Full Statement of Theory

A Personal Note by Elias H. Porter, Ph.D.

Statement of Theory
Experience-Proximate Concepts

Relationship Awareness Theory is based on the premise that one’s behavior traits are consistent with what one finds gratifying in interpersonal relations and with concepts or beliefs one holds about how to interact with others to achieve those gratifications.  Although many personality theories are about people, this theory was meant for people.  It was intended to provide an effective means for understanding one’s self and for understanding others so that interpersonal relationships could be mutually productive and gratifying. The theory was planned to help people organize their concepts of themselves and their concepts of others around three basic motivations: wanting to be of genuine help to others, wanting to be the leader of others, and wanting to be self-dependent.


In the mid-1930s, I was fortunate enough to be the student of Calvin S. Hall and Robert W. Leeper. Hall had just completed his doctoral studies with the late Edward C. Tolman at the University of California at Berkeley, so, of course, I became immersed in the concepts of purposive behavior, latent learning, hypothesis formation, and the factor of emphasis in learning.  Leeper had been heavily influenced by Kurt Lewin, so I also became immersed in field theory.  Under their tutelage, I rejected as too simplistic any efforts to understand human behavior in terms of pairings of stimuli to responses or responses to stimuli. Any model of human behavior, it seemed to me, had to include consideration for differential motivation to account for why we seek certain stimuli at one time and other stimuli at another time.  It must also include consideration of concept formation as an important intervening variable between motivation and response.

In the late 1930s when I studied with Carl Rogers, I learned to perceive how another human being was conceptualizing his world of experience.  In today’s slang, I was learning how to “get into peoples’ heads.”  Even more important, I learned that as human beings become more sharply aware of their own motivations and more sharply aware of their conceptualizations of how to be in this world, their concepts change, and new behaviors appropriate to the new concepts replace old behavior patterns.

My first opportunity to apply this learning was when I was named merit system supervisor for the Oregon State Public Welfare Commission just prior to World War II.  To select public assistance workers, I developed an eight-hour test designed to assess the extent to which an individual tended to conceptualize the helping process as one in which one could help most by telling the person what he should do, by telling the person about his weaknesses, by giving reassurance, by asking probing questions, or by providing empathic understanding.  I identified some of the important tasks a public assistance worker would have to perform and then built test items from the conceptual framework of (1) a moralistic person, who knew what people ought to do, (2) an interpretive person, who knew what insights the client ought to have, (3) a reassurance-giving person, who knew what it was to suffer, (4) a probing person, who always needed a bit more information, and (5) an empathic person, who could be with the individual as the individual experienced himself at each moment.  I was surprised at the high degrees of internal consistency that almost all of the test items yielded when analyzed.  This was true no matter what work setting was used.  But I could not connect these consistencies in conceptual patterns with any underlying motivations, and I was unwilling to take the position that behind any detectable consistency in conceptualization lies a special motivation.

In 1949 I read Man for Himself (Fromm, 1947).  I was intrigued with Fromm’s treatment of Freud’s assumption that behavior flows from how one’s character is organized.  Fromm saw the manner in which character is organized as stemming from certain motivations.  Here was a more complete model: first comes motivation, then character organization, and, finally behavior.

At that time, the prevailing concept of mental health was the absence of psychopathology.  Although Fromm alluded to “productivity” in his writing, he treated it in a very general manner as an expression of the power of loving and the power of thinking.  On the other hand, he was explicit about what he called the “nonproductive orientations.”  He identified (1) the receptive orientation, based on the need to receive from others; (2) the exploitative orientation, based on the need to take from others; (3) the hoarding orientation, based on the need to preserve from others; and (4) the marketing orientation, based on an alienation from one’s own potentials and the need to be connected with other people in whatever manner they accept.

Because I was working with a “clinical population” I began with the nonproductive orientations.  My aim was to develop a questionnaire that could be given to counselees to assess how they saw themselves (both negatively and positively) in terms of behavior traits representative of the four orientations.  Over the next few years, the questionnaire took on several different forms.  As the concept of personal congruence began to take form, I designed into one form of the questionnaire items that described one’s intentions, items that described how one acted, and items that described the emotional impact one made on others.  Before I had a chance to assess the validity of these items, I accepted another position in research, and my clinical records went into the files.

Some twelve years later, in 1971, I returned to my questionnaire with a fresh view.  I had become quite interested in the notion of heuristics: ideas, concepts, or models that lead to discovery.  (When everyone knew that the world was flat, the idea that the world was round served as a heuristic device; it led people to new discoveries.)  I wanted to redesign my questionnaire to assess only a person’s strengths in relating to others, rather than to discover pathologies.  I felt this would serve as an effective heuristic device.

