The Transmutation of Motivation

Hornell Hart
Bryn Mawr College


Einstein's demonstration of the fundamental identity of differing forms of physical energy has a parallel in social forces. Experiment has demonstrated that internal bodily activities afford little or no evidence of emotions as characteristically different states of the organism. Emotions are differing conscious forms of one basic reality—nervous energy. Its bodily expressions are (1) symptoms of modified metabolism; (2)disorganized safety-valve movements; (3)signals; (4)organized actions with reference to the stimulus. No matter what the emotion, any of the metabolism and safety-valve reactions may occur: the differences between the various emotions depend upon attitudes, determined by (1)energy reserves ; (2) innate prepotency ; (3) emotional linkages; (4) intellectual conceptions, positive attitudes, or wants, regard stimuli as promising: enthusiasm, love, or elation results, according to what type of functional relation with the stimulus is contemplated. In neutral attitudes the energy takes the form of mirth. Negative attitudes, regarding stimuli as menacing, result in fear, grief, rage, etc., according to the type of avoidance, acceptance, or attack reaction contemplated. These attitudes are taken by the "expanded personality" —the organism plus the objects, persons, ideas, and institutions toward which the person acts as though they were extensions of his organism, This theory opens the way to transmutation, of motivation, Opposition arises from three groups: (1) instinctivists regard instincts as independent elements in motivation, but a better account of innate sources of attitudes may be developed from the principle that the motive of life is to function; (2) gland enthusiasts have exaggerated one factor in attitude formation; (3) behaviorists deny the scientific validity of attitude concepts but persist in using them; creative synthesis with this group might be achieved by regarding subjective interpretation as essential to social science but as becoming scientific only when it results in conclusions which may be tested in objectively verifiable terms.

What Einstein has taken the lead in doing for physics, a number of thinkers have been doing in an almost unnoticed way in social psychology. Einstein has shown that electricity and gravitation may be conceived as forms of one fundamental phenomenon: diverse as they at first appear, he has shown them to be essentially identical. In proving this, Einstein has simply carried farther a development which has long been going on in physics and chemistry. Light, heat, momentum, electricity, and the other forms of energy appeared at first as independent entities; research has demonstrated progressively that they are mere interchangeable forms of one basic reality. Similarly, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, iron, and the other chemical elements were long considered as essentially distinct and untransmutable, but recent research has shown that they also are but variants of the same basic reality-electrical energy.

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Like the forms of physical energy, social forces have been regarded as independent entities, irreducible to common terms. Whether termed instincts, wants, interests, or wishes, these motivators of social behavior have been listed independently, as though each had a separate existence and were untransmutable into the others. Quite recently, however, psychology and sociology have been discovering that social forces, like chemical elements and like the forms of physical energy, have much more in common than had hitherto been supposed. Professor Robert S. Woodworth, of Columbia, has summarized as follows some of the psychological discoveries in this field:

Cannon finds the same internal changes in fear and rage, as well as in states of "being all keyed up"for strenuous activity, which states cannot properly be called either fear or rage. All serious and thorough experimental efforts to discover a characteristic bodily expression for each emotion have failed. Shepard found that "feelings cannot be classified on the basis of vasomotor and heart rate changesIn short, all moderate nervous activity
tends to constrict the peripheral vessels and to increase the volume and size of pulse in the brain."Landis, introducing into the laboratory a variety of often drastic emotional situations, was unable to find differential patterns of response, either from the vascular organs or from the muscles of facial expression, while Brunswick found the same lack of characteristic patterns in the field of gastrointestinal reactions. Similarly the students of the psycho-galvanic reaction have not reported different types of response for different specific emotions

Experimental studies of internal bodily activities, we might say, afford plenty of evidence of emotion, but little or none of the emotions as characteristically different states of the organism, This conclusion should, indeed, be accepted with some reserve, since laughter seems an exception, and since a strong sex emotion, unhampered by embarrassment, has perhaps not yet been examined under laboratory conditions.[1]

