Primitive Behavior; Not So Primitive Reasons!

I’ve been noticing a pattern lately and I have to talk about it now because it frustrates me to see people’s behaviors misinterpreted time and time again!

The Cyclical Patterns of Behavior

In the course of development of a quality, skill or ability, cyclical patterns of behavior are often observed; behavior in advanced stages might look identical to behavior in less developed, more primitive stages.

Consequently, it follows to say that a behavior that is typical of the middle stages of development is the most socially acceptable; all others are rejected, even persecuted.

More often than not, people behave in ways we perceive as uncivilized, disobedient, irrational, stupid or even crazy. We judge their behavior without considering the reasons and motives behind it.

Someone breaking the law is automatically labeled an outlaw, a coworker asking “stupid and obvious questions” is immediately alienated, a person making decisions based on a hunch or a gut feeling is considered irrational, etc.

Granted, some of these behaviors are indeed signs of low moral, intellectual, or social development. However, in some cases, these same behaviors are unmistakable indicators of above average, even superior development.

Three Overworked Employees

Vincent, Valerie, and Victor are product managers at a multinational pharmaceutical company. With a CV full of jaw-dropping accomplishments, an array of luxury possessions and a 6-figure income, they are at the epitome of success by every standard imaginable.

Lately, their company conducted an extensive market research, discovered unmet needs, and as such decided to expand its drugs portfolio. Instead of hiring more people, the CEO decided to dump the additional workload on our protagonists and their teams. He was, in fact, exploiting a clause in the employment contract stating that “employees must conduct their duties both during normal business hours and during such additional hours as necessary for the proper performance of their responsibilities”. To make things even worse, the CEO was covered by local legislation.

The managers were furious but decided to bite the bullet and just do the job. What power do they have after all?

Nine months later, the extreme working conditions had already taken their toll on both the managers and their subordinates. On top of the back pains, dark circles and newly acquired all-star status at local coffee shops, the employees were no longer able to sustain healthy personal lives.

A year had passed. It was time for the company’s annual performance reviews. To the surprise of all, Victor was highly praised by the CEO for his work ethics, while Vincent and Valerie received a warning each about their “insolent, insubordinate and disobedient behavior”; both were seldom on time for work, stopped taking care of their additional workload and demanded to be relieved from it at once.

In their feedback session with their supervisor, each of the three gave the following explanations.


What’s in it for me? A year ago, my workload doubled, yet my compensation remained the same. This doesn’t make sense! How do you expect me to abide by company policy if you give me nothing in return? Pardon me, but this is plain stupid. Anyway, I haven’t told anyone yet, not even my team, but I might as well announce the good news right now. I’ve been on the lookout for another job opportunity and I’ve just landed a more lucrative offer at a major competitor. To hell with you all!


Well, I was just doing my job. I know things have been hectic lately, especially with the launch of the new products. But this is what we are paid for. My employment contract clearly anticipates potential increments in workload. After all, what would happen to the company if employees were to stop performing their duties?


I have been “disobedient” on purpose! It hurts to see everyone, myself included, suffering from job-induced personal problems and health issues. This is NOT acceptable. In fact, it is against all the values I hold dear to my heart. At the risk of sounding overly idealistic, I’d like to remind you that life ought to be more important than profit. As such, I believe it’s my duty to disobey company policy when it reduces people to mere resources and jeopardizes human dignity!  

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) postulated that morality develops gradually following 3 consecutive phases: pre-conventional morality, conventional morality, and post-conventional morality. But how does this relate to our story?

Vincent – The Preconventional Moralist

Vincent does not care about anyone but himself. Since he’s not gaining anything from the extra workload, he’s better off breaking company policy and ditching his team for a more lucrative opportunity.

In this phase, the focus of morality is on the self. Preconventional moralists look for ways to avoid punishment and increase pleasure. They do not shy away from breaking the rules if they can get away with it. It is, for lack of a better expression, the philosophy of the ethical egoist.

Victor – The Conventional Moralist

Victor is the law-abiding citizen, the “employee of the month”. He wants to maintain his good reputation and strives to preserve law and order within the company.

In this phase, the focus of morality is on social norms. Moral behavior is any behavior that society deems moral. Most adults operate at this stage. Makes sense, since social conformity is a big thing for most of us!

