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How The Science Of Conation Can Help Us Make Our Schools Safer. By Dr. Tau Braun

As featured at Security100K-12

The word “conation” is so archaic, neglected, and unfamiliar that it made it into Norman Schur’s 1990 book, 1000 Most Obscure Words. (1) But is the science of conation a missing and vital ingredient to assist us in making our schools safer?

Conation is defined as an inclination (as an instinct, a drive, a wish, or a craving). It takes it roots from the latin, conari, to attempt. The word expresses an effort that is purposeful, striving, and directed (2). There is nothing wishy-washy in the meaning of the word conation. It expresses willful, determined, and motivated behavior.

Psychology has traditionally identified and studied three components of the mind: cognition, affect, and conation. Cognition refers to the process of coming to know and understand something. It includes encoding, storing, processing, and retrieving information. Affect is how we interpret information; it is the emotional interpretation of perceptions, information, or knowledge. The lesser known, but equally important, of the three is conation. In psychology, conation refers to the “why” of behavior. It is the connection between knowing something, how you feel about it, and your behavior (3). Simply put, it is the personal, intentional, planned, deliberate, goal-oriented, or striving component of motivation. It is the proactive (as opposed to reactive or habitual) aspect of behavior. It is closely associated with one’s volition, which is defined as the use of will or freedom to make choices about what to do (3).

Understanding conation is a key component of the work researchers are doing and must continue to do in order to understand the motivation of those that have a strong, purposeful, goal-oriented, and determined desire to hurt or kill others. Understanding conation will unlock some of the mystifying and disturbing reasons that drive pathological individuals to do the unthinkable to us, our loved ones, and often themselves.

In this article, however, I am interested in expressing another, and perhaps equally powerful, use of the science of conation. Those with a genuine interest in wanting to keep our children safe need to understand crucial aspects of conation, including apathy and responsiveness.

The absurdity of conversations with leaders of organizations and schools that end with sentences like, “We practice fire drills regularly and have visitors sign-in, so we feel pretty safe and don’t need much else,” is not lost on us in the security and safety industry. Another example that I often hear from decision makers of organizations is, “We have a zero-tolerance policy to violence and we have signs everywhere letting people know that we are a gun free zone.” To us in the industry, this sounds just as ridiculous as asking an angry, stampeding elephant to walk carefully through a neatly planted row of flowers.

So how do we in the industry convey a message of the urgency and the benefit of strategy in keeping people safe to leaders and decision makers? We need to understand how to motivate others in order to change their behavior. We need to understand how the part of all our minds called conation is operating. We need to be able to change behavior that is habitual and reactive to behavior that is strategic, purposeful, and driven. We need our leaders to make decisions that are coming from a knowledge-based place, with less personal and political bias and more weight given to science and expertise. We need to be able to nudge people away from knee-jerk reactions that are often emotionally charged, to methodical, adaptive, common sense, best practice approaches to keeping people safe.

To help others go from being reactive and often complacent to proactive and driven, we need to consider conative issues. A conative issue that that is vital for security and safety experts to understand is the question that all us, but especially leaders, face daily: “What am I going to do, what actions am I going to take, what investments am I going to make?” To try and answer these questions and be of assistance to the decision maker, we as security advisors are often too quick to jump into our security assessment and recommendation phase. I suggest that a better approach is to take the time to assess the style and phase of the conation of the decision maker.

A good place for us to start in assessing a leader’s conation is to ask questions about what motivates the decision maker. We need to understand how a leader is combining his or her knowledge about safety (or lack thereof) with his or her feelings and perceptions about safety and then choose actions that are aligned with his or her general approach to life and value systems. It is in this third layer that we can often find common ground. Borrowing from mediation techniques for reducing conflict, we can often find similarity in our ultimate aspirations, intentions, and goals. It is important for us to establish with the leader before moving on to recommendations, in that the ultimate goal of keeping our children safe is a shared one. This makes us a strong ally in helping the leader to achieve his or her goal.

Using Dr. Kathryn Atman’s (3) five conative stages as a guideline, we can assess the stage a leader is in with regards to their choices around safety strategy and we can align our approach to offering assistance accordingly. If the decision maker is in stage one, the Perception stage, we may need to offer more information about the need for security and safety. For example, in a recent discussion with a leader of an after-school program, I asked the question, “How many sex offenders live in walking distance to the facility?” She answered that she had no idea. I opened a free application on my phone (Sex Offenders Search Lite) and showed her a long disturbing list of sexual offenders that lived in the area. This helped to shift her to phase two of conation, called Focus. This is the phase in which an individual is able to start discerning pattern from the background and leads to an individual establishing a goal. For many of us in the industry, we forget that we are acutely aware of trends and patterns of danger and we make an attributional error when we forget to assess the knowledge of others. Help others to be aware of the changing environment by shifting their focus with useful information. When a leader has shifted to the Engagement stage, this is the appropriate time for us to help the leader clarify their goals and begin developing an action plan as to how the goals will be accomplished. During this stage it is vital that our solution match the culture of the organization and the conative style of the leader. It is in this stage that we can overwhelm the leader with too much too soon and a mismatch of strategy can occur. This will send the leader straight back to the Perception stage and can derail the process. In the fourth stage, named Involvement, the individual begins to implement the action plan. Depending upon the level of attention shown in each previous stage, this involvement can range from minimal to absorbed. This is often seen when an administrator is only doing the minimum requirements to meet regulations, rather than choosing to invest personally in the success of the project. It is important to assess whether we may have missed an opportunity to link the administrator’s personal goals and biases to increase the level of conation. It is important during this stage to also assess whether the conation of the leader is driving the strategy in an unsafe way. For example, a recent administrator believed that her team was not taking safety seriously enough, so the next time an active shooter drill was done, she and only one other person were aware that the event the team was experiencing was only a drill. This decision could have potentially caused physical and psychological harm and loss of life. The final conative stage is Transcendence; this is when the leader is completely immersed in the task. Leaders who are able and willing to operate in this stage will experience a great level of success with the goal of implementing effective security and safety strategies.

To help leaders move from the conative stage of Involvement to the final stage of Transcendence and project success, I recommend adopting approaches from the field of change management (4):

  • Encourage leaders to take a team approach to the project and form teams that are motivated, focused, committed, and enthusiastic.

  • Create and celebrate short-term wins.

  • Remind the leader not to declare victory prematurely. Security and safety is a comprehensive and ongoing process; don’t let up. Celebrate the enhancement but drive forward into the next level of your strategy

  • Make it stick. Work with the leader to recognize, reward, and model the new behavior. Supply the leader with information to communicate to colleagues, teachers, parents, and students about how the system is working. Change occurs when benefits are real.

To ensure your own sustainability in this field, apply some of the science of conation to your personal success strategy. Direct your motivation by defining your purpose and identifying your goals, aspirations, and vision. Manage your direction by choosing your clients, projects, and strategies based on the best fit for your values and level expertise. Stay energized by breaking tasks into manageable amounts, celebrate short-terms, have a wellness strategy in place, move on from clients that are not showing signs that they ready for your help, build a supportive team, and share stories of your success with others.

Thank you for all you do to make our world a safer and happier place.


  1. Wikipedia

  2. Mirriam-Webster

  3. Huitt, W., & Cain, S. (2005). An overview of the conative domain. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved 06/11/14 from Conative Domain - Educational Psychology Interactive

  4. Cohen, D. (2005). The Heart of Change Field Guide. Tools and tactics for leading change in your organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing

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