Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Jonah complex

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The Jonah complex:
What is the Jonah complex and how can it be overcome?
Figure 1. The Thinker. Immobile in thought or trapped by fear?

Overview[edit | edit source]

First described by Abraham Maslow, and named by his close colleague Frank E. Manuel, the Jonah complex (JC) describes the evasion of our better destiny (Maslow, 1972). This concept describes how a person can prevent self-actualisation in the sense of humanistic psychology. The name comes from the Biblical story of Jonah, who ran from his destiny out of fear. The JC is there to stop us putting ourselves at risk of experiencing fear, and by extension, anxiety too (Dodson, 2020; Goud, 1994, 2005; Kim & Lee, 2011; Maslow, 1972) (Figure 1).

Focus questions:

  • What causes the Jonah complex?
  • What is self-actualisation?

Case Study Nuvola apps package wordprocessing.png

The lesson of the cliff (Hunt, 1993, p208.)

Part 1

I'm delirious with joy. I've always felt that if I didn't write a book by the time I was 40, I'd never do so. With only three years to go, I've been offered a hock contract by the most distinguished of American publishers. Alfred Knopf himself, after reading an article of mine, had written to invite me to submit a proposal. After months of hard work, I had turned in an outline and sample chapter. Now Knopf and his editors have said yes. But later in the day, I begin to fear that I have made a terrible mistake. I've suggested a history of love, tracing its evolution from the time of the early Greeks to the present, a vast project, but fun to think about and to sketch in outline form. Yet now that the moment of truth has come, I see how rash I've been. Having spent months researching and writing the sample chapter, I can look ahead, and what I see is frightening.

Figure 2. The updated Hierarchy of needs includes: Cognitive needs, Aesthetic needs and Transcendence needs. The hierarchy is divided between growth and deficiency needs.

The Jonah complex[edit | edit source]

Maslow (1972), towards the end of his career, speculated why people fail to self-actualise. This speculation sits at an intersection of several theories, and undoubtedly there are many ways to interpret the JC.

What is self-actualisation?[edit | edit source]

If the JC is the avoidance of self-actualisation, then what is self-actualisation? Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a theory of humanistic motivation in psychology. Maslow described several stages that an individual passes through. These are the hierarchical needs that have been organised into a pyramid (Figure 2). A need is deemed to be active if it is unsatisfied, and the unfulfilled state creates a motivation, or drive, to complete the need. This way an individual is motivated to move up the pyramid. However, environmental factors can cause an individual to move back down the hierarchy. Thus, it is a dynamic state of motivation, fulfilment, and, for lack of a better term, relapse, with self-actualisation at the top of the hierarchy (Maslow, 1943). This peak represents a state of total achievement with no further possible movement upwards in any area of life. Maslow (1943) gave examples of self-actualisation - a painter must paint, and a poet must write to be able to achieve all that they can be. Transcendence was added later, to combine self-actualisation with a spiritual aspect.

What is the Jonah complex?[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. An approach or avoidance of an action can be influenced by many things.

The JC is described as avoiding our full potential. Two thematic constants are avoidance behaviour and fear (Goud, 1994, 2005; Kim & Lee, 2011; Maslow, 1972). Dodson (2020) described the JC as a fear of being recognised as an individual, and this recognition placing a burden on them. Dodson (2020) goes on to use an example of the celebrity who, through being a role-model, carries a burden. However, it is unlikely this situation will be relatable to most people. Goud (1994, 2005) described the JC as an avoidance of growth, and this fits more with the everyday experience, and with Maslow’s (1972) description. Common triggers include decisions involving a significant life change, auditioning for something, committing to an act, or finding a deeper level of intimacy (Goud, 1994). However, any challenge if it induces stress and provides risk can initiate the JC. The stresses involved in contemporary life require people to assess if they can manage the increased responsibilities of success. The following themes are common in the JC: risk taking and the unknown, experiencing possible rejection, and encountering overwhelming expectations and responsibilities (Goud, 1994). The JC represents an inhibition of decision making leading to growth due to fear of positive consequences (Figure 3). The JC can be rephrased from failing to self-actualise, to avoiding responsibility through an assessment of capacity.

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Quick Quiz - The Jonah complex

1 What is a common trigger for the Jonah complex?

Decisions about what to have for lunch
Repeatedly meeting goals
Finding a deeper level of intimacy

2 The Jonah complex is...?

Fear of achievement
Fear of decisions
Fear of whales

Theories of the Jonah complex[edit | edit source]

BIS/BAS       [edit | edit source]

A neurological seat for the JC can be found in the behavioural inhibition system (BIS) and behavioural activation system (BAS) (see also physiological psychology and reinforcement sensitivity theory). This pair of physiological constructs, isolated through fMRI studies, respond to external cues and influence behaviour (Amodio et al., 2008). The systems have a strong role in personality, motivation, and emotion (Amodio et al., 2008; Jorm et al., 1998; Leue et al., 2012). The two systems work in concert with each other and are responsible for guiding our motivation and responses to external stimuli. Stronger neural activation is found in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and is associated with active behaviours, and this is known as the BAS (Leue et al., 2012). On the contrary, stronger neural activation can be seen in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex with avoidance, or inhibited, behaviours, and this is known as the BIS (Leue et al., 2012).