The following hypothesis, built up inductively in interaction with concrete instances too voluminous to be presented in this article,[2] explores certain possibilities for a theory of social forces consistent with the foregoing findings. In brief, the hypothesis is that

( 590) emotions are merely differing conscious forms of one basic reality — nervous energy. The human organism, when stimulated in certain ways, generates or liberates varying quantities of energy, whose presence is accompanied by external and internal bodily symptoms. These symptoms of increased nervous energy are of four types: first, changes directly related to the modified metabolism involved in the increased generation of nervous energy; second, disorganized safety-valve movements serving to carry off overflows of excess energy; third, movements and changes signaling the emotional condition to opponents, victims, allies, associates, and potential helpers; and, fourth, organized, usually purposive, movements carrying the organism into action in relation to the stimulus. Of the bodily changes related to the metabolism which releases increased energy, illustrations may be found in more rapid pulse beat, deeper respiration, release of sugar into the blood, increased secretion by ductless glands, and the like. Disorganized safety-valve movements include such symptoms as rapid pacing of the floor, jumping up and down, gesturing with the hands, and convulsive movements of the viscera and of the body in general. Reactions which probably belong in some ways to the two foregoing classes, but which have actually come to function as signals of emotional condition, include utterance of articulate or inarticulate sounds, flushing, paling, weeping, bristling of the hair, and distortion of the facial muscles. The fourth class of reactions associated with heightened emotional energy includes all the various organized actions with reference to the stimulus, such as avoidance, approach, manipulation, attack, embracing, and devouring.

No matter what the emotion, if it is strong enough, practically any of the metabolism and safety-valve reactions may occur: one "trembles" with excitement, "shudders" with dread, or "quivers" with rage; one "sighs" for love, "gasps" with surprise; "catches one's breath" in fear, and "breaths heavily" in anger; one weeps for joy, for mirth, or for grief; one flushes with pleasure, mortification, laughter, love, or anger; one utters spasmodic vocalizations in grief, hilarity, enthusiasm, fear, and love. Moreover, the organized reactions are apt also to be behavioristically indistin-

( 591) -guishable in various emotions: [3] flexion of the arm may mean a blow, a caress, warding off a menace, beckoning, or leading the cheering; impassioned verbal behavior may involve pleas for mercy, denunciation, a proposal of marriage, or exuberance over a triumph; frantic clasping of the stimulating person may mean the terror of a drowning victim, the ardor of the triumphant lover, or the wrath of the wrestling assailant.

What, then, determines the nature of the emotion experienced? In defiance of the behaviorists, it is suggested that the differences between the various emotions depend upon the attitudes of the stimulated personality toward the stimulus. By "attitude" is meant the incipient, latent, or contemplated organized reaction of the personality with reference to the stimulus. Attitudes, thus defined, are determined by four factors: (I) abundance or depletion of reserve energy in the organism; (2) innately prepotent types of reaction; (3) emotional linkages and habits due to past experiences; and (4) intellectual conceptions as to the nature of the stimulus. Three general types of attitudes toward stimuli may be distinguished-positive, neutral, and negative. The positive attitudes are called "wants"; they regard the stimulus as promising and seek closer functional relations with it. Negative attitudes regard the stimulus as menacing, and seek to avoid it or to destroy it. The names of the various emotions are merely labels indicating the particular types of latent, incipient, or contemplated reaction. Toward stimuli which we "want" we call the emotion "enthusiasm" if the energy is tentatively focused toward working co-operatively with the stimulus; we call it "love" if the energy is tentatively directed toward being with, mating with, or benefiting the stimulus. If the stimulus is promising but there is no immediate call for applied utilization of the energy, it escapes in quite unorganized ways, and we call the emotion "elation."

