It is said that Einstein, after having changed the world of physics and science forever with his work on relativity in the early 20th Century, then spent the rest of his career searching in vain for a grand unifying theory of physics. When you are genearlly considered to be the greatest scientist in modern times, you can likely find a bit of space to spend a few decades pondering the nature of the universe without too much criticism that you're not being productive.
Is there such a grand unifying theory of human behaviour? Can we humans be defined by one theory? Can our societies be reduced down to one statement that, ultimately, governs all our behaviours, both individual and collective? Perhaps not, given the complexity of human emotion, psyche, and great cultural differences. Do the same things motivate investment bankers on Wall Street as a young child on the streets of Dhaka? Freud might have reduced everything we do to some motivation stemming from the basics of sex and violence. Other psychologists and sociologist might have other theories about human behaviour, and I have my own theory (though admittedly I am not trained in the study of human behaviour, beyond my understanding of neuroscience). At least, in observing people in North America, I have a theory about what motivates a lot of the negative behaviours I witness. I don't claim to have a grand unifying theory of humanity overall, but I do profess that one thing motivates a lot of the negative human behaviour in our society.
That it is. Ultimately, the vast majority of North Americans are supremely insecure. All of us have witnessed someone who is clearly insecure on the surface. We might think that insecurity always manifests as timidity, nervous chuckles, et cetera. Most young women in their late teens and early twenties are supremely insecure about their bodies. They perceive that they are not sexually attractive enough (for what?) and often overcompensate with inappropriate clothing, excessive time spent on self-examination et cetera. Young men in North America are, I believe, also so insecure about their own sexuality that the default position for many of them is one of open homophobia. Any young man who is not openly homophobic is suspect amongst his peers.
But what I'm proposing is something much more profound than that. Even a cocky, wealthy, powerful politician or businessman is ultimately very insecure about who they are and what their qualities are. Indeed, they are perhaps more so than most. Recently I saw a wealthy businessman (well, one would be tempted to call him a businessman except that he isn't actually in any business other than using money to make money in investments) who stated that his primary objective in life was to go to bed every night with more money than he woke up with that morning. I looked up this individual's net worth and found it to be in the order of $300M. I'm not a jealous person, and I have no problem with someone having significantly more money than I do. I have no problem with someone being a multi-millionaire or billionaire if they have taken risk and been successful in their business. But, I will never understand how someone with more money than they could know what to do with could still have making more money as their primary objective in life. At least, I would never understand it if I didn't put it down to deep psychological insecurities. If you had enough money that you could easily live whatever lifestyle you wanted, why would you want to spend your time (limited as it is in this life) trying to accrue more money? That is a a bit like going to university to become a science teacher and, instead of becoming a teacher when you graduate, just going on in university taking more and more science courses, not because you enjoy the subject for its own sake, but because you want to have more scientific knowledge than any other science teacher.
Ultimately, I believe that what motivates a lot of people's behaviour is insecurity about what people think about them. Deep fears that you aren't good enough are very motivating in life. Those sorts of feelings can drive someone to work hard for decades in a career that they would otherwise have little or no interest in. Ever met someone who really doesn't care what people think about them? I don't mean someone who pretends not to care, and who therefore tries to stand out in some hippy-ish way, but someone who really doesn't care about what other people think. No jealousy, no inferiority complex. Just contentedness.
This brings me to a test of my theory of insecurity. If you are curious about whether your or someone else's behaviour is motivated by insecurity, ask yourself if you would still spend time doing a particular behaviour if you were the only person on earth. I mean this in a theoretical sense. If one was really the only human being on earth, then one would be spending every minute trying to find food and shelter. But what I mean is, if you had your basic needs met but never saw anyone else, would you still behave the way you do? If you drive to work in a BMW sports coupe, would you still do so if no one ever saw you in the car and if no one ever would see you in the car? If so, then perhaps it's not insecurity that is motivating you, perhaps it is just a love of the BMW sports coupe itself. But if you hesitate and think that perhaps you would put the extra $60,000 you spent on the car towards some other use if no one ever knew you had the car, aren't you partly admitting that you own the car because of what other people think of you? That is the essence of insecurity, isn't it? You care deeply about what others think of you, and it motivates your behaviour. And you don't care about what other people think about your abilities to form friendships, to love, to be honest, but rather you care about what strangers think about your car as you drive by. Why else would a man worth $300M still be motivated to make more money every day unless to show the world that he was even better than the guy who happens to have $350M?
So, why does insecurity motivate bad behaviours in our world? Because insecurity always drives people to behave in ways that try to make up for their feelings of inadequacy. It always motivates people to try to make themselves feel better than others. Part and parcel of this is putting others down. If I want to feel better than someone else, I can achieve that partly by pulling myself up and partly by putting others down. Insecurity leads to arrogance, bullying, power, greed, violence. All of the things that we need less of in the world.