What Drives Human Behavior?

Human Behavior

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:

I’ve always been interested in what drives human behavior. This question has probably been the main driver throughout my studies.   

I have spent the last decade trying to answer this question and have discovered some important facts about what makes us tick.

So what drives human behavior?

The drive to fulfill the need for a sense of significance, achieved through a perceived sense of control over one’s life, a sense of social belonging, and a sense of effective social contribution.

Simply put, this 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.

What is the science behind this theory?

According to self-determination theory, there are three underlying human needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence

Autonomy is the sense that we have a level of control over our lives and are able to make our own free decisions. This can also be called a sense of freedom.

Relatedness refers to the idea that although we have a level of freedom and individuality, we still need to feel connected to something beyond ourselves. This can also be called a sense of community.

Competence is the sense that we are able to develop a level of skill or mastery over an area, allowing us to use these skills to contribute something valuable to the broader society.

According to Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan, these three fundamental needs drive intrinsic motivation. This is a humanistic perspective in positive psychology.

This theory goes beyond simply looking at rewards and punishments, as was popularized by B.F. Skinner in his theory of Operant Conditioning.

Although rewards and punishments do affect our habits, they are only extrinsic motivators. Human beings are more powerfully driven by the intrinsic motivators outlined in self-determination theory.

In their research, Deci and Ryan state:

Perhaps no single phenomenon reflects the positive potential of human nature as much as intrinsic motivation, the inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore, and to learn.

This perspective considers the active nature of human beings and their desire to expand their abilities. It expands on Skinner’s perspective on conditioning which frames human beings as equivalent to dogs that can be trained through external reward and punishment.

Although both drive human behavior, I believe Deci and Ryan’s humanistic perspective allows us to better understand the complexity of human behavior.

What happens when our needs are not met?

When our 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, which could involve escapist behaviors. These behaviors may include the use of drugs, addictive behaviors, or other ineffective coping mechanisms such as projection, denial, or displacement.

Both of these processes fuel addiction and mental health issues, including suicide.

Why is it important to understand the root causes?

When someone is acting out by engaging in destructive behaviors, we need to look beyond the surface. We are often quick to condemn someone’s bad behavior by labeling them a bad person.

The problem with simply labeling someone a bad person because of their bad behavior is that it does not get to the root causes of that behavior.

Looking beyond the surface behavior does not excuse the behavior. It just allows us to see the situation more realistically so that we can better understand what is actually going on so we can more effectively deal with the behavior.

Simply attempting to punish someone’s bad behavior without addressing the unmet needs may stop the behavior in the short term, but will only serve as a temporary solution.

Trying to change someone’s behavior by simply punishing them is comparable to trying to cure an addiction by taking away someone’s drugs and calling them a bad person. Realistically, would this get someone any closer to recovery?

From my experience in the addiction field, if the underlying reasons are not addressed, reprimanding someone with negative statements only drives them away. Their fight or flight response is already over-active, so attacking them only contributes to the problem.

If you can relate to this situation, you may be interested in checking out my article, The Ultimate Guide to Helping Someone Change.

What are some root causes of negative behavior?

As stated before, the root causes of negative behavior consist of reacting to the pain of our unmet needs through fight or flight.

Some responses may include the following examples highlighted in the psychodynamic psychology of defense mechanisms:

  • Displacement: acting out on a substitute target. For example, having a bad day at work and taking it out on a partner at home.
  • Projection: a way of denying our own faults or insecurities by projecting them onto someone else, and accusing that other person of those things.
  • Regression: falling into childish behaviors when under stress.
  • Denial: a form of flight from difficult thoughts or emotions and an unwillingness to face the reality of a situation.

People may resort to defense mechanisms instead of effectively coping with difficult situations for many reasons.

A root cause of these behaviors may include an earlier experience of trauma. Traumas may include a sudden disturbing event where an individual losses all sense of control, or a complex trauma whereby the person is traumatized by the long-term cumulative effect of a relationship or situation.

What drives positive behavior?

As stated before, human beings are not simply reacting to rewards and punishments. Our negative behavior is largely influenced by the despair associated with fundamental needs are not being met.

In the same way, our positive behavior can be largely attributed to our needs being met and our attempt to expand the sense of joy we receive from acting in alignment with these needs.

The need for autonomy gives us a sense of control over our lives. Research on children in school indicates that facilitating a child’s sense of autonomy has strong potential for developing their sense of intrinsic motivation in school.

The need for Relatedness gives us the sense that although we are our own individual persons, we are integrated within a larger community. My own research on veterans in transition to civilian life highlights this point. Many of the persons I spoke with stated the bond developed in the military was a high point in their lives.

The need for contribution gives us a sense of being connected to a clause larger than ourselves, in addition to the sense that we are expanding our abilities to make a contribution. Research on indicators of a positive mindset among men found that work satisfaction has the greatest impact.

Job satisfaction is associated with a sense of meaningful contribution. In addition to contribution, positive workplace environments facilitate a sense of trust and relatedness with one’s team, while maintaining a level of individual control of one’s work.


Human behavior is driven by rewards and punishments in addition to the drive to fulfill the need for a sense of significance. This is achieved through a perceived sense of control over one’s life, a sense of social belonging, and a sense of effective social contribution.

If you are interested in getting an even deeper understanding of our drive to seek purpose in life, you can check out my article, What Does It Mean to Have a Purpose?

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out BetterHelp.com. It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

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  1. Matriarch of Nerds

    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.

    • Alptekin Dinçerler

      Totally agree w/ your comment. Thanks to author!

  2. Heather's Starting End

    Excellent post…I hope you will continue the theme in the future??? That gets me hooked in a second 🙂

    • steveroseblog

      I do plan on building on this theory. I am open to any feedback or dialogue as well.

      • Heather's Starting End

        Great! 2am here in Switzerland, but when my mind is fresh and my thoughts even more so, I would love to jump in 🙂

  3. rastafari369

    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!

    • steveroseblog

      Thank you! That is the goal for my writing on here: depth and simplicity.

  4. Stephanie Wilkins

    Steve, Great article. Have you read the book, Search for Significance? It’s a great read.

    • steveroseblog

      Thank you for the suggestion! Who is the author?

  5. adegrandis

    Really interesting article and I think encapsulates much of what is going wrong with our capitalist culture and current civilisation.

  6. Ray Tapajna

    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.

    • oj100

      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.

  7. Chibimoekko

    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~

  8. oj100

    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?!

  9. Ni

    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)

  10. tommyg1231

    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.

  11. oj100

    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!

  12. Anonymous

    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.

  13. stking8920

    Steve—very good post! Thank you so much for following my blog! from another Steve 🙂

  14. Anonymous

    Very interesting and informative. Sam

  15. willowwrites

    Yep…it is as you say. And thanks for saying it!

  16. Dr Margaret Aranda

    Excellent, succinct, and original post of great value. Our Teens really need to hear this. Best to you on your book, and thank you for also Following my blog today!



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