If we were to gather round the barbecue with Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay for a bit of a natter about the human condition, we might end up with something very like WHAT MAKES US TICK? Mackay draws on his lifelong study of the attitudes and behaviour of Australians to distil what he argues are the ten universally applicable answers to the question: “Why did I do that?”
One of Australia’s most prominent social researchers, in 1979 Mackay established THE MACKAY REPORT, a quarterly publication of qualitative social research on everyday topics such as attitudes to politics, the changing roles of men and women, and differences between the generations. The publication became the benchmark in social research in Australia. (It has since been purchased by Ipsos Australia and rebranded as THE IPSOS MACKAY REPORT.) Mackay has written a number of bestselling books, including ADVANCE AUSTRALIA… WHERE? (2007) and REINVENTING AUSTRALIA (1993), and has also published five novels.
In an industry where the approach had been to put focus-group subjects in a room and observe them from behind one-way glass, Mackay preferred to sit in a living room with a group of people who already knew each other, and just listen as they talked amongst themselves about a particular theme.
WHAT MAKES US TICK? is his attempt to tease the major threads out of the tangle of conflicting motives upon which human beings act.
We are often at a loss to explain, even to ourselves, why we’ve done things that seem on reflection to have been foolish or inappropriate. (ix)
He draws on his extensive experience in the social research field, as well as his personal observations and reading, especially fiction; “I believe no one works harder than a novelist at trying to make sense of human behaviour” (xiv). The result is the identification of ten fundamental desires which Mackay believes drive our actions – desires which are often intermingled, and which are neither good nor bad in themselves, but capable of bringing out both the best and the worst in people. The author outlines different manifestations of each desire, including the “dark side” of each one.
“The desire to be taken seriously” is about being heard, understood and treated as worthy of attention. For Mackay, this desire lies at the heart of many characteristics of our society, from the cult of celebrity to the popularity of counselling, our constant acquisition of status symbols such as sporting club memberships and luxury cars, and even the reason we become so attached to our dogs. While he resists making a hierarchical order out of the ten desires, Mackay does assert that this one is the most important.
Not being taken seriously feels like the ultimate insult, and insults tend to fester and seethe, waiting for a chance to counterattack. If you’ve ever been shocked by the vehemence of someone’s outburst against you, it might turn out that you had failed to take them seriously at a time when they needed your sympathetic attention. Ignoring someone when they desperately need not to be ignored, or treating something they’ve said too lightly when it seemed to them worthy of more serious attention, can sow the seeds of bitter resentment that might take weeks or even years to germinate. (8)
Mackay has some insightful comments to make about what he calls “the desire for ‘My Place’ ”; it is not just the preserve of indigenous peoples, and might be satisfied by a hometown, a bloke’s shed or even an office desk.
I suspect that much of the uneasiness, anxiety and even the moral uncertainty of modern urban societies can be traced to our loss of a strong sense of continuous connection with places that help define us. (44)
A big claim – but he takes it even further, arguing that the best strategy for raising the moral tone of a community is not to pass more laws or provide education, but to create and preserve “the places and spaces that encourage our interactions with each other as members of the same neighbourhood” (49).
The “dark side” of this desire for ‘My Place’ expresses itself in the varieties of territorialism that lead to everything from disputes with a neighbour about a fence, to the Middle East crisis.
The desire for something to believe in is, not surprisingly, credited with a range of phenomena including religion, atheism, conspiracy theories and superstition, but also with the effectiveness of both advertising and the placebo effect.
The desire to connect can include connecting with ourselves and the natural world, as well as the more obvious drive to connect with other people. Mackay maintains that online connections don’t fully satisfy this desire, because “they lack some of the subtleties and nuances inherent in face-to-face encounters, and it’s those very nuances that play such a big part in illuminating our understanding of each other” (116). In fact, he suspects that the IT revolution actually frustrates our desire to connect:
Communications technology, no matter how swift and convenient, no matter how clever, is creating the illusion of bringing us together while actually keeping us apart. (119)
Other desires include the desire to be useful, to belong, for control and for love. The discovery that the basic motivations were ten in number does seem perhaps a little too neat, although you have to stop somewhere. And Mackay failed to convince me that the desire to be taken seriously is the most important – he merely stated it, but didn’t really argue his case persuasively. Indeed, I finished the book with the conclusion that the desire to connect would likely be more fundamental, since without connection there is no one to take us seriously or otherwise in the first place. I even found myself wondering if a female researcher may have defined and ordered the “desires” a little differently, due to the different way the sexes often tend to view relationships. No doubt Mackay could write a book about why I had that thought.
At times this book projects a sense of telling us what we already know, but merely organising it in a way that we can more easily get an overall picture of human interaction. But then, perhaps that’s the way a book like this should feel, if the writer has correctly identified what lies within the human mind. There are also a number of perceptive and potentially controversial thoughts, which help the reader engage with the author at a higher level.
Mackay’s insights are interesting and thought-provoking, whether or not the reader agrees with the conclusions at which he arrives. He has an easy, natural writing style, and he also has the credentials to make his viewpoint worth thinking about. WHAT MAKES US TICK? is not a tightly argued thesis stating evidence for every point; it doesn’t have the gravitas of some of his earlier writings, where he introduced points with sentence structures like “people report…”. This book reads more like a fireside chat with the grandfather of Australian social research. If you enjoy digging beneath the surface in a hunt for the bedrock of our social landscape, and you appreciate a starting point for thought or discussion, you will likely enjoy this book.
by Hugh Mackay
This review © Belinda Pollard 2010
First published M/C Reviews