Any discussion on motivation must begin with the pleasure principle, which generally states that we move toward pleasure and move away from pain. If you think about it, this is omnipresent in our daily lives in both minuscule and huge ways. As such, this actually makes people more predictable to understand. What is the pleasure people are seeking, and what is the pain they are avoiding? It’s always there in some way.
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Another related way of looking to people’s deeper motivations is to recognize and acknowledge their “inner child.” We can understand the inner child as that unconscious part of ourselves that represents the little children we once were.
After all, it’s usually in childhood where we learn which parts of us are acceptable and which aren’t, and hence it’s the time we start to build up our shadow and shape our conscious personality. Doing “inner child work” sounds a little out there, but it’s really not that different from gently acknowledging and embracing the shadow aspect.
If you were doing inner child work on your own or with a therapist, you might engage in a playful dialogue with your inner child, journal, draw and paint, and get into the mindset of a compassionate adult who then “re-parents” the younger version of yourself, giving yourself everything you needed back then but didn’t receive.
How can we use the theory of the inner child to help us become better at reading people? In the same way we can learn to identify when someone is operating from their shadow, we can see if someone is motivated particularly from their inner child. If you’re having an argument with a partner, and they’re angry and defensive, you may suddenly see their behavior much more clearly if you understand it as a scared child essentially throwing a tantrum.
You’ve probably felt once or twice before as though you were dealing with a child who simply happened to be in the shape of a grown adult. If you notice someone suddenly acting with what seems like disproportionate emotion, pay attention. Feeling suddenly angry, hurt, defensive, or offended could be a clue that some nerve has been touched. The unconscious—whether that’s the shadow or the inner child, or both—has been activated somehow.
A good indication that you’re dealing with someone who is wholly identified with their child self is that you feel yourself positioned as a “parent.” When we are adults, we are expected to take responsibility, show self-restraint, and behave with reason and respect for others. But a person in child mode may be (psychologically speaking) a child, which pushes you to respond as a parent would, i.e., with soothing, reprimanding, or taking responsibility for them.
Let’s say you’re asked to work with someone new at your job. This person flakes on meetings with you and then doesn’t pitch in with their share of the work, leaving you to pick up the mess. When you confront them, they pout and deny it and sulk. You realize that this person is wholly identified with their inner child—who happens to be a naughty and rebellious child. Knowing this, you refrain from going into parent mode. You don’t take on the responsibility of chastising them and trying to find a way to bribe them to do their job.
Perhaps this person learned early in life that this was the way to respond to authority, responsibilities, or things you didn’t really want to do. By deliberately engaging with your colleague’s adult aspect, however, you change the dynamic. You make it impossible for them to stay in child mode. What could have been a worse conflict ends up resolving eventually.
It’s a subtle but powerful shift—we don’t look only at the behavior in front of us, but where the behavior is coming from and why. True, we may not open up any additional avenues of choice by doing so, but we always enrich our understanding of the situation, which is intrinsically valuable.
One of psychology’s lasting contributions to popular thought is the idea that we can interpret situations and events not just in terms of their practical features, but in terms of the people involved and their human needs and motivations. We’ll look more closely at this theory in the following section.
The Motivation Factor—Pleasure or Pain
If you can zoom in and really grasp a person’s true motivations, you can understand them so much better, perhaps even to the point of being able to predict how they might act in the future. Using this psychological approach gives you the opportunity to get into the perspective of other people, finding clarity on exactly what they gain by thinking and behaving as they do. With this knowledge, your interactions with people are instantly enriched.
Again, these intertwine neatly with emotions and values because they are often seeking the same ends. It’s just another perspective on why someone will act the way they do and what we can understand of them from that.
Out of all the speculations about the sources of motivation, none is more famous than the pleasure principle. The reason it’s so renowned is because it’s also the easiest to understand. The pleasure principle was first raised in public consciousness by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, though researchers as far back as Aristotle in ancient Greece noted how easily we could be manipulated and motivated by pleasure and pain.
