The Desire to Destroy and the Desire to Create Come From the Same Place

the Mona Lisa with a mustache and also holding a gun
Image by Bill Smith / CC BY

Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.

-Sam Rayburn

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Each zoo is a little different, in that they all have a different mix of animals and exhibits. Depending on the climate, certain animals might be kept indoors for most of the year, visible only through a sheet of glass. Other zoos might close completely during certain months.

But no matter which zoo you visit, there are a few things that will stay the same.

The first that you’ll always see is that the animals are hyperaware of the people who feed them and the usual time when this happens. They’re a lot like household pets that way. Just like my cat intensely stares at me when he knows it’s lunchtime, a snow leopard will also stare intently in what at first glance seems to be some arbitrary direction. But if you’re patient and wait a few minutes, an attendant will eventually emerge with a prepared meal right where the animal was staring.

No surprise, really, as animals are generally very food motivated. (Including the animal who is typing this article, I love snacks.)

And there’s another thing you’ll see at basically every zoo that you visit. And that’s toys. Especially objects that the animals can tear apart or destroy.

That’s because animals have another strong drive, one that they need to meet in order to stay emotionally healthy and happy. And that’s a little something that researchers call effectance.

Effectance, Wanting to Make an Impact

You might be asking yourself, “Effectance? Is that even a real word? What the heck is that?” And granted, it’s a bit of a odd word for a really simple concept — but also a really useful one, once you learn it.

Effectance is the desire to interact effectively with one’s own environment. Basically, it’s the need to have some sort of an impact on what’s around you. Interestingly, when it comes to effectance, it doesn’t matter if that impact is destructive or constructive. A positive or negative one.

Zoo animals can easily fulfill this need via destruction, by tearing apart toys provided to them. Less commonly, you might find an animal playing idly with sticks, stones, and other items they find in their enclosure. Not breaking them down but stacking them, making little piles that look like a campfire waiting to happen or a cairn. But most often, you’ll see zoo animals engaging in effectance by tearing something apart.

In humans, you’ll find the same general behaviors. You’ll meet a lot of people who want to leave their mark. Some of them desperately want to create beautiful things, alleviate the suffering of others, excel in some unusual talent, or inspire others.

But just like in the zoo, people can also fulfill this need by being destructive. By carving graffiti into desks, breaking things, cutting other people down, finding easy ways to hurt them and get away with it.

Even though the impact can look radically different depending on exactly¬†how a person chooses to gratify this desire, the underlying need is the same. At the end of the day, it’s all driven by a quest for effectance. The need to make an impact, to have an effect on your environment.

And unfortunately, it’s often much easier to rip apart a zoo toy than it is to make one. Easier to destroy something beautiful than it is to create it. Far easier to give the Mona Lisa a sharpie mustache than it was to paint her.

Just a little something to keep in mind the next time you have to deal with a hater or a troll.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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