I did not consider the “marketing orientation,” for in Fromm’s words, “The marketing orientation, however does not develop something which is potentially in the person, (unless we make the absurd assertion that ‘nothing’ is also part of the human equipment); its very nature is that no specific and permanent kind of relatedness is developed, but that the very changeability of attitudes is the only permanent quality of such orientation.”

I titled the new questionnaire the Strength Deployment Inventory and set about determining the internal consistency of the items.  I administered the inventory until I had enough subjects to do an item analysis.  After several rewrites, I was satisfied with the instrument and published it in its present form.

When I administered the inventory, I shared with the subjects what their scores might mean about how they tended to behave and what behavior traits seemed to be characteristic for them.  Repeatedly, people explained to me why they behaved as they did.  They gave me reasons for acting in one way or another.  And these reasons had to do with what they wanted from their relationships.

Finally, I rediscovered what I had learned earlier: behavior flows from conceptual orientation, and conceptual orientation flows from systems of strivings.  But the strivings that people talked about, the strivings as they experienced them, were not described in the sexual terms that Freud used nor were they described in the terms that Fromm proposed.  Individuals who predominantly displayed those behavior traits that Fromm associated with the receptive orientation (the striving to be given to) reported their major striving was to be genuinely helpful to and nurturant of others.  They had little or no concern for what they received in return.  I renamed this striving the Altruistic–Nurturing Motivation.  Individuals who predominantly displayed those behavior traits that Fromm associated with the exploitative orientation (the striving to take from others) reported their major concern was to be leaders of others, but not at others’ expense.  I called this striving Assertive–Directing Motivation.  Individuals who predominantly displayed those behavior traits that Fromm associated with the hoarding orientation (the striving for infinite security) reported their major concerns with logic and analysis to create order and achieve self-reliance and self-dependence (not independence) as their way of relating to their fellow men.  I named this striving the Analytic–Autonomizing Motivation.

As I began to conceive of these strivings as strivings for positive values, the quality of my interpretations of the inventory scores began to change and so did the responses to my interpretations.  I was convinced that I had produced a better heuristic device that could help lead people to self-discovery.

Another experience I had may extend Relationship Awareness Theory into the field of pathological behavior.  I introduced the theory to a small group of psychiatric technicians in charge of mentally ill offenders in a mental hospital.  On one ward was a man who had been charged with murder and declared too disturbed to stand trial.  He was described by the technicians as argumentative and a trouble-maker; he was considered potentially dangerous to other patients and to staff personnel.

This patient completed the Strength Deployment Inventory.  The technicians, as one might anticipate, predicted that he would score highest on the Assertive–Directing scale.  The opposite was true.  He scored lowest on the Assertive–Directing scale when “all was going well” and scored even lower on the Assertive–Directing scale when “faced with conflict and opposition.”  His highest scores were on the Altruistic–Nurturing scale under both conditions.  The technicians decided either the man had deliberately misrepresented himself or that the instrument was “no damn good.”  I was puzzled, but the man’s scores on the Assertive–Directing scale were very close to mine under both conditions; I know that when all is going well, I do not want to be in the position of directing the activity of others, and when faced with conflict and opposition, the last thing I want to do is to stand up and fight for my rights.  I can do it, but the results are likely to be explosive.  I am just not calibrated for self-assertion; it tends to be a “no go” for an insufferable period of time and then “go for the jugular” as a last resort, with nothing between.  I explained this to the technicians.  They conjectured that this might possibly be true of their patient.  Two months later they told me that they had been treating the man as a person who wanted to be of help around the ward and that his behavior on the ward improved to the point where he was transferred to the next higher ward.

Assuredly, this is but one case, and the man’s improvement could be due to any number of other things, but it does raise the questions of whether pathological behavior is a result of a person’s being forced into motivations he does not want and for which his behavior is poorly calibrated and whether that pathological behavior will be abandoned if a person finds gratification of his primary strivings.  These questions cannot be answered at this time.


Relationship Awareness Theory is a theory of interpersonal relationships rather than a theory of intrapsychic relationships (although the theory promises to bring a new view to the phenomenon we call personality).

