. I see this first one, belonging or the fear of rejection. I see this very evident in my own life, in my past.

I had this fear that without my brother, I’d be totally rejected. I wouldn’t belong with this group because what makes me belong to the group is that I’m attached to him. That was very threatening for me. That caused a slight rift in the last year of high school between my brother and I because I needed to go out and find out who I was. What happens? Am I capable of having my own friends on my own without him? Those were things that I was trying to explore in my final year of high school. Like I said, it caused a little rift between my brother and I for a while.

Well, all of these, I’m bringing this up because all of these resurfaced last week when we were back down there. After high school, we moved away to different countries. We were in the US, and that life essentially ended 20 years ago, so we go back last week, and it’s like we stepped back in time with a lot of these friends we hadn’t seen since high school. The relationship and the engagement that they had with us was from that time, from 20 years ago. They had no reference of who my brother is now or who I am now or how I am.

I was working with the me from back then, 20 years ago, and as we got there a couple days before the reunion, we’re starting to make plans and trying to see our friends, and I would text someone and say, “Hey, we’re going to be dong this or that. Where are we going to see you?” They text back, “Oh, I already text your brother and made plans.” The first time, I didn’t think anything of it. In the second time, I was like, “Oh.” Then, the third time, third separate friend, the third friend that made it very clear that nobody was talking to me. They’re all communicating with my twin brother to make the plans of where we’re meeting and when and what time. All of a sudden, all of these emotions flooded back in from high school. I realized, this is that fear of rejection. It’s the fear that I’m not good enough. How do I prove myself worthy of these friendships because I’m just the sidekick that’s here along for the ride. All of these feeling welled up again just like from high school.

It was really funny, but this time, unlike then, I knew what was happening. I knew. I understand the core social motives. I see the world differently now through the context of a lot of these teachings that come from Buddhism and from psychology, so the experience was different. The feelings were the same. I want to be clear about that. The feelings of fear of rejection were just as real as they were back then. The strong desire I was feeling to want to belong, I felt like I didn’t belong, and I just wanted more than anything to be a part of the group. All of those feelings were very real just like they were when I first felt them. What was different this time was the relationship that I had to those feelings. As they surfaced, I was able to look at them and almost, in a way, smile and think, “Huh, I know where this is coming from. I know why I’m feeling this. I know what some of the causes and conditions are that give rise to these feelings.”

Now, that alone, that understanding alone changed the situation. I didn’t take anything personally. I didn’t feel down and out. I just thought, “Oh, how interesting,” and I reminded myself with the dynamics that we’re working with are the dynamics from 120 years ago. It’s like we went to this book that’s 20 years old, and we just turned the page of what would have been next 20 years ago that next day, had we stayed there. I thought, “Well, in that context, of course they would all be working with him,” because back then, he was the one. That was the very issue I was dealing with. He was the point of contact for us. I always just fell in line as, “Okay. Well, I’m the other one. I’m the extra here.” It was very interesting to go through that experience this time around with an entirely different relationship to the feelings, but like I said before, the feelings were the same, the exact same. It was a fascinating thing.

It made me feel really grateful for the time and the dedication that I’ve spent to trying to understand myself, to trying to have a more clear picture of the reality of why I think the things that I think and do the things that I do and say the things that I say. That’s the Heart Of Mindfulness Practice. There I saw it in action as I’m at my 20-year high school reunion, having an entirely different relationship to the feelings but experiencing the very same feelings that was fascinating for me. I was very grateful for knowing this time around, having a better understanding because there was no need to be reactive. There’s nothing to react to. What I was doing was just watching and seeing what would arise, and allowing it to be valid thinking, “Oh, I know why I feel this way,” and it’s a totally valid point of view, a totally valid feeling to have, that fear of rejection or that longing to belong. I just watched it for what it was.

What I hope to convey in this podcast episode is that the Heart of Mindfulness Practice and applied to what move us, when you understand the core social motives of belonging, understanding, controlling, enhancing yourself and trusting. As you understand with greater clarity, the nature of how you are, and notice I say how you are, not who you are, you’ll be more skillful with how you relate to the feelings that you have, the thoughts that you have, the emotions that you have. That’s what this is about, and that’s what I would say to the person who reached out in the e-mail about this topic of rejection, is yes. Rejection is a very real thing, and we feel it when the causes and conditions arise that allow that fear of rejection to be there just like I experienced last week. It will arise. If you’ve ever been betrayed by someone, anything that triggers that feeling, if you had issues growing up with the way that your parents treated you or siblings.

There’s so many ways that this fear of rejection can arise and can be triggered over and over and over throughout your life. It does for me, and I’m sure it does for all of you listening at some point and some arena or aspect of your life. It’s natural because we’re hardwired to want to belong. The flip side of that is that we’re hardwired to fear rejection like it’s the scariest thing on earth because at one point, it was. It was literally a matter of life and death. We work with that. It’s almost instinctual how it comes up. When it does, rather than riding the chain of reactivity, we can pause and say, “Oh, okay. I know why this feels this way. Now, what do I do next? How do I handle the situation skillfully rather than the habitual reactivity that may have take me down some other path I didn’t want to be on.

That’s what I wanted to talk about. What Moves Us: The Five Core Social Motives. If you want to learn more about this concept, I highly recommend Susan Fiske’s book. The book is called Social Beings: Core Motives in Social Psychology. Now, if you’re into psychology, this will be an interesting book. Otherwise, it may be a pretty boring book. You may have just gotten in this episode, the summary that you would have wanted out of the book. If you do want to go more in depth, check that book out, Social Beings: Core Motives in Social Psychology.

Now, if you’re a regular listener to the podcast, I’ve got to plug my book here. You’re probably interested in all of the essential concepts of Buddhism and how they relate to your daily life. Well, in my newest book, No Non-sense Buddhism for Beginners, you’ll gain a fundamental understanding of buddhism and how to apply the philosophies in your everyday life. Those of you who have read it know this book has a question and answer format. It’s written in a way to be very easy to understand these concepts and these teachings and the practices and the history. If you’re interested in that, check it out. You can learn more about that book on everydaybuddhism.com

Like always if you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others. Write a review. Give it a rating on iTunes. You can always join our online community to continue these discussions online. Go to secularbuddhism.com/community to get links to our Facebook pages. If you want to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click on the donate button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for listening. Until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.