People Pleasers

In “Nosedive”, an episode of the science fiction television series Black Mirror, communication technologies allow strangers to rank and view the popularity of all other members of society. Popularity ratings in this futuristic, yet eerily familiar, world don’t simply reflect social standing but also determine access to goods like employment, medical care, and housing. Lacie Pound, the protagonist of the episode, is obsessed with her ranking, and her life is a carefully orchestrated performance to receive the highest possible rating.

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As the story progresses, the viewer sees how Lacie’s need for approval gradually erodes any other basis for life’s meaning or value. While Lacie’s insatiable need for affirmation may seem extreme, it would have been thoroughly comprehensible to the late anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt. In his book, The Bridge to Humanity: How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene, Goldschmidt makes the case that the desire for expressions of affection from others has been a pivotal and frequently overlooked factor in human evolution. Because of the unique caregiving patterns of humans, which feature extensive nurture of vulnerable young, human parents and offspring have evolved the desire to give and receive affect. For Goldschmidt, affect hunger involves physical affection, like the physical closeness infants experience with their caretakers, but it also includes symbolic expressions of affection from others, like the 5 star ratings sought by Lacie Pound.

This hunger for affect that has its origin in patterns of care and nurture of offspring has, Goldschmidt contends, quickly adapted to other spheres of life. It continues into adulthood and serves to bond communities in common practices for life together. By bestowing or withholding approval, human societies have been able to steer human behavior. At the same time, individuals have sought to attain higher levels of social affirmation through exceptional performance of cultural standards. As Goldschmidt writes, “This hunger for affection is essentially insatiable; it continues as a wish for acceptance, approval, and influence in the ever-expanding community in which every child is to live. It forms the source of those feelings of interdependence that are essential to social life and at the same time inspires the competitive quest for approval.”[1]

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According to Goldschmidt, human hunger for affection can be gratified in two distinct ways—through belonging and performance. One can receive affection by inclusion in a community, such as feelings of closeness to family or friends, or through the symbolic recognition that one’s actions receive from others. The extension of affect hunger to symbolic gratification enabled humans to organize themselves into more complex societies and propelled necessary behaviors like civic responsibility. But, Goldschmidt suggests, the quest to gratify affect hunger through performance also has its risks. Humans can seek to perform at constantly higher standards, never satisfied with their status. In the process, they often forget the more basic gratification of belonging through companionship and physical expressions of affection.

Goldschmidt might have been surprised to hear that the dynamic of belonging and performance that he detects in the human quest for affection and affirmation has also been the subject of much theological reflection. For theology, however, the terms of the discussion have been of grace and works, or faith and merit. The theology of the Protestant Reformation, celebrating its 500th anniversary this year, is particularly noteworthy for its attention to the relationship between belonging and performing in human behavior. Luther and Calvin, of course, were primarily interested in the question of human behavior and acceptance with respect to God, not to the broader human community. Still, the relationship they envision between grace and works is worth considering in conjunction with Goldschmidt’s analysis of performance and belonging.

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For Luther and Calvin, and many who followed in these theological traditions, it was the primacy of grace, or the fundamental acceptance of the person by God, that liberated and established genuinely good action. The person who was constantly concerned with her standing before God—what theology typically calls justification—was only ever going to do good actions for the sake of approval rather than out of genuine love for God. Such actions, Calvin thought, were bound to be “slavish and coerced” and, in keeping with Goldschmidt’s analysis, there was no natural point at which human actions could be considered sufficient for divine approval.[2] On the other hand, if a person knew herself to be accepted by God’s grace, rather than through her actions, then human actions would be liberated. They could be genuine expressions of love for God or for one’s neighbor. As Luther put it in his famous treatise, On the Freedom of a Christian, “Here is the truly Christian life; here is faith really working by love; when a man applies himself with joy and love to the works of that freest servitude, in which he serves others voluntarily and for nought; himself abundantly satisfied in the fullness and riches of his own faith.”[3]

The parallels between Goldschmidt’s notions of belonging and performance and the theological discussions of grace and works are not exact. Goldschmidt’s anthropological approach, for instance, places substantial emphasis on the physical expressions of affection that are part of the material and bodily processes of evolution. The similarities are, however, striking nonetheless. Both speak to a uniquely human need for affirmation and how this need is refracted in human behavior. Such a convergence suggests the potential for more extended interdisciplinary conversation and collaboration on this fundamental question of human existence.

[1] Walter Goldschmidt, The Bridge to Humanity: How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 37.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.16.3 and 3.4.27.

[3] Martin Luther, ‘The Freedom of a Christian’, in Luther’s Works: Volume 31, Career of the Reformer, ed. by Harold J. Grimm, trans. by W. A Lambert and Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), accessed January 24, 2017,