The Basic Motivators of Human Behavior

The Basic Motivators of Human Behavior


“I don’t understand you” is a common cry of frustration when someone’s behavior proves inexplicable and inconveniencing to the complainer. Worse yet is the attitude that never gives a thought to understanding the other party, but simply assumes “any idiot could see I’m right, and I owe nothing to anyone who’s dumber than an idiot.” Where people resent others for seeing things differently, you have a tense coexistence at best and a war at worst.

The irony is, people we “don’t understand” act as they do for the same (legitimate and good) core reasons we act as we do. While there’s no universally agreed-upon list of behavior motivators, the categories below cover most situations. Share them with your children: the best time to begin understanding others is as young as possible!


Physical Needs

Unless you work with disadvantaged communities, you’re unlikely to meet many people in life-threatening deprivation. But even missing one lunch or night’s sleep can turn a reasonable person into an irrational grouch. If you’re arguing with someone in this category, suggest taking up the matter the next day—or continuing the discussion over a healthy snack.


Emotional Needs

Many antisocial types are simply taking “nobody cares” pain out on others. You can’t undo an abused childhood or cure a mental illness, but you can give the benefit of the doubt to surly strangers, and be gentle with any acquaintance who suffers trauma or heartbreak. (Tip: Never tell anyone to “just get over it.”)


Desire for Relationships

Amateur “Freudian psychology” may push the idea that everything is motivated by lust, but “sex” is hardly the only form of intimacy human beings crave; everyone needs friends and allies. Put regular “we” phrases into your dialogue, and assume you and the other party will have a long-term relationship.


Desire for Order

Remember the last time you lived through one frustration after another, or found yourself at a crossroads? Then you can appreciate how stressed most people get in such situations—and how the last thing they want is anyone adding to the disorder. Don’t fixate on your convenience alone; look for win–win solutions. And avoid surprising others with last-minute requests and changes.


Desire for Challenge

Desire for order notwithstanding, no one wants to live in monotony either. People want to feel they’ve earned what they get, and that they’ve accomplished something difficult enough to be worthwhile. Often the quickest way to get someone on your side is to ask for help solving a problem—even just to “help me understand the situation better.”


Desire to Feel Important

Dale Carnegie may have been the first to emphasize “a feeling of importance” as a universal human craving; in the classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, he calls it the basic desire most likely to go ungratified. If you haven’t been in the habit of asking for opinions and acknowledging contributions, start today; you’ll be surprised how agreeable others become in return.


Desire for Purpose

People whose “purpose in life” is limited to “getting ahead” tend to be chronically unhappy and hard to get along with. Try to turn the conversation in a positive direction by asking about their dreams or most rewarding experiences. Always encourage others to be their best!