Suppose the stimulus is regarded as practically neutral-as neither menacing nor promising benefit-and yet it generates emotional energy. In this case the energy escapes in unorganized safety-valve and signaling forms-spasmodic ejaculation of sound,

( 592) distortion of the face and body, slapping of the thigh, reddening of the face, tears, and the like-and we call the emotion "mirth."

Toward stimuli regarded by the personality as menacing, the basic reactions are (1) disorganized or incipient escape efforts, (2 ) helpless acceptance, (3) disorganized or incipient attack, and (4) intelligent focusing of resources to cope with the stimuli. The incipient and disorganized escape or avoidance reactions involve "fear." Helpless acceptance of a stimulus in the process of damaging a personality, where the energy escapes in disorganized sounds, bodily writhings, facial contortions, and the like, is called "suffering." If the damage has been completed but is still disturbing the personality, the emotional reactions may be called "grief" or, if the damage is extensive enough, "despair." If the nervous energy roused by a stimulus regarded as menacing flows into an actual at-tack, but at the same time overflows into incoherent vocalizations, gestures, vasomotor reactions, and the like, the emotion is called "anger." If similar reactions are baffled and find their entire outlet in symbolic, gestural, or verbal attack and in other overflow reactions, the emotion is called "rage."

The saint (defining that term in the best sense) is the person who has so developed his personality that menacing stimuli consistently draw out enthusiasm, love, courage, and other creative reactions rather than anger, fear, and despair.

D. T. Howard would restrict the term "emotional behavior" to the disorganized type of reactions.[4] The foregoing analysis, how-ever, leads to the recognition that two different variables are involved: first, the amount of nervous energy pouring through the personality; and, second, the proportion of that energy which escapes in disorganized overflow and signal reactions as compared with the amount directed into organized action-patterns. When a large amount of energy flows out in the disorganized reactions, the behavior may be termed "sentimental" or even "hysterical." Well-integrated personalities, however, may develop intense currents of nervous energy, accompanied by profound metabolic symptoms, and at the same time may pour the entire stream into highly organ-

( 593) -ized action-patterns with a minimum of purposeless overflow. The great artist, for example, makes his highest achievements by such controlled use of intense energy.

"joy" or "happiness" will be found to consist in those states in which the emotional energy flaws abundantly and freely, through organized or disorganized channels acceptable to the complete personality, as in elation, enthusiasm, love, and the like, without the inner conflict and thwarting involved in fear, grief, and despair.

In the foregoing analysis, the reaction is said to be given, not by the organism, as the behaviorists would have it, but by the "personality." The reason for this is that the stimulus frequently menaces or promises to benefit, not the organism, but certain objects, persons, ideas, or institutions toward which the personality reacts as it would toward its organism. Take the bone from the dog, spill soup an the lady's dress, speak disparagingly of the man's automobile, admire the handiwork of the artist, and the emotional reactions will be of the same types produced by analogous stimuli applied to the bodies of those individuals. Menace the cub of a lioness, praise the daughter of the proud parent, sneer at a dear friend of your hearer, and the reactions are of the type to be expected from stimuli applied to annexes or extensions of their organisms. If Senator Heflin attacks the Catholic church, or if a foreign artist discovers that America has produced magnificent architecture, the people of whose personalities Catholicism and America are vital parts react emotionally as if their bodies had been attacked or admired. The personality, or if a distinctive expression is preferred, the "expanded personality," includes, then, the organism, plus the objects, persons, ideas, and institutions in relation to which the individual gives the emotional reactions that he gives in relation to his organism.

The crucial significance of such a theory of social forces lies inthe fact that it opens the way to the transmutation of motivation. Since the qualitative differences between emotions are due, ac-cording to this hypothesis, to the attitudes taken by the personality toward the stimulus, it follows that the emotions can be fundamentally altered if the attitudes can be changed. This bears vitally in two ways upon social welfare: first, in relation to social control,

( 594) it predicates that it is possible, in the long run, by modifying attitudes, to transmute anger, hatred, fear, and other socially destructive emotions into harmless forms or into co-operative enthusiasm and loyalty; second, in relation to individual happiness, it predicates the long-run possibility of transmuting fear, despair, suffering, and other misery reactions into joyful types of emotion.

