Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Does Nature Drive Choices?

I remember a time when I was working on an engineering project which manufactures advanced circuits for a robotic production line. With tight schedules and frantic rush to get work done as quickly as possible, invariably some things did not work out as planned. It was a minor oversight that led to a major overhaul. Until that day, no one truly comprehends the impact of a small decision: Choosing which colour corresponds to a live, a neutral and a ground. Complexity gradually grows during integration of different parts made by different groups. The problem: What happens when group A (which wires RED for live) and group B (which uses BLUE) come together? The result: Total chaos. The top brass demanded that the entire system be re-wired. Over a period of five days, every able bodied person lept onto the production floor heaving and shoving wire bundles, splitting and re-labeling individual strands. For anyone working alone, it is painfully toilsome. With a group however, there is that strange sense of togetherness that lifts away the gloom of additional work and dispels the doom of a premature end of a promising project. That week, I experience a camaraderie never felt before. Everyone, from manager to engineer, from technician to storemen, all hands were on deck. We saved the project and met the deadline TOGETHER.

Two professors from Harvard, Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria argue that human actions is a direct outcome of the conscious choices made. They whittle down these deliberate choices into FOUR ‘innate, sub-conscious, brain-based drives’ [Paul Lawrence & Nitin Bohria, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, (NY: John Wiley, 2002)]. They are:
  1. Acquisition Drive
  2. Bonding Drive
  3. Learning Drive
  4. Defending Drive
The drive to acquire things, experiences and objectives help improve one’s lot relative to others. The drive to bond, to relate to people helps one to encounter and experience care and commitment. The drive to learn depicts the need to understand the world and ourselves. The drive to defend is essentially a need for security and safety. These four drives have to be balanced. People whose engines run on all four drives will be more fulfilled than those who only managed to do one or two, even if they excel better than others in simply one. In other words, a person who achieves average results for all four drives performs better than one who excels in only one of the four drives. What made the project I mentioned earlier to be memorable is because it allows one the opportunity to practice the 4-Drive theory. Tools and skills were acquired in order to do the task of wiring restoration (Acquisition Drive). Individuals joked and coordinated their efforts, and in the process, they not only talk about work, they shared openly their own personal lives and families. They bonded with one another (Bonding Drive). Since different people were involved, everyone was given the same set of instructions to learn from (Learning Drive). All had a common goal of delivering the project on time, and not fail the bigwigs of the organization (Defending Drive). Of course, I am able to write this only on hindsight. At that time, I hear of frustrations and anger at the ‘additional’ work expected. The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard said that life is essentially lived FORWARD but understood BACKWARDS. Only through reflections I find some semblance of meaning behind the work, and the nature of being human.

It is important to recognize that Lawrence & Nohria’s 4-Drive theory is more conjecture than empirical fact. It is their earnest attempt to bridge basic theory and applied science in trying to explain human behaviour. I think they have done it commendably. Yet, their proposal is not without flaws. Firstly, at an individual level, they found that people at a higher level of hierarchy lived a more fulfilled life. In other words, high achievers lived longer and were less likely to die of certain illnesses. They are not able to quantify the same for the rest of the drives. At an ORGANIZATIONAL level, the problem is similar, but the measuring indices will vary. A further complication will be the rationale behind the choices of each measurable. At the COMMUNITY level, it is relatively easier to understand the Bonding Drive, but not so easy to clarify the other drives. Nevertheless, this model is a useful framework to help us think through the linkages between human nature and the choices they make.

I believe that both nature and choices reinforce each other. Just like the nature-nurture debate, it is far too simplistic to conclude that the nature drives the decisions one make. While it is true that an angry person can make rash decisions, a calm person does not give perfect assessments either! Lawrence and Nohria, concludes somewhat positively:

The challenge is to find a course forward that fulfills all of our basic drives in some creative, balanced way. It is not an answer to deny or frustrate the reality of any of the four drives. The way forward must be to use the best side of each drive to check the dark, excessive potential of human nature.” (283)

This argument is appealing, but I feel it is not good enough. Seeing from the perspective of Christian redemption and holy restoration, it is not simply preventing the bad from happening or stimulating the rise of the good side. The best side of the human person is the WHOLE person. No more Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde distinction. The Christian man is fully redeemed, renewed and restored.

What makes a person human? It is living a holy life. It is learning to forgive one another. It is seeking the good of self and neighbour. It is living under the fear of God in order to excel in the love of people in our respective neighbourhood at work and at home. Herewith is my statement (non-exhaustive) of what it means to be human:
  1. We are created human because of that one purposeful act of love by God.
  2. We are made in the image of God.
  3. Human beings have an eternal dimension, which is why we have that keen interest in life beyond. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
  4. Our true happiness lies not in fulfilling our needs but in obedience to God.
While it is true that human nature shapes a large extent of the choices we make, it is also the choices that we make that affirm our human nature. Only in God can we realize which comes first at any point of time.


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