Meaning as a Primary Motive

By Brad Bell

What are we striving for?  What is our most important motivation?  These are some of the most important questions we could ask.  It is important to gain an understanding of possible primary motives in psychology.   Frankl (1992) suggested that the search for meaning is a primary motivation.  This idea may be convincing for two reasons.  First, for something to be a primary motive it should be fairly general.   In other words, the primary motive should reflect a number of specific motives. Finding meaning in life may reflect specific motives, such as the desire to express creativity, be authentic, and have a purpose in life (see Bell, 2007). (1)   Second, for something to be a primary motive it should explain behaviors in many situations, including behaviors in difficult and unpleasant situations.   Although behaviors in situations that are pleasant can be explained in many ways, it is more difficult to explain why we would persist at something in situations that are unpleasant with few external rewards.  For example, we may persist at a task even though we are experiencing failure and difficulty.  Moreover, we may keep a job even though the pay is low and the job is very stressful.   Some theories of motivation (e.g., based on incentives) may not be able to adequately explain these behaviors.  In contrast, these behaviors may make sense if we consider that finding meaning in life is a primary motivation.   Some jobs and tasks may be highly meaningful even if they are significantly unpleasant, difficult, or have few external rewards. For example, a job as an executive director may not be high paying and may be very stressful.  However, it may be highly meaningful because of the potential to make a lasting contribution to society. Moreover, a writer may persist at writing articles and books even though he or she has received many rejections. Writing may be very meaningful because it is challenging and fosters self-expression.


1.  My book, Finding Meaning, (3rd edition) has information on seven
possible sources of finding meaning in life.


Bell, B.  (2007).  Finding meaning (3rd edition).  Portland, Oregon:  Blue Fox Communications.
Frankl, V. E. (1992). Man’s search for meaning:   An introduction to
 (4th edition).  Boston:  Beacon Press.


Does the Type of Music Influence How Much We Spend at Restaurants?

By Brad Bell

Music can be soothing and make us feel happy.  But does music influence how much we spend at restaurants?  This is one of the important questions concerning the possible effects of music. North, Shilcock, and Hargreaves (2003) investigated the influence of the type music on spending behavior at a restaurant.  The participants were customers at a restaurant, and they did not know that they were in an experiment.  Each participant at the restaurant listened to either classical music, pop music, or no music.  They found that the mean total amount of money spent at the restaurant was greater for people who listened to classical music than for people who listened to pop music or no music.  The difference between the pop music group and the no music group was not statistically significant with respect to the mean total amount of money spent at the restaurant.(1)  One of the explanations they provided for the findings involved the idea that classical music fosters an upmarket (upscale) atmosphere.


1.  The analyses comparing the groups controlled for the amount of time spent in the restaurant.  See their article for other findings.


North, A. C., Shilcock, A., & Hargreaves, D.J. (2003).  The effect of
musical style on restaurant customers’ spending.  Environment and   
Behavior, 35, 712-718.

Decision Making

By Brad Bell

 Decisions can vary from simple judgments about what to order at a restaurant to complex decisions such as a career change.  What is decision making?  Decision making is an important concept in psychology.  Below is one definition of decision making:

Decision Making Definition:

Decision making is the process of selecting among alternatives in making decisions.

Decision Making Examples:

1. Imagine that you received your B.A. degree three months ago and you received three job offers.  The pay is fairly good for all three full-time jobs.  However, there are different pros and cons for each job.  Thus, your decision about which job offer to accept is difficult.

2. Imagine that you have received several letters from nonprofits asking for donations.  However, you can afford to only make one small donation.  Thus, you must decide which of these nonprofits you will make donation to.

Modes of Decision Making:

In this article, I describe three modes of decision making. This is not necessarily a complete list of modes of decision making, and decisions might involve more than one mode.

Analytical Decision Making.    A common approach to decision making may be the analytical approach. The analytical decision making approach involves logical reasoning.  A good example of the analytical approach is to list the pros and cons of each decision option, and then decide which option is best based on an evaluation of the pros and cons for each option.   For example, imagine that you have two job offers.  You list the pros and cons for each job.   One job has more pay and vacation time, but you feel there will be more micromanagement and job stress. The other job has less pay, but the job seems to be less stressful and you can be highly creative. You could assess which job seems to be more positive taking into account all of the positive and negative aspects of each job.

Intuitive Decision Making.   With respect to decision making involves making a decision based on a gut feeling rather than a logical analysis.   You may have a strong feeling about a decision even though you cannot explain why.   For example, imagine that you had a job interview, and you got an uneasy feeling about the company but you cannot explain why.   You received a job offer a few days later.   Based on your feeling during the interview, you decide to not accept the job offer.

