Psychological Spectrum Theory (PST) and HR

For thousands of years man has been seeking to explain one of those last great mysteries. Up there with the boson and the parallel universe is human psychology. Attempts to understand it have generally been made through religion and science – with the scientific approach itself being through classical medicine and a Freudian approach which is more holistic. Yet, in spite of all this effort, very little has been gained that can help men to reduce greed, prevent suicide, or end wars.

Back in the early nineteenth century the world was viewed in a very mechanical way. It was only with the dawn of physics and the work of Faraday and Maxwell that we started to see it in terms of its electromagnetic properties – allowing us to understand that light, magnetism and radio waves are all part of a single phenomenon. Yet in terms of human experience light is an extremely simple concept. Particular the existence of primary colours.  Artists had known instinctively since the dawning of civilization that light was essentially a mixture of red, blue and green. It was quickly realised that receptors in our eyes could detect each of these and process them into an infinite mixture of subtle colour differences.  Light could also change and therefore take on dynamic properties.

The existence of complex phenomena derived from a simple basic structure also applies to sound. Music itself is made up of seven notes, but out of the combination of these has come a seemingly infinite number of melodies and symphonies.

So could there be some philosopher’s stone of human psychology, some key to unlock our understanding of that most important determinant of behaviour? In the last century Paul Ekman identified six and Robert Plutchik eight basic emotions. However, some of those they selected clearly overlapped with each other and they did not conceive that the structure of human emotion is not experienced in terms of emotional categories, but the interplay of basic emotions in different intensities – just like the nature of light.

When we are born we see the world largely through the wish for, and denial, of wants. However, we quickly learn that the world does not always satisfy those wants and that it cannot only leave us hungry, but also vulnerable, confused and alone. We discover pain and start to learn how we can avoid it. We find that by acting in certain ways wants are more readily satisfied and pain minimised. So already, by just a few weeks old we have started to be driven not just by desire, but fear.  As we mature, learn to walk, speak and read our life becomes more complex. We gain a concept of time passing that was initially denied us as a small infant. We therefore become motivated by another key emotion – hope.

All human experience, all the way we think is through the medium of these three primary emotions. Like the three primary colours, they can each differ in intensity. But in the case of emotions this is around a point which is socially determined – the psychological norm. The interplay of our primary emotions can lead to a wide range of derivative emotions we label as if they were of equal importance. Putting aside subtle scales of variance, we can already determine the composition of many secondary emotions.

Happiness is positively charged hope and desire, but negatively charged fear. In the examples which follow the positive sign (+) stands for higher than the norm and the negative (-) lower than the norm.

HAPPINESS is.         ANGER is         LOVE is.         DEPRESSION is

Hope +.                      –                            +                           –

Desire +.                    +                            +                           –

Fear –                        +                            +                           +

Jealousy is just one of the many variants of desire, an anger without fear

Hope –

Desire ++

Fear –

Ambition is also one of the many variants of happiness

Hope ++

Desire ++

Fear –

Moreover, it is possible to have a mix of primary emotions that contain the norm. For instance:

Contentment is

Hope =

Desire =

Fear =

Whereas braveness is

Hope +

Desire =

Fear –

Understanding this typology is, however, just the starting point for understanding human psychology. But even in its simplest form it allows us to understand what underpins our reactions to things, our moods and behaviours. Consider, for instance our typology for love. It varies from happiness by the existence of fear. But by its very nature love involves a commitment, an exclusive focus for hopes and desires that also contains the possibility of loss. So when someone says they are in love it is not entirely a comfortable experience. It is a struggle that makes people act in certain ways. It can swing rapidly too into other states such as jealousy because it is inherently unstable.

As people mature many instinctively understand the interaction of primary emotions just like artists understood primary colours before their discovery by physicists. Those most skilled in this field become novelists or highly effective HR managers.

PST in Human Resource Management

There are few occupations where applied psychology is more essential than HR management. Even the teacher has the advantage of maturity, the prospect of future assessments and a classroom seating plan to maintain order. But most modern workers are not regimented into precisely defined roles or enjoy more than the prospect of a salary they anyway often consider to be too low. When a problem arises, there is usually not enough time to make a complex conventional assessment of motives or the relationship between the internal mental states of all the actors.

But it would be possible to determine what primary emotions are at play. How have events affected an individual’s hopes? What has heightened their fears?  How can their inflated desires for attention, that interesting assignment or extra day off be quickly conditioned to bring them to the norm? How much have primary emotions in an individual’s private life invaded the workplace? Has someone’s health condition or the influence of a barbiturate heightened their emotional state? Knowing which of the primary emotions is dominant is a starting point to managing the situation.

The advantage too, of PST is that it can be applied by straightforward questioning, observation and inference. Thus, focussing on hope to overcome anger can be a useful shortcut to calming things down. If there is nothing else available to offer by way of hope then there is always the HR manager’s own expectations of an individual to draw upon. “When you joined us Edgar I had great hopes for you…. This all comes as a disappointment.” Then there is the detection of innate hopes “What would you really like to be doing in the company over the next few years? How can we see if we can make that happen? This draws hopes and desires into line. If they are unrealistic then they can be brought down to earth gently by suggesting more realistic goals.

By far the biggest determinant of poor behaviour arises from fear. Determining the nature and level of an individual’s fears can be key in anger management. The power of primary emotions can also be shared with errant employees to help them identify the cause of their dysfunctional actions. It is particularly effective to confront those who exhibit violent outbursts with the underlying fears that they possess. Of course, there are emotional states which arise from mental illness where such actions are inappropriate and it is important to identify this from the outset. One way to do this is to determine if what the employee says is making sense and if their reactions are triggered by something readily identifiable. Someone who is deranged may make those around them feel uncomfortable, but there are also sociopathic individuals who appear quite normal on the surface, but are nevertheless deeply disturbed and sometimes dangerous.

Although “a little knowledge” may be a dangerous thing there is a place for nonspecialists to use what tools there are available to deal with the vast majority of human situations found in the workplace. PST may appear to be oversimplified, but so is the perfectly balanced mixture of the three primary colours – that produce white light.

Copyright: Robin E.J Chater 2018/19