Personhood, Human Motivation and Change

Project Leaders:

William R. Miller
Regents Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry
Director of Research, CASAA
University of New Mexico

Harold Delaney
Professor of Psychology
University of New Mexico

Click here for a list of the team members.

For most of the twentieth century, scientific psychology emphasized deterministic and reductionistic models of motivation and of how and why people change. It is clear that human behavior is influenced by neurophysiology and by lawful principles of learning and cognition. A Christian perspective on human motivation and change, however, embraces a rather different and broader causal understanding of human conduct, one that emphasizes personal agency and mind, volition and responsibility, the centrality of values, and the potential for radical transformation.

The Psychology team would explore five broad and logically related themes to explore and explicate Christian scholarship on human change.

  1. The first is the role of human identity, volition and personal agency. The interaction of mechanistic and agentive influences on human behavior, including phenomena such as choice, decision, conscience, awakening, and commitment, is one area for exploration, in a field focused almost exclusively on reductionistic models. Issues of identity are also central here, for self-perception is powerfully related to motivation and change, and the perception of being changed is itself a component of identity.

  2. The second is the role of values in human motivation and change. The belief that one's values underlie and are manifested in behavior is fundamental in any Christian understanding of human nature.

  3. The third theme the team will explore will involve whether one can derive scientifically testable hypotheses from Christian teachings, particularly those regarding virtues such as faith, hope, love, and forgiveness. This is seldom done because behavioral scientists rarely look to Christianity for theory,and Christian often regard scientific verification to be irrelevant.

  4. A fourth theme is to explore what behavioral science has to offer Christians in promoting their own spiritual development and conformity to the precepts of a Christian life. Clinical, learning, cognitive and social psychology has much to offer to those who seek to direct their lives and behavior toward Christian ideals. There is also much to learn about the power of narrative--why stories can have such a salient impact, why we seem to need to hear and tell them, and how they function to convey faith and identity from generation to generation. Well-established psychological principles (e.g., of learning, conditioning, cognition, social influence) can be applied in promoting adherence to a Christian life.

  5. Finally, the team will explore the phenomenon of transformational change. Scientific psychology has focused mostly on what William James termed the "educational" variety of change, which proceeds gradually by successive approximations. James recognized that there is also another variety of change, which is a sudden turnabout. It is captured in literature, (as in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge) and biblical accounts (Saul on the Damascus Road). The possibility of such transformation is central in Christian thinking, yet very little scientific attention has been devoted to this very real and striking form of change.