Valerie – The Postconventional Moralist

Valerie evokes universal values in her reasoning. She is defending her breaking the rules by referring to higher moral principles. In her opinion, human dignity is above law, rules, and dreams of wealth. With a lot to lose and little to gain from her “insubordinate behavior”, she is motivated by keeping her conscience spotless and the satisfaction of doing the right thing.

In this phase, the focus of morality is on the individual’s interpretation of universal moral principles. Laws are not set in stone but seen as tools to promote human welfare. They must be constantly revised to make sure they achieve the higher goals of society. According to Kohlberg, only 10-15% of us reach this stage. Plausible, no? even more so when we learn that Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were post-conventional moralists. Both resorted to civil disobedience against oppressive laws and social norms.

Always Seek Deeper Understanding


Victor’s behavior is the most common, the most socially acceptable. You don’t see employees rebelling against their employer every day, do you? In fact, it is very safe to conform to established social norms.

Although Vincent and Valerie display almost identical behavior, they do it for completely different reasons. Vincent has nothing to lose. He’s already landed a more compelling job offer somewhere else. Rebelling and resorting to selfish pre-conventional morality is a luxury he can afford. Valerie, on the other hand, does not have a plan B. She is rebelling because she’s irritated by the outrageous adoption of “modern-day slavery”. Her moral reasoning is, by all measures, the most developed.

To the uncritical observer, Vincent and Valerie are degenerate individuals; Victor is the most principled. To the critical observer, however, Valerie is the sole hope of mankind!

Meaning, Happiness & Knowledge

It all starts with a thought experiment involving our friend Caesar the ape. Yes, I am referring to the same Caesar from the “Planet of the Apes” movie, before he, so recklessly, became addicted to IQ steroids. A small, more fun twist to the story, I know.

Caesar Suffers…

When logotherapy pioneer, Dr. Victor Frankl (1905-1997) stepped into a group therapy session, he asked the attendees

“… whether an ape which was being used to develop a poliomyelitis serum, and for this reason punctured again and again, would ever be able to grasp the meaning of its suffering. Unanimously, the group replied that of course it would not; with its limited intelligence, it could not enter into the world of man […]”

Then, Dr. Frankl followed with another question

“And what about man? Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos? Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world behind man’s world ; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?”

Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl

So What?

If I, as a man, fail to realize the meaning of my suffering in particular, and the meaning of my life in general, then it must be because I lack the cognitive keys to unlock these insights.

Granted, human awareness has its limitations. But if I strive to educate myself and constantly seek depth of understanding, I will eventually land on a crucial piece of information that would instigate a major perspective shift and bring about a new life purpose.

In more scientific terms, meaning is all about the connections and associations made between seemingly disparate pieces of information and data. The more knowledge I collect, the more meaning I can extract.

Meaning is the meta-data of life; it’s life explaining itself.

Even if, in my search for knowledge, I were to uncover an unpleasant truth, I should still be grateful, because only now am I able to make a conscious choice on how to tackle the situation; only now have I the wisdom to discern between the things that I must accept and those that I can change.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference

Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr 

Actionable Meaning

I define “actionable meaning” as newly acquired insight that can be acted on to achieve tangible results, thus increasing happiness.

Some very short examples to illustrate what I mean.

Having learned basic genetics, a doubtful young boy realizes that he could not have inherited his AB blood type from his parents, both of whom are blood type O. He must be adopted. Naturally, he will take action by seeking an explanation and looking for his biological parents. He is living a lie no more. Acting on this new insight is his first step to true happiness.

In the case of our friend Caesar, when he overdosed on IQ steroids, he became painfully aware of the unpleasant meaning of his suffering: the merciless exploitation of his species to cure human diseases. This newly discovered insight demanded action. He had to do something. He rebelled, surrounded himself with loyal followers and wreaked havoc in the kingdom of men. By acting on his insights, he ended the suffering of his fellow apes and increased the happiness and wellbeing of his species.

That’s it… for now!


  • The more I learn, the more I’ll be able to make connections and extract meaning
  • Some meaning will have an actionable element to it
  • Acting on newly acquired meaning will increase my net happiness