The Eight Great Goods: How We Mind Ourselves

August 04, 2013 3 min read

I first introduced the concept of the Greatest Goods in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s newsletter Global-is-Asian (cute play on words; and, yes, I do recognize that Global is not just Asian … but I have no power over what they named the newsletter!).

Our brains are limited. The world is vast, yet we as humans have done a fairly good job of using our relatively small brains to do some pretty amazing things. Surprisingly, we do not get completely overwhelmed by all the information available. And we have managed to make correct – or at least adequate – decisions with fair regularity on our way to greatness.

To accomplish this amazing feat, we have developed an uncanny ability to create relatively simple models of the world around us. These models funnel all that vast information into more manageable categories. And once categories are in place, we make sense of our environment and adjust our behaviour accordingly.
This modelling process is innate to us, because we are constantly deciding that some things are good and that certain things are better than others. From daily activities to managerial tasks like hiring and firing to life-and-death decisions, we prioritise an array of almost equally good choices every day. Yet if I ask students, clients, friends or even complete strangers to tell me their models for prioritising decision-making, they cannot. However, if I take this one step farther and give them some general categories, they can immediately place their “goods” in a pretty clear order of priorities. And every individual’s ordering is almost always different.

I am going to assert that there are Eight Great Goods in the world, which help conceptualise our choices and determine our actions or inactions. Because we array our decision-making “bins” as some arrangement of these eight, most of the major decisions we make will fall into one of these categories. Here is a brief introduction to the Eight Great Goods – in roughly the order most people in the world see those around them prioritising the eight. They are:

Life (health, nutrition, having children, nature, staying alive);
Growth (economic success, material well-being, gainful employment);
Society (social relations, nation, community, workplace, family, friends);
Stability (routine, safety, rule of law, predictability);
Joy (entertainment, sports, fun, beauty, amusement, learning);
Belief (religion, spirituality, higher power);
Individuality (privacy, recognition, ownership, voice, dignity); and
Fairness (rights, equality, sharing).

While the research that I have been conducting on my assertion of eight recognisable great goods is still in the early stages, here are some of the fascinating preliminary results:

    •    Individual priorities are usually unique. Mathematically, there are 40,320 different ways that eight items can be ordered. In a survey of almost 2,000 Americans and Japanese (I like doing early test surveys in Japan and the US because these two countries often have the widest divergence of responses), I found that about 80% of the total sample gave a completely unique ordering of their Eight Great. Most of the remaining 20% only shared their order with one other person in the sample.

    •    Priorities vary little from culture to culture. When you aggregate the views that Americans have of other Americans and that Japanese have of other Japanese, I have found that priorities are almost exactly the same. The biggest priority difference concerns belief, which ranks sixth for Americans and eighth for Japanese. (The order I introduced the Eight Great above is the order for Americans.)

    •    National governments have different priorities. This leads to a lot of international conflict and confusion.

    •    If your priorities are closer to those of your company or organisation, you tend to be happier with your job – and happier in just about every other aspect of your life.

    •    The closer your priorities are to those of your spouse or partner, the less likely you are to argue with them.

    •    If leaders are clear about their priorities – and reach a consensus with their followers about the organisation’s priorities – decision-making comes more easily.
Now imagine what would happen if I asked the question about how people make their decisions and they were able to explicitly state the mental model for their decisions. The once quaint, but entirely frustrating exercise of making sense out of someone else’s behaviour could be bypassed with a new understanding of their Eight Great modus operandi.

Minding our own behaviour and understanding someone else’s behaviour-generating model in terms of the Eight Great Goods can help us achieve our greatness with a little less conflict and a lot more clarity.