The following is an excerpt from Stressed Out About Difficult Patients
By Joan Monchak Lorenz, MSN, RN, PMHCNS-BC
Let’s face it, most people go about their day doing one thing: trying to get their needs met. They try to meet their physical needs by providing themselves with shelter, food, and clothing; their emotional needs by searching out feelings of love and emotional comfort; and their spiritual needs by participating in activities that promote greater understanding of why things happen and determining the purpose of their lives. Theories of human behavior and growth and development have attempted to answer the question of why we do what we do, and how we go about our day getting our needs met. Let’s quickly review some of the classic theories as a way to explain behavior.
We are unaware (of most) of what we do
Sigmund Freud’s concept of the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious mind, and how it resembles an iceberg, offers one example of how the mind works and influences behavior. The visible part of the iceberg is the conscious mind, what we are aware of at any particular moment: our present perceptions, memories, thoughts, fantasies, and feelings. Working closely with the conscious mind, and just below the surface, is the preconscious mind. It contains those things that are not in our awareness all of the time, but that can be brought into our awareness easily. The largest part of the iceberg and the part that is below the surface is the unconscious mind which contains all the things we are not aware of, including many things that Freud believed we can’t bear to see, such as the memories and emotions associated with trauma. According to Freud, it is the unconscious part of us that drives our behavior (Freud, Boeree).
B.F. Skinner believed that a person’s behavior was a result of past consequences of his or her behavior. Very simply, Skinner believed that people continue to do things for which they are rewarded, and stop doing things for which they are not rewarded.
Skinner also believed that individuals do things to avoid pain or punishment, which means that if a person is punished for a certain behavior, he or she will act in ways to avoid the punishment. An example is a nurse who learns not to be assertive with a certain supervisor because that supervisor responds negatively to assertive behavior. Instead, the nurse uses other ways to get his or her needs met. Sometimes these behaviors are adaptive, such as learning how to address concerns in an indirect way to the supervisor; or maladaptive, such as agreeing to something the supervisor requests, and then not doing it.
Skinner’s theory basically boils down to praising or rewarding behaviors you want to see again, and ignoring or punishing behaviors you do not want to see again. Sound familiar? These are fairly basic concepts reviewed in many different situations from child rearing, patient teaching, and self-care management.
Addressing our needs in order
Abraham Maslow placed an individual’s needs in a hierarchy, believing that certain needs must be met before others. According to Maslow, needs at the base of the triangle must be satisfied before moving upward, with each step in the triangle needing to be met in succession. For example, a person cannot reach self-actualization, or becoming everything that he or she is capable of becoming, before getting all of his or her other needs met. Nurses know that you cannot teach a person a new procedure for self-care if the person is hungry, or sleepy, or in pain. Basic needs are taken care of before other, higher-level needs are attempted to be met.
Putting these theories to use
Using these theories in combination, nurses can come to understand human behaviors. By combining the concepts presented in these theories, we can outline fairly accurately why people do what they do:
- We do what we do to get our needs met
- Our behavior is directed toward providing for our physical well-being, regaining emotional equilibrium, and answering questions of purpose
- Some, or most, of what we do is usually outside of our awareness
- We often respond to situations using behaviors that have worked for us in the past, and these learned behaviors may have become automatic responses for us; we use them even without thinking
- Some of what we deal with on a daily basis may have more to do with past experiences than with the present moment
- Taking care of basic needs is imperative, and focusing on higher-level needs occurs only after our most basic needs are met
- Life is a series of growth opportunities, the outcome of which leads to maturity and moving on
Theoretical understanding is a way of trying to comprehend something. Not being right or wrong—or good or bad—the concepts of the theory can be used by nurses to understand behavior and develop strategies to handle it in helpful and fulfilling ways. By recalling the basic concepts of human behavior, and observing it through the lenses of these concepts, you look at human behavior objectively and do not take what patients do as anything directed to you personally.