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!

8 thoughts on “Primitive Behavior; Not So Primitive Reasons!

  1. That is absolutely true and describes a collective problem so perfectly. If someone dares to speak against established social values, they are weirded out, even if doing so for a constructive purpose. Absolutely nailed it. Looking forward to more on this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic analysis- layers deeper than many would venture. Do you think Victor could ever be seen as weak for conforming and accepting the workload? Do you think that Vincent or Valerie might ever be seen as having stronger leadership potential because they are willing to break the rules? Sometimes I think people are punished for obeying and keeping their heads down and others are admired for their gutsiness and rebellious attitude (if within reason)….Cultural differences may be at play.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Cristina for your extremely valuable comment!
      I think the answer to your questions depends on the level of awareness of the issue at hand; if everyone knows that there’s a problem in the system, then Victor would be considered weak, conforming and lacking the courage to speak up, while Vincent and Valerie would be perceived as potential leaders; Vincent being the false leader and Valerie the true one.
      However, if the problem exists but very few people are aware of it, then this establishes Victor as a good citizen, but alienates Vincent and Valerie as degenerate rebels. In most people’s eyes, Valerie does not even have a cause to fight for, when in fact she does!
      So to summarize, “awareness of the masses” determines how the characters are perceived. It’s almost like living in the Matrix. From the perspective of someone stuck in the Matrix, Neo is a rebel. From the perspective of those outside, he is the chosen one!
      Hope this makes sense 😉


    2. Let’s start with a simple question: what would happen if everyone behaved like Vic, Vin or Val? As a system, the company in this case, will only do well if everyone behaves like Vincent, and if we extrapolate this to society as a whole, we can kind of understand why it is so important that people behave in this way. Alternatively we could ask ourselves the opposite questions (what if no one…), in which case I would agree that behaviors such as Val’s or Vic’s are necessary because they may help lead to change. I’m not sure however any one of these could be deemed as more or less able to lead though… can you elaborate on that?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Let’s put it this way! Change must not be undertaken for the sake of change. It must serve a purpose.

        If a system works fine and there is no need for improvement, then trying to take it down is a destructive act usually undertaken by preconventional moralists like Vincent, seeking to extract more value for himself. Vincent is a rogue leader who attracts rogue individuals. Rogue individuals seek to maximize their own welfare all the time, which is not very sustainable. Eventually, the brotherhood of the outlaws would self-destruct and collapse.

        However, if a stable system is inherently flawed, then people like Valerie will try to change it in order to establish another more optimal status quo. Granted, the phase between the current equilibrium and the next is very turbulent. Sacrifices must be made. However, the end result is almost always worth the price. Valerie, in this case, is a true leader who unites people under a single vision or story. Her followers would want to help her realize that vision, thus creating an ecosystem of sustainable leadership, a leadership that lasts!


  3. Mohamad- I like your “awareness of the masses” explanation for how individuals perceive behavior, but I wonder if there is one more layer. Isn’t it true that sometimes individuals in a group are aware of a situation but collectively they pretend not to be? I’m thinking back to my parents’ stories growing up in communist Romania. Everyone “knew”, but could anyone really speak up?

    If everyone is aware and it is ok to speak up, I think Vincent and Valerie are considered leadership material (and hopefully the masses can tease out that Valerie has the purer intentions). Victor, in sticking with the system, may even notice others turning against him. He may become the enemy, rather than the weak follower. I guess he should be careful in choosing which side to blindly follow.

    When everyone is aware and there are consequences for speaking up, Vincent and Valerie become martyrs (though only Valerie really deserves the title) and Victor is regarded with indifference because everyone is Victor.

    Harald- I like your question about how the world and leadership would look if everyone behaved like Victor, Vincent, or Valerie.

    A world of Victors probably makes no progress. Time stands still and any leader would probably by nominated and reluctantly take the role. Victors don’t want that kind of power….

    A world of individualists like Vincents likely regresses into autocracy – Every Vincent wants to be in charge. After a good flight, the strongest Vincent comes to power.

    A world of Valeries? That one is hard to imagine. Where everyone is principled and cares for others… I wonder how the head Valerie would be chosen here. The most generous or selfless? Don’t we need a dose of individualism to get by though? This society sounds like it could be a little bland and colorless… I don’t know why but I’m picturing a society like the one in “The Giver”

    In any case, in the end, I’m glad we have Vincents, Valeries, and Victors in this world. We need many aspiring leaders to compare and find the best one and we need followers in order for leadership to exist…

    Mohamad, apologies if I took any of your characters to their extremes but it’s a bit more fun to debate that way 🙂


    1. Cristina,

      I think if we dig deep in the world history, we would mostly find examples of people who recognized what was wrong with their societies, but were too afraid to speak up due to the threats of oppressive political or social powers. In this context, everybody is aware of the problem, everybody knows that others are aware of it, but nobody dares to voice the issue for fear of persecution. Under these circumstances, people who assume the responsibility to voice the problem (usually the Valeries of the world, not the Vincents since these are guided primarily by their sense of self-preservation) would become martyrs indeed, but they would also help polarize the people, creating a chain reaction for change. I believe this is exactly what happened in 2011 with the Arab Spring, the onset of which was the result of the courage of a few daring individuals.

      Now the real challenge for any leader is to get the Victors to his or her side. As you mentioned, every leader needs followers and society cannot function with too many heads. Your job as a leader is to create the circumstances that allow society to move from a suboptimal status-quo to a more optimal one. To be successful in doing so, you need the Victors to adopt and believe in your vision. You also need them to preserve the results once achieved.

      Regarding your comment about a world dominated by Valeries. I agree with you, it would look bland and colorless indeed. Idealism is great up to a point and must be taken in very small doses to have the desired impact. Overly idealistic people fail to acknowledge that it’s OK for people not to be perfect. It’s OK for them to have selfish needs and desires. In the most extreme cases, idealistic people could become the very thing they try to fight against, a destructive power, because they fail to empathize with the world and the people around them; they fail to recognize that imperfections and mistakes are part of the human condition.

      I would also venture to say that, as a person, you need to integrate all three personalities within your psyche. If we draw the analogy with Freud’s theories about the structure of the psyche, Vincent would be the Id, Victor the Ego and Valerie the Super Ego. Every person gives different weights to each of these components, but the challenge is to create balance and harmony without repressing or inflating any of them.

      I hope I addressed the points you raised. Please let me know if I didn’t and thank you very much for contributing to the conversation 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s