The Unified Theory of Human Psychology (UTHP) is built around the idea of a singular core human desire and how that singular core desire impacts human cognition, behaviour, and affect.
The Assumption of Self-Interest
UTHP is built from one basic assumption: that individual self-interest lies at the core of all cognition, behaviour, and affect. People think about things because those thoughts help them fulfil their needs, they take action because they believe those behaviours will help them fulfil their needs, and their affect is a direct consequence of whether or not they perceive that they moved closer to or further from their goals.
This assumption applies to all cognitions and behaviours, in ever
While this concept has not gained significant traction within psychology (with the closest theory being that of Utility Maximisation), it’s a core element within the practical application of behavioural change theories – sales and marketing.
In the business world, there are many strategies, techniques, and theories about how to change a person’s behaviour, they are all based on the simple idea of ‘tell them what they get out of it’. People think things and do things based on what they get out of things. When they get what they want, they experience positive affect in a range relative to the strength of their desire.
The ‘self-interest’ relates to one singular core desire.
The Core Desire
The foundation of UTHP is that the pursuit of life in every moment, the driving force behind all cognition, behaviour, and emotion, is an optimal experience. The term ‘optimal experience’ was first coined by Csikszentmihalyi in his ground-breaking research into the state of flow achieved in a variety of activities, including art, exercise, and reading, amongst other activities.
Csikszentmihalyi defined an optimal experience as “GET QUOTE FROM FLOW”
Requirements for an Optimal Experience
Csikszentmihalyi’s research into the foundations of optimal experiences identified that the three criteria required to produce an optimal experience are (1) the pursuit of an intrinsically significant goal (2) at a challenging (3) but achievable level.
Describe an intrinsically significant goal and the need for a challenging but achievable level, including the alignment of skill and challenge.
UTHP theory aligns with Csikszentmihalyi’s theory on the required elements for an optimal experience, but it diverges on the application of that theory. Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow focussed solely on present-moment activities with a clear goal and challenge.
While achieving an intrinsically significant goal at a challenging but achievable level in the present moment is a rewarding and fulfilling experience, the human mind isn’t solely focused on existing in, surviving, and thriving in the present moment. The human mind regularly projects our knowledge and past experiences into the future to predict the challenges we will face on our journey to our imagined future. It is this time projection capabilities of the human mind that give rise to the differences between Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of Flow and UTHP.
UTHP identifies that while achieving an intrinsically significant goal at a challenging but achievable level in the present moment will create an optimal experience, without an individual developing the perception that they can overcome the challenging but surmountable barriers that can prevent them from achieving their future intrinsically significant goals, that flow experience will be fleeting. Because of this reason, the core desire.
UTHP extends beyond present-moment activities to include that have both less clearly defined goals and even less clearly defined challenges.
“The Pursuit of an Intrinsically Significant Goal…”
The intrinsically significant goal can be anything that is meaningful to the individual, and it takes two forms.
The first is a tangible and externally verifiable goal. It can be overcoming an obstacle, winning a competition, gaining a piece of information, or anything in between.
The second is the fulfilment of a psychological need.
“…at a Challenging…”
“…but Achieveable Level.”
A psychological need is defined as a physical sensation created by the internal perception of a person’s relationship with and capacity within their perceived external reality.
While this idea has not gained mainstream acceptance within the science of psychology, this assumption underpins the foundations of sales and marketing in the business world. If you want someone to change their behaviour (ie. purchase your product), tell them what they will get from that product. This includes tangible and practical benefits as well as a change in affect.
Core Idea 2: Optimal Experience
The second core idea of UTHP is that the core desire behind all cognition, behaviour, and affect is the pursuit of an optimal experience.
The definition of optimal experience used in UTHP is the one theorised by Csikszentmihalyi in his work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. That definition is “Something…”
Csikszentmihalyi’s theory identifies three necessary elements for the creation of an optimal experience, the (1) pursuit of an intrinsically significant goal (2) at a challenging, (3) but achievable level. The pursuit of this intrinsically significant goal at a challenging but achievable level is the core driver of all cognition, behaviour, and affect.
Why This is Important
Before we launch into the theory, there is one important idea to cover: why? Why is this important? Why try and find the underlying determinants of behaviour?
Without knowing the underlying drivers of affect, behaviour, and cognition, the only pathway to treating maladaptations is to focus on the symptoms. This is psychological equivalent of treating an a leaky fuel tank by simply adding more and more fuel to the car. It’s functional, but not effective in the long run.
If you understand the elements that create the maladaptive affect, behaviour, and cognition, then it becomes possible to remove the cause of the problem and avoid wasting time just dealing with symptoms.
