At the end of an otherwise successful interview for a senior position at a new company a candidate was asked, “what motivates you?” Without barely a moment’s hesitation and with a deadpan delivery, he replied “sex, money, and fear.” The room erupted into laughter; it may have cost the candidate the opportunity, but was the answer, in fact, flippant or profound? What is it that motivates us, and why do people decide to do the things they do?

People Do Things to Fulfill Their Needs

From the beginning of history, our ancestor’s primary concern came from the necessity to survive and to find basic needs. Likely, all their key decisions were driven by the necessity to hunt for food (preferably without dying in the process), to find shelter and to have a community to interact with.

Nowadays, survival – or meeting our basic needs – is becoming less of an issue and instead of planning our days around hunting strategies we are concerned about our commuting journey, all the paperwork on our desks, meetings we have to attend, and all the decisions that we will have to make that day that will, one way or another, affect our well-being and our level of contentment.

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this is your quest
why do people do the things they do
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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
(Image Courtesy of Tim’s Printables)

But, our brains, genetically adapted to help us negotiate a successful course through dangerous, changing, and often hazardous natural environments, are now confronted with an overload of information and stimulation, often independent of physical reality and with positive outcomes often measured in years hence.

Making good decisions with our primitive brains requires us to balance the antithetical forces of emotion and rationality. Being able to make good decisions requires us to predict the future, accurately perceive the present situation and have insights into the mind of people around us. Optimal-decision-making is an art, and in order to be good at it, we have to understand why people (including ourselves) do the things they do. The short answer to this question is people do the things they do because they have an urge to fulfill their needs. For the long answer to this question, continue reading the rest of this article.

Need for Societal Validation

We are born with an instinct to seek the company of others for safety, feelings of self-esteem, comfort and love. We are nurtured as social creatures, grow up seeking and enjoying the company and validation of others, and can hardly make a living without group interaction. A large portion of the decisions we make are to fulfill this need for societal validation. Societal validation will sometimes requires us to behave in a certain way; being good to your parents, to your siblings, your teachers, your boss, your spouse, your neighbors and your country (even if it means dying for it).

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why do people do the things they do
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Societal Validation

There is a huge degree of inner peace and security connected to feeling good about who we are and all of us are prone to fulfilling this need. That said, once our sense of obligation and duty has been fulfilled, we should still leave some room left to make decisions based on our own needs and not just focus on what other people want us to do. We have free will and having a right to choose to do, or not to do something, is central to our individuality and sense of self. This is where our selfish intention comes at the forefront of our decision-making process.

Emotion vs. Logic

Robert Greene, author of ‘Human Nature,’ notes that people like to think of themselves rational-thinking, strategic creatures, whereas in reality, humans are deeply irrational and more governed by emotion than logic, or anything else. A problem with this is that most of us just don’t realize to what extent emotions infect our strategies, plans, or ideas.

Logic can be riddled with paradoxes, but it is useful because it allows us to predict, define patterns and rules about the world. It helps farmers to harvest, lawyers to argue and doctors to diagnose. Perfect logic can never take you from a true premise to a false conclusion, but rarely do we – or can we – have all the facts at hand. Should we get married? What’s for dinner? Should I quit my job? These are all difficult questions to solve with logic alone. Also, humans who makes decisions with logic alone are simply, robots.

Emotions are complex and produce different physiological, behavioral and cognitive changes leading us to experience waves of joy, excitement, insecurity, doubt or anxiety. It is natural that decisions we take are influenced by our emotions; it is said that emotions drive 80% of the choices we make but sometimes some additional logic can improve our decisions.

Thinking logically is not a power that we are born with, but one that we acquire through training and practice; practice being logical. Begin to think for yourself instead of reacting to what people do or say. Train your mind to be more rational in the same way an athlete gets better and stronger through practice. Focusing on being logical, and aware of your emotions, will result in your mind becoming more flexible and resilient. With this newly acquired skill you will likely become calmer; more deliberate and less reactive and will be able to make decisions with more clarity.

Self-control is strength.
Calmness is mastery.
You have to get to a point where your mood doesn’t shift
Based on the insignificant actions of someone else.
Don’t allow others to control the direction of your life.
Don’t allow your emotions to overpower your intelligence’.
– Author Unknown –

Bad Behaviors and Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a basic form of learning, that pairs certain behaviors with rewards or punishments in certain ways. The effect is quite fundamental; addictive behaviors like smoking and gambling can be immediately rewarding because they activate areas of the brain that regulate feelings of pleasure, which results in quick learning.

There are hundreds of examples of operant conditioning happening in your daily life. Some may be positive, but some may be negative, like eating too much sugar, smoking cigarettes, or spending too much time on Facebook. We often carry out these behaviors because we just ‘feel like it.’ It is possible to break free from these addictions using higher cognitive ‘motivators’, but perhaps the answers lies first in being aware of them and to realize that they are emotional problems.