The BIS[edit | edit source]

The BIS is found to be active when behaviour trends towards avoidance (Amodio et al., 2008). This can manifest in the individual, and their behaviour, as anxiety (Jorm et al., 1998). The BIS is found to be responsive to cues of punishment, non-reward, and novelty. This is where the Jonah complex comes in, as the BIS is used when we decide a task is too risky or would otherwise put us in danger (Kim & Lee, 2011). When a behaviour is stopped due to intervention from the BIS it is seen as inhibited, and therefore inhibition is used in BIS.

The BAS[edit | edit source]

The BAS shows stronger activation when individuals are engaging in action (Amodio et al., 2008). This has been termed approach behaviour and can manifest as being impulsive (Jorm et al., 1998). The BAS is described as sensitive to rewards and is involved in steering us away from a threat. It is associated with feelings such as joy, optimism, and aggression. When behaviour is initiated through the BAS it is seen as activated, and therefore activation is used in BAS.

The BIS/BAS system[edit | edit source]

The BIS/BAS system has been shown to be influenced by task type and external stimuli. Research supporting this statement has been conducted using go/no-go and gambling tasks (Kim & Lee, 2011; Leue et al., 2012; Li et al., 2021). When personality types indicate someone is more cautious, they show stronger BIS activation and are more vigilant about decision making. Stress levels have also been researched and are a significant indicator of which sub-system activates. Heponiemi et al. (2003) induced experimental stress and monitored the output of the BIS/BAS system. Their results indicate that when stress levels are increased, risks are avoided more frequently, and stronger activation is seen in the BIS.

Relevant to the JC, the BIS creates vigilance in decision making when a process shows novelty (Amodio et al., 2008). The BIS also activates when stress and risk are higher (Kim & Lee, 2011; Heponiemi et al., 2003). When behaviour trends towards threat avoidance and stress reduction a decision is made to bring the individual towards safety. This might be a decision relating to, for example, a promotion at work, entering a competition, or proceeding with a legal matter. Each of these situations could be novel, induce stress, or present a risk and therefore activate the BIS. Maslow (1972) described the JC as deciding to maintain the norm through fear of what one could become. Therefore, it would be in line with the research to say the JC is a behaviour seen accompanied with BIS activation.

Figure 4. Courage is composed of three parts.

Growth or safety[edit | edit source]

An alternative explanation of the JC is proposed by Goud (1994, 2005) as an individual’s retreat from an opportunity to realise, or achieve, simple values and capacities through fear. He describes the JC as being a fear of our best and worst aspects (Goud, 1994). Developing Maslow's (1968) growth-safety dynamic, Goud (2005) proposed a model of fear and courage (Figure 4). Maslow (1968) believed that in every person there is a tendency for self-fulfilment, a driving force taking each individual towards success and achievement, and he called this the growth impulse. He also believed each person has the opposite driving force, one that drives resistance to change and desires solace in the comfort of the norm, and he called this the safety impulse (Maslow, 1968). These two internal forces can be seen on a continuum of growth and safety. This underpins the hierarchy of needs (Figure 3).

Courage and fear[edit | edit source]

Goud (2005) expanded on his interpretation of the growth-safety continuum by describing courage and fear as two defining states that influence an individual's positioning on the growth-safety continuum. It would be simple to say that fear and courage are on a continuum, too; however, Goud (2005) proposed a three-way model of purpose, action, and fear that contribute to courage. This model was proposed as, throughout historical accounts of individual's actions during military engagements, it is apparent that courage can be accompanied by fear, and therefore they cannot be opposites on a continuum. A good starting point for such military accounts are the stories that accompany the awarding of the Victoria Cross (VC) medals. A common thread throughout the VC recipients is a purpose of protecting their fellow soldiers. A person also needs to be able to influence the end state, or be able to take action. This means they need to have a sufficient amount of actual and perceived behavioural control (PBC) (also see self-efficacy) over the situation or goal (Figure 5). The individual also needs to have enough fear to create a state of eustress but not distress. According to Goud (2005), purpose, action, and fear make up the mechanism that is courage. Courage is part of what is required to overcome the Jonah complex but before we look at how to overcome the Jonah complex, we need to understand how fear can undermine it, too.

Figure 5. The theory of planned behaviour.

