Transactional values motivate every human interaction

Writing is a stupendous thing. I type something on my laptop in English and through the magic of the internet and Google translate people in other countries who don’t even speak English can access what I’ve written, understand it; decode it inside their heads using their own perception as a filter and then, build on it by adding their own abstract thoughts to it.

My writing then, my thoughts in visible form activate someone else’s thoughts. My action of writing is now impacting upon the decisions and actions of others. If magic needed an example to prove it could exist, this just has to be it.

And it all happened because sometime in our not too distant past we needed to be able to count goods being traded (you really need to visit the link). Now, you might think that this is such an unpoetic reason to develop writing. No emotion, no pathos, not even the need to communicate thought. Just the need to count jars of wine and oil, loaves of bread and sacks of wheat. Even worse now, you’re thinking that since writing, this awesome capacity to transmigrate insubstantial thoughts and ideas from one’s head into a tangible medium where they can be seen, ingested, digested, regurgitated, stored and re-visited, developed from transactional needs, my take that everything is transactional is probably the worst possible takeaway one can have.

You’re thinking that I am now about to denigrate every human interaction into an exchange of some kind where each party gets something, without which no transaction would take place. You’re right I am. But no, I am denigrating nothing. Here are two basic truths: A. Everything has to start from something. B. Nothing happens without a reason. A cannot happen without B. B is entirely reliant upon A. It is a never-ending loop.

So, now think about what that implies when it comes to the moment we invented writing. In order for a transaction to take place we need some ingredients in various amounts:

  • Trust (otherwise we are talking zero transactions to begin with)
  • Empathy (in order to understand other’s intent and likely behavior)
  • Cooperation (even within zero sum game environments a degree of cooperation becomes inevitable)
  • Abstract thinking (suddenly all of the above need to somehow be encoded and represented in some medium that third parties can see)
  • Communication (which suggests some kind of oversight, otherwise how do you establish authenticity)
  • Accountability (when something is measured and agreed upon by everyone then everyone along the chain of handling becomes responsible when things go wrong and goods don’t tally)

This is an incredible amount of work, effort, innovation and even invention that needs to happen just so some farmer somewhere can sell a couple of sacks of wheat to some villa owner somewhere else (excuse my over-the-top stereotyping here, it adds flavor to the scenario). The real point is that when something becomes worth a lot of effort it acquires value and value demands investment and investment returns even greater value.

So, the moment we started writing things down so we can exchange much needed goods with some measure of trust and oversight, we also created a channel of communication that could be used to communicate others things, such as feelings, passion and ideas. These too are transactional events where someone invests time and effort in their encoding because they feel it is of value to communicate them in the first instance.

Poems, stories, blog posts and Tweets are just a long line of steps that refine this process over time. See them as incremental improvements, if you like. Each one does exactly what incremental improvements do for a company trading in a product: they introduce an additional element or dimension to it that changes it slightly. They broaden the reach of the audience. They enable some fresh interactive capability. The fundamentals however remain the same.

Take this model into any other human interaction you can think of: selling (this is what started writing to begin with), marketing (a refinement of communication with a specific intent), marriage (arguably a fundamental transaction that began with the ‘trade’ of a woman for something which has, thankfully, been refined to the point that we now require an emotional connection and the exchange of more than goods for it to take place), murder (perhaps not the most advisable of transactions but, again, at its point of execution someone has made the judgement that it is preferable to the alternatives and there is benefit to be derived from the action).

There is a flaw to all this. It assumes that human beings are logical actors. We’re not. Most of the time we are guided by the basic drives of our ancient past dressed in seemingly logical and romanticized explanations (i.e. we marry only out of love – which fails to explain the divorce rate, we respond to adverts based upon our needs; an explanation that fails the moment you mention “retail therapy”).

So, have I fooled you? Did you get this far only to be told that everything is not transactional? No. Everything is transactional just not quite the way I have laid it out. What my writing has done (beyond communicate this abstract idea I had to you so you can consider it and find ways to benefit from it) is formalize the relational exchange that takes place every time there is a transaction.

Most human beings, unless they are either trained or extremely highly motivated, aren’t that analytical. But an analysis of sorts always takes place, albeit at a subliminal, visceral level. The deciding factor is cost. What will it cost someone in time, energy and effort to do something (even give someone a hug) and what will they get in return. The inescapable fact is that we are hardwired to seek a Return-On-Investment (ROI) in everything we do because our survival demands it. Just because everything is transactional is not the same as saying that everything is up for sale, however.

In a more modern context, where a constantly hostile environment is not a real thing, this translates into fairly complex modes of behavior (the writing of Operas and the running into a fire to save a stranger) but these also are transactional events. The only difference is that for the participants the “give” and “get” components of their internal algorithm that calculates ROI are sufficiently rarefied to no longer be considered crude, primitive or morally reprehensible (you know, the sort of labels that get bandied about when transactional reality kicks in).

Does any of this change anything? Yes. It actually changes everything. By refusing to believe in the transactional nature of things we frequently make judgements based on the wrong assumptions. By failing to understand that our emotions have a transactional value we try to devalue them in favor of what we believe to be a more rational approach. We usually end up in trouble in either case.

What drives us forward, what makes us do things, what motivates us when nothing else will, are the things we hold dear. The things we believe will help us survive and improve. The things that will benefit us (in the broadest sense possible). By understanding this we are then capable of creating the abstraction that represents them inside our heads. And that, just like writing, transforms everything else.


Go Deeper: 

Intentional: How to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully by David Amerland   The Sniper Mind by David Amerland