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The Problem of False Assumptions

His point is that we are often prone to make false assumptions about human motivations based on an unrealistic view of human beings as moral and rational and judging people by appearances. The truth, Dichter argues, is that more often than not we act on the basis of irrational factors. We cannot use a ready-made checklist of human motivations because a person’s behavior is based on any number of different matters. He writes (1960:29):

The fact that you are not wearing your red tie today cannot be explained by a very simple one-two-three list of motivations. If you are a normal human being, an almost incredible number of factors exerted their influence on you, not only today but going back as far as your childhood. We must consider many conscious and unconscious factors such as the mood created by the weather and the kind of people with whom you associate, the state of your health, family relations, and so on. All these things often operate and work together in such a simple choice as that between a red or green tie.

Dichter offers a fairly precise definition of a motivation. “A motivation,” he tells us, “is a composite of factors which result in a specific action intended to change existing situation into a future one” (1960:35). To this he adds, based on his work at the Institute for Motivational Research, “We believe that most human actions are the results of tensions. Whenever tension differentials become strong enough, they lead to action” (1960:36).

To more fully understand human motivation, Dichter considers cultural matters, human aspirations, and the need to probe hidden, irrational motivations, which people are not aware of in themselves, but which can be uncovered if the correct approach is used. By this he means, in essence, depth interviews. “No human activity is too enormous or too small to be included in this domain of human and scientific curiosity,” he suggests (1960:43). Once we understand what it is that motivates people, we can then consider various means of persuading them to do what it is we want them to do.

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