This emotional transmutation involves a shift of emphasis from the mere changing of the stimulus to the alteration of the reacting personality: it suggests that while increases in economic income, improvements in health, and other changes in environmental stimuli are vitally important, they need to be adjusted to the supreme consideration of creating in the personality those attitudes which will find the promising aspects of whatever stimuli present themselves, and thus react with co-operative and joyful emotions. While stimuli differ objectively in their actual menace to the personality, ample instances testify that it is possible, by a mere change of attitude, to change into promise the apparent menace involved in sickness, loss of one's position, antagonistic criticism from others, or in any of the stimuli which usually generate fear, anger, or despair.

Opposition to such a theory of social forces will be found to arise from at least three sources: first, the contention of nave and even of critical instinctivists that the emotions are correlates of innate action-patterns or of innate drives to action; second, the ductless gland contention that endocrines dominate personality; third, the behavioristic contention that "conditioning" determines motivation to the total exclusion of any conscious evaluation of the stimulus, and the behavioristic denial of the scientific validity of using attitude concepts in the sense herein defined.

The first group of objectors is the instinctivists. Some people say that fundamental improvements in society are impossible be-cause "human nature cannot be changed." When used to oppose economic programs depending upon other motives than the getting of power and money, this argument implies belief in the innate rigidity of such assumed "instincts" as acquisitiveness and domination; when used to oppose peace programs it assumes pugnacity as an ineradicable innate human motivator. Other connections in

( 595) which this type of argument has recently been used have included assumptions of innate racial antipathy, innate monogamistic impulse, and innate promiscuity.

Leading exponents of instinct theories, such as James and McDougall, would not have been guilty of any such assumption, for they have regarded instincts, not as definite, rigid, unlearned behavior patterns, but as plastic, modifiable tendencies, driving the organism toward action in certain general directions.[5] Even this conception, however, is inconsistent with the facts summarized by Woodworth at the beginning of this article. How then shall we conceive of the part played by innate structure in determining the quality and the direction of human motivation?

Hunger and sex-craving may be taken as indubitably fundamental human drives. We have a gastronomic system, and a powerful longing to use it in all the ways for which it is fitted. But the actual behavior through which this system functions is modified by such cultural and habitual patterns as likings and aversions for particular foods, taboos, beauty diets, religious fasts, hunger strikes, and pie-eating contests. We have a reproductive system, and powerful longings to use it in ways for which it is fitted. But the actual behavior through which this system functions is modified by such cultural and habitual patterns as modesty, religious celibacy, polygamy, narcissism, homosexuality, and divorce legislation. Healthy people have also powerful longings to use in ways for which they are fitted their legs, lungs, vocal cords, eyes, brains, children, automobiles, tools, literary ability, and so on indefinitely. lf one can give a complete list of all the innate structures of the organism and of the ways in which they can function consciously—all of the skeletal, muscular, glandular, circulatory, digestive, and nervous structures, and of the conscious activities of which they are capable—then one might give a complete list of innate motive tendencies. But it is far simpler, and scientifically much more useful and more satisfying, to summarize this cumbersome enumeration by the fundamental principle: The motive of life is to function.

But how about the pain nerves? If functioning is in itself

( 596) pleasurable, why not enjoy pain? Two answers solve this objection. First, we do enjoy pain often enough to reinforce the general principle. Second, painful functioning, as far as it is actually shunned, serves as a safety device to warn of impending menace to future functioning. Pain, weariness, fear, horror, disgust, mortification, humiliation-or any other kind of unpleasantness in function-means: "This kind or amount of functioning has proved dangerous to individuals or to the group or to the species! " "This functioning does not fit in with your surroundings ! " or "Someone or something outside you is functioning in a way which does not fit with your functioning-something is damaging or menacing you!" On the other hand, special surges of joy are apt to mean that the type of functioning involved has been related to the promise of enlarged functioning by the individual, the group, or the species.