The other reason this is important is that UTHP provides an alternate account of the basis of cognitive, behavioural, and affective dysfunction that, if correct, means that the current system of diagnosis, classification, and treatment is inadequate and needs to be changed.
The Short Version
As you’ll see below, the theoretical foundations of UTHP are indepth and can be a little omplex to get your head around, so here are the basic principles in the shortest and simplest version possible. There are only four foundations on which the whole theory operates.
1. Outcome Orientation
The foundation of all cognition and behaviour is to achieve a goal. Thoughts and actions don’t just materialise out of nowhere and people don’t just undertake actions for actions sake. In every moment, people are attempting to fulfil a need by achieving a goal.
The individual’s affective state is also determined by this outcome orientation. People’s mood (stress, anxiety, and depression) are determined by their perception of their ability to achieve their goals and people’s emotional state (happy, sad, angry, etc…) is determined by whether or not they achieve their goals .
2. The Core Desire
The ultimate goal that people are attempting to achieve is the fulfilment of a psychological need. While peopel think they want money or relationships or to travel around the world, these actions and outcomes are simply proxies that they believe will fulfil one of (currently) 13 psychological needs. These needs include:
- Freedom from
- Freedom to
- Freedom of
The pursuit of these 13 psychological needs is the driving force behind all cognitions and behaviours and determine people’s affective state.
3. The Problem is the Dependence
The root cause of any dysfunction or non-genetic psychopathology is not the psychological need they are attempting to fulfil, but the pathway through which they’re attempting to fulfil that need. Specifically, the problems are caused by attempting to utilise goals and strategies for fulfilling a psychological need that are highly, or at least partially dependent on elements outside of the control of the individual.
The more dependent a pathway is for fulfilling psychological needs, the less control the individual has over whether or not they can fulfil their psychological needs and the less likely they are to fulfil them. This lack of control over whether or not a person can fulfil their psychological need results in an unstable and volatile affective state where the individual is more likely to perceive they have a reduced ability to control their life and a higher chance of experiencing mood disorders.
4. The Solution is Independence
In every situation, the solution to dysfunction and psychopathology is finding a pathway to fulfilling a psychological need that is less dependent on factors that are outside of the control of the individual. This independence of external factors provides a reliable base that results in a stable affective state and an internal perception that the individual is in control of their life.
The Long Version
Here are the theoretical underpinnings of the short version of UTHP.
Every theory has a set of basic foundations that underlie its development. UTHP is no different. Here are the theoretical foundations upon which the theory is developed.
The first basic assumption is that of utility maximisation — that with every though, every decision, and every action, people are attempting to fulfil their needs. This inherent ‘selfishness’ determines drives their big decisions about where someone will live, what they will do for a living, and who they will spend their time with, down to the smallest details of how they’ll dress in the morning, what they’ll eat for lunch, and which seat they will choose on the bus. While there are a number of criticisms of utility, they focus primarily on how effective people are at maximising utility, not whether or not they’re pursuinng maximum utility.
People are not empty vessels choosing randomly from a set of immediately available options like a random number generator, they’re driven and motivated to fulfil their underlying needs and desires and are continuously moving towards fulfilling their goals.
The Importance of the Assumption of Utility Maximisation (THIS NEEDS CLARIFICATION)
The assumption of utility maximisation is important because it changes the peception, understanding, and treatment of maladaptive thoughts, decisions, and behaviours.
The assumption that thoughts, decisions, and actions are taken in isolation from desires and are simply the random reaction to a situation with previously observed behaviours, then the process of changing behaviour involves explaining why that particular behaviour is unproductive and teaching a new behaviour. The capacity to change behaviour is then dependent on how effectively you can disincentivise the current behaviour and incentivise the new behaviour. It’s an external and controlling process which dimishes the agency of the individual.
But, the assumption that the basis of thoughts, decisions, and actions is the fulfillment of a need or desire, then the process of changing their thoughts, decisions, and behaviours involves helping the person see how their process for the fulfilment of their goals is ineffective and helping them find new pathways to fulfilling their desires. The capacity to change behaviours is then dependent on how effectively you can demostrate the limitations of the person’s current thoughts, decisions, and behaviours and show them how much easier their life could be by following a new path. This is an internally motivated path that aligns with their goals and desires.
The second basic assumption of UTHP is that of dual-process thinking. Dual process thinking is the idea that there are two systems within the human brain with different processes, structures, preferences, and functions. Kahneman’s Thinking, fast and slow is the most comprehensive breakdown of dual process thinking, but here is a short summary:
The first system (known as System 1 or Type 1 thinking) is the ‘unconscious’ mind. It thinks in images and feelings, processes large amounts of information instantaneously, thinks in the present moment. System one is responsible for the majority of behaviours and decisions, though System 2 can control behaviours and decisions for limited periods, especially when there is little to no emotional significance to the behaviours and decisions.
