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Rate Yourself on the New Motivational Pyramid

A new scale of fundamental evolved motives

What drives you to make the choices you make every day? Would your answer be different if you were a 19-year-old college woman with no children, a 60-year-old grandfather from a middle-class suburb, or a 30-year-old man who has three children and lives in a rough neighborhood?

A new scale, soon to appear in print in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, measures individual differences in Fundamental Social Motives. The lead author of the paper is Rebecca Neel, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa, who analyzed data from over 2000 participants in developing the new scale.

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Neel and her colleagues define a “fundamental social motive” as a system “shaped by our evolutionary history to energize, organize and select behavior” in ways that help us manage threats and opportunities that our ancestors faced repeatedly, and that we still face today.

What are the fundamental motives?

To successfully survive and reproduce as a human being we need different systems to solve several different kinds of problems. Our fundamental motivational systems include:

Self-Protection: The extent to which you are concerned about physical violence from other people (e.g., “I think about how to protect myself from dangerous people”)

Disease Avoidance: The extent to which you are motivated to avoid contagious diseases (e.g. “I worry about catching colds and flu from too much contact with other people.”)

Affiliation: Three subscales tapped a) the desire to belong to groups (e.g. “I enjoy working with a group to accomplish a goal.”) b) concerns about being excluded (e.g. “It bothers me when groups of people I know do things without me.” and c) desire for independence (e.g. “I like to be alone even if I might lose some friends because of it.”)

Status Seeking: The desire to move up in the social hierarchy (e.g. “It’s important to me that other people look up to me.”)

Mate Seeking: The desire to find new mates (e.g., “I would like to find a new romantic/sexual partner soon.”)

Mate Retention: Which includes two subscales, one measuring general concern about keeping your mate (e.g., It is important to me that my partner is emotionally loyal to me.”), the other measuring concerns about breaking up (e.g. “I often think about whether my partner will leave me.”)

Kin Care: Includes two subscales, one measuring concern for family (e.g. “It is extremely important to me to have good relationships with my family members.”), the other measuring motivation to care for one’s children (e.g., “I like to spend time with my children.”)

The full scale is included at the end of this post, or you can click this link to find out where you stand relative to the general population on status seeking, mate seeking, self protection and disease avoidance, along with a brief explanation of what your scores mean.

Motivation, Personality, and Your Life Situation

I am very excited about this scale because it is a very different way of thinking about personality – or the scientific study of what makes us different from, and similar to, other people. For decades, researchers who study individual differences have focused on the so-called Big 5 personality factors (Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience). Those factors were not derived from theory, but from statistically distilling down the different trait terms people use to describe themselves and others (for example, if you rate your roommate as “warm” you will also rate her as “nice” and both are components of the “agreeableness” factor). When you are making a decision about whether to date someone or to hire him or her for a job, it turns out to be very useful to know where that person stands on the Big 5 dimensions.

The Fundamental Motives approach begins not with people’s conceptions of personality traits, but with a theoretical analysis of the different behaviors that would have been important in helping our ancestors solve the different problems of survival and reproduction in social groups. On the one hand, those motives are likely to be somewhat universal, in the sense that each of us has built-in cognitive and motivational systems for protecting ourselves from the bad guys versus finding mates. However, your particular level of self-protective or mating motivation is also likely to vary depending on your current situation (if a person you find attractive starts rubbing your leg and staring into your eyes, your mating motivation will be activated; if you see a 300 pound angry man glaring at you – perhaps because he is married to the person rubbing your leg – your self-protective motivation will take center stage).

Besides your immediate context, though, you may be chronically high in one motive and low in another. If you grew up poor in a rough neighborhood, for example, you may have higher chronic self-protection motivation than someone who grew up on a peaceful farm town in Iowa. If you are a single young guy your mate-search motivation is likely to be higher than if you are a happily married grandmother.

There has been a lot of research looking at how people change their thought processes and decisions when different motives are triggered by the situation (for example, watching a romantic movie leads young men to see an attractive woman as giving off cues of sexually availability, watching a movie about a murderer leads people to see a man from another racial group as angry). I have talked about some of these findings in earlier posts (see for example, How a passing mood can alter your economic decisions)

This new paper, though, which presents results from 5 separate studies, is the first to attempt to systematically measure individual differences in these fundamental motives, and to link those differences to features of the individual’s life history (whether you have children, are in a long-term relationship, come from an unstable background, or are a male or a female, for example).

With age, for example, people become less motivated by affiliation, and more motivated by kin care. Compared to men, women are generally higher in self-protective motives and lower in mate-seeking motivation. People with children are also higher in self-protective motivation than are nonparents, possibly because they need to be alert to potential dangers to their children. People from unstable backgrounds are slightly more motivated by mate seeking motivation, but less motivated toward retaining their mates, and caring for their kin.

Motives, traits and behaviors

Neel and her colleagues find that the fundamental motives are connected with the Big 5 personality factors, but go well beyond those traits. For example, your level of group affiliation motivation is moderately connected to your scores on both extraversion and agreeableness. Your level of general neuroticism, on the other hand, is weakly related to your level of self-protection and disease avoidance, and somewhat more strongly related to your motivation to avoid losing your mate.

Chronic differences in these motives are also associated with different behaviors. People who are high in self-protective motivation, for example, are more likely to have taken a self-defense class or to have purchased a home security system in the past year. People high in group affiliation motive were more likely to have played a team sport, attended religious services, or done volunteer work. People high in the exclusion concern sub-component of affiliation motive were more likely to have used Facebook in the last year. People high in mate retention motivation were more likely to have bought their partner a gift and less likely to have cheated on their partners than those low in this motivation.