The pleasure principle asserts that the human mind does everything it can to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. It doesn’t get simpler than that. In that simplicity, we find some of life’s most universal and predictable motivators.
The pleasure principle is employed by our reptile brain, which can be said to house our natural drives and desires. It doesn’t have any sense of restraint. It is primal and unfiltered. It goes after whatever it can to meet our body’s urges for happiness and fulfillment. Anything that causes pleasure is felt by the brain the same way, whether it’s a tasty meal or a drug. An apt comparison, in fact, is a drug addict who will stop at nothing to get another taste of narcotics.
There are a few rules that govern the pleasure principle, which also make us fairly predictable.
Every decision we make is based on gaining pleasure or avoiding pain. This is the common motivation for every person on earth. No matter what we do in the course of our day, it all gets down to the pleasure principle. You raid the refrigerator for snacks because you crave the taste and feel of certain food. You get a haircut because you think it will make you more attractive to someone else, which will make you happy, which is pleasure.
Conversely, you wear a protective mask while you’re using a blowtorch because you want to avoid sparks flying into your face and eyes, because that will be painful. If you trace all of our decisions back, whether short term or long term, you’ll find that they all stem from a small set of pleasures or pains.
People work harder to avoid pain than to get pleasure. While everyone wants pleasure as much as they can get it, their motivation to avoid pain is actually far stronger. The instinct to survive a threatening situation is more immediate than eating your favorite candy bar, for instance. So when faced with the prospect of pain, the brain will work harder than it would to gain access to pleasure.
For example, imagine you’re standing in the middle of a desert road. In front of you is a treasure chest filled with money and outlandishly expensive jewelry that could set you up financially for the rest of your life. But there’s also an out-of-control semi careening toward it. You’re probably going to make the decision to jump away from the truck rather than grab the treasure chest, because your instinct to avoid pain—in this case, certain death—outweighed your desire to gain pleasure.
If you’ve hit rock bottom and faced a massive amount of pain or displeasure, then you simply must start acting to avoid that in the future. A wounded animal is more motivated than a slightly uncomfortable one.
Our perceptions of pleasure and pain are more powerful drivers than the actual things. When our brain is judging between what will be a pleasant or painful experience, it’s working from scenarios that we think could result if we took a course of action. In other words, our perceptions of pleasure and pain are really what’s driving the cart. And sometimes those perceptions can be flawed. In fact, they are mostly flawed, which explains our tendency to work against our own best interests.
I can think of no better example of this rule than jalapeño chapulines. They’re a spicy, traditional Mexican snack that’s tasty and low in carbs. By the way, “chapulines” means “grasshoppers.” We’re talking chili-flavored grasshoppers. The insects.
Now, you may have no firsthand knowledge of how grasshoppers taste. Maybe you’ve never tried them. But the thought of eating grasshoppers may give you pause. You imagine they’ll be repellent to the tongue. You imagine if you take a bite of a grasshopper, you’ll get grossed out. You might accidentally bite down on an internal grasshopper organ. The perception of eating a grasshopper is driving you quickly away from the act of eating one.
But the fact remains that you haven’t actually tried it yet. You’re working from your idea of the repulsion that eating a grasshopper will bring about. Somebody who’s actually tried grasshopper-based cuisine may insist to you that they’re really good when prepared properly. Still, you might not be able to get over your innate perception of what eating an insect would be like.
Pleasure and pain are changed by time. In general, we focus on the here and now: what can I get very soon that will bring me happiness? Also, what is coming up very soon that could be intensely painful that I’ll have to avoid? When considering the attainment of comfort, we’re more tuned into what might happen immediately. The pleasure and pain that might happen months or years from now don’t really register with us—what’s most important is whatever’s right at our doorstep. Of course, this is another way in which our perceptions are flawed and why we procrastinate so frequently, for example.