FIRST PREMISE: The first major premise of the theory is that behavior traits are not conditioned responses or reinforced behaviors, as B.F. Skinner would imply, nor are they primary personality factors as Raymond Cattell stated (1971).  The theory assumed, as does Tolman’s theory, that behavior traits arise from purposive strivings for gratification mediated by concepts or hypotheses as to how to obtain those gratifications (Tolman, 1967).  Put in simplest terms, behavior traits are the consistencies in our behavior that stem from the consistencies in what we find gratifying in interpersonal relationships and the consistencies in our beliefs or concepts as to how to interact with other people in order to achieve those gratifications.

As we become increasingly aware of the gratifications we are seeking from others and examine our beliefs and concepts as to the best way to achieve those gratifications, we open ourselves to feedback on the efficacy of the behavior in which we engage, with the result that old patterns of behavior may be readily modified or even abandoned for more effective behavior patterns.

As we become increasingly aware of the gratifications that others are seeking from us, their behavior becomes more understandable to us and opens new avenues for the achievement of mutual gratification and the avoidance of Unwarranted Conflict that may arise when one person presumes that another person equally shares his beliefs and motivations.

Relationship Awareness Theory avoids the unspoken assumption underlying so many approaches to understanding human behavior that the world impinges upon the individual in a more or less uniform and undifferentiated manner so that, if one is able to assess an individual’s “primary personality factor,” one is able to predict, within the error of measurement, the pattern of the individual’s behavior in most, if not all, situations.  Relationship Awareness Theory holds this assumption, so often left unspoken, to be faulty and misleading.

SECOND PREMISE: As a second major premise, Relationship Awareness Theory holds that there are, at the very least, two clear, distinguishably different conditions in the stimulus world that affect patterns of behavior.  One of these conditions exists when we are free to pursue the gratifications we seek from others.  The second condition exists when we are faced with conflict and opposition so that we are not free to pursue our gratification, but must resort to the preservation of our own integrity and self-esteem.  The behavior traits we exhibit under these two conditions truly differ.  When we are free to pursue our gratifications, we are more or less uniformly predictable, but in the face of continuing conflict and opposition we undergo changes in motivations that link into different bodies of beliefs and concepts that are, in turn, expressed in yet different behavior traits.  We are predictably uniform in our behavior when we are free, and we are predictably variable as we meet with obstructing conditions in our stimulus worlds.

THIRD PREMISE: The third major premise is directly from Fromm: a personal weakness is no more, nor no less, than the overdoing of a personal strength.  An individual operates from personal “strength” when he behaves in a manner that enhances the probability that an interpersonal interaction will be a mutually productive interaction.  An individual operates from personal weakness when he behaves in a way that decreases the probability that an interpersonal interaction will be a mutually productive interaction.  To act in a trusting manner is a strength; it enhances the probability of mutual productivity. To act in an overly trusting or gullible manner is a weakness; it decreases the probability of mutual productivity and increases the probability of a destructive or, at least, a nonproductive outcome for one or even both of the individuals concerned.  The same things can be said for being self-confident and its nonproductive form, being overly self-confident or arrogant.  To be cautious is a strength; to be overly cautious or suspicious is a weakness.

When the premise that behavior traits are purposive strivings for gratification is coupled with the premise that weaknesses are strengths overdone, a new dimension in understanding is open to us as facilitators.  Whether a given individual is operating from his strengths or from his weaknesses, we should be able to assess the gratifications for which he is striving and, as psychotherapists or facilitators, help the individual assess the effectiveness of his beliefs and concepts about how to interact with other people to obtain the gratification he seeks.

FOURTH PREMISE: A fourth premise relates to two distinctions that can be made among personality theories.  First, the concepts inherent in some theories are remote and distant from how one experiences one’s self, but the concepts inherent in other theories approximate how one experiences one’s self.  The second distinction is that in some theories the concepts used amount to labels, while in other theories the concepts lead to further self-discovery.

Erik Erikson, in “Childhood and Society” (1974), writes, “In introjection we feel and act as if [emphasis mine] an outer goodness had become an inner certainty.  In projection, we experience an inner harm as an outer one: we endow significant people with the evil which actually is in us.”  I intend in no way to discount the validity of Erickson’s assertion, but I do want to point out that the person who is engaged in introjection or in projection does not experience himself as doing so.  These concepts are distant from immediate experience.  For example, when I am engaging in projection, I need to have someone point out and more or less prove to me that I am projecting.  The concept of projection does not serve me very well as a heuristic device; it does not lead me to much self-discovery.  It may have heuristic value to me as a facilitator or therapist observing and discovering the behaviors of others, however.

