BMCR 2016.08.08

Why Do We Do What We Do?: Motivation in History and the Social Sciences

, Why Do We Do What We Do?: Motivation in History and the Social Sciences. Berlin: De Gruyter Open, 2014. 172. ISBN 9783110427271. eBook. Open Access.

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“[T]he affective and cognitive in combination have somehow shaped and re-shaped the routines of human life for many thousands of years” (p. 1). Such is Ramsay MacMullen’s conviction and Why Do We Do What We Do? is the result of his search for theoretical justification for this statement. The search has taken him far beyond the realm of history and the humanities to the social sciences. MacMullen visits economics, psychology, anthropology and sociology and occasionally makes forays into biology and neuroscience in order to find a way of describing “the mental process that leads from inaction to action in response to some stimulus” (p. 1).

MacMullen is concerned, then, with motivation. He defines this as “a flow of mental activity instinctual, affective, and expressive of what most actors hold dear or see as decent and meritorious; it expresses both the impulses thus generated and the collective sense of self that pervades an entire people, shaping the behavior of each individual through time in narratives that can be seen as their collective history” (p.7). Interestingly, in the current academic climate, I would not have been surprised if this definition had been offered for ‘identity’, rather than ‘motivation’. It is however, social motivation; motivation acting on the scale of group behaviour, strong enough to affect history that he is interested in. MacMullen reviews substantial bodies of social science literature and discussions in order to evaluate how the social sciences support, or otherwise, his ideas on the relationship between the affective and the cognitive. Those discussions or arguments most central to his case will be summarised in the next four paragraphs.

The book is organised as single flowing argument, though the names of the four chapters make clear that some disciplines will feature more strongly in certain chapters. In Chapter 1, Psychology and Individuals, MacMullen seeks to establish whether there are similarities between individuals and collectives. As he points out, this is essential for his case since he is interested in the latter, but psychology’s findings usually pertain to individuals. Furthermore, he seeks to establish whether there are any universal constants in order to be able to generalise across time and space (p.13-14). He therefore reviews the discussion on universalism in psychological literature. Ultimately, also because cultural factors make generalisation very difficult, MacMullen concludes that psychology is not very useful for his historical concerns. He does, however, remark that there is evidence for the existence of the individual character and its (by and large) stability over time. Furthermore, the universal social instinct of seeking approval of significant others is fuelled by feelings, which stresses the emotional nature of socialisation.

This last point is developed in Chapter 2, Anthropology and Small Populations. MacMullen uses evidence from anthropology to argue for the existence of a modal personality in society. Since culture is a major influence in the socialisation of an individual he reasons that individuals in the same society are influenced in ways similar to one another, yet different to those in other societies. MacMullen argues that these individuals aggregated make for a collective personality (p. 45). This personality is formed over time and its coherence is a consequence of general social agreement on values regarding right and wrong, since it is through group affirmation and disapproval, which are based on the group’s values, that individuals are socialised (p. 55-56). Since values are wrapped in affect, emotions are argued to have a major impact on the modal personality.

In Chapter 3, Reason and Decision-Making, MacMullen explores the question of whether we ought to consider past people’s actions as rational. Considering that his central thesis is that affect needs to be accorded a place besides cognition in historical analysis, this chapter is the most important, which is reflected in the fact that it is nearly twice as long as the other chapters. He begins by examining economic reason, or the idea that people generally act out of calculated material interest. This model of Homo Economicus is popular in certain branches of economics, but in history as well. However successful it is as a model, MacMullen notes it is becoming increasingly clear in behavioural economics that it corresponds quite badly to how people act in the real world (p. 62-63). Contextual factors, deliberately removed from the model, play a major role in decision making (p. 62). This does not make people irrational though, so he expands his definition of reason to incorporate these factors. Rational becomes to mean “backed by good reasons and consistent with a person’s general beliefs” (p. 72). As a consequence, he argues that reason is a social and cultural thing, since it reflects a way of life sanctioned by society. Through these social values, the emotional is also influential, as argued in the previous chapter. MacMullen then moves on to evidence from psychology and neuroscience which indicates that emotions are involved with all thinking; those factors that are motivationally decisive are feelings, not reasoned positions (p. 77).

