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January 24, 2019

Why is your colleague driving a flashy car? Why do people make art? Are there any commonalities in what makes people fall in love or feel happiness?

For more than 40 years, Douglas Kenrick of Arizona State University has sought answers to such questions about human behavior. Kenrick, who was recently appointed the President’s Professor of Psychology, combines research strategies from evolutionary biology, anthropology, and psychology to study what motivates social behaviors in people.

For more than 40 years, Douglas Kenrick of Arizona State University has sought answers to these questions about human behavior. Kenrick, who was recently appointed the President’s Professor of Psychology, combines research strategies from evolutionary biology, anthropology, and psychology to study what motivates social behaviors in people.
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The President’s Chair recognizes professors who are proficient in the subject of their field and who impart their expertise in innovative ways to students through teaching and mentoring. The first undergraduate class Kenrick taught at ASU in 1973 had 475 students.

“Once I made them laugh I thought it was fabulous,” he said.

When asked what he was most proud of in his career so far, Kenrick declared his students’ success. Steven Neuberg, the Foundation’s psychology professor and department head, was not surprised by this response.

“Professor Kenrick is an elite educator,” Neuberg said. “He masterfully engages students at all levels, intriguing them with the mysteries of social behavior, guiding them to solutions to these mysteries and connecting the findings and theories to the daily lives of students. He teaches successfully in the Great Hall. in the conference room, in the small seminar room, in the one-on-one mentoring and in the research lab.

“He has inspired generations of students to become academics and award-winning teachers in their own right. And he did all of this – regularly – for some 40 years, while being a renowned and productive scholar, responsible for fundamental research results. and shape the direction of its domain. Simply put, Professor Kenrick is an example of New American University and well deserves to be the ASU President’s Professor. “

Renovate a pyramid

Kenrick is also proud of his research, which has so far produced more than 200 publications and has been cited over 21,000 times by other researchers.

One of Kenrick’s favorite research projects is the redesign of a decades-old and highly influential psychological idea, Maslow’s “pyramid of human needs”. When Abraham Maslow was a professor at Brooklyn College in 1943, he organized the goals that motivate people into a layered pyramid. Maslow suggested that people only reach the top of the pyramid after reaching the goals of the lower layers. Immediate physiological needs, such as thirst and hunger, form the basis of Maslow’s pyramid and are followed by security, love, and esteem. The top of Maslow’s pyramid is self-realization, which psychologists define as achieving one’s full potential through creative or spiritual expressions, knowledge, or a positive impact on society.

In 2010, Kenrick released a new model of what makes people tick, featuring two ASU alumni, Vladas Griskevicius and Mark Schaller and Neuberg. The research team looked at Maslow’s pyramid through the lens of half a century of advances in evolutionary biology, anthropology, and psychology.

Doug Kenrick's pyramid

Kenrick’s updated pyramid model.

This interdisciplinary perspective has led researchers to make two major changes to Maslow’s pyramid. The goals now overlap because some continue to be important throughout life. The team also redefined the top of the pyramid.

“The top of Maslow’s pyramid doesn’t make evolutionary sense,” Kenrick said. “Self-actualization can be related to status and affiliation, as in the cases of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lincoln, two of Maslow’s examples of self-fulfilling people. But what happens after a developing person finds friends and earns the respect of those friends? The person goes on to acquire a partner, clings to this partner and brings up children, who are hardly far removed from biology.

In the renovated pyramid, three overlapping layers – partner acquisition, partner retention, and parenthood – form the top.

“Self-realization is still there in the pyramid, but it is tied to status and affiliation,” Kenrick said. “Self-realization is not the same as personal growth, either. We have been researching what gives meaning to people’s lives, and in this case, they don’t think about status. They think about taking care of their loved ones.

Beyond the Pyramid and Arizona

Kenrick is also currently investigating how motivations such as those depicted in the pyramid predict personality and behavioral traits in different people. Together with colleagues from ASU, he developed a questionnaire for basic social motivations such as self-protection, disease avoidance, belonging (affiliation), status, partner search, partner retention and care for relatives. Kenrick and Michael Varnum, another psychology professor, recently received funding from the National Science Foundation to expand this research beyond Arizona. In this project, they compare how motivations in different societies, from Bolivia to Uganda, relate to people’s happiness.

“We have given the Core Motives Scale and a Well-Being Scale to people in many different countries around the world. We find interesting connections between fundamental motivations and happiness. For example, people are less happy in more status-conscious societies, ”said Kenrick.

So far, the research team has data from more than 5,000 people in 20 countries.

Kenrick co-directs the ASU Evolutionary Social Cognition Lab with Neuberg and Vaughn Becker, Associate Professor in the Human Systems Engineering program. He has written two popular books for the general public: “Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life” and “The Rational Animal”, with Griskevicius. He is the co-author of a textbook on social psychology, used by hundreds of thousands of students around the world, which will soon be in its seventh edition. Kenrick writes a blog hosted by Psychology Today and is currently working on another book with his son, titled “How to Climb the Pyramid of Life,” which uses psychological research as a practical guide to reaching each of these basic human motives.


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