Transactional Analysis offers a set of concepts much closer to how we experience ourselves, which serve as rather effective devices for self-discovery.  One can rather readily grasp the concepts of “Parent,” “Adult,” “Child,” and “transactions” and understand many of one’s relationships with others in these terms.  These more experience-proximate concepts not only lead more readily to self-discovery, but also point to what can be done to change one’s behavior for more effective interpersonal relationships.

The fourth premise, then, is simply that the more clearly the concepts in a personality theory approximate how one experiences one’s self, the more effectively they serve as devices for self-discovery.  The more a personality theory can be for a person rather than about a person, the better it will serve that person.  By implication, were the concepts in personality theory sufficiently close to how we experience ourselves, psychotherapists might well become trainers and the concepts become healers.  I don’t think we are there, as yet, but I think that concepts in Relationship Awareness Theory are closer to that possibility than Fromm’s concepts of receptive, exploitative, hoarding and marketing orientations, closer than Karen Horney’s concepts of moving toward others, moving against others, and moving from others (Horney, 1950), and closer than the concepts of Parent, Adult and Child of Transactional Analysis.


The first set of experience-proximate concepts of Relationship Awareness Theory relates to the first premise, that behavior traits are purposive strivings for gratification.  According to the theory, there are three distinguishably different basic strivings in relating to others.  The first is the striving to be nurturant of another – wanting to be genuinely helpful to the other person and to see the other person do well – and we all experience ourselves as wanting to be helpful in some of our relationships.  The second is the striving to be in the position of directing events – to set goals and be the leader – and we all experience at times wanting to be the person in charge.  The third is the striving for autonomy, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency, and we all experience at times wanting to do things for ourselves without help or direction from others.  For some individuals, one of these motivations may be predominant.

The second set of concepts relates to the second premise, that there are two distinguishably different conditions in the stimulus world that affect patterns of behavior.  When an individual is free to pursue his gratification, the nurturant motivation takes the form of actively seeking to be helpful to others, the directive motivation takes the form of self-assertion and seeking opportunity to provide leadership (in the conventional sense of leadership), and the autonomizing motivation takes the form of actively seeking logical orderliness and self-reliance.

In the face of conflict and opposition, the nurturant motivation is expressed in efforts to preserve and restore harmony, the directive motivation is expressed in efforts to prevail over the other person, and the autonomizing motivation is expressed in efforts to conserve resources and assure independence.

The third set of concepts is based on the third premise, that a weakness is the overdoing of a strength.  Here the concepts are those of actual overdoing and perceived overdoing of strengths.  The actual overdoing of a trait, for example, is trusting to the point of being gullible, being self-confident to the point of being arrogant, being cautious to the point of being suspicious, and so on.  Perceived overdoing occurs, for example, when someone in whom the nurturing motivation is high interacts with someone in whom the directing motivation is high.  When the latter acts quickly with self-confidence, ambition and directness, the highly nurturant person may well perceive him as arrogant, aggressive, overbearing and rash.  Perceived overdoing is somewhat akin to projection as described by Erikson, but it seems to be more over-reacting to behavior in others that would be considered inappropriate for one’s self.

The fourth set of concepts is based on the fourth premise, that when the concepts in a personality theory are more closely related to how we experience ourselves, they serve as more effective heuristic devices for self-discovery as well as for understanding the behavior of others.  For example, if one knows where he is “coming from” (the gratification he seeks) and he knows where another person is “coming from” (the gratifications the other person seeks), he may assess whether a conflict is unwarranted or real.  If it is unwarranted, he may devise strategies for achieving win-win (mutually gratifying) solutions; if the conflict is real, he may attempt to develop a limited relationship or decide to terminate the relationship.  Whatever one decides to do may be done with insight and without violating his integrity or the integrity of the other person.

Relationship Awareness Theory seeks to provide first and foremost an effective means to understanding one’s self and understanding others, to the end that interpersonal interactions may be made as mutually productive and gratifying as possible or, where they cannot be mutually productive, that destructiveness of individual integrity be minimized.


Cattell, R.B. Abilities: Their Structure, Growth and Action. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1971.

Erikson, E. Childhood and Society. New York: W.W. Norton, 1974.

Fromm, E. Man For Himself. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1947.

Horney, K. Neurosis and Human Growth. New York: W.W.Norton, 1950.

Tolman, E.C. Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men. New York: Irvington Books, 1967.

*Minor changes in vocabulary were made to Dr. Porter’s article for clarity and consistency with updated terminology.