Theory of Knowledge

A unified approach to psychology and philosophy

Relational Value

A core human need

An infant is cuddled and protected by his mother. An adolescent girl is asked out on a date by a boy she had a crush on. A student athlete is carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates after scoring the winning goal. A wife is comforted by her husband after being severely criticized by her mother. An employee is fired by his boss and receives no calls or expressions of concern.

If you are like most people, reading these very brief descriptions will easily elicit empathy, and you will likely have a brief emotional experience as you imagine and mirror the experience of the subject. How is it possible that such a brief, limited description can quickly and reliably evoke such empathy? Because we have an intuitive psychology and the above vignettes describe shifts in one of the most fundamental of all human motives, the need for relational value. And although you might not have explicitly labeled it as such, you are able to empathize easily with the above descriptions because you intuitively understand that the human emotional system guides us in response to changes in our experience of relational value.

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What is relational value? It is the extent to which one feels valued by important others. Think for a minute about the important people in your life, such as your family, friends, lover, members of your community, and employer. Now reflect on how much they care about you, how much they have internalized your interests, how much they would sacrifice for you, and how much they respect, admire and need you. If you are feeling valued in all those areas, you almost certainly are experiencing a state of high psychological well-being. If you are feeling depressed, you almost certainly are feeling lower levels of relational value than you expect, need, or feel you deserve.

Many scholars have noted this need. Perhaps most famously, Maslow called it the need to belong. More recently, the social psychologist Mark Leary has explicitly coined the term “relational value”, and has argued that it is the root of self-esteem. According to the unified theory, relational value is the foundational value that organizes and guides us in relationships. Why is relational value so central? An evolutionary perspective provides an obvious answer. We were social creatures long before we were even human. For eons, the ability to influence the actions of others in accordance with one’s interests would have been highly advantageous, whereas the inability to do so would have been potentially catastrophic. Thus, we have evolved a sort of internal barometer (what Leary calls a sociometer), that measures our relational value.

How do we measure relational value? There are many ways, but some of the most important are the amount of attention we receive (note that is why we bloggers pay so much attention to the number of hits our posts get!), the ratio of positive to negative feelings expressed by others, the degree of thoughtfulness, and the willingness of others to sacrifice on the individual’s behalf are all universal indications of relational value.

How do we respond to changes in relational value? Before I answer this, without looking try to recall the number and different kinds of emotional words used to explicitly describe the reactions of the people in the brief vignettes above. Were there five such descriptions of emotion? Maybe three? Actually, there were none. No emotional descriptions were explicitly offered for any of the individuals’ reactions. And, yet, as noted above, each very brief vignette easily elicits a strong emotionally empathetic response from the reader. We “know” the girl was delighted after receiving the call, we “know” the employee was hurt at the rejection of his employer, and so on. Why do we know this? Because our emotional/experiential system carefully tracks and response to changes in the experience of relational value. Joy, delight, excitement, pride and love are all elicited in response to positive changes in relational value. In contrast, psychic pain/hurt, shame and anger are elicited in response to perceived negative changes.

What are the domains in which we seek relational value? Recall that the definition of relational value includes feeling valued by “important others”. Important others make up what is called the sphere of influence. The sphere of influence refers to the real and imagined relationships we have with important others, which exist in several separate (but of course related) relational domains, such as one’s family, one’s lover, one’s friends, one’s community, and one’s socially constructed role identity (e.g., ethic status, sexual orientation). And, of course, we can think of the extent to which we value our selves.

How do we achieve relational value? Although there are an infinite number of different specific ways, there are two process dimensions via which we achieve relational value. One is via agentic (self-focused) processes, which includes successful competition with others that demonstrates one’s effectiveness, social status, self-reliance, achievement, competency, and power. The other is via communal (other-focused) processes, which includes the capacity to be giving, nurturing, loving, self-sacrificing and compassionate. Note that relational value is probably most effectively achieved via the successful balance of agentic and communal processes. Extreme over-reliance on one as opposed to the other generally results in problems in relational value.

Why is relational value important? In my estimation, it is the single most important factor in mental health problems today. Although the field of modern psychiatry would have us believe that brain diseases are the root of most mental disorders, a psychological view makes much more sense to me. Neurotic individuals seek therapy for negative emotional states such as anxiety and depression. But where do these feeling states emanate from? At their root is a core set of feelings, such as deep pain, shame or rage. And why do people have these core feelings? Because they experience themselves as lacking in relational value in some core domain, but they do not know why, how to change it, or how to effectively process their feelings about it. So, they block, deny, and rationalize, becoming ever more alienated from themselves and others.

Although we in the US have access to more material goods than ever before and have greater control over our environment, we are seeing higher and higher levels of depression and anxiety. I think this is because in our high paced, economically driven, highly complex society, we have inadvertently created a society that has many, many cracks for people to fall through. People who feel devalued and who don’t know how to change and who don’t know what to do with their feelings that result. Perhaps, instead of measuring and attempting to maximize economic variables like GDP, we should be keeping our eye on a more fundamental human need, the need for relational value, and work toward developing a society that maximizes it.   

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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