Success: Personal Aspiration or Social Pressure?

Is the desire to be successful a consequence of internal or external factors? In this article, we're going to explore some theories.
Success: Personal Aspiration or Social Pressure?
José Padilla

Written and verified by the psychologist José Padilla.

Last update: 09 June, 2023

The question of whether success is a personal aspiration or social pressure has long been the subject of reflection. In fact, psychologists, philosophers, and sociologists have devoted themselves to the task of unraveling the matter and clearing up certain doubts for a great deal of time.

Some defend the idea that success is a personal aspiration that originates from the values, beliefs, and internal motivations of each individual. While others argue that it results from social pressure coupled with sociocultural expectations and dynamics.

This article analyzes both positions through the theoretical foundations that support them. Continue reading if you want to find out if success is an individual desire or if it consists of pressure that drives us to succeed in life.

Success: personal aspiration or social pressure

Success is a multifaceted idea that’s different for each individual. Although it’s complex to define, it can be understood as the achievement of a desired objective or goal. In this sense, it’s the last phase of a continuous process.

However, is success the product of personal aspiration or social pressure? Is it born from internal values, beliefs, and motivations or from social, cultural, and community dynamics? We’re going to investigate the foundation of both dimensions.

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Success as a personal aspiration

The idea of success as an aspiration emphasizes that the individual has the power to set their own goals and strive to achieve them. Therefore, it comes from the desires, motivations, needs, beliefs, and values that define an individual.

This idea suggests that everyone builds their own ideas of success. For some, it may be a successful career or fame. For others, it’s having economic stability or wealth. It all depends on their individual aspirations. Next, we’re going to explore some approaches that support this notion.

1. Maslow’s theory of human motivation

In an article published in the journal, Psychological Review, Abraham Maslow stated that there are five categories of basic needs that motivate the human being: physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization.

These five elements make up a hierarchy. The lower kinds must be satisfied before moving on to the higher ones. Physiological and safety needs are the most elementary, while self-actualization is the highest.

From this perspective, success as an aspiration is a need for self-realization. It’s associated with the development of human potential, growth, and satisfaction. Thus, all desire to be successful stems from the desire to self-realize.

2. Self-determination theory by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan

Self-determination theory, reviewed in the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences holds that there are three basic psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Supplying them is crucial for our functioning and well-being.

“Satisfying these basic needs promotes optimal motivational traits and states of autonomous motivation and intrinsic aspirations, which facilitate psychological health and effective engagement with the world.”

-Deci and Ryan-

According to this approach, success comes from appeasing our internal needs, not from conforming to cultural expectations. Since we’re headed for growth, our success depends on it. Therefore, success stems from a personal aspiration.

3. David McClelland’s achievement theory

This theory is inspired by Maslow’s. It maintains that we’re moved by three basic needs: achievement, affiliation, and power. In this context, success is achieved by satisfying all of them, especially achievement.

According to a study published in the INFAD Revista de Psychología, David McClelland linked achievement motivation with the impulse to distinguish ourselves, meet goals, and strive to be successful. The basis is ‘doing something better’. It implies acting correctly for the satisfaction of performing well.

In his book, A Study of Human Motivation, McClelland notes that subjects who have a higher need for achievement emphasize their performance on tasks of moderate difficulty. In addition, they take responsibility for their performance and seek feedback regarding their role. They also try new ways of doing things.

This is how the theories of Maslow, Deci & Ryan, and McClelland support the idea that success is a personal aspiration that’s the product of our internal needs. Self-actualization, competence, autonomy, and achievement are the keys that motivate it.

Success as social pressure

Societies, cultures, and communities determine the standards of success that define them. This creates pressure on individuals to conform to these expectations and be considered members of a group.

For example, a society might value the achievement of wealth, recognition, and luxuries as synonymous with success in life. Under these conditions, individuals are under pressure to have a successful professional career and earn a great deal of money. Some theories that support this idea are as follows:

1. Social influence theory

Research published in Scientific Reports indicates that social influence leads individuals to act in coherence with the beliefs and expectations of the group or others. Therefore, they end up doing what the majority does, even if they disagree with what’s been established.

In the book, Psicología Social (Social Psychology), Morales, Gaviria, Moya, and Cuadrado state that “social influence processes also accentuate and enhance their effects as forms of intra-group pressure, aimed at fostering identification, cohesion, and acceptance of group decisions”. Thus, every individual is driven to conform to the standards of the group in question.

As a result, the desire to succeed appears as a consequence of the influence of others (society) on the individual. For example, if everyone else is looking for it in economic growth, they’ll feel pressured to pursue it there as well.

2. Social identity theory

The theory of social identity, referred to in the Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology, claims that individuals define their identities in relation to the social groups to which they belong. This identification process protects and reinforces the individual’s identity.

Hence, the individual’s self-concept is always in sync with their group or society. For example, many define themselves based on their religion, nationality, soccer team, professional union, family, etc.

From this point of view, success is nothing more than pressure to adapt to the social identity of the group. But, if fame is the pinnacle of success for a group, all of its members will feel pressured to possess it; otherwise, their identities will be at risk.

3. Social learning theory

Individuals learn to behave by observing and imitating others. Social learning theory emphasizes the relevance of models for acquiring behaviors and adapting to society.

Based on the above, the claim to fit into the social environment makes individuals adopt behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that they modeled on others. This influences their search for success, which ends up as a product of social pressure.

In summary, this pressure affects the way in which individuals seek success since societies identify the parameters of success that define their identities. Influence, identity, and social learning theories demonstrate how people assimilate the expectations and pressures for success that characterize a given population.

You might be interested to read Social Identity: Belonging to a Group

Success: personal aspiration and social pressure

As stated, success is the culmination of a process that’s different for every individual. On the one hand, aspiration sees it as part of the satisfaction of a series of needs: self-realization, competence, autonomy, and achievement. On the other hand, social pressure sees it as the result of the influence of the environment.

However, it’s important to highlight that both positions are valid. Indeed, the complexity of success can’t be reduced to a single human dimension, be it psychological or social. It’s a product of both. It’s both multifactorial and relational.

Therefore, we can conclude that success is the result of both personal aspiration and social pressure. The balance between these planes is the key to building it. So, don’t give up, and make sure you keep working on your dreams.

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