3 levels of human engagement

This article combines 2 theses: How to measure motivation, user engagement, and gamification and Design for optimal engagement and presents a revised and holistic measure for human engagement:

How to measure human engagement

The new model is holistic in at least 2 ways, in that it considers:

  • Humans rather than mere users (user: a reduced, mechanical persona for a human)
  • All human dimensions and capacities

Human dimensions and capacities can include aspects such as wishful thinking, gut feelings, spirituality, emotions, their immune system, and other human needs as in the hierarchy of needs (Maslow, p. 56 – 74; Mate, p. 28 – 39). My opinion is that we are yet to and perhaps will never explicitly identify all human dimensions and capacities. The point is not that we should attempt to or not, but rather that we should respect the holistic fashion in which humans act to achieve higher potentials of themselves.

As the humans are not machines article strongly suggests, humans are as wholes in process; they have a capacity to see things whole in all their psychic, emotional and moral dimensions. Their ‘minding’ processes are simultaneous functions, not discrete compartments. You have never met anyone who was thinking, who was not at the same time also emotioning, spiritualizing, and for that matter, livering and so on.

The levels of engagement in the newer model are presented in detail below

Level 1: Optimal engagement

Optimal engagement, refers neither to the distraction of individuals via continued excitation of their various pleasurable organs, nor the authoritative control, manipulation and guidance of individuals from which only dependence on external suggestion and factitious experiences are attainable.

At least 2 conditions are necessary for optimal engagement to be experienced:

1. An integration within the individual – body and mind and thus between the individual and his environment. This occurs when an individual is facing either a great joy/creative moment or else a major threat/emergency (Maslow, p.13). For the immensely joyful or creative moments, integration also implies a number of innate human capacities (that surpass a struggle for mere survival) including a drive from within – intrinsic motivation, self expression – autonomy, and a striving for higher experience – mastery (McGonigal 2011, p. 28, 29, 42). It is paramount to pay attention to the joyful and creative moments as humanity has already eradicated threats posed by forces of nature (McDermott, p. 617).

2. A complete loss of fear, anxiety, inhibition, defense and control, delay and restraint and a giving up of renunciation. Integration of all dimensions inevitably removes any opposition among them resulting to the absence of fear in its various manifestations.

Effects of optimal engagement:

At optimal engagement, i.e integrated, and without fear: (Maslow, p. 162-166)

  • The individual is less split, thus has more of themselves is available for use, for enjoyment, and for creative purposes. They waste less of their time and energy protecting themselves against themselves.
  • The individual’s capabilities are heightened and combine in their most efficient integration and coordination
  • The individual is organized and coordinated much more perfectly than usual that the individual acts like an animal; without doubt or hesitation, with energy yet effortlessly.
  • He is fully functioning, more spontaneous, more open to experience with the phenomenon at hand.
  • He can attempt things that would have otherwise seemed impossible and may later be surprised by his unsuspected skill, confidence, creativeness, perceptiveness and virtuosity of performance.
  • He has potential to reach a peak experience; the most pleasurable, most wonderful, most ecstatic, satisfying, and meaningful emotional state (Maslow, p. 163; McGonigal 2011, p.45).

Optimal engagement also imply a healthy coexistence of the individual by himself, with others and with his environment. As Maslow argues (p. 115 – 116) most psychopathology results from the suppression, frustration or twisting of essential human needs and capacities; it is the neurotic individual who is split within himself; his reason struggles with his emotions, etc.

Level 2: Split engagement

A split experience can be described as the existence of disagreement or opposition in an individual’s capacities and needs with whatever phenomenon the individual is dealing with. It is characterized by:

  1. A disintegration within the individual, and thus between the individual and his environment
  2. Fear (in various forms) haunts the individual  e.g. anxiety, inhibition, and defense and control

Factors contributing to a split engagement are most likely external or extrinsic. As Maslow (p. 117 – 118) explains, the human capacities at play here are are weak and not strong, equivocal not unequivocal, doubtful, uncertain, and conflicting, and are too easily ignored, influenced and inhibited by culture and by learning but nonetheless exhibit their vitality under free conditions. In other words, the presence of fear – the absence of free conditions (uncertainty, the lack of information & the loss of control) – results to a split within an individual: his capacities are led to oppose each other (Mate, p. 34).

