Why Do YOU think People Do What they Do?


When I was a kid, and prone to doing all the irritating things that A.D.D. kids tend to do, my mother would exclaim,” Pat, you’re just doing that to annoy me”.

“What the heck”, I thought.  “that was just a side benefit”.

I have always found it perplexing when people claim to know the motives of others.  You hear this all the time when people say, “He’s just doing that because . . . “.  Hell, half the time I don’t know why  I did some things, so how can others possibly know? Sometimes the only reason might be “It seemed like a good idea at the time” (never discount the power of low impulse control).

We are, to be sure, cause seeking beings.  We see something unfamiliar, and immediately wonder “why did that happen?”  This natural reaction was the beginning of science – the search to find out why things are the way they are. The problem comes not when we seek a cause for a certain event but when we make hasty assumptions, especially those based on stereotypes, false information, and insufficient data.

It can be difficult for some to not believe that some people are just evil when they disagree with us.  Our motives and intentions are pure, so, ipso facto, anyone who holds a divergent position must be evil.  Sounds silly (or deluded) when put that baldly, doesn’t it, but it is one explanation for why people make such outrageous claims about their political or theological opponents.

Why else might people attribute motives to others, especially those whom they don’t personally know?  Bobby Hoffman, Ph.D. has conclusions as to why people misinterpret behaviours and assign motives to behaviours they observe.

  1. Most people don’t know or understand their own motives. Most of us believe that our motives arise directly from our self and underestimate how often behaviours arise from circumstances, habit, cultural acceptability or social desirability. That is, we find ourselves doing things not because of who we really are, but because, in a specific circumstance, it is socially acceptable to behave in this way.
  1. Behavior is interpreted through personal perspectives. We judge others based on our own experience. The problem, of course, is that we have a  biased idea of how our behaviour compares with that of others.  Our driving is excellent; everyone else on the road is an idiot!  We also look for confirming evidence to support our judgement of our own behaviour and ignore or rationalize anything that would not support our conclusions.
  1. The same behaviors may represent entirely different motives. In the same environment, people will behave in different ways because of any number of things, but it is much simpler for us to assume that one environment equals one motive. Making correct interpretations of motives can be made even more difficult because there may be several motives at work.  You may take an evening class because you want to learn more about the topic being taught, because you want to meet new people, or because you want to get away from your room mate.
  1. Motives are often conflated with personality and character. Ever hear “She’s just doing that because she’s shy; he needs to be the life of the party because he’s a show-off?” Motives are fluid and variable, and trying to link a specific motive to a personality type is wasted and misapplied effort.
  1. Emotions can disguise or disrupt normative behavior. Behaviour observed under conditions of a greatly felt emotion can be misleading. When people are experiencing high levels of stress, anger, or discomfort, then their motives may be quite different than what might normally direct therm.

If you want to read an excellent book on motivation at work, try “Why Employees Don’t Do What They Are Supposed To – and What To Do About It” by Ferdinand Fournies.

So, the next time you are tempted to say “He is just doing that because . . . “ stop and ask yourself an important question:  “And what else?”