Variational principles exist widely in the physical world. They state that a physical object, system, or event will behave in a way which minimises or, in some cases, maximises some physical quantity. The most famous of these is Fermat’s Least Time Principle which states that the path taken between two points by a ray of light is the path which takes least time.
Similar principles apply to human decision-making and behaviour. We will first attempt to satisfy the need which has greatest value to us, i.e., the need which is most pressing. Furthermore, we will attempt to satisfy it in a way which demands least use of personal resources or the resources of those close to us.
First Variational Principle – Pressing Needs
Behaviour is physical action or communication to satisfy our needs. It involves the application of resources available to us. Behaviour can be simple, i.e., directed towards a single need, or complex and directed towards several needs. In Maslow’s view, most behaviour is multi-motivated, i.e., determined by several needs rather than just one. For example, eating may satisfy one’s hunger, need for comfort, and need to socialise.
We tend to address our most pressing needs first, but priorities differ according to the individual and circumstances. The behaviours that we adopt contribute significantly to the perception of our personality, therefore.
Second Variational Principle – The Efficient Use of Resources
People aim to satisfy each personal need as efficiently as possible, i.e., in a way which yields the maximum benefit for the least expenditure of personal resources. For example, if a person walks across a park to a gate in the opposite corner he or she will do so in a straight line unless other needs are satisfied by not doing so. In this way our resources can be used to provide greatest satisfaction across all our needs.
The Role of Emotion in Decision-making
Many higher animals experience emotion and, in the human being, evolution has built on that foundation. Most psychologists now recognise that emotions are an integral part of the human reasoning and decision-making process. They are not, as so often portrayed, the enemy of reason. We may be able to make a logically or mathematically based decision in very simple circumstances, such as whether to buy 4 apples for a pound at one stall or five identical apples for a pound at another. However, the circumstances surrounding most decisions are far too complex for this. In such circumstances, it is emotions that motivate our behaviour. They are used to “tot up” the effects of satisfiers and contra-satisfiers, i.e., those things which cause our needs to be satisfied or which cause harms we wish to avoid.
We experience several basic emotions, and they fall into two classes. Those associated with satisfiers are regarded as positive and those associated with contra-satisfiers are regarded as negative. Our decisions aim to improve our overall emotional state by increasing the former and reducing the latter. Note that it is satisfiers and contra-satisfiers, i.e., external causes, that are evaluated rather than our internal needs and contra-needs. So, for example, the presence of a contra-satisfier such as a disease, and the absence of a satisfier such as food will both contribute to a negative emotional state.
Our overall emotional state depends on whether the status of each satisfier or contra-satisfier is: absent; latent; precarious; or entrenched. Here, “latent” means capable of manifesting, for example when a satisfier is promised, or a contra-satisfier threatened. “Precarious” means present but insecure. “Entrenched” means present, solidly established, and unchangeable.
Emotions are experienced on a scale from mild or non-existent to strong or overwhelming, depending on the priority of the need or contra-need and the status of the satisfier or contra-satisfier. Most of the time our emotions are low key, for example a mild feeling of discontent, and we are capable of consciously verifying our decisions and making rational choices. These lower key emotions are used to “tot up” the predicted effects of our decisions before they are implemented. For example, if we decide to behave in an anti-social manner, then we are likely to predict social censure, which is of course a contra-satisfier. This will contribute to feelings of anxiety which may cause us to alter our decision.
However, when emotions are very strong or overwhelming, we experience stress. Hormones are released which prepare our bodies for swift action in the face of an immediate risk or opportunity and we respond almost entirely unconsciously. This is, of course, an inherited survival mechanism which, on average, enables us to survive and prosper when there is no time for the conscious verification of our decisions. It does, however, carry with it a strong risk of error.
When making more considered decisions about our behaviour we carry out a form of risk/benefit/cost assessment. In this context, “risk” means the likelihood that our behaviour will result in the anticipated benefits and/or dis-benefits. “Cost” is the value that we place on the resources used.
The “benefits” of any behaviour are reductions in negative emotions, such as fear and grief, and increases in positive emotions, such as happiness. These benefits are due to increases in the status of satisfiers and decreases in the status of contra-satisfiers. For example, a benefit results when access to food increases or when a risk of disease decreases.
Dis-benefits, on the other hand, are increases in negative emotions and decreases in positive emotions. They are due to decreases in the status of a satisfier or increases in the status of a contra-satisfier.
Benefits and dis-benefits can of course, cancel one another out and, depending on their relative magnitude, may yield a nett benefit, no overall benefit/dis-benefit, or a nett dis-benefit. The magnitude of benefits and dis-benefits are, in turn, determined by several factors related to needs and contra-needs which will be described in a future article.