Why do people do the things they do? Imagine that Julie ties her shoes. Why? To get dressed for work. Why? To make a living and reach her career goals. Why? To be a contributing member of society. Why? You get the point: As we describe Julie’s behavior in increasingly abstract terms, eventually we come to the question of what Julie is ultimately striving for.
There are several possible answers in Psychology, each reflecting different assumptions about human nature. She may be oriented toward maximizing her inclusive fitness, or she may be seeking out the intrinsic rewards of novelty and growth. For me, the most compelling answer starts with the idea that Julie is motivated to maintain a sense that the world is a meaningful place – a place where things happen for a reason, people generally get what they deserve, and there is a coherent order to actions and events. She is also motivated to secure a sense of self-esteem – to see herself as a valued contributor to a meaningful world.
Still, can we insert another “Why?” question here? What’s so great about meaning and self-esteem? Well, according to theorists in the existential and psychodynamic traditions, those psychological structures help people to avoid dwelling on unsettling truths about their life, perhaps the chief being that their death is always potentially imminent and ultimately inevitable. Another is that they have rather meager powers to influence what happens around them. People may not be consciously aware of these disturbing truths, but that’s the point: Their day-to-day actions are driven at least in part to keep them safely out of conscious awareness.
This approach to human motivation inspires us to empirically study the role of existential concerns in energizing and directing social behavior. We primarily draw on insights provided by terror management theory, attachment theory, and compensatory control theory, and we focus on outcomes of practical import, such as academic performance and health behaviors. Listed below are some representative papers.
Landau, M. J., & Sullivan, D. (2014). Terror management motivation at the core of personality. In L. Cooper & R. Larsen (Eds.), APA handbook of personality and social psychology: Personality processes and individual differences (Vol. 4; pp. 209-230). Washington, DC: APA.
Landau, M. J., Kay, A. C., & Whitson, J. A. (2015). Compensatory control and the appeal of a structured world. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication.
Sullivan, D., Landau, M. J., & Kay, A. C. (2012). Toward a comprehensive understanding of existential threat: Insights from Paul Tillich. Social Cognition (special issue: Threat-compensation in social psychology: Is there a core motivation?), 30, 734-757.
Rothschild, Z. K., Landau, M. J., Sullivan, D.*, & Keefer, L. A.* (2012). A dual-motive model of scapegoating: Displacing blame to reduce guilt or increase control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 1148-1163.
Keefer, L. A., & Landau, M. J. (2014). Non-human support: Broadening the scope of attachment theory. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8, 524-535.