Point of View: Hunger or Appetite?


This short article introduces a distinction that was very important to Johnson’s work - it first surfaces in this work in 1966 but is explained at length in this article. Stated in a slightly different idiom, the distinction between hunger and appetite parallels one between physiological needs and cultivated desires.

Underlying the attitude of all behavioral sciences toward motivation is a common concept of our inner urgings. This persuasion might be labeled hunger, but it is applied to success, affection, drugs, righteousness, sex, and money as well as to food. I question seriously its adequacy as an explanation for human motivation.

Etymologically, the word hunger has Indo-European roots related to a burning or a drying up. It now signifies a weakness or discomfort caused by a need or craving. The thrust is sensory. We experience hunger passively, relief characterized by acquisition of food, drugs or money, is just as effective when received without effort as it would be if we reached out for it.

A systems analyst might construct a model for hunger which shows simple “negative feedback” processes in which relief through acquisition lowers the energy expended in the direction. When satisfaction is complete, hunger-reducing behavior will stop. And although the hunger almost inevitably returns after an interval, no tactic can bring it back before its time.

Now consider the word appetite, indicating a more dynamic and complex incentive.Its Latin roots convey a striving and an eagerness, its most essential ingredient our own active participation. Far more a motor experience than a sensory one, appetite does not diminish with our continued pursuit, as would hunger. Rather, it is a self-referent process which grows from effort. A systems analyst would find appetite exceedingly difficult to model. Not only are the feedbacks complex and changing, but the system’s direction is heavily dependent upon the system’s context. There lies the core of the problem. Appetites are difficult to describe or measure or even to rank-order experimentally principally because they are highly context-sensitive and incommensurable.

Mathematicians and our other descriptive sciences have not yet developed a context-sensitive calculus. As communicators through language, human beings deal informally and effortlessly with contextual matters at all times, but have no formal or technical means for understanding them. In fact, the steps we take in setting up a “valid experi­mental procedure” are precisely those which stop the experiment of sensitivity to influences either outside of our control or dependent primarily upon our manner of observation.

A specific hunger is conceived of as nameable and quantifiable the subject was deprived of X for T hours The result, a single-valued, roughly monotonic function increasing with time, is easily reported upon in print: i.e. its definition is context-free in that it can be applied to similar subjects in similar situations, without consideration of those subjects’ involvement in the processes around them or of their prior experience. Scientific credibility is, of course, thought to be based upon reproducibility

Thus, appetite stands in further con­trast to hunger: it is not so easily named, described, quantified and repeated. It also receives little scientific notice. A rare exception is a paper by A J Meunnger, “Animals Respond for Food in the Presence of Free Food.” The abstract: “Pigeons pecked a response disk to gain access to grain rewards while identical gram was freely available from a cup within the experimental chamber. Similarly, rats pressed a lever for food pellets while free pellets were present” The conclusions: “animals often emit instru­mental responses which reduce no biological need and abolish no threat. To make an animal press a lever for food, one need not first deprive or otherwise motivate the animal The act of producing food can serve as its own motivation and therefore as its own reward.” (Science. Vol 166. No 17)

This country’s psychologists, appear to recognize B. F. Skinner’s principles of Operant conditioning as the major innovative work of recent years. J will grant that Skinner’s insight into the efficacy of rewarding motor response has been a profound step forward in the science of behavioral shaping and control; however, he has not carried that insight back to the subject’s natural setting in an accustomed, unrestricted environment. If one were to start from an appetite-based hypothesis, a subject in a severely information-limited surrounding would be expected to respond eagerly to stimuli; responses produce change. But if the subject were allowed as wide a variety of meaningful responses as his natural setting can provide, we might witness a great elaboration of behavior arising as appetites play and change focus. A science that seeks to parse behavior into nameable compo­nents does not permit such an uncon­trolled creation of new forms.

We have more opportunity to observe appetite at work outside the laboratory. It is appetite for his own involvement in personal change which induces a laborer to spend his lunch money and bus fare on a book or a concert ticket, another sort of appetite transforms some “Weight Watchers” into fanatical performers of their daily abstinence. Or consider the process of seduction. How could one possibly describe seduction in any convincing way from a hunger model without first having to postulate one or more instinctive hungers operating or latent in the quarry? Such postulates are made, but are they necessary?

Hunger exists, the excruciating dis­comforts of narcotics withdrawal are very real and call forth highly motivated acts directed towards turning them off. But how did this hunger cycle start? In the March, 1964 Scientific American. J R. Weeks describes a technique of providing animals the means to self-administer narcotics injections. He tells us that self­administration is a necessary tactic of the study, but does not mention that the appetitive processes induced thereby may be an essential step in the onset of addiction. J. R. Nichols in the February, 1965 Scientific American, expresses surprise that a statistically - significant one per cent of our nation’s doctors are addicted to drugs Nichols wonders whether self-administration is a factor; he points out that some hospitals have used fairly massive doses of pain-control drugs, without sub­sequent addiction, in patients who had no active role in drug administration. Doses were given on a random time­schedule so that patients could not even request treatment.

What are the implications? I suggest that the first stage of drug dependence is established by the individual’s de­velopment of an appetite for the proc­ess of self-administration. His active role provides the strongest possible identification of the narcosis source The hunger cycle arises thereafter, but the initial hook is of the addict’s own making. Addiction might be avoided through substitution of some other appetitive activity.

In a more cosmic realm are the dialectical arguments of Socialism and Capitalism. When human survival is at stake, there may be a kind of “conservation law” of human energies which precludes other activities than the daily struggle to mollify hungers; whether the work ethic aims at a com­mon goal or individual interest, it car­ries the compulsion Io produce tangi­ble goods and services in return for some symbolic wealth. Idle deviations from the norm are not tolerated under such circumstances.

My reaction is that neither system has much relevance to the potential life-styles of the wealthiest nations on earth. I maintain that both arise from a hunger-based view of human moti­vation which defines a context-free economic structure. If economic theories were founded upon an appetitive model, I suspect that the dialectical nature of the arguments would disappear–and more viable and joyful societies might be created. Rote styles of education and of “intelligence testing” could be discarded, the scalar measures of status or of expertise could become valueless. Our own society would find pleasure in those of its members whose appetites turned them to the arts, for example, or to the relevant education of children; it would find ample ways to promote and reward such activities within their social contexts.

Such a society could consider itself safe from attack partly because its value would be destroyed by any kind of eternal compulsion. More importantly, appetites have the pliable strength of jiu-jitsu: not in the sense of yielding, but in metabolizing energies to shift the adversary’s purposes. We can acquire that strength if we will free ourselves from a slavish belief in the politics of hunger, and promote instead a wealth of appetites.