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this is your quest
why do people do the things they do
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Bad Behaviors

Self-control is an emotional problem. Laziness is an emotional problem. Procrastination is an emotional problem. Underachievement is an emotional problem. Impulsiveness is an emotional problem.

Emotional problems can only have emotional solutions. Self-Acceptance is the key. Accepting our emotions and working with them. Instead of justifying and enslaving yourself to the impulses. Acknowledge them, challenge them and analyze then, change their character and their shape. The trick is to embrace those impulses whilst not letting them go out of control.

Life Without Emotions

According to Mark Manson, Author of “The Subtle Art of Not giving a F*ck” and “Everything is F*cked,“ there is been a tacit assumption that our emotions cause all our problems and that logic must swoop in to clean up the mess; this is what he calls the ‘Classic Assumption.’ In explaining why people do the things they do, the Classic Assumption sees passion and emotion as flaws, errors within the self. Succumbing to our emotional impulses is seen as a moral failing, as a lack of self-control, as a sign of a deficient character. Manson’s premise is that the Classic Assumption is wrong and illustrates his point with a history of the frontal lobotomy.

The lobotomy was a form of brain surgery, most commonly used to treat schizophrenia, but also used on patients to reduce emotional tension, e.g. for suicidal depressives, and to reduce the symptoms of other mental disorders. The procedure became very popular and in 1949, the originator of the procedure, Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz, shared a Nobel Prize for its discovery.

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Are you Depressed? You May Need a Lobotomy!

After a relatively short surgical lifespan (the Soviet Union was the first country to outlaw the procedure in 1950 stating that it was ‘contrary to the principles of humanity) it was noticed that dulling the emotions produced more than a few negative side effects; namely turning the patient into a vegetable, a living creature with no sign of depression, but a creature unable to focus, unable to make decisions, and unable to operate properly. One doctor described his patient following lobotomy as a “smiling, lazy and satisfactory patient with the personality of an oyster.”

In fact, we are moved to action only by our emotions. That is because action is emotion. Emotion is the biological hydraulic system that pushes our bodies into movement. Anger pushes our body to move; when we are angry, we have this urge to punch and kick something, to scream and shout. Anxiety pulls our body into retreat; when we feel anxious, we feel like getting into bed and bury ourselves under the duvet. Joy lights up our facial muscle. Sadness and worry create dark patches under our eyes. Emotion inspires action; the two are inseparable.

Decisions, Decisions!

So, why do people do the things they do? Because they have an urge to fulfill their basic needs, they are looking for societal validation and because they’re driven by emotion over logic. We’re not just driven by “sex, money, and fear,” but we are irrational and emotional creatures. I hope you are finding the right balance between all those conflicting forces and better understand why people do the things they do.


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19 Comments »

  1. Absolutely a brilliant article, thank you. We need our emotions as they are a reflection of our state of being, but we can earn not to become emotional about them. So much to earn about out selves and it can take a life time, and maybe that is what life is all about. Keep them coming Joanne and would it be possible to share your article on my site too?
    Sara Troy
    of Self Discovery Media

    • Thank you Sara for stopping by and for your comment🤗🙏! So glad to hear this article resonates with you. Please feel free to repost and share on your website this article or any of the other ones I’ve written.

  2. “Emotion is the biological hydraulic system that pushes our bodies into movement.” What a great thought and sentence. I enjoyed this read, very much. Well done 🙂

    • Full credit for this thought should be given to Mark Manson whom I referenced in my article. This insightful thought came from his latest book ‘Everything is F☆cked’. Thanks for stopping by and for your kind words. Glad to hear this article resonates with you!

  3. The examined life is worth living, which is the obverse of Socrates’ famous maxim: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” For those of us who believe in a healthy balance among Body, Mind, and Spirit/Soul, living the self-actualizing and self-realizing life is a goal worthy of pursuing. Your writings, Joanne, always point us in that direction. For that, I thank you.

  4. Thank you for checking in on JanBeek, allowing me to find your very informative post. I appreciate your blog and am grateful that you clicked “like” on mine so I could check yours out. I’ll be back!

  5. Yes I enjoyed tremendously this article. Thank you. I like thinking of myself as an emotionally logical person if such a label exists. I allow myself to identify with my feelings but I search myself, ask questions and try not to act on impulse

  6. Figuring out our own emotional states is a strange, dichotomous irony.
    Veils of thoughts and chemicals in our brains.
    And whom are we asking to assess these emotions?
    Our own veiled, emotional, compulsive, self-justifying and denial-creating selves.
    It’s a little like leaving your lambs with the wolf for babysitting.

    Seek peace,

    Paz

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