What Drives Human Behavior?

human-conservationEver wonder what drives human behavior?  

I have spent the last decade trying to answer this question and have discovered some important truths about what makes us tick. As a sociologist, my answer to this question can be summarized as the following:

Our fundamental need is a perceived sense of personal significance, achieved through a perceived sense of both social belonging and social contribution.

What does this mean? Simply put, it means we all want to feel significant. This sense of significance is achieved through feeling like we belong and feeling like we are making a contribution.

When this is achieved, we feel fulfilled. When it is not, we feel the need to compensate for this lack of inner-fulfillment.

When either of these social needs are not met and our sense of personal significance is threatened, we compensate through fight or flight responses in an attempt to restore or escape our lost sense of significance.

Fight responses include displays of superiority and displays of power. Displays of superiority include harnessing status symbols or sabotaging others, and displays of power include aggressive attempts to control or manipulate others. Flight responses include social withdrawal.

These are the same processes that fuel addiction and mental health issues, including suicide. In the case of addiction, substance use is a flight responses from emotional pain. Understanding what drives these behaviors helps us better understand how to help others who are stuck in self-destructive habits.

In my book, Making People ChangeI delve deeper into how to help others with self-destructive behaviors. The solution is not to simply try harder or do more. This may actually contribute to the problem further. Instead, this book shows you how to use scientifically proven communication techniques to help you become the most helpful version of yourself. With these techniques, you’ll have the skills to feel empowered when helping someone change.

Download from Amazon: Making People Change: Why it Doesn’t Work and How You Can Help


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  1. Our true significance is the fact that we were created in the image of God, and as the only creatures on the planet that God breathed his own breath into, we are awesomely significant. But since The Fall, we lost the connection with our Maker and his favour, and so we’ve been looking to ourselves or other creatures for our significance ever since. It was a desire for a significance bigger than God’s in the first place that made us susceptible to the suggestions of the Serpent, causing the first sin.

  2. I’d love to see more expansion on your concept of the “mind story”, and your ideas on how we each can go about creating our unique Play of Life.

    In defining our Identity, we become a Hero, or Anti-Hero, set in the experiences of our lives.

    We have but some control of our Experiences, but it is our unique way of seeking them out, our Perspectiveon them, and/or our way of reacting to external events that creates our Significance.

    Becoming more aware of potential perspectives on how to understand and think about, and act on our Life Situations can help us create a most significant Life, given our unique capabilities, desires, drives, and personlaity traits. Keep up the good work!

  3. I enjoy seeing other perspectives.
    We tend to identify our perspective with words that we think define it by pointing to a understanding as though this is how it is. But as most theologians, philosophers and even modern science elude that nothing is as it seems. So the more we try to define “it”. What ever “it” is we can’t help but reduce it to the nomenclature of limited understanding our mind can think it in. A lot of people have trouble absorbing that as the mind is stuck on a obtuse thought it can know what it never can. So as someone defines what causes someone to succumb to say addiction, they unconsciously assume they know what addiction is when they don’t. They just know some words they choose to think it in. But what ever it is, it isn’t limited to a thought. So trying to think reality or “know” it, is broken already by the limitations of the object that thinks. Religion points to that in its own flawed way as mind continually invents itself in a different ways.
    So at best we might find it comforting to say or think, this is how I think “it” in my unique mind.

  4. All human behavior can be ultimately considered as driven by only three variables (no other variable needs to be studied):
    1. Objective: What the human being wants/needs, consciously or subconsciously
    2. Mentality: How the given human being thinks he/she can achieve it
    3. Capability: Whether the human being can physically implement the means to achieve what he wants

    Do a thought experiment and see if you need data on a fourth variable. Most likely, it will be a subset of the above three.
    To put it in consult-speak, the three variables are MECE (Mutually Exclusive Collectively Exhaustive)

  5. I would also add Shadow (non congnitive) Drivers as a basic driver for human behavior. Our shadow demons drive many of our unconscious choices, that lead us many times to ask, Why did i do THAT?!

  6. Thank you for dropping by mine. Queen’s is a great university – I almost went there~.^ As a fellow grad in a related field, I enjoyed your layman approach to existentialism. Cheers~

  7. Jacque Maritain, most likely one of the last real philosopher of recent times, makes an excellent distinction between personality and individuality marking each with separate characteristics It is not about matter versus form but shows a way where each has to balanced with each other to enrich a human being in their search for the life ideal on earth. Personality tends to fulfill itself by reaching out to others. It is closer to the spirituality of the inner self. Individuality tends to protect the rights of individual choices which sometimes interferes with others peoples’ choices. We need personality to check off the process for the sake of the common good and the whole of society. Personality should be recognized as something that can check off the imbalances of individuality. Both are enhanced this way this way in the search of the ideal life for each of us and all of us.

    1. very nicely put! you’ve added the bigger dimensions to the original post, hinting at the complex role of
      Personality in the Self-Others-Spirit foundations of human existence. The Win or Belong paradigms are more about Self, de-emphaziing the mergence of Self with Others and Spirit.

  8. Great post.. educational yet easy to understand and not boring at all… Although I’m really and have always been interested in psychology but still.. this is such a good read! 🙂 Thanks for posting this!

  9. This is so fascinating. You wrote this in such a way that is easy for those of us not in the field of sociology/psychology to understand. I had so many “light bulb moments” as I was reading this. Thank you.

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