Such warning and promising devices are acquired sometimes personally and sometimes racially. "Conditioning," as discussed by Watson, covers the more automatic and less intelligent phases of individual acquisition; the fear of loud noises and of removed support, the rage at restriction of movement, and the joy at being caressed, which he describes, are instances of racially acquired warning and promising devices.

The transmutation of motivation depends upon the shunting of emotional energy from one type of functioning to another among the exceedingly wide range of possible behavior patterns of which the personality is capable. The degree to which this shunting is possible varies immensely between individuals and between action-patterns. Certain persons have become exceedingly stereotyped and rigid. Certain types of functioning become at times almost overwhelmingly imperative. The elements in the problem are, however, increasingly clear. Habit clinics and other forms of psychiatric social work are demonstrating with growing effectiveness the practicable possibility of transmuting socially and personally destructive types of motivation into harmless or creative forms.

The second group of objectors need not detain us long. To argue that ductless glands are the sole determiners of motivation is simply to provide another instance of the obsessive enthusiasm

( 597) which exalts one aspect of a truth into an alleged complete and adequate account of the whole truth. Innate differences in gland structure quite probably may involve large differences in attitudes; treatment of the glands or injection of glandular extracts undoubtedly does transform motivation in certain types of cases; but to assert that glands are the only determinants of motivation, to the complete exclusion of emotional conditioning and of intelligent insight into the nature of situations, is to exhibit intellectual imbalance.

Behaviorism represents a vigorous reaction against the rigidity of instinctivism toward belief in the transmutation of motivation, but the behaviorist has concentrated his attention upon those changes in attitude which are achieved by reconditioning-by re-arranging stimuli so that emotional linkages may be broken down and built up differently. In transmuting motivation the behaviorist has insisted that he has no need of changing the conscious states of his patient-of developing intellectual insight into the nature of the stimulus, or of transforming the individual's conception of the situation. Any attempt to deal with consciousness is regarded by Watson and his followers as being unscientific if not superstitious.

This point of view has recently been given prominence by behavioristic sociologists. Read Bain, for example, contends that "feelings, sentiments, tendencies and impulses to act, wishes, attitudes, and so on, mean nothing, and worse than nothing, unless they are interpreted as overt behavior of some kind."[6] "We must have a frankly behavioristic sociology if we are to have a science.' George A. Lundberg announced that in a forthcoming text he purposed to indicate the subjective and unscientific character of such categories as attitudes and desires, and to show that they are undesirable and unnecessary in science.'

The real issue here is whether it is scientific to take into ac-count in theories of motivation subjective states which are directly accessible only to the introspection of the one who experiences

( 598) them. Biology postulates the gene— "a hypothetical agent or element considered as being transmitted from parent to offspring, and regarded as determining, or entering into, the development of some particular character of the offspring.[9] Similarly, physics postulates the electron, one-thousandth the size of a hydrogen atom, in order to account for otherwise inexplicable phenomena. Social psychology is at a great advantage over these sciences in that each of us has direct access to the conscious phases of his own attitudes, whereas genes, electrons, and other such assumed entities, are to-tally inaccessible to direct observation. If, therefore, biology and physics may be conceded as being sciences, it would seem to be scientifically legitimate for social psychology to follow their precedent and to postulate attitudes and the like if they are needed in order to understand, account for, predict, and control social forces.

But are subjective postulates really useful in social psychology? Have we any use for the term "want" in the sense of a conscious state rather than merely a group of overt reactions? Does it make any difference whether we try to make students study a sociology problem or try to make them want to study it? Does it mean anything to say, "I went, but I didn't want to go," or "I shot him, but I didn't mean to"? Is it conceivable that a girl should want to eat candy and yet should take no overt steps to that end? Does it mean anything to ask whether one's wife really wants to go to the movies or is just going to please her husband?