 Experiential Decision Making.    One type of decision making may involve imagining what how one may feel for one or more decision options. I call this experiential decision making.    For example, imagine that you have the opportunity to accept a new job at another company.   You imagine how you may feel in your new job.   You may experience joy in the new job due to being able to be creative.   On the other hand, you may also feel regret due to having to move to a new city.   You could assess whether accepting the new job or remaining in your current job would result in greater happiness.

Does the Familiarity of the Charity Influence Donations?

By Brad Bell

You may think that a more familiar charity would receive more
money than a less familiar charity.   People may donate more money to a well-known charity than a less-known charity because of a greater perceived credibility.   However, some findings cast doubt on this idea.

Thornton, Kirchner, and Jacobs (1991) conducted three studies
investigating the influence of charity familiarity.  These studies also
involved the investigation of the influence of photographs.  Two of the studies involved door-to-door fundraising, and one of the studies involved countertop displays in stores.  In all three studies, there was no statistically significant difference between the well-known charity and the less-known charity with respect to the amount donated.

The findings of three studies cast doubt on the idea that a well-known charity would receive more money than a less-known charity.  An organization could strive to become better known before asking for donations.  However, the findings from three studies suggest that this may not be necessary.


Thornton, B., Kirchner, G., & Jacobs, J.  (1991).  Influence of a  
 Photograph on a Charitable Appeal:  A Picture May Be Worth a
 Thousand Words When It Has to Speak for Itself.  Journal of
 Applied Social Psychology
21, 433-445.

 Do Gifts Influence Donations?

By Brad Bell

Including calendars, notepads, and mailing labels with a fundraising letter are all examples of the gift technique in fundraising.  The gift technique may reflect the norm of reciprocity.  The norm of reciprocity suggests that if someone helps us or gives us a gift we may feel obligated to do something for that person in return.

Scientific evidence lends support to the idea that giving someone a gift can influence donating decisions.  Whatley, Webster, Smith, and Rhodes (1999) found that undergraduate students who were given candy (favor condition) were more likely to make a pledge than undergraduate students who didn’t receive candy (no favor condition).  Also, the average amount pledged (with nondonors included) was more in the favor condition than in the no favor condition.

Regan (1971) found that people who were given a soda by a person were willing to buy more raffle tickets from this person than people who were not given a soda.  The participants in the study were told that the raffle tickets were for building a new high school gym.  At the end of the experiment, the participants received an explanation for the hypotheses and the money was returned to them.  To find out whether this reflects the norm of reciprocity or a general effect of a favor, Regan (1971) also included another condition in the study.   In this irrelevant-favor condition, people received a soda by one person and were asked by another person to buy raffle tickets.  There was no statistically significant difference in the number of raffle tickets they were willing to buy between this irrelevant-favor condition and the condition in which people didn’t receive a soda.   Thus, the findings of this study support the norm of reciprocity that suggests that if someone does something for us we feel obligated to do something for him or her.

Howard (1995) found that people who accepted free recipes from a telephone solicitor purchased more cookies at their homes from the same organization than people who didn’t receive the recipes (were not asked whether they would like the recipes).  However, if the door-to-door solicitor was representing a different organization from the telephone solicitation, receiving the free gift didn’t tend to increase the number of cookies purchased.  

Boster, Rodriguez, Cruz, and Marshall (1995) found that the norm of reciprocity may apply to strangers, but not friends.  They found that receiving a soda from a stranger increased the number raffle tickets people were willing to buy.  In contrast, receiving a soda from a friend did not increase the number of raffle tickets people were willing to buy.

Tom, Powell, and Borin (1987) investigated the influence of including a gift in a study involving telephone fundraising.  There were three conditions prior to the pledges.  The participants were either told during the telephone solicitation that “even a dollar would help”, “even five dollars would help”, or these statements were omitted (pre- pledge control condition).  There were also three conditions after the initial calls.  In the gift condition, the participants received a small gift (memo magnet) with the pledge package.   In the phone-reminder condition, the participants received a phone call that consisted of reminding them of the pledge they made and requesting a donation.  In a post-pledge control condition, the people didn’t receive a gift or a reminder call.  The organization was contacted about a month after the pledge packages were mailed to find out about actual donations.  Tom, Powell, and Borin found no statistically significant difference between the post-pledge control condition (didn’t receive a gift) and the gift condition (received the magnet) with respect to the number of people donating.  The total amount collected was larger in the post-pledge control condition than in the gift condition.   However, it’s unclear whether this difference is statistically significant because they didn’t report statistical analyses for the amount donated with nondonors included.

Based on the findings of Tom et al. (1987), another possible limitation of the gift technique is that it may not work if the gift is given after the pledge is made.  People may have good reasons for not fulfilling a pledge, and the gift may not change the decision to not donate.

