Simple Neuroscience

Our four universal biological motivations

Four biological motivations: safety, status, sex, self-reliance

This article is based on the book written by cardiologist, professor and zoology researcher Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and writer and professor Kathryn Bowers.  Their book talks about the four universal biological motivations and challenges that every (mammal) adolescent on our planet must face on the journey to adulthood: how to be safe, how to navigate hierarchy, how to court potential mates, and how to leave the nest. Safety, status, sex, and survival/self-reliance.

They will be the explanation for why we act the way we do in some situations and will help us understand what the driver is beyond changes in our motivations in different stages of our lives.

Let’s look at them in a little bit more detail:

The first priority is SAFETY: keep the genes alive.

Before any other motivation comes safety, staying alive and as far away as possible from any kind of physical danger. All creatures make a priority of keeping their genes alive and surviving long enough in the world.

Second priority: STATUS

Second priority, even if it is a bit counter-intuitive, but will explain many of the tense interactions in the workplace or in your private life: STATUS. All mammals, not just humans, and in humans is irrespective of culture, are preoccupied with successfully navigating social hierarchies. If you look at two puppies, their rough-and-tumble play is, in fact, a fight for a higher status.

Why is high status so important? Well, if you’re a high-status mammal (alpha-male or alpha-female), you have two main benefits: firstly, you’ll be the first to eat, and this increases your safety score because if you are the first to eat you are more certain to have enough food and thus, to survive. Secondly, you’ll be the first to pass on your genes. So, you’ll have the first choice of food and the first choice of mates.

So, managing to increase the social status translates for most animals into being physically big and strong and having descendants, while for humans it implies being intelligent, competent, rich, and having any sign of power: living in a certain neighbourhood, driving a certain car, dressing in a certain way – that should also ensure safety and descendants.

Third priority: SEX

The third motivation, sex, refers to passing on our genes, communicating sexually and reproducing: thus, ensuring the survival of the species. If you have survived and managed to navigate the social hierarchies, there are more and more opportunities to pass on your genes.

Fourth priority: SELF-RELIANCE

The fourth one is self-reliance or self-sufficiency. To be able to leave the ‘nest’ and manage on our own. All mammals, sooner or later, are genetically programmed to form their own nest and, their own family.

Why are these four biological motivations important? Because, you will see, almost everything that motivates us, towards which we strive, as well as everything that bothers and annoys us, has its roots in one of these four elements.

Some real-life examples of biological motivations “in action”

A pretty common and complex example that involves most of these aspects is the need to leave your parents’ home once you reach a certain age — which could differ depending on each context. Firstly, you start craving independence, and you are driven by the curiosity of handling everything on your own, as most adults should. Secondly, living with your caregivers past a certain point in life might decrease your social status and by doing so, it automatically threatens your potential to find suitable partners with whom you could have an intimate relationship.

Let’s look at some examples: When a manager starts to micro-manage us, it goes against our motivation for self-reliance. If while micro-managing us, the manager makes us feel incompetent, this will also impact our status.

Or: The Covid-19 pandemic triggered our need for safety (both physical and financial). 

Or: Losing our income might impact our capacity for self-reliance.

This is why a large part of our emotional well-being revolves around these four themes. Becoming more aware of them might help us better understand our interactions and our reactions to various situations, as well as some important internal drivers, common not only to us humans but to all mammals.

I hope you found this article useful.

Take care,


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