Suppose a smoker needs a cigarette. It’s the main focus of their current situation. It brings them a certain relief or pleasure. And in about fifteen minutes, they’ll be on break so they can enjoy that cigarette. It’s the focus of their daily ritual. They’re not thinking how smoking a cigarette every time they “need” one could cause painful health problems down the road. That’s a distant reality that’s not driving them at all. Right now, they need a smoke because they crave one, and they might get a headache immediately if they don’t get one.
Emotion beats logic. When it comes to the pleasure principle, your feelings tend to overshadow rational thought. You might know that doing something will be good or bad for you. You’ll understand all the reasons why it will be good or bad. You’ll get all that. But if your illogical id is so intent on satisfying a certain craving, then it’s probably going to win out. And if your id drives you to think that doing something useful will cause too much stress or temporary dissatisfaction, it’s going to win there too.
Going back to our smoker, without a doubt they know why cigarettes are bad for one’s health. They’ve read those warnings on the packages. Maybe in school they saw a picture of a corroded lung that resulted from years of smoking. They know all the risks they’re about to court. But there’s that pack right in front of them. And all reason be damned, they’re going to have that cigarette. Their emotions oriented toward pleasure win out.
Survival overrides everything. When our survival instinct gets activated, everything else in our psychological and emotional makeup turns off. If a life-threatening situation (or a perceived life-threatening situation) arises in our existence, the brain closes down everything else and turns us into a machine whose thoughts and actions are all oriented toward the will to survive.
This shouldn’t be surprising when it comes to avoiding painful outcomes. Of course you’re going to try to jump away from that oncoming semi truck; if you don’t, you won’t survive. Your system won’t let you make that choice—it’s going to do everything it can to get you the hell out of the way of that truck.
However, survival can also come into play when we’re seeking pleasure—even if it means we might slip into harm’s way. The most obvious example of this is food. Say you’re at a bar and somebody orders a giant plate of nachos loaded with cheese, sour cream, fatty meat, and a bunch of other things that might not be the best dietary choices for you. You might be able to resist it. Some people can. But you might not. In fact, you could find yourself eating half the plate before you even know what you’ve done.
Why? Because you need food to survive. And your brain is telling you there’s food in the vicinity, so perhaps you should eat it. Never mind that it’s not the best kind of food, nutritionally speaking, that you could opt for at the moment. Your survival instinct is telling you it’s time to have those nachos. Your life depends on it.
The pleasure principle is related to an idea that comes from economics and the attempt to predict markets and human buying behavior: the rational choice theory, embodied by the jokingly named Homo economicus. This states that all of our choices and decisions spring entirely from self-interest and the desire to bring as much pleasure to our lives as possible. It may not always hold up (otherwise market and stock prices would be one hundred percent predictable), but it provides more support for the simple nature of many of our motivations.
The next time you meet someone new or are trying to get a read on someone, consider looking at their actions in terms of the motivation of pleasure or pain. Ask yourself what good thing they gain by behaving as they do, or what bad thing they avoid—or both.
For example, if you have a tired five-year-old who doesn’t want to clean up their room, you might consider pleasure and pain and ask how they perceive your request: probably as painful! When you realize that they are simply behaving to avoid pain and maximize their own pleasure, you can reframe your request. If you can turn tidying up into a fun game, or if you can link tidying up to the anticipation of a reward, you’ve communicated effectively and gotten the result you want.
Of course, you’re probably wondering if this theory always applies—the answer is no. People are able to exercise discipline, restraint, and self-control, and they are able to genuinely desire and derive pleasure from doing things that only pay off in the future, or only help others and not themselves. Though the pleasure/pain principle may work well with dog training, you probably like to think of yourself as a little more complex, morally speaking.
For example, there are countless stories of prisoners held in concentration camps during the holocaust, who were starving to death and yet chose to share what little food they had with those around them. Naturally, a human being is driven to act by many more things than simple pleasure seeking or pain avoidance. This is why learning to read people requires us to consider so many different models and theories—none of them are sufficient on their own.
In the following section, we’ll look at another needs-based theory that can help us better make sense of people who act outside of the normal pleasure/pain dynamics, and why.