The findings of some studies suggest that giving a stranger a gift may increase purchases and pledges.  These findings support the idea that we feel obligated to do something for someone who has done something for us (the norm of reciprocity) if that person is a stranger.  Including a gift may be a good way to increase donations to an organization.  Nonprofit organizations could include calendars, books, or gift certificates with a fundraising letter.  However, one possible limitation of the gift technique is that it may not be effective for friends.  The findings of Boster et al. (1995) suggest that the norm of reciprocity may not apply to friends.

There may be other limitations of the gift technique.  For example, people who receive the same type of gift numerous times, such as receiving many calendars, may not feel as obligated to make a donation.  They may appreciate a gift less when they receive many of the same type of gift.  More research is needed to investigate the influence of the number of times people receive a particular type of gift on donations.


Boster, F. J., Rodriguez, J. I., Cruz, M. G., & Marshall, L.  (1995).  The Relative Effectiveness of a Direct Request Message and a Pregiving Message on Friends and Strangers.  Communication Research22, 475-484.
Howard, D. J.  (1995).  “Chaining” the Use of Influence Strategies for Producing Compliance Behavior.  Journal of Social Behavior and Personality10, 169-185.
Regan, D. T  (1971).  Effects of a Favor and Liking on Compliance.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology7, 627- 639.
Tom, G., Powell, J., & Borin, N.  (1987).  Increasing Compliance Through the Use of the Legitimization of Small Donations Technique and the Follow-Up Procedures of Phone Reminder and Gift Incentive.  Journal of Direct Marketing, 1, 40-46.
Whatley, M. A., Webster,  J. M., Smith, R. H., & Rhodes, A. (1999).  The Effect of a Favor on Public and Private Compliance:   How Internalized is the Norm of Reciprocity?  Basic and Applied Social Psychology21, 251-259.

Problem Solving

 by Brad Bell

Problem solving is an important topic in psychology that is relevant to everyday life.   What is problem solving?   Below is one problem solving definition:

Problem solving can be defined as the process of finding solutions to problems. 

Problems can vary from being relatively simple (e.g., finding one’s keys), to complex problems that may involve goals that may take a significant amount of time to achieve (e.g., finding a new job).

There may not be any solutions that are applicable to all problems.  Nonetheless, there may be some general problem-solving strategies that are relevant to many problems.  In this article, I will present three basic strategies: developing subgoals, redefinng the problem, and thinking in a creative manner.

Developing Subgoals

What is a subgoal?  A subgoal is simply a more specific goal that is part of the more general goal that one wishes to achieve.  Developing subgoals may be helpful because it may make the problem seem more manageable.   Also, striving to achieve one subgoal may facilitate the achievement of another subgoal.

 Here is one example.  Imaging that you are having writer’s block and you cannot seem to get started writing your novel.  You could develop subgoals in writing the novel.  These subgoals could involve certain elements of the novel.  The elements of the novel, which can be viewed as subgoals, may include the themes, dialogue, plot, and characters.  If you are having trouble with the plot, you could start with thinking of themes or developing the personalities of the characters.  The themes may help you to develop a coherent plot consistent with the themes.  Moreover, after you have a clear idea of the personalities of the characters, you may be able to develop clearer ideas about the plot by imagining how the characters would act in certain situations.  If you are having trouble with the dialogue, you may wish to start with creating the personalities of the characters. This may help by imagining what the characters would say in certain situations.

Redefining the Problem

 It is important to consider how one has defined the problem.  This could influence what solutions would be applied to the problem, and whether the problem is fully addressed.  Perhaps the problem is too narrowly conceptualized, and it may be a broader problem than one had imagined.

 Here is an example.  Imagine that a person has become unemployed and is considering a change in a career.  The person may define the problem as finding a job consistent with his or her values, interests, and ablilities.  However, the person may have some difficulty finding an ideal job.  There may be ways in the advertised jobs are not compatible with some of the person’s certain central values, do not involve a full utilization of the person’s talents, or only involve some of the person’s interests.  A possible solution to this problem is to redefine the problem.  The problem could be defined as finding a job or developing a business consistent with the person’s values, interests, and ablility.  It is possible that the person may develop an idea for a business that would be more consistent with his or her values, abilities, and interests than any of the advertised jobs.

Thinking in a Creative Manner

 Thinking in a creative manner may help to solve some problems.  For example, imagine that you wish to write a nonfiction book that will be accepted by a publisher.   You will be writing a book on a topic in which there are other books on the same topic.  You could consider how your proposed book may be different from other books on the same topic.  Perhaps you could present a new thesis in the book, organize the ideas in the book in a unique way, or include information in the book that is not included in other books.

What Makes a Board Game Interesting?