The second system (known as System 2 or Type 2 thinking) is the ‘conscious’ mind. It thinks in words and can only process
The Importance of the Foundations of Dual-Process Thinking
The importance of the assumption of dual-process thinking is that it explains why there are often contradictory accounts of the basic motivations of human behaviour (specifically, the role of logic and emotion as the drivers of behaviour) and understanding both systems and the role each one plays clarifies these contradictions.
IMPORTANT: Include the fact that System 1 is in charge as emotion is the determinant of behaviour (Demasio)
This assumption of utility maximisation and dual-process thinking provide basis for understanding UTHP.
UTHP Core Theory
There are X foundations of the core theory of UTHP.
The Pursuit of Life
The core theory of UTHP is built on a simple premise: the pursuit of life is an optimal experience.
‘Optimal experience’ is a term coined by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi to describe the subjective experience of flow, or being in the zone. It’s the experience where… This core desire in every moment in life. This is why people choose the house in which they live. This is why people eat the food they want. This is why people get into relationships. This is the basis of every cognition and every behaviour and our ability to achieve this state determines our affective state.
Csikszentmihalyi identified 9 characteristics that are present in flow including… (INSERT HERE), but there are three characteristics that most important for achieving a state of flow: pursuit of an (1) intrinsically significant goal at a (2) challenging, but (3) achievable level. This balance of challenge at a level equal to a perceived skill level in the pursuit of an intrinsically significant goal results in (characteristics) and an optimal experience.
Dual-System Optimal Experience
UTHP extends Csikszentmihalyi’s theory by combining it with dual-systems theory to identify both a System 1 and System 2 intrinsically signficant goal, challenge, and perception of skill.
System 2 Intrinsically Significant Goal
Thinks in specifics using words. A System 2 goal is a any goal you’ll find listed in a personal development handbook or suggested in a goal setting exercise. This can be anything from small goals like
System 1 Intrinsically Significant Goal
Psychological need – Self-Determination Theory
While System 2 goals are the most easily communicatable and most tangible, the goals that are the core pursuit are System 1 goals of psychological needs.
System 2 Challenge
System 1 Challenge
System 2 Perceived Skill
System 1 Perceived Skill
What this all means
There’s a lot of theory in the sections above, but the practical reality of these ideas is simple.
The Basis of Cognition and Behaviour
The pursuit of life in any moment is the fulfillment of a psychological need at a challenging but achievable level. This is why people
The Basis of Affect
There are two distinct categories of affect which need to be addressed separately: emotions and mood disorders.
The Basis of Emotional Response
Affect is a byproduct of the individual perception of progress towards the fulfilment of psychological needs.
If the individual perceives they’ve progressed towards the fulfilment of their psychological need, they experiece an affective response
The Basis of Mood Disorder
There are three primary mood disorders that are addressed within the UTHP framework: stress, anxiety, and depression
Stress is a perceived capacity issue, experienced when the individual perceives that they do not have the resources necessary to overcome the challenges present in the pursuit of an intrinsically significant goal. These resources frequently include time, money, and other things.
This is supported by…
Anxiety is a perceived ability issue, experienced when the individual percieves that they do not have the skills necessary to overcome the challenges present in the pursuit of an intrinsically significant goal. These skills can include making a good impression, getting people to like them, win a sporting competition, etc…
This is supported by Csikszentmihalyi original work
NOTE: Csikszentmihalyi’s work also identifies that boredom is the product of an imbalance of challenge and skill, but with the perception of skill being greater than the perceived challenge. As this is not diagnosed as a major mood disorder it is not included in depth in this breakdown.
Depression is a perceived possibility issue, experienced when the individual perceives that they do not have a viable pathway to the fulfillment of their psychological needs.
Minor depressive disorders typically relate to the fulfilment of one psychological need while major depressive disorders typically relate to the fulfillment of mulitple psychological needs.
FIND SUPPORTING EVIDENCE
UTHP Core Theory
UTHP core theory.
Foundation 1. People Are Outcome-Oriented
The first core foundation of PNST is that people are outcome-oriented. In every moment, people are trying to fulfil a desire and this orientation towards fulfilling this desire controls every part of every moment of their day.
