The Principle that Explains All Human Behavior

Even the Most Irrational Ones

You need to get this principle to understand human behavior. Not only other people’s behavior, but also your own behavior. Especially, your own behavior.

Sometimes, you might have a difficult time understanding someone’s behavior. Sometimes, you might have a difficult time understanding your own behavior. Not anymore.

All human behavior is motivated by the pain and pleasure principle. We are either running away from pain or running towards pleasure. We are either moving towards rewards or escaping punishment. Human behavior is as simple as that.

Now, you either disagree with me or you think that I’m stating the obvious. In either case, bear with me. For many of us, the pain and pleasure principle is an obvious explanation of human behavior, but it goes deeper than that, but more about that later.

Why Should You Get the Pain and Pleasure Principle?

Getting the pain and pleasure principle helps you understand human behavior. Once you understand human behavior, you understand motivation.

  • What motivates you?
  • What motivates a specific person in your life?
  • What motivates an average person?
  • What motivates a prospect?

The correct answers to the questions above are worth their weight in gold. Once you have the answers to those questions, you can modify the behavior of yourself and others. That ability is a superpower in life, business, and relationships.

The ability to modify the behavior of yourself and others is a superpower in life, business, and relationships.


How do you explain people who go out of their own way to help others without any rewards in return? How do you explain people who intentionally harm themselves? How can you explain these behaviors with rewards and punishment?

Counterargument #1: The Selfless Person

We all know a person or two, who go out of their own way to help people without any rewards in return. Or is that so? What if the biggest reward of charity is internal? The good feelings that one gets? This is what draws many wealthy people to charity without any expectation in return.

Counterargument #2: The Masochist

Somehow, sometime, the masochist associated self-harm with pleasure. Maybe, it is the adrenaline high they are after. In either case, the pain and pleasure principle is in play here. Pleasure is so high that it’s overwhelming the pain.

The Real Use of the Principle

Let’s set the counterarguments aside and focus on how we can use this principle in our own lives. Here’s an example: how did we end up checking our smartphones 150 times a day? Moreover, how can we let go of this self-destructing habit?

How did we end up checking our smartphones 150 times a day?

As we all know, our daily lives can be mundane. Most of us associate boredom with pain. In order to escape the pain of boredom, we run towards the little rewards provided by our smartphones. Nevertheless, this habit is not as innocent as it sounds.

Every time we distract ourselves with our devices, we reduce our ability to maintain our focus for an extended period of time. This habit destroys our cognitive abilities. It makes us dumber.

The smart people who produce our devices and apps make them addictive on purpose. When you check the Facebook newsfeed, you see longer, text only posts shortened and squeezed in between flashy photos and videos.

Deeper Than the Pain and Pleasure Principle

The internet and device addiction can be explained with the pain and pleasure principle. However, in order to form an addiction, we need more than that. A single pain and pleasure cycle is most of the time not enough to form a habit or addiction.

We need multiple repetitions of the pain and pleasure cycle to form a habit or addiction. We need momentum. Forming habits and addictions happen through reinforcement of the same pain and pleasure cycle over and over.

How to Quit an Addiction

Let’s say we want to quit our device checking habit. The motivation behind the device checking habit is to escape the pain of boredom and pleasure of the little rewards. In order to quit that habit, we need to come up with a pain point that is greater than boredom.

We also need to associate not checking the device with a reward that is greater than the ones we get from the device. That way we override the initial pain and pleasure cycle with another cycle that motivates us in the opposite direction.

There’s a catch when replacing the initial pain and pleasure cycle. It takes conscious effort and repetition to replace an unconscious motivation with a conscious motivation. That means you need to consciously repeat yourself the new motivation to replace the old one over and over until the new one becomes a second nature.

How to Handle Slip Backs

You should also expect sliding into conscious incompetence. That is sliding into old habits, even though you made the decision to let go of them. Don’t give up if you find yourself in this situation, move on to conscious competence and stay there until you reach the unconscious competence. In our example, that is the state where you don’t even have the urge to check your device.

The same motivation replacement technique can be used in other areas of life, such as quitting smoking, eating healthy, changing dietary choices. This is why adding horrible pictures of cancer patients on cigarette packs are effective for quitting smoking. People who are see slaughterhouse footages multiple times have a difficult time consuming animal foods.


The pain and pleasure principle, moving towards rewards and avoiding punishments explains all human behavior. In order to quit a bad habit or addiction, the old pain and pleasure cycle can be replaced with a conscious one. This replacement require multiple repetitions over time to be reinforced in our mind.

Today’s post was about how to use the pain and pleasure principle to modify your own behavior. In a follow up post, I’ll discuss using this principle to understand other people and eventually motivating them. Until then here are a few questions for you to think about.

  • Do you have any habits or addictions that you want to quit?
  • What are the rewards, pleasure points, this habit or addiction provides you with?
  • Which punishment or paint point do you run away from with this habit or addiction?
  • Which conscious rewards and pain points can you find to override the unconscious ones?

Once you have the answers to these questions, try reinforcing them through repetition for a month and let me know how this method works for you.

Burak Bilgin
Software developer with a Ph.D. and 15 years of experience. I write daily on personal development and life lessons. Sign up to my email newsletter to receive a weekly roundup of my latest posts.

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