 By Brad Bell

When I was younger, I played chess quite often.  I found the game fascinating, challenging, and enjoyable.   I could play chess many times without feeling bored.   Chess is one of a number of interesting board games that may be considered enjoyable by many people.   Some board games may be perceived to be more interesting or enjoyable than other board games.  What makes a board game interesting?   This is an important question concerning the psychology of board games.   In my view, the factors that may determine the extent to which a board game is interesting include novelty, challenge, and creativity.


 Novelty may determine how interesting something is perceived to be.  A board game that is quite different from other board games may be more interesting.  People may be more motivated to play a board game that is quite different from other board games that they have played.  Also, if there is novelty in the playing of the game at different times, then it may be perceived to be more interesting.  For example, one reason that I think that chess is very interesting is that each game that is played involves a different sequence of moves.


 A board game may be more interesting if it is perceived to be more challenging.  Chess may be very interesting because it is perceived to be a challenging game.  Chess may be perceived to be challenging because it takes much effort and concentration, it involves extensive thinking, and it require significant skill.   It may be that the challenge of a board game depends more on the degree of thinking that is involved than on how complex the rules are.  Thus, it would be good to design thinking board games.


 A basic criticism of some board games may be that they do not involve much creativity.  A board game may be more interesting if it involves significant creative expression.  Expressing creativity may be enjoyable partly because it may involve self-expression.  Thus, it may be good to design creative board games that involve creating a song, telling a story, or drawing a picture.

Can Reading Self-Help Books Increase Self-Actualization?

By Brad Bell

There are a significant number of self-help books.  Some of these books may be read by a large number of people.  One important question is whether there is any benefit of reading these self-help books.  One possible benefit of reading self-help books is an increase in self-actualization.   Self-actualization involves personal growth in which a person achieves his or her true potential.  Self-actualization is part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory.  In Forest’s (1987) experiment, participants read either no book, or one of two self-help books.  Also, whether participants completed a pretest concerning self-actualization measures was manipulated in the experiment.  Some participants had a pretest, and other participants did not have a pretest.  All of the participants were female.   Only two self-actualization subscales were used in the study.  One of them was Time Competence, and the other was Inner-directedness.  Forest (1987) found that posttest scores on the Inner-directedness measure were influenced by whether participants read a self-help book.  On the average, participants who read a self-help book had higher posttest scores on the Inner-directedness measure than participants who read no book (this was true for both self-help books).  With respect to the Time Competence measure, on the average, participants who read Book 1 had higher posttest scores on the Time Competence measure than participants who read Book 2 or no book.  These findings suggest that reading some self-help books may increase some dimensions of self-actualization.  However, it is unclear about the generality of the findings.  We do not know if there are some self-help books that would not increase self-actualization.  Also, it is not clear whether the effect on self-actualization is relatively short-term, or whether it may be long-term.


Forest, J. J. (1987).  Effects on self-actualization of paperbacks about psychological self-help.  Psychological Reports60, 1243-1246.

Using Examples in Teaching

By Brad Bell

It may be a very good idea to use a number of examples in teaching.  Providing examples of concepts may help students learn and understand concepts.  In Balch’s study (2005), all the students received a booklet with definitions of psychology terms.  Students either received repeated definitions of the terms, or an elaboration.  There were three types of elaboration. (1)   One of the types of elaboration involved a specific example.  The students took a multiple-choice test with both definition and example questions.   Balch found that students who received examples of the psychology terms performed better on both types of questions than students who received only the repeated definitions.  Using examples in teaching may be one of the effective teaching strategies for improving comprehension.


1.  There were three elaboration conditions in this study (paraphrase, example, and mnemonic).  See Balch (2005) for more information about these conditions and other findings.   


Balch, W. R. (2005).  Elaborations of Introductory Psychology Terms:  Effects on Test Performance and Subjective Ratings.  Teaching of Psychology, 32, 29-34.

What Do People Find Rewarding About Companionship with Birds?

By Brad Bell

Pets are important. They provide joy, laughter, and companionship.  Some people may see them as members of their families.  Just like dogs and cats, birds as pets help make our lives meaningful and rewarding. In Anderson’s (2003) study, 106 parrot owners responded to an essay question involving what they thought was most rewarding concerning avian companionship.  The most frequent response was love/unconditional love (39% of the 106 participants). The second most frequent response was perceiving birds as family members (38% of the 106 participants).  Twenty-nine percent listed companionship for this question.  Providing joy was listed by 23%.   Moreover, it is interesting that making them (owner) laugh was indicated by 26%. It appears that the parrot owners are quite attached to their parrots.   This is also reflected in the amount of time they spend with their parrots.   About forty-six percent of them spend more than three hours interacting
with their birds each day. (1)


1.  See Anderson’s article for other findings.


Anderson, P. K. (2003).  A bird in the house:  An anthropological
 perspective on companion parrots.  Society & Animals, 11, 393-418.