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Affiliation Arousal - The Motive Center
April 2nd, 2005
07:00 pm

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Affiliation Arousal
Email exchanges with Professor Richard Boyatzis of Case Western Reserve have triggered my thinking again on the topic of my dissertation: Affiliation motivation. Richard is a fellow student of McClelland who wrote on the same topic I did 30 years earlier and wants to revisit the motive. So now I'm sharing some thoughts on Affiliation to get my research reflexes honed!

Affiliation has always been a troublesome motive, because the original measure turns out to be more "fear of rejection" or anxiety about relationships than it is about the positive side of things. My dissertation sorted it out a bit more. The way the original motive measure was developed is illustrative of how a motive can be temporarily aroused. That's jargon for pumping up a motive. Since motives are fundamentally emotional, arousal is technically the right term, but talking about it for Affiliation always seems a bit risqué to me...but I digress. You can arouse your own motives temporarily, and this is in fact an essential step to increase your motives permanently over time (assuming you want to).


While your "normal" motive level is very stable over years or even decades, a situation can, in essence, push your buttons. A simple case of this is if someone walks up to you, gets in your face, and pokes you in the chest. This is a great way to arouse personalized (selfish or negative) Power motive--the usual reaction (emotional impulse) is to push back. Your Power motive has been aroused.

The stronger a given motive is, the easier it is to arouse it. Bigger engine, bigger effect from touching the gas pedal!

To try and identify the specific thoughts of Affiliation motive, Atkinson and Veroff took a bunch of college freshmen waiting to find out if they would be accepted in a fraternity. Since 98% of students were members, their entire social life depended on this moment. So they filled out Picture Story Exercises (vague pictures to which you can write any story you want), which the researchers assumed would be filled with the desire to be friendly and affiliative, because it had been strongly aroused by the situation. It's like poking someone in their Affiliation button and watching what happens. They were right, but it was primarily anxiety about whether people liked you or not. To be fair, the researchers knew this too, and various people have taken shots at fixing it before me.

What I did was sort affiliation into three subtypes: Positive/Trusting, Anxious, and Cynical/Mistrustful. Turns out that recent life experience has a big impact on whether your affiliation motive focuses on just enjoying people, being worried about whether they like you, or assuming they will betray you. I know, big surprise. (Everyone's a psychologist on some level.) There's also reason to believe that your early childrearing may predispose you towards one of these subtypes.

But how do you arouse trusting affiliation if someone is inherently mistrustful? In practice, someone who is strongly Cynical/Mistrustful Affiliative is going to be very hard to win over, because if you ever break a promise it will reinforce their original cynical assumptions beyond repair. The only way to build trust is through hard and extremely consistent work. Trust can only be earned. But some people are more likely to trust you than others, and that's what the Trustful Affiliative are about. For whatever reason, their recent life experiences are often very positive--happy relationships, loving family, whatever--and they have been extraordinarily fortunate. For people strong in this the world is a good place, and people take care of you. Case in point: a highly Trusting Affiliative person we interviewed who was bitten by a poisonous snake in Mexico, three hundred miles away from the nearest hospital, with no car. A passing tourist took this person to the hospital (yes, 300 miles away, and not along the way, either), made sure they got a doctor and had enough money to get treated, and disappeared. You begin to wonder if it is cause or effect!

By contrast, people who had recently had a relationship break up were highly Anxious or Cynical/Mistrustful. Someone in a new, positive relationship was either highly Positive/Trusting or (surprise!) Anxious. The situations are emotionally powerful, and they have an impact not only on your motive in general, but in a sense on the channels of your motives--how the motive is expressed. That's what arousal can do. John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address or Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech can arouse positive, socialized Power motive (the desire to go have a positive impact on the world).

Does it last? Well, if reinforced. But it can help people change their conscious thoughts about what to do, and that can lead to more enduring effects.

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