What’s Motivating Displays of Extreme Behavior in this Crisis?

Special Guest Article By Jody Simpson, Ph.D.


Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

As the impact of the coronavirus unfolds, people are dealing with high levels of stress, learning new ways to cope with changes in everyday life, and trying to find a new “normal.”  News accounts have described displays of extreme behaviors such as the hoarding of food, paper products, and cleaning supplies.  Some people fight over the last package of toilet paper, while others hoard cases of cleaning products which they then attempt to resell at high prices.  Psychologically, how can we understand the extreme behaviors we are witnessing during this crisis?

Prof. Steven Reiss, Ph.D.
Professor Steven Reiss, Ph.D.

Professor Steven Reiss, Ph.D. conducted ground-breaking research that led to the development of his “16 Basic Desires Theory of Human Motivation.”  Reiss’s theory, which has been scientifically validated by independent researchers, can explain the extremes in human behavior that occur during a crisis.  

According to Reiss, each of us is motivated by 16 basic human needs.  This is the universal in human nature.  What makes us individuals is the priority we place on each of the 16 needs.  One need, for example, is the desire for social contact.  Some individuals (e.g., extroverts) place a high value on social contact, while others (e.g., introverts) place a low value on spending time with peers.  Reiss developed a psychological test called the Reiss Motivation Profile® (RMP) to measure individual differences in how we prioritize the 16 basic desires.  The information provided by the RMP can give us insights into why people behave the way they do.

Here is a real-time example of the different ways in which people attempt to satisfy their basic desires.  During a family’s recent visit to a ski resort, the slopes unexpectedly closed on the third day of the eight-day trip, turning the vacation into a voluntary quarantine in a small condo.  Two of the family members have a strong need for physical activity, which is one of the 16 basic desires identified by Reiss’s research.  Not surprisingly, these two individuals disliked just sitting around the condo, prompting them to hike solitary trails each day.  Two other family members with a weak need for physical activity were completely content to sit on the couch while watching endless television shows.  “I can’t sit around any longer; I’m going for a walk,” said one of the hikers, when his frustration at the lack of muscle exercise peaked, to which the sedentary television watchers replied, “Okay, have fun and be safe.”

Tranquility, or the need for personal safety, is another basic desire identified by Reiss.  While confined in the condo, the family members who place a high value on this need anxiously monitored the evolving pandemic and frequently expressed approval when government officials enacted measures to flatten the curve of the virus.  Luckily for the rest of the group, one family member with a strong need for saving, another of Reiss’s basic desires, had brought extra supplies of food and paper products including that most precious of current commodities – toilet paper.  A strong need for idealism, defined by Reiss as the desire for social justice, motivated some family members to consider donating money to their hairdresser, who was likely to suffer disproportionately from the economic downturn, given her already marginal income.

The family members in this example were motivated by the natural desire to satisfy their most intense needs – to engage in behavior consistent with the values that matter most to them.  Each person’s behavior was “normal” when viewed in this light. 

Since we feel best when our needs are satisfied by our behavior, we believe that other people would be happier if they would do what we do.  Reiss coined the term “self-hugging” to refer to the tendency to think that our values – the way we prioritize the basic desires – is best, not just for us but for everyone.  He labeled as “everyday tyranny” our tendency to try to change the values of others.  We think, “If you would do what I know works, then you would be happy just like me.” 

Reiss’s theory of motivation addresses what happens when people are under stress.  According to Reiss, stressful events are likely to exacerbate an individual’s most intense needs.  A collector, for example, becomes a hoarder.  Here is how Reiss’s theory explains some of the extremes of behavior we are witnessing during the current crisis.  During times of stress:

  • An individual with a strong need for saving who typically keeps a well-stocked pantry may begin buying and hoarding excessive supplies of food and other products. 
  • A person with a weak need for honor, defined by Reiss as an expedient person who acts out of self-interest, may engage in price gouging.
  • Confrontational people (those with a strong need for vengeance on the RMP) may push ahead of someone who has cut in front of them in a checkout line.
  • An individual with a strong need for family may initiate daily communications with extended family members with whom they normally talk only on a weekly basis.
  • A person with a strong need for order, defined by Reiss as a desire for structure and stability, may become even more rigid in following daily routines.
  • Those with a strong need for idealism may respond to just about every charity’s appeal for donations and may encourage others to do the same.
  • A risk-taker (someone with a weak need for tranquility on the RMP) may completely ignore advice to engage in social distancing despite being vulnerable due to age or an underlying health condition.
  • An individual with a strong need for understanding (Reiss’s curiosity motive) may spend many hours analyzing the pandemic.
  • A person with a weak need for physical activity may become even more sedentary.

Our tendencies to self-hug and to engage in everyday tyranny lead to conflicts based on differences in values.  Reiss emphasized the importance of understanding that our values may be different from those of others.  He also encouraged tolerance, and hopefully acceptance, of people whose values differ from our own.  This may be particularly important during times of stress.         

The extreme behaviors on display during the current crisis are not only understandable but also predictable.  As usual, people are attempting to satisfy their most important desires.  Due to the stress caused by the pandemic, the ways in which they do this may be more extreme.

For more information about human motivation, read Steven Reiss’s book, Who Am I: The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Actions and Define Our Personalities.

© Copyright 2020.  Jody Simpson, Ph.D.  All rights reserved.