Fear, courage, and the Jonah complex[edit | edit source]

Fear, while contributing in part to the development and presence of courage, is closely related to anxiety. Fear and anxiety have significant overlap in the brain areas that function when the states are active (Tovote et al., 2015). This relationship indicates that an increase in fear could correlate with an increase in anxiety. Using Goud's (2005) model, if purpose and/or action diminish then courage will start to decrease. Also, if fear increases, above an individual threshold, courage will be reduced, and the individual may become vulnerable to distress and anxiety. This is a complicated process but has been simplified in Table 1.

Table 1 Impact of action, fear, and purpose on courage
Courage increasing Courage decreasing
Action Increases Decreases
Fear Decreases Increases
Purpose Increases Decreases

The key fear, described by Maslow (1972), that relates to the JC is paradoxically, the fear of growth itself. This paradox is caused by courage being used to achieve personal growth, and the same courage being undermined through fear of personal growth. When courage drops below an individual's threshold we are exposed to anxiety and driven towards safety.

Case Study Nuvola apps package wordprocessing.png

The lessons of the cliff (Hunt, 1993, p208.)

Part 2

How could I have imagined I'd ever be able to learn what love meant to the ancient Greeks, to the imperial Romans, to the ascetic early Christians, to the knights and ladies of the Middle Ages. to.--? Enough It's hopeless, impossible, more than any one person can do. Or, at least, more than I can do. Even if I found everything I needed in the library and took reams of notes, how could I ever make sense of it all? Or organize it? Or write about it entertainingly, sentence after sentence, page after page, chapter after chapter? Only now, when a contrast is being offered me, can I see clearly what I will have to do-and realize that I cannot.

Self-determination theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 6. Model of self-determination theory.

Self-determination theory (SDT) states that humans, at their healthiest, are capable of great exploration in a curious and playful manner (Ryan & Deci, 2018) (Figure 6). This curiosity, born from the fluid interactions of needs and motivations, propels individuals out of their comfort zone, and into the realm of growth, risk, and the JC. Physical needs such as food, warmth, shelter and psychological needs such as competence, relatedness, and autonomy keep us alive and healthy (Ryan & Deci, 2018). Self-determination theory gives us two major types of motivation:

  • Intrinsic motivations - these are internal to the individual. The expression of intrinsic motivation is often unconscious and contributes to sating a psychological need. In this case, individuals feel drawn towards an action for its inherent satisfaction (Ryan & Deci, 2000)
  • Extrinsic motivations - these come from outside the individual. They can be seen as influencing the individual like the carrot or the stick. In this case, individuals feel propelled into the action (Ryan & Deci, 2000)

Psychological needs are implicit, or subconscious, and acquired through experiences (Ryan & Deci, 2018). It is the psychological needs, primarily, that drive us along Maslow's (1968) growth or safety continuum.

If we need such courage to make a decision, why do we keep trying to make decisions? The answer is that we are motivated to satisfy physical and psychological needs through active engagement with the environment (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

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Quick Quiz - Theories of Jonah complex

1 If you are acting impulsively, you are using the...?


2 The three components of courage are?

Fear, loss, and avoidance
Fear, purpose, and action
Fear, decisions, and war

Overcoming the Jonah complex?[edit | edit source]

We are all susceptible to the JC and being able to recognise it is the first step to overcoming it. However, there are some things we, as individuals, can do in our daily lives to reduce our susceptibility. Using Goud (2005) as a guide, we can say that courage is the key to overcoming the JC. This is based on the JC being a fear of growth, and courage being able to incorporate and overcome fear. Courage is made of three parts: action, purpose, and fear management.

Action[edit | edit source]

The reasoned action approach (RAA) (Fishbein & Ajzen, 2010) is a reliable model for influencing behaviour, and a significant part of it coincides with Goud's (2005) description of action. Goud described action as needing confidence and ability, this links with perceived and actual behavioural control. If a person is high in confidence and self-efficacy, they are more likely to have perceived behavioural control, a belief they can act and create change. If a person has the freedom (autonomy) and ability (skills and tools) to act, they have actual behavioural control.

To overcome the JC with action, we can use the RAA. When presented with a challenge, we could take the time to assess the consequences of acting and not acting, consider our belief about the change we can produce, assess the requirements (autonomy, skills, tools), and decide if we are able to overcome this challenge with the resources in hand. Action by itself is not enough to overcome the Jonah complex.

Higher purpose[edit | edit source]

Action is underpinned by having a higher purpose. The JC is, by definition, failing to achieve. This can be mediated by having goals to guide and provide a higher purpose. Goals trend towards outcomes that will satisfy our needs. For example, a goal to become a better musician could satisfy a need for competence.

The effectiveness of individual goals can be improved by incorporating specificity. In goal setting, specificity is achieved by using a specificity ruleset, such as the S.M.A.R.T. goals system. In this system, a goal is defined in concrete terms, with a measurable change, and a timeframe for completion is set. From here a person can create a timeline of steps for achievement. However, most of all, they can be kept accountable.

