Psychotherapy and Neuroscience

Motivation for Social Reward

As discussed in the section on Social Reward, desired external tangible objects, when obtained, elicit a rewarding sense of well-being and feelings of happiness.  Failure for delivering a desired and a potentially rewarding object results in negative well-being and associated emotions.

The same thing can be said for intangible social reward, i.e. a desired hug, acceptance or validation from another, mastery over some task, etc.  These types of intangible social rewards have been described as “human needs” and are likely hard-wired and genetic.  The desire for intangible social rewards (or motivation for social reward) is inborn and underlies the later social drive or motivation underlying later emotional and behavioral expression. The intensity of the need for social reward (social motivation) and its satisfaction during social interactions, like other personality traits likely has, in part, a genetic basis (Reis, Capobianco, & Tsai, 2002).  Certain individuals also seem to have varying satiation thresholds underlying tangible sensory and intangible social reward seeking and punishment avoiding behaviors (Pickering, Coor, & Gray, 1999).   For example, extroverts seem to be sensitive to social reward signaling, tend to be sociable and desire social relatedness and affiliation, strive for a personal sense of achievement, and demonstrate overall behavioral motor activity (Pickering & Gray, 2001; Depue & Collins, 1999). Such, individuals tend to be very responsive to rewarding stimuli (like monetary reward) to such an extent, as to interfere and disrupt task-related attentional abilities needed for adequate task performance (Avila & Parcet, 2002). The stability of the social reward motivation trait during the life cycle may, in part, later explain the nature and degree of experienced social motivation and an individual’s later response pattern and manifested adjustment during social interactions.

What is intangible social reward motivation?  How can it be measured?  James Connell (1990) identified three self-system processes deriving from basic human social needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness, all, requiring fulfillment with the start of an organism’s existence, immediately after birth.  Competence was defined as one’s ability for producing specific outcomes from one’s environment.  Autonomy was referenced as the ability for experiencing choice in “initiation, maintenance, and regulation of behavior” (p. 63) and the ability for linking one’s later actions and desired outcomes (Skinner, 1991) with one’s earlier plans and goals. Relatedness was defined as one’s need for feeling secure and connected with another(s) in a social realm.  One’s sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness with another and one’s environment is perceived as rewarding.

In so far as to how initial self-system processes relate to the initial phase in ontogenic development (p. 71), Connell (1990) assessed an infant’s sense of relatedness as his/her sense of connectedness and emotional security with caregiver.  When an infant  feels related with, attached to, and comfortable with another, like a caregiver, the infant approaches that source (Tracy, Lamb, Salter, & Ainsworth, 1976).   Connell defined an infant’s sense of competence as his/her sense of mastery over caregiver’s response and emerging sensorimotor skills and the later child’s ability at problem-solving, producing effects with objects or interactions, and experiencing him or herself as the originator of an accomplishment (Heckhausen, 1987; Vondra  & Belsky, 1989).    During the toddler years novel objects and toys in the environment facilitate approach behaviors when compared with previously known and played with objects (Ross, Rheingold. & Eckerman, 1972). Experiences with new objects provide venues for developing sensorimotor exploratory behaviors , experiences with manipulating objects, and developing spontaneous activity, play, imagination, and stimulation seeking, all necessary for later development of perceived competence (Keller, 1987).

Connell (1990) ascribed an infant’s autonomy as his/her ability for initiating new behaviors outside the attaching relationship with caregiver, exploring one’s surrounding environment, and capacity of self-regulation from caregiver. The extent and expression of autonomous behaviors (from mother) changes over time. For example, an infant’s exploratory distance from mother developmentally expands. Under the age of one year, an infant explores his/her environment, not exceeding 4.9 meters from mother, over one year, 6.9 meters from mother, by two years, 15.1 meters, three years, 17.3 meters, and four years, 20.6 meters (Rheingold & Eckerman, 1970).

An infant can garner a sense of control over another (mother) when he/she calls out for her when in need of soothing, comfort, attention, entertainment, etc. The one year old infant can also experience a fleeting sense of control over another and of validation when a parent imitates a baby’s behavior. The infant understands that the parent is relinquishing his/her own identity on behalf of the shared imitative exchange with the infant. (Meltzoff & Decety, 2003). “The mother is the aliment (input) to an entire suite of sensori-affective schemata (in the early infant’s experience) (Waters, Kondo-Ikemura, Posada, & Richters, 1991).” When all these social needs are supported with caregiver protection, help, and soothing in response to distress, caregiver availability and responsiveness helps to provide a secure-base and external regulation to help the infant return to physiological homeostasis and equilibrium (Bretherton, 1985; Shore, 1996).  This sense of security promotes the infant’s exploratory behavior in novel environments by instilling senses of calm, trust (Sroufe & Waters, 1977), confidence, mastery (Waters & Cummings, 2000), and higher perceived threshold for stress and reductions in recovery times from stressful and novel experiences in response to mother’s brief absences.

By the age of one and one half years the infant is gaining a sense of self and understands him or herself as participating in relationships, in socializing with others, and the role of him or herself in creating relationships.  The toddler at this age is also gaining and capturing a sense of what an idea of “me” is and self-conscious emotions, like embarrassment (for what one had done), shame (about oneself), and guilt (about what one had been done) (Lewis, 1994).  Starting at one and one half years social motivations underlying reactions are centered around understanding how an infant relates to another, namely mother, the attachment figure.  According to Bowlby (1973) “the notion of how acceptable or unacceptable he himself (or she herself) is in the eyes of his attachment figure” will later become the  basis for the development of an internal working model that will later guide the construction of plans and forecast future occurrences (p. 203).  Therefore, an unloved child will feel unloved by a significant caregiver(s) and will, on the other hand, believe and feel that he/she is unlovable and not worthy of being loved by others.  The ability for understanding how others perceive the self and the  internalization and model development of internalized perceptions is the basis for the social validation and the social motivation of validation.  The infant and child will learn to assess his/her own actions within context of the caregiver’s perceptions of the child’s essence and the interpretation attributed to them by a caregiver (Uzgiris, Benson, Kruper, & Vasek, 1989; Lieberman, 1997).

As these different social motivations mature with development along with cumulative and corresponding responses to outcomes that had been generated from social goals, they modify somewhat, i.e. autonomy from caregiver for an infant noted above morphs into increased degrees for autonomy sought by an elementary school child who seeks to socialize with peers, or a young adult who seeks to develop a mature intimate relationship with another adult. The latter was noted as being secondary social reinforcers in the social reward section of this web site.

Reward motivation is also constrained by age dependent limitations on sensorimotor maturation.  For instance, a 14-18 week old infant’s age dependent visual exploration is limited to visual fixation on an object.    But by one year of age visual exploratory behavior is experienced but perceptually segregated in five senses, i.e. visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory senses.  By the second year many senses start to work together, stimulating and enhancing the development of future problem-solving abilities.  By four years of age exploratory behavior is characterized by manipulation and further integration and primary reliance on visual, verbal, and tactile senses for problem-solving (Keller, Scholmerich, Miranda, & Gauda, 1987).  The expression and development of goals, which supports social reward motivation in the early years, changes and circumferentially expands in response to biological and experiential generated maturational demands.



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