- They pay attention to sensory inputs that are relevant to fulfilling thier desires and disregard sensory information that is irrelevant
- The sensory information related to that desire is then processed to assesses its impact on the person’s ability to fulfil thier desires
- Decisions (both conscious and unconscious) are made based on that sensory input to move the person towards fulfilling that desires
- Actions are taken based on those decisions that will move the person towards fulfilling their desires
- Emotional responses are related to, and proportional to the degree which the sensory inputs, thoughts, decisions, and actions move the person towards or away from their desired outcome
This applies to every second of every moment in every day of a person’s life. Everything is about fulfilling a desire. This includes:
- The clothes they wear
- The food they eat
- The people they talk to
- Where they work
- The seat they choose on the bus
- Where they buy their groceries
- How long they spend scrolling through their Facebook feed
- When they take their lunch break
- The school assignments they prioritise and the ones they push off till later
Every moment of every second of every day is dominated by the pursuit of fulfilling a desire.
You can read a full breakdown of this concept, its practical foundation, and why this is a critically important concept to understand when attempting to understand human decision-making, motivation, and behaviour, here.
Foundation 2. Theses Core Desires are Psychological Needs
The second core foundation of PNST is that the core desire behind every material possession or desired outcome is fulfilling a psychological need. Material possessions and outcomes are simply a pathway to fulfilling these core psychological needs. They are not the end-point of thoughts, decisions, and actions.
There are 10 core psychological needs that are broken into three broad categories.
Category 1: Agency Needs
Agency needs are those needs related to a person’s ability to get things done. The core agency needs are:
Category 2: Relatedness Needs
Relatedness needs are those needs related to a person’s relationships with others. The core relatedness needs are:
Category 3: Constraint/Limitation Needs
Constraint needs relate to a person’s perception of the impositions placed upon them by the world around them. The core constraint needs are:
- Freedom from (pain/suffering/restriction/limitation)
- Freedom to (live their life/follow dreams)
- Freedom of (expression)
Foundation 3. People fulfil psychological needs by achieving goals
In order for people to fulfil their psychological needs, people attempt to achieve goals. These goals are any outcome that the person has either consciously or unconsciously linked (through classical conditioning, operant conditioning, observation, modelling, or simply cognition) to the fulfilment of their psychological need.
There is no direct 1:1 relationship between a specific goal and the fulfilment of a specific psychological need. For example, obtaining large amounts of money can fulfil the psychological need for power (as it can be used to overcome challenges and barriers), control (as it can be used to manipulate significant variables), freedom from (as it can be used to remove the limitations and impositions of existence in a modern society), inclusion (as people want to hang out with rich people), significance (as money allows people to play an important role in the lives of others), progression (as achieving goals and moving forward becomes easier with lots of money), and contribution (as it is easier to solve big problems).
Foundation 4. People achieve goals through strategies
There are various pathways that a person can take to achieve their goals (and ultimately fulfil their psychological needs). These pathways are referred to as strategies within UTHP.
As with goals, there is no 1:1 relationship between a specific pathway and a specific goal achievement. For example, there are many different ways to make money. There are also many different ways to win sport games, climb the corporate ladder, make friends, find romantic partners, etc…
Foundation 5. Mood is determined by perception of ability to overcome challenges
Psychological needs (what do I want) and the pathways through which people fulfill them (how do I get it) are two of the three underlying psychological processes that are continuously operating in both the conscious and unconscious mind and are the primary determinants of human behavioural pathways. The third underlying psychological process is an assessment process focussed on ‘can I get what I want?’ This process is what determines a person’s affect/mood.
There are four primary affective issues:
- If a person perceives that overcoming the challenges identified through their ‘how do I get it’ schema (and fulfil their psychological needs) is too easy, they will experience boredom
- If a person perceives that they do not have the capacity to overcome the challenges identified through their ‘how do I get it’ schema (and fulfil their psychological needs), they will experience stress
- If a person perceives that they do not have the ability to overcome the challenges identified through their ‘how do I get it’ schema (and fulfil their psychological needs), they will experience anxiety
- If a person perceives that they do not have the possibility of overcoming the challenges identified through their ‘how do I get it’ schema (and fulfil their psychological needs), they will experience depression
- If a person perceives that they can and will overcome the challenges identified through their ‘how do I get it’ schema, they will experience confidence and/or self-belief
There are two levels to a person’s perception of whether or not they can overcome the challenges in their ‘how do I get it’ schema: task level and general competency level.
Task Level Perception
Task-level perception of abilities relates to the specific activity or goal that a person is attempting to complete or achieve. It’s where they perceive that they can, given their past experiences and knowledge, fulfil their specific goal/desire in that moment. It might be throwing a ball or reading document or ordering food. It doesn’t matter what they specific task or goal might be, only that the person perceives that they have the ability to fulfil their goal/desire.