Future directions:

Now that there is a reliable and valid scale for measuring individual differences in fundamental motivation, it is possible to answer a number of interesting questions. Do chronic differences in fundamental motives predict whether you are likely to be a successful leader, or what kind of leadership style you are likely to adopt? Do your chronic fundamental motives predict whether you are likely to be more or less depressed or anxious, or to suffer from other psychological problems? Are there cultural differences in these fundamental motives, and are those linked to ecological factors within and between different societies and subcultures?

Answering those questions will require a lot more data. If you want to help out with this research program, or if you simply want to find out your relative standing on the fundamental motives of status seeking, mate seeking, self protection and disease avoidance, you can click this link to fill out the scale, and get some computer generated feedback. Or if you are someone who might have a use for the scale (or are simply curious about how each motive is measured) you can see all the scale items below.


Neel, R., Kenrick, D.T., White, A.E., & Neuberg, S.L. (2015). Individual differences in fundamental social motives. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. Online First Publication, September 14, 2015.

Related blogs

Rebuilding Maslow’s pyramid on an evolutionary foundation.

How a passing mood can alter your economic decisions.

Deep rationality: Conspicuous consumption as a mating display.

Want to show off your status and wealth? Buy a hybrid.

The Fundamental Motives Inventory

Instructions: We are interested in whether the following statements are true of you at this point in your life. Please answer how well the questions apply to you in general now, not whether these have been true of you in the past or may be true in the future. For each question, think about the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement. (1 - strongly disagree, 7 - strongly agree) (R = reverse-scored item)


1. I think a lot about how to stay safe from dangerous people.

2. I am motivated to keep myself safe from others.

3. I do not worry about keeping myself safe from others. (R)*

4. I worry about dangerous people.

5. I think about how to protect myself from dangerous people

6. I am motivated to protect myself from dangerous others.

Disease Avoidance

7. I avoid places and people that might carry diseases.

8. I avoid people who might have a contagious illness.

9. I worry about catching colds and flu from too much contact with other people.

10. I do not worry very much about getting germs from others. (R)

11. When someone near me is sick, it doesn’t bother me very much. (R)

12. I don’t mind being around people who are sick. (R)

Affiliation (Group)

13. Being part of a group is important to me.

14. I enjoy working with a group to accomplish a goal.

15. I like being part of a team.

16. Working in a group is usually more trouble than it’s worth. (R)

17. When I’m in a group, I do things to help the group stay together.

18. Getting along with the people around me is a high priority.

Affiliation (Exclusion Concern)

19. I would be extremely hurt if a friend excluded me.

20. It would be a big deal to me if a group excluded me.

21. It bothers me when groups of people I know do things without me.

22. I worry about being rejected.

23. I often wonder whether I am being excluded.

24. I often think about whether other people accept me.

Affiliation (Independence)

25. I would prefer to spend time alone than to be surrounded by other people.

26. I like to be alone even if I might lose some friends because of it.

27. Being apart from my friends for long periods of time does not bother me.

28. I don’t mind being by myself for long periods of time.

29. Having time alone is extremely important to me.

30. I like to be by myself.


31. It’s important to me that other people look up to me.

32. I want to be in a position of leadership.

33. It’s important to me that others respect my rank or position.

34. I do things to ensure that I don’t lose the status I have.

35. I do not like being at the bottom of a hierarchy.

36. I do not worry very much about losing status. (R)

Mate Seeking

37. I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to meet possible dating partners.

38. I am interested in finding a new romantic/sexual partner.

39. I am not interested in meeting people to flirt with or date. (R)

40. Starting a new romantic/sexual relationship is not a high priority for me. (R)

41. I rarely think about finding a romantic or sexual partner. (R)

42. I would like to find a new romantic/sexual partner soon.

Mate Retention (General) (Note: Mate Retention scales were only administered to those in a relationship)

43. It is important to me that my partner is sexually loyal to me.

44. It is important to me that my partner is emotionally loyal to me.

45. I do not spend much time and energy doing things to keep my partner invested in our relationship. (R)

46. It would not be that big a deal to me if my partner and I broke up. (R)

47. If others were romantically interested in my partner, it would not bother me very much. (R)

48. If my partner were to have romantic or sexual relationships with others, that would be OK with me. (R)

Mate Retention (Breakup Concern)

49. I often think about whether my partner will leave me.

50. I worry about others stealing my romantic/sexual partner.

51. I worry that my romantic/sexual partner might leave me.

52. I wonder if my partner will leave me for someone else.

53. I worry that other people are interested in my romantic/sexual partner.

54. I am worried that my partner and I might break up.

Kin Care (Family)

55. Caring for family members is important to me.

56. Having close ties to my family is not very important to me. (R)

57. I am not very interested in helping my family members. (R)

58. I would rather not spend time with family members. (R)

59. Being close to my family members is extremely important to me.

60. It is extremely important to me to have good relationships with my family members.

Kin Care (Children) (was only administered to those with children)

61. I help take care of my children.

62. I like to spend time with my children.

63. Taking care of my children is not a high priority for me right now. (R)

64. I often think about how I could stop bad things from happening to my children.

65. I rarely think about protecting my children. (R)

66. Providing for my children is important to me.

*(R) = reverse scored item.

(The order of items was not as shown above, but instead randomized uniquely for each participant, and there were no scale labels included)