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Social Influence Versus Relational Value

What really motivates us?

Key points

  • There is a crucial difference between social influence and relational value.
  • Social influence is the capacity to influence others according to one's interests.
  • Relational value is the felt sense of being known and valued by important others.
  • Our society is structured on social influence much more than relational value, and this is likely related to our mental health problems.

What is the fundamental driver in relationships? Is there a core social need that humans have?

In my first book, A New Unified Theory of Psychology, I answered this question in terms of social influence (see here). Social influence can be thought of as both a process (i.e., how one person influences another) and a resource (i.e., how much influence one has). Coming from a broad and general evolutionary perspective, I reasoned that people were motivated to acquire social influence, which can be defined as the capacity to influence others in accordance with one’s interest. I argued that the resource of social influence could be framed in terms of: (a) competitive rank, or “power dynamics,” such that we could achieve it by being more competent, effective, attractive, virtuous, or higher up in the dominance hierarchy, and (b) there were cooperative or “love dynamics,” such that we achieved influence via belonging and connecting with others and engaging in reciprocity. These arguments are valid and have received much empirical support. The book, The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It, gives a good overview of this view.

Despite this being a valid analysis, shortly after my book was published, I realized it was incomplete and more was needed. The core relational need could not be framed as simply high or low social influence per se. Specifically, I came to realize that humans were driven by the need for both social influence and what I came to call “relational value.” I obtained the idea of relational value via the psychologist Mark Leary and his work on what he called “the sociometer” approach to understanding self-esteem. Leary analyzed the self-esteem literature and explored why it was such an important element of human psychology. He challenged the standard argument that self-esteem was simply a good thing in and of itself. Instead, he claimed we should think of self-esteem as functioning as a barometer that signals the extent to which one is valued by others. Encountering Leary’s work corresponded with an increasing realization on my part that it was crucial to distinguish the instrumental capacity to influence others from whether one was genuinely valued by others.

The basic distinction between having social influence and being valued is obvious to anyone who has had a boss or teacher or powerful other whom they both obeyed but hated. The hated boss has social influence, even as she has little or no relational value. Of course, I was not blind to this distinction when I first described the Influence Matrix, which is the Unified Theory's frame for mapping human relationships. In the past, I would have framed this pattern by arguing that a secure sense of high social influence is marked by the balance of power and love, and it is thus not at a state of equilibrium, and therefore not a state of secure social influence.

However, I saw another kind of pattern in the clinic room that made clear to me that there are fundamental distinctions between (a) having high relative to low social influence, (b) being valued, (c) being known, and (d) valuing the other as important. To give just one example, the common experience known as an “imposter syndrome" is the circumstance when the person has social influence and is valued by important others, but they do not feel known. Instead, they experience the world as though they must put on a mask. As such, they are often anxious that they will be discovered, and if others learned their true nature, they would be rejected, criticized, or abandoned.

In my current book, I argue that the key relational motive is a combination of both having social influence and the felt sense of being known and valued by important others. As such, now when I share my map of the human relationship system called the Influence Matrix, I describe the central black line as the “RV-SI” line, which stands for one’s felt sense of relational value and social influence.

Gregg Henriques
The Black RV-SI line on the Matrix
Source: Gregg Henriques

The upper right box represents the attractor goal state of having high social influence and being known and valued by important others. When these are “all positive” then the desired state is realized with positive feelings. When they are all negative, then the situation is a relational catastrophe. When thinking about this line overall, we can consider one's RV-SI across their: family; peers and friends; romantic and sexual partners; the groups that one identifies with; and their self-conscious reflective evaluation, which includes both their self-concept and self-esteem.

There are many reasons the distinction between instrumental social influence and the felt sense of relational value is crucial. However, one reason has been especially salient to me over the past few years. Given the skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm, it seems clear that we have developed a society that is not conducive to mental health. The distinction between social influence and relational value gives rise to a clear hypothesis about why this is the case. Our focus on economic capital, material consumption, and display of wealth and status are all focused on markers of social influence. The same is true of the more recent "attentional economy" on social media. Indeed, we call those with a major social media presence “influencers.” But this analysis strongly suggests that social influence without relational value can be thought of as "empty social calories." If that is the case, then it means our current society is structured in a way that essentially starves the human soul for what is really nourishing in the relational world, which is the felt sense of being known and valued by important others.