6 Rules of Pain and Pleasure – The Science Behind All Human Action

Rule #1: All Decisions Made by Human Beings are to Avoid Pain or Gain Pleasure

When it comes to motivation and why people do the things that they do, it comes down the simple science of pain versus pleasure. If motivating others is part of your job or you want to become a motivational speaker, you need to understand these rules.

In its simplest form, all decisions that human beings make are to either gain pleasure or to avoid pain. Any act can be broken down this way. Why do you brush your teeth? Why would a woman spend precious time applying makeup before going out? Why would someone go to the gym every day? All of these actions can be sliced down to an individual trying to attain pleasure and/or avoid the pain that an action is going to bring. It’s all pain and pleasure.

Rule #2: People Will do Much More to Avoid Pain than they Will to Gain Pleasure!

As it turns out, while human beings want to both avoid pain and gain pleasure, they will do more for one than the other. Avoiding immediate pain is much more motivating than gaining immediate pleasure. If there is a lion running after you versus a suitcase full of money in front of you, which would motivate the average human to act quickly? Avoiding a certain amount of immediate pain wins over gaining immediate pleasure every time. Studies have demonstrated time and time again that people will do much more to avoid short term pain than they will to gain short term pleasure.

Rule #3: Perception IS Reality!

It’s the perception of pain and pleasure, not actual pain and pleasure that drives people. At first, this concept might seem a bit strange but a quick inspection makes it seem rather obvious. Since we don’t really ever know for sure what the future will hold, our brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex within the frontal lobe of our brain, is constantly making assumptions and judgements about the future. It’s this perception of future pain and pleasure that drives our actions. Unfortunately, it turns out that our perceptions are often very flawed, especially when it comes to things that are a bit more complex than running away from a predator or falling from heights.

Rule #4: Pain and Pleasure are Modulated by Time

Not only are we trying to avoid what we perceive to be painful and get what we perceive to be pleasurable, but timing also matters. We are focused avoiding immediate pain and we are trying to attain immediate pleasure. The closer something is to this moment, the more pain or pleasure we attach to it. Therefore, pain tomorrow is not as powerful of a force as pain today. Pain in a decade is absolutely far less motivating (or demotivating) that pain a week from now. This is precisely why most human beings have such a hard time saving money even though you can receive interest and free money by delaying spending.

As time goes on, our perception of pain and pleasure changes. Every decision you make results in at least one or more of the following: short term pain, long term pain, short term pleasure or long term pleasure. Short term always wins over long term unless there is a substantial amount of pain or pleasure associated with the long term avoidance of pain or gain of pleasure involved. Pain, or the level of perceived pleasure decreases with time.

Rule #5: Emotion Trumps Logic When Thinking of Pain and Pleasure

When thinking of making a decision based on gaining pleasure or avoiding pain, there is also an emotional aspect to the decision and a logical or more intellectual aspect to it. How many times have you looked at some ice cream sitting in front of you and had the ice cream even though you knew intellectually that you should not have the ice cream? We have all been there. Logically, you shouldn’t have the ice cream but emotionally, you want the ice cream. What wins? Intellect or emotions?

An ounce of emotion wins over an ounce or two of logic every time. The pain or pleasure related to our emotions are hard-wired in our brains to be much stronger because it’s the primitive part of our brain that tells us to act rather than think ahead to the future. This also further explains the modulation of pain and pleasure by time. When something is going to happen now, it’s much more likely to trigger an emotional response in us than something that is going to happen decades from now.

Rule #6: Survival vs. Desire in the Pleasure & Pain Principle

Finally, anytime our survival response is triggered, everything else essentially shuts down. This concept can be explained by thinking that pain and pleasure can be further broken down into things that are hard-wired for survival and things that are mere wants. It’s easy then, to understand, that if something triggers a survival response, such as running away from a predator, it is going to override just about every other desire in that moment. When most people hear this principle, however they assume that the survival instinct is naturally going to be the one that is trying to avoid pain but that doesn’t always work the way you would think.

The desire to consume sugar or other addictive foods is the perfect example of something that is absolutely hard-wired. If you love cookies and someone puts a cookie in front of you, you are instinctually driven to eat the cookie. Now, many times, we are able to use enough logic and future pain to stop ourselves but over 50% of the US population loses that battle several times per day! You are hard wired to eat sugar to stay alive and while processed foods are only 100 years old, our genetics are over 100,000 years old! From a survival perspective, the more calories, the better. Your brain thinks eating the cookie means survival and not eating it means death!


Putting Pain and Pleasure Principles Together:

The pain and pleasure principle is much more complex than one would think. Many people know that we are motivated to avoid pain and to gain pleasure, however, factors like, time, emotion, logic and survival versus desire all create a complex personal formula which influences us to act.

  1. We want to avoid pain and to gain pleasure
  2. What we want more is to avoid pain, even if we won’t get pleasure
  3. But we don’t know what is actually going to cause pain or pleasure so we have to rely on what we perceive to be painful or pleasurable
  4. Then the clock takes over and we focus on now rather than later and immediate pain or pleasure become magnified
  5. If for any reason emotion enters the equation, that element gets much more magnified, regardless of the type or reason
  6. Finally, if anything triggers our survival response, all else goes out the window because we are hard-wired to survive.


Putting The Pain and Pleasure Principle to Use in Your Life:

Everyone has specific formulas for what works for them. How can you use these rules to influence and motivate yourself to do the things that you want and need to do? For one, knowledge is power. Use the rules of the pain and pleasure principle to your advantage. In addition, think about what works for you. Knowing that your brain is focused on this moment, come up with ways of making future pain seem more real now.


Sidney Sadeghi, Titanium Success Trainer

and Arman Sadeghi, Peak Performance Speaker

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Comments (13)

  1. Avatar for Titanium Success David Ian McCall says:

    I came to these discoveries on my own (upon deep thought reflection 12 days ago while in the forests of Washington during vacation) and I am BEYOND belief that my reflections were in touch with reality as governed by physics (and not fantasy) upon seeing this today (11.22.17) .

    “Teach how to follow and those who learn will obey. Teach how to be human and those who learn will be liberated. ” – David McCall (and many others before me in their own words as well)

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  3. Avatar for Titanium Success Eric Stenson says:

    I love this concept. I like how each rule feeds off of each other, so you have to understand them all to really get why we do the things we do and avoid the things we avoid. One of my favorite articles on the site, and that’s saying a lot!

  4. Avatar for Titanium Success Robert Hardie says:

    Hmmm…I was skeptical when I clicked on this article…but you blew me away with these six rules. They perfectly explain how humans behave and make decisions. I wonder if being conscious of this will make me a better decision-maker?

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  6. Avatar for Titanium Success Peter Wagner says:

    I agree, but then becomes extremely ironic that our lives are controlled by money, which like candy, addicts us, and ensures perpetual pain.

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  13. Avatar for Titanium Success Julz Collins says:

    These exact principles are used in criminology and detective work in crimes committed. I have heard a detective referring to them often when they are trying to size up who it the most likely person to commit the crime, Totally makes sense to me in mentally ill people it is even more pronounced too so in healthcare I watch for this concept in extremes in people to get a handle on who they are sooner. Great article!

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