In terms of motivation fear can take at least two forms:

  • Interference of intrinsic motivation by the introduction of external – extrinsic motivational elements.
  • Or in the case where no intrinsic motivation exist, the introduction of extrinsic motivations as an excuse, explanation, or story to deceive, manipulate or make someone do something

Effects of split engagement/fear: Stress;

  • Division and confusion of attention and disintegration of character, intellectually and morally (Dewey, p. 426): thus capacities such as perception, thinking, reasoning, logic, esteem, sense of belonging, etc are implicated; (Karasek & Theorell; McGonigal, p. 32)
  • Destroys the delicate interconnectedness of the essential human capacities and makes him prone to becoming neurotic (McGonigal, p. 32; Maslow p. 115; Mate, p. 195 – 198).
  • The individual acts in a forced and controlled way as there is a heightened guarding of oneself following the disintegration in his capacities
  • Emotional withdraw,  Conformity, Chronic illness, Hedonic adaptation, Triggers avoidance, behaviors/disorder (McGonigal, p. 32)
  • Makes the individual susceptible to external control and manipulation – as he is driven to sacrifice autonomy for security, and thus to intellectual, emotional and other dependencies (Mate, p. 195 – 198; McGonigal, p. 32, 42; Carse, p. 12 – 16)
  • Causes the intrusion of some human capacities by other capacities in which they are in opposition with (Dewey p. 496-500). Mate illustrates this (the stress-disease connection) throughout his book ‘When the Body Says NO’. For instance he describes how the immune system attacks the body when stress a major outcome of the split engagement activates stress response mechanisms over long periods. Both Mate (p. 2) and Maslow (p. 163) refer to this as a civil war in the body.

Since stress is the hallmark effect of the split engagement (Mate, p. 33 – 35; McGonigal, p. 32, 42), in addition to its impact on the psychological capacities (described above) it is vital to note that it affects and involves virtually every tissue in the body (including brain and nerves, pituitary, adrenal, kidney, blood vessels, connective tissue, thyroid, liver, and white blood cells, and the manifold interrelations between them) (Mate p. 33) just so one may grasp the extent to which both physiological and psychological damage may result from long term activation of stress response (fight-flight) mechanism (Mate p. 33 – 36). As Mate explains, the body in the long run ends up in civil war, the immune system attacks the body.

Level 3: Twilight engagement

Even though this may be difficult to demonstrate, we cannot entirely dismiss the existence of a twilight zone – between peak and split experiences – where all human dimensions are neither in agreement nor in opposition with some phenomenon.

Perhaps it is in coma or when dead that an individual can be said to be neither in a state of optimal or split engagement. We may say that twilight engagement do not have any effect on the individual experiencing it.


Maslow (p. 120) claims that unlike animals who are never in doubt of what they are, what they want and do not want, humans inner capacities and dimensions – such as the need for love, for knowledge, for a philosophy, etc – are delicate and subtle and not strong and overpowering as in animals. He goes on to suggest that in order to understand humans and their needs it is fundamental to nurture and foster the expression of their dimensions and capacities, rather seek to control, manipulate or suppress them.


  • Maslow, A. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
  • Maté, G. (2011). When the body says no: The cost of hidden stress. Random House LLC.
  • McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world.
  • McDermott, J. (Ed.) (1973). The philosophy of John Dewey. Chicago and London. Chicago Press. (p. 421 – 442; 496 – 500)
  • Carse, J. P. (1986). Finite and infinite games. New York: Ballantine.
  • Karasek, R., & Theorell, T. (1992). Healthy work: stress productivity and the reconstruction of working life.

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