Psychoanalysis and Exchange Theory

This book uses a number of models of human motivation. One is exchange theory and the economic theory it draws much of its origin from, which view people as trying to extract some kind of a profit from interactions, acting in what they perceive to be their own interest. The other is psychoanalysis which sees people as reenacting the drive-based fears and desire of childhood as they encounter new situations in life.

In reality, there are a large areas where the two theories can be made to fit each other. Psychoanalysis, with its basis in Freud's belief that we seek pleasure and seek to avoid pain, can be made to fit with the view that we seek to profit from each situation and avoid loss. To see the overlap, one must first see the basic psychoanalytic view of human experience:

1. Human beings start off in this world with certain biologically-given desires and the potential for certain kinds of fears, which shape and are shaped by experience, during a number of phases of development. Among these are the psycho-sexual stages of development; the need to admire and be admired, the desire for independence and fear of abandonment, the desire for power, the need to be aggressive, the tendency to regress to earlier phases of development in response to anxiety; the aggressive response to frustration and attack, and the desire for safety and comfort.

Although it isn’t given its proper due in much of psychoanalytic theory, there is also a basic desire to mature, become a whole adult and lead a full life.

2. Because some of the desires experienced in childhood are negatively sanctioned by the child’s primary caretakers and significant others, the expression of them results in an unconscious perception of danger. Thus, they go underground and lead a subterranean life in which they continue influencing experience and behavior, interfering with the adult personality, instead of being incorporated into it. The person experiences new situations as if they are the earlier situations. He or she then reacts by seeking to fulfill desires, to enhance what he perceives to be his profit and protecting himself from what he misperceives to be dangers of loss. The individual is thus viewed by psychoanalysis as seeking profit and avoidance of loss, just as he is in exchange theory and economic theory, but he does so in response to fantasized misperceptions of situations, in which he perceives dangers that don’t exist.

In response to this misperception of danger, the individual also regresses to earlier forms of satisfaction – to regressive pleasures. These serve both as defenses and as substitute pleasures, so once again this fits into a theory of profit and loss.

But clearly, the kind of profit and loss psychoanalysis sees people seeking and avoiding is of a very primitive kind. An example of how primitive it is can be seen in our reaction to being put down. When we are slighted or humiliated, the normal human reaction is to want to strike back in kind. There is a desire for revenge -- to force others to suffer as we have suffered (and from this follows a great deal of the suffering human beings have inflicted on each other).

Similarly, by taking a dominant position in relationships, people achieve a kind of neurotic cure for all the times they were in the down position. They can now gloat and, from their position of emotional security, watch as someone else experiences the difficulties they have experienced when they were in the weak position. By doing to another what was done to them, they feel more secure and stronger. Thus, we take pleasure out of revenge, and out of turning the tables and undoing weakness by exercising power over others because of our primitive emotional nature. So these behaviors also conform to the idea that we seek profit and seek to avoid pain, but only because some of the things we experience as forms of profit are based on primitive and neurotic pleasures.

And of course, we also engage in conscious and unconscious strategy to seek out these pleasures and avoid these pains. We are as calculating as economic man in our pursuit of our primitive desires, although most of our calculations are unconscious.

But, as Freud saw, there is one thing that doesn’t conform to the pleasure-principle -- masochism and self-destructiveness, since it seems to be based on loss as a form of profit. But, in fact, these can be described as a defensive response to aggression, threat and dominance from a significant figure in childhood. In this dynamic, the individual feels the need to self-discredit, self-humiliate, self-injure, and submit before being forced down or destroyed. Here too the individual seeks loss only to profit, in an attempt to ensure his or her safety and gain whatever pleasures can be obtained.

Yet there is a mystery here that appears beyond profit and loss and that is the sexualization of loss -- the pleasure taken from loss -- so that loss is actually experienced as if it is gain. This isn't merely an esoteric question about the pleasures experienced in sexual masochism. In addition, all people derive pleasure out of self-reproach and many derive it out of self-destructiveness. Part of the additional factor at play here is the fact that we experience a primal identification with our primary caretakers of childhood because of the emotional bond created by evolution and the need for survival. We adopt what we experience as their view of us; we take their role in relation to ourselves later in life, which certainly has profit in it, in that it can help ensure survival. It is hard to know whether the pleasure we take in self-injury and suffering is merely another way of sneaking pleasure out of pain, or whether there is something that goes beyond this, a primal pleasure in pain and a profit from loss that contradicts the pleasure principle or, at least, our common-sense perceptions of it. The orgies of self-punishment some people engage in would seem to suggest that this is a question that deserves further consideration.

Having described the psychodynamic motivations for action, based on biological urges, there is the sense that we have approached the bedrock of motivation. The next logical step is to see that the operations of sadism, power and submission and other actions, and the alterations in status involving credit and discredit, are part of our evolutionary heritage. Ultimately, it would appear that we possess these capacities because we evolved from animals and human ancestors in whom these, and the motivating forces behind them, were instincts exerting more rigid controls over behavior. These instincts well up in childhood in a primitive form, in a mind vulnerable to their influence and are then affected by the experiences of childhood and the influence of primary caretakers, usually parents. At the same time, they are intertwined with symbolic meanings.

We can certainly see the operation of many of these same tendencies in animals. Many animal groups are also governed by dominance and submission, that includes rituals and displays. And those at the top of the hierarchy rely on a form of image in which all the others believe in some sense that they are the strongest and fiercest, with the ability to enforce their desires on other members of the group. When an animal at the top of the status hierarchy shows weakness or backs down, something akin to discredit and image loss occurs.

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