Chapter 4, Culture as Cause, is devoted to the social scale. MacMullen concluded in previous chapters that emotion and affect are deeply involved with human decision making, that this is tightly connected with social and cultural factors and that societies exhibit a modal personality. This is brought together in this chapter, in which culture’s influence on historical changes is analysed. MacMullen argues that the social sciences show that national character does exist and influences national behaviour on the historical scale. He also argues, however, that this influence is best studied diachronically, which is a rarity in the social sciences, and that this is what history in fact does best, perhaps not to the same degree of accuracy as the social sciences, but making up for this by insight in cause and effect.1

Besides answering the central question of ‘why do we (humans) do what we do’, the book is also a very good illustration of another ‘why we do what we do’ question: why and how do we as academics in the historical humanities do interdisciplinary research. MacMullen’s description of the process of his interdisciplinary endeavour exactly articulates the stages and difficulties that such a research project goes through. He describes setting out looking for answers, but ends up concluding that it is the questions and approaches used in the social sciences that are the real gain. Because of this explicit consideration of his own research process, MacMullen’s book is an excellent read for anyone considering interdisciplinary research, since early awareness of the kind of extra-disciplinary information that is the likely yield leads to a more efficient, and less frustrating, research process.

Another argument, which does bear on the question of motivation, but even more on how we ask questions is also worth highlighting. In the book, MacMullen regularly points to the prestige that contemporary academia (and society as a whole) accords quantitative data. His thesis is that this has led to an emphasis on those aspects of past behaviour that can be measured and quantified and by extension to instrumental and material motivation. He quotes Laurence Tribe: “It is by no means clear that such marginal gains, if any, as we make by finding somewhat more precise answers would not be offset by a tendency to emphasize the wrong questions” (quoted on page 9).2 It is clear why MacMullen would repeat this quote throughout the book, but it is also a sentiment that is worth bearing in mind much more widely.

There are a few moments where MacMullen’s discussion is not as nuanced as it could have been. Interestingly for a historian, he is mainly interested in anthropology’s earlier accounts, when their subjects still had the ‘purity’ of being seemingly untainted by western influences/culture. He does say (p. 35) that history does not believe in this type of stasis, but he does not seem to take this with him in his evaluation of early anthropology. He states that anthropology has dealt with this by adjusting its goals and methods, but that the ‘purity’ of societies ‘frozen in time’ is lost (p. 40). Terms like this and “societies like fossils still alive” (p. 27) are likely to send shivers down anthropologists’ spines. The anthropologist’s answer would probably be to call into question the purity of the old ways now lost. While it may be the case that the pace of change has increased considerably in the last century, it is simply not true that these were people in temporal and cultural stasis until they came into contact with the modern world.3 People were in contact with others and cultural behaviour was constantly changing, as well the historian knows. So anthropology changing its goals and methods is as much a case of enhanced insights and a maturation from more naïve conceptions than of making the best of a poor situation.

Similarly, while MacMullen states that we may be “too complex for our own clear understanding” (p. 98), he does not seem to fully take the implications of this complexity into account when trying to go beyond the conclusions of the neuroscientist (p. 83). Surely, the complexities of brain research warrant the cautious position of the experimenter.

Such errors are likely to be at the forefront of the reviewer’s mind. However, they do not affect MacMullen’s overall conclusions much. His case is ultimately based on more nuanced versions of the argument, which will stand despite the criticisms voiced above.

MacMullen argues his case very well, yet there are moments where one is left with the feeling that he could have spent a bit more time explicating the argument. For instance, why, after spending several pages on the methodological limitations and difficulties of generalisability of cross-cultural studies in psychology, does one study of the Maasai language allow conjecture spanning long past centuries (p. 27)?

Why Do We Do What We Do? is a book that it pays to read twice, as some earlier passages take on more meaning when read in the context of later information. At times, however, unnecessarily convoluted sentences do not aid the transmission of MacMullen’s carefully thought through and specifically worded thoughts.

So while, in my opinion, MacMullen draws conclusions a bit too starkly on certain topics, I could not agree more with his central tenet of according affect its due place next to cognition in decision making and our historical accounts thereof. His overall conclusions are measured and founded on a very wide base in the relevant social sciences. Considering affect and ‘irrational’ factors in historical analysis not only makes for more accurate, but also more interesting history. Add to this the highlighted strains that transcend the central focus of motivation, and (not least!) its free availability and I can only conclude that Why Do We Do What We Do? is a welcome contribution to a discussion not only of what we should be considering in the historical disciplines, but also how we should do this.


1. Here MacMullen comes close to his most recent book, The Earliest Romans: A Character Sketch (Michigan 2011), in many ways a case study, as it now appears, for the theoretical discussion here.

2.Tribe, L.H., “Trial by mathematics: precision and ritual in the legal process”, Harvard Law Review, 1971: Volume 84, pp. 1329–93.

3. Wolf, E.R., Europe and the People without History, Berkeley, London: University of California Press, 1982.