The behaviorist himself seems incapable of dispensing with these subjective terms. J. B. Watson says: "The interest of the behaviorist in man's doings is more than the interest of the spectator-he wants to control man's reactions." (Italics mine.)[10] Bain says that by the behavioristic technique "it may be impossible to find out many things we should like to know."[11] (Italics mine.) Lundberg says that his purpose is to show that such categories as "desire" are "undesirable" in science! [12]

The escape of the behaviorist is found in Bain's suggestion that

( 599) such concepts as attitude, want, desire, and purpose be interpreted wholly in terms of overt behavior. For example, to be strictly behavioristic, the attitude of wanting food consists in expending energy, time, money, and the like in getting it. That is to say the man who elbows his way into an automat, puts in nickels, waits for a seat, and devours his food "wants" to eat. If the behavioristic definition of want in terms of overt behavior is adequate, a pig who waits at the trough, shoves his way to the brink, and guzzles his ration "wants" to eat. Would the behaviorist go farther and say that the plant which waits for the rain, and when it falls sucks the water into its stern and leaves, "wants" to drink? Would he go still farther and say that the lava, which waits for centuries within the mountain, and finally bursts explosively forth and rushes down the slope, "wants" to destroy the village in its path? To those who are neither behaviorists nor animists, the statement that the mountain "wants" to destroy the village seems absurd, because the mountain is not thought of as having conscious states. For the behaviorist, however, this distinction is not significant: to him the human being also has no conscious states which need to be considered by science.

But is it possible to defend any such position in our practical attempts to understand social motivation? Suppose that when one makes a well-intentioned remark to a lady about divorce or about domineering mothers or about militarism, she suddenly reddens, stammers, turns, and abruptly walks away. Or suppose that a football player who has just had his nose broken laughs, wipes off the blood, and dashes back into the game. Or suppose that a colleague to whom one has offered a friendly piece of advice suddenly flares up and attacks us. Is it or is it not helpful to attempt subjectively to think one's way into the (directly inaccessible) conscious and unconscious processes lying back of these forms of overt behavior?

A creative synthesis between the apparently opposing points of view on this question lies in the recognition of the subjective interpretation as intermediary scaffolding between objectively observable stimuli and objectively observable responses. As aids to arriving at working hypotheses, subjective concepts like "atti-

( 600) -tude," "want," "personality," and "purpose" are not only permissible but indispensable. But if the treatment is to be scientific, the overt behavior involved in, or connected with, these states must be rigidly defined and accurately observed. The principles and laws derived from subjective processes must be stated in objectively verifiable terms.

The theory herein presented cannot be claimed as the work of any one individual. The tendency toward the recognition of the fundamental identity and transmutability of all forms of emotional energy is becoming widely prevalent: it is being developed by psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, and social workers. In so far as this approach provides the concepts needed for predicting and creatively modifying human behavior, it helps to open the way to the next great conquest by the scientific method-its successful application to human relations.


  1. "How Emotions Are Identified and Classified," by Robert S. Woodworth, Feelings and Emotions: The Wittenberg Symposium (1925), p. 124. See Allport, Social Psychology 1924, p. 91.
  2. Some of the instances an which this hypothesis is based will be found in the author's The Science of SocialRelations (Henry Holt & Co., 1927).
  3. Cf. Woodworth, op. cit.
  4. "A Functional Theory of the Emotions," Feelings and Emotions: The Wittenberg Symposium (1928), pp. 140-42.
  5. Floyd House, The Range of Social Theory (1929), pp. 127-33 and 186-99.
  6. American Journal of Sociology, XXXIII (May, 1928), 950.
  7. Ibid., p. 941.
  8. "Current Research Projects," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XXXIV (January, 1929).
  9. New Century Dictionary.
  10. Behaviorism (1915), p. 11.
  11. Op. cit., p. 956.
  12. Loc. Cit.

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