Fear management[edit | edit source]

Managing fear, according to Goud (2005), comes down to developing confidence, self-efficacy, and control of a given situation. Rate et al. (2007) found members of armed forces repeatedly exposed to difficult situations experienced less fear. This can be attributed to experience. Experience influences confidence, self-efficacy, and control in a given situation. When we have experienced something before, we can be more comfortable in that situation. The premise of systematic desensitisation is based on this.

One method to gain new experiences is through the use of visualisation as utilised in sport and mindfulness. Combining this technique with action and purpose an individual can assess the action required, plan to achieve the action, and imagine succeeding. This combination of actions is a good, but not guaranteed, method to overcoming the JC.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

On the surface, “What is the JC?” is a very simple question; however, arguably, we still do not have a definite answer. The concept of self-actualisation is well covered in academia, the sub-concept of the JC suffers from a dearth of research. Although several theories of motivation, including Maslow’s (1943) theory of human motivation, can be utilised to explain aspects of it. From a purely neurological standpoint it could be said the JC is, during decision making, strong activation of the BIS and not the BAS. In its simplest form, the JC is the fear of succeeding and achieving growth. Specifically, it is the fear of achievement that prohibits achievement. While this can be difficult to understand, if you have ever questioned your ability to cope with the outcome of success, then you have encountered the JC. In this sense it functions as a safety mechanism, so we don’t overstretch ourselves. This relates to any significant decision. These impulses are there to guide us in everyday life, but they are susceptible to many internal and external forces.

Several theories of motivation could be utilised to overcome the JC. This page has focussed on Goud’s (1994, 2005) interpretation utilising courage, as this is a relatable concept. However, suitable methods of fostering motivation to take on a difficult task could be found in many different theories. Goud (1994, 2005) discussed how the interplay of fear and courage can influence our decisions and make us susceptible to the JC. Certainly, if one approaches a decision courageously, then one can exert autonomy and control over that process. This reduces associated risk and increases the likelihood of a growth choice.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Amodio, D. M., Master, S. L., Yee, C. M., & Taylor, S. E. (2008). Neurocognitive components of the behavioral inhibition and activation systems: Implications for theories of self‐regulation. In Psychophysiology. (Vol. 45, Issue 1, p. 11). Blackwell Publishers.

Dodson, E. (2020). Abraham Maslow, lecture 3: The Jonah complex.

Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (2010). Predicting and changing behavior: the reasoned action approach. Psychology Press.

Goud, N. (1994). Jonah Complex: The Fear of Growth. The Journal of Humanistic Education and Development, 32(3), 98–111.

Goud, N. H. (2005). Courage: Its nature and development. The Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, 44(1), 102–116.

Heponiemi, T., Keltikangas-Järvinen, L., Puttonen, S., & Ravaja, N. (2003). BIS/BAS sensitivity and self-rated affects during experimentally induced stress. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(6), 943–957.

Hunt, M. (1993). The lesson of the cliff. In Psychology and personal growth (4th ed., pp. 202–210). Allyn & Bacon.

Jorm, A. F., Christensen, H., Henderson, A. S., Jacomb, P. A., Korten, A. E., & Rodgers, B. (1998). Using the BIS/BAS scales to measure behavioural inhibition and behavioural activation: Factor structure, validity and norms in a large community sample. In Personality and individual differences (Vol. 26, Issue 1, p. 49). Pergamon.

Kim, D.-Y., & Lee, J.-H. (2011). Effects of the BAS and BIS on decision-making in a gambling task. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(7), 1131–1135.

Leue, A., Lange, S., & Beauducel, A. (2012). Modulation of the conflict monitoring intensity: The role of aversive reinforcement, cognitive demand, and trait-BIS. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 12(2), 287–307.

Li, C.-W., Lin, C. Y.-Y., Chang, T.-T., Yen, N.-S., & Tan, D. (2021). Motivational system modulates brain responses during exploratory decision-making. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 15810.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.

Maslow, A. H. (1968). Towards a psychology of being (2nd ed). New York: Harper & Row.

Maslow, A. H. (1972). The farther reaches of human nature. Journal of Extension, 10(3), 65-.

Miller, A., & Goldblatt, A. (1989). The hamlet syndrome: Overthinkers who underachieve (1st ed). Morrow.

Rate, C. R., Clarke, J. A., Lindsay, D. R., & Sternberg, R. J. (2007). Implicit theories of courage. "The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2"(2), 80–98.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54–67.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self-determination theory : basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness . The Guildford Press.

Tovote, P., Fadok, J. P., & Lüthi, A. (2015). Neuronal circuits for fear and anxiety. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 16(6), 317–331.

External links[edit | edit source]