The Role of Psychology in Human Development

Hirai, Tadashi; Ikemoto, Yukio (2014). 'The Role of Psychology in Human Development' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Psychology is not a sole discipline for the evaluation of our well-being but surely a part of broader informational space which the human development and capability approach advocates (e.g. Nussbaum, 2008; Sen, 2008). Indeed the approach stresses the significance of individual value judgments for our living. In this regard, our own evaluation is vital. However this seems to be marginalised in the approach, probably because of the risk of adaptive preferences. While it is important not to go back to utilitarianism, psychological well-being seems to be better to be taken more seriously, as long as individual valuation is a key issue of the approach. The purpose of this paper is thus to examine the role of psychological well-being in the human development and capability approach, and more specifically to propose the necessity of considering a quality of valuation with the help of psychological literature.

The problem of adaptive preferences is evident among the poor. In this regard, Carol Graham (2011) argues that the adaptive preferences of the poor are caused by their lack of choices and opportunities, which ends up with selecting into happiness in the day-to-day living sense by default; they would have emphasised the importance of leading a fulfilling life otherwise. Consequently she proposes the significance of enhancing capability by major public investments in education. It sounds nothing contradictory to the message the human development and capability approach delivers: the adaptive preferences of the poor could be solved by providing choices and opportunities for capability.

How about the case of the non-poor? Apparently they have more choices and opportunities than the poor do. But are they necessarily leading to a fulfilling life? In this regard, Martha Nussbaum (1987) argues that an objective normative procedure needs to be specified in order to have the power to criticise the evaluations of functionings that are actually made by people whose surrounding has been molded by injustice. For her the provision of choices and opportunities is not enough to the extent that the normative procedure would be as corruptible as subjective information is. A good example is the endless pursuit of material wealth at the sacrifice of other intrinsic values of human well-being in the material stricken world; those who have many choices and opportunities have in reality resulted in failing to lead a fulfilling life.

Here comes a quality of valuing choices and opportunities. In other words, public discussion which Sen claims for justice does not seem to be helpful for realising a fulfilling life unless it is wide enough to be universal/objective to satisfy human needs. In this sense, Nussbaum's argument is more general than Graham's: state interventions are required not only for the poor but also the non-poor to make valuation in a proper manner. The issue of psychological needs for flourishing is thus needed to be addressed in both sides: preferences of the poor for happiness in the day-to-day living sense vis-à-vis preferences of the non-poor for something extrinsic for their well-being. What matters in both cases is an adjustment of valuation towards a flourishing life.

What we need is to understand further about psychological needs to improve the way that we deal with the quality of valuation. One promising way is the work by Edward Deci & Richard Ryan (2000). Assuming that not all outcomes we value would yield well-being when achieved, they not only distinguish goals we hold into two types: 'intrinsic goals' which harmonise with growth tendencies natural to humans (e.g. affiliation, personal growth, community contribution) vis-à-vis 'extrinsic goals' which depend on the approval of others or external signs of worth (e.g. financial success, fame, image), but also distinguish regulatory processes through which goals are pursued into two types: 'autonomous/volitional motivation' which let us freely engage in activities that we find enjoyable and thus persists without reinforcement from operationally separable consequences vis-à-vis 'controlled motivation' which let us engage in activities because we produce some outcome that is operationally separable. It sounds like corresponding to Sen's argument of outcome freedom and process freedom, but the quality of valuation is another concern here; both the quality of goals and regulatory processes is based on the satisfaction of universal needs to be human. By applying their metrics of regulatory processes to capabilities (e.g. Nussbaum's list), the motivational orientation behind the intrinsic choices and opportunities available to us can be evaluated. For example, affiliation, one of the capabilities, would not lead us to a flourishing life if the causality is controlled – imagine the case that you choose to spend the most time with someone because he/she is the most popular of your friends instead of because you can exchange ideas and feelings with him/her. In this regard, capabilities only with autonomous or volitional motivation can make us flourish.

Psychology is certainly not a sole discipline for the evaluation of our well-being, and it is thus important not to fall into the utilitarian trap. However, it can be put to better use in order to reflect the quality of valuation, a core part of the human development and capability approach. As long as our evaluation would be corruptible, its quality had better be taken more seriously by considering psychological well-being behind capabilities.

scroll to top