This is System 2-level perception
General Competency-Level Perception
While a person’s ability to perceive that they can overcome challenges is an important element in determining their mood, their bigger picture, System 1-level perception of their general competency and ability to overcome challenges. This level of perception isn’t so much “I can complete this task”, but more “I can overcome challenges and issues and create the life I want”. It’s the bigger picture.
This level of perception is made of of 11 specific perceptual goals, with the level of importance to the specific individual differing based on which other perceptual goals they’ve achieved and the dominant perceptual regions of their brain (masculine vs feminine).
These perceptual goals are:
- The perception that the person can overcome significant challenges and barriers
- The perception that the person can manipulate impactful variables
- The perception that the person can make progress towards the life they want
- The perception that the person can impact the big challenges and issues in the world
- The perception that the person is not the only person to have gone through these challenges
- The perception that the person has other people on their team
- The perception that others will join their team based on who the person is right now
- The perception that the person plays an important role in the lives of others
- The perception that the person can
These perceptual goals align with the psychological needs.
- Power: The perception that the person can overcome significant challenges and barriers
- Control: The perception that the person can manipulate impactful variables
- Progression/Achievement: The perception that the person can make progress towards the life they want
- Contribution: The perception that the person can impact the big challenges and issues in the world
- Connection: The perception that the person is not the only person to have gone through these challenges
- Inclusion: The perception that the person has other people on their team
- Acceptance: The perception that others will join their team based on who the person is right now
- Significance: The perception that the person plays an important role in the lives of others
- Freedom from: The perception that the person can
- Freedom to:
- Freedom of:
Foundation 6. Affect is determined by the outcomes of the pursuit of goals
A person’s emotional and affective state is determined by their success/failure in their pursuit of their of their goals (and the fulfilment of their psychological needs).
If a person is successful in their pursuit in their goal/need fulfilment, they will experience one of many positive affects, depending on the significance of that goal and who/what they believe is responsible for their goal/need fulfilment.
- If they perceive that they’re about to fulfil a goal/need, they will experience excitement
- If they believe they were responsible for their goal/need fulfilment, they may experience pride or joy
- If they believe others were responsible for their goal/need fulfilment, they may experience gratitude or thankfulness or support or significance
- If they believe they were responsible for their failure to fulfil their goal/need, they may experience internally directed disappointment or frustration or anger
- If they believe they were not responsible for their failure to fulfil their goal/need, they may experience externally directed disappointment or frustration or anger
Foundation 7. People take action because…
Not really sure. Haven’t worked this out yet. It has something to do with motivation, energy, importance of the goal, desire, and ownership, but I haven’t worked out how it fits into the UTHP framework yet.
UTHP Therapeutic Process
The third PNST foundation is that the problems that people face in their life are not created by the core need they’re attempting to satisfy, but by the pathway through which they’re trying to satisfy that need.
Trying to feel powerful does not cause any issues in of itself. Trying to feel powerful by putting other people below you or make people do what you want can cause problems.
Trying to feel connected does not cause any issues in of itself. Trying to feel connected through engaging in risky sexual behaviour can cause issues.
Trying to experience freedom does not cause any issues in of itself. Trying to experience freedom through consuming large quantities of drugs and alcohol can cause issues.
The problem is never the desired experience. It is always the pathway through which people attempt to satisfy their needs that is responsible for the challenges they face.
You can read a full breakdown of Foundation 3, including the two element in a pathway and how they relate, here.
Foundation 4. The Solution is EESI
If the pathway is the root cause of the issues that people face, then the solution is to find a new pathway, specifically, a more efficient, effective, sustainable, and independent (EESI, pronounced EASY) pathway.
Instead of trying to feel powerful by putting other people down, feel powerful by overcoming limiting beliefs.
Instead of experiencing connection through sexually risky behaviour, experience connection through sharing emotionally-significant stories with willing listeners.
Instead of experiencing freedom through drugs and alcohol, experience freedom through meditation and mindfulness.
Changing the pathway for satisfying the psychological needs creates a intrinsically-motivated solution for not dealing with the challenges of the old pathway, but simply side-stepping them.
*While the theory of utility maximisation has a number of valid criticisms due to observed contradictions within scientific studies (Speekenbrinks & Shanks, 2012), these criticisms are not valid in the way that this theory has been applied in UTHP due to one significant change: the definition of ‘utility’.
Speekenbrink, M., & Shanks, D. R. (2013). Decision making. In D. Reisberg (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of cognitive psychology (pp. 682–703). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195376746.013.0043