Positive emotions attach to satisfiers and, thus, to our needs. We wish to satisfy our needs and so make decisions intended to increase our positive emotional state. Negative emotions, on the other hand, attach to contra-satisfiers which in turn attach to our contra-needs. We wish to avoid the latter, and so, make decisions intended to decrease our negative emotional state.
Before we act, we make decisions about behaviour based on a form of risk/benefit/cost assessment. In this article I will describe the benefit part of this assessment in more detail. The terminology used is explained in the images below.
Satisfiers and contra-satisfiers are evaluated based on the changes that they make to our emotional state. In every situation, our emotional state depends on the extent to which our needs and those of others are satisfied. It also depends on the extent to which our contra-needs and those of others are avoided. This emotional state comprises the sum of the values associated with each existing satisfier and contra-satisfier. Both our behaviour and changes in our situation alter the status of these satisfiers and contra-satisfiers. This, in turn, results in changes to our emotional state. We regard such changes as benefits if our emotional state is improved, or dis-benefits if it is worsened.
MaxNeef recognised that satisfiers can be “synergic”*, and satisfy several needs, or singular, and satisfy just one. Furthermore, what can act as a satisfier for one person or need may, at the same time, act as a contra-satisfier for another. Thus, the emotional value of a satisfier or contra-satisfier may depend on several needs or contra-needs and those of several people. When the impact of a possible action is assessed, its impact on all needs and contra-needs is, therefore, considered. (*Note that this term is given as a quote because, if taken literally, it would mean several satisfiers working together to satisfy a need, rather than the definition given.)
When making decisions about behaviour we also consult our group ethical schema, i.e., our understanding of acceptable social behaviour, to determine whether we will receive positive or negative regard from others. Regard is, of course, a satisfier for a relatedness need. Ways of enhancing the positive regard or mitigating negative regard are identified, and the overall benefit or dis-benefit considered.
We also consult our personal ethical schema for psychological acceptability, i.e., the psychological satisfaction or pain we will experience because of the proposed behaviour. Again, ways of enhancing the former or mitigating the latter are identified and the overall benefit or dis-benefit considered.
The emotional value of each satisfier or contra-satisfier depends on its status, i.e., whether it is absent, latent (capable of manifesting), precarious (present but insecure), or entrenched (present, solidly established, and unchangeable).
It also depends on our beliefs. There are several ways in which we come to believe that a satisfier or contra-satisfier will influence our needs or contra-needs. Examples include: experience; learning from parents and other members of our community; observation of role models; advertising; and so on. These beliefs may be correct, or they may not. Nevertheless, they are what influences our decision making.
Finally, the emotional value of a satisfier or contra-satisfier depends on various factors associated with the needs and contra-needs that it affects. Among the latter are:
- Relative Priority, i.e., the importance to the individual of a need or contra-need in comparison with all others. The greater its relative priority the greater the emotional value of its satisfier or contra-satisfier. For example, if we are hungry and, also, wish to socialise, then we may regard sustenance as having a higher value than a visit to friends.
- Extent. Some satisfiers only partially satisfy a need. The less satisfied a need, the greater the value we will place on an additional satisfier. For example, if we are very hungry but only have one sandwich, then we will place a greater value on more food than if we have two. Conversely, some contra-satisfiers only partially impact on a contra-need. The lower this impact the greater the negative value we place on other contra-satisfiers.
- Relatedness. People care not only about their own needs and contra-needs, but also about those of others. The extent to which we value satisfiers and contra-satisfiers for others, depends on how closely related they are to us. Richard Dawkins, in his book “The Selfish Gene”, postulates that we value them according to the percentage of the variable human genome we believe those others to share with us. However, our support depends not only on genetic relatedness, but also on shared culture. This is because we rely on the support of other members of our culture for the satisfaction of our own needs. In general, relatedness decreases in the following order: ourselves, a member of our nuclear family, a member of our extended family, a friend, colleague or other ingroup member, a member of our society, a more distant person, an animal. This can, however, vary from individual to individual.
- Levels of Altruism and Co-operation. In general, the needs and contra-needs of others are less significant for us than our own. However, the difference depends on our personal levels of altruism or co-operation. If we have high levels, the difference will be less than if we have relatively low levels.
These factors introduce considerable complexity. It may be that the benefits and dis-benefits of satisfiers and contra-satisfiers could be modelled mathematically, to a certain extent, but this is clearly not something we can do in our heads. Thus, we rely on emotion.