Why We Do What We Do When We Do What We Do

Published 22 May 2017

We do the things we do because we perceive that it is to our benefit to do these things, and, as in Deci and Flaste’s (1996) further assertion, the perception of intrinsic motivation and autonomy plays a key role in fostering individual well-being. Although there are claims to self-sacrificing actions, it is my belief that all behavior is self-centered behavior, and that each of us acts with our individual self-interests uppermost in our minds.

Whether we respond to a particular stimulus or not depends on how we interpret the self-interest value of responding. If action is perceived as likely to produce a benefit to self, we act; if action is perceived as unlikely to result in a benefit to self, we do not act. But the question of why we do what we do when we do not only boils down to self-motivation, external circumstances play their part as well, as the following story will typify. There were several young boys who enjoyed throwing rocks at the house of a man who lived on the outskirts of town. The old man tried many methods of stopping the boys from throwing rocks at his house. He tried yelling at them. He tried reasoning with them. He even threatened to call the police. Nothing seem to work.

Finally, in desperation, the man came up with a bold plan. He started paying the boys a dollar each to throw rocks at his house. Then he reduced the payment to twenty-five cents. Although the boys complained, they continued to throw rocks, but with less enthusiasm. Finally, he reduced the payment to a penny each. Amazingly, the boys stopped entirely, telling the old man that it was no longer worth it to throw rocks at his house! And they never returned.

The explanation for this occurrence is that the formerly self-motivated (albeit negative) behavior became externally controlled. First, the rock throwing lost its intrinsic pleasure. Second, the reduced external reward was insufficient to maintain it. This implies that ultimately, when behavior becomes too closely linked with external forces, self-motivation is lost. By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have been thoroughly socialized to external control through the promise of rewards and the threat of punishment. At this point, self-motivation has become subordinated to potent external forces.


  • Deci, L. & Flaste, R. (1996). Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. Penguin Books.
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