The Devil Made Me Do It.

Can We Determine Motives?

Have you ever asked yourself, “Why did I eat that donut?” People often want to know why they or others do something. One theory is motives are unknowable and what people call a motive is just an acceptable explanation. In the 1800s, religious explanations attributed bad behavior to temptation from the devil. In the 1960s, the comedian Flip Wilson used “The devil made me do it” as a signature joke. What does today’s evidence say about motive?

Psychologists divide motives into two main categories, implicit and explicit. Articles about motive often divide motive into implicit motives that are often unconscious needs and explicit motive or goals that are conscious. Implicit motives in men and women may also be affected by biology such as hormone levels. These two categories match the two common definitions of motive.  Implicit motives correspond to “something that causes a person to act in a certain way” and explicit motives correspond to “the goal or object of a person’s actions.”

Articles investigating implicit motives look at many motivators including power, profit, achievement, cultural transmission, affiliation, intimacy, desire for status and desire for justice.  Scientifically these are designated as motives if they can be used to predict behavior. For example, if a physician owns an x-ray machine, he may be more likely to order an x-ray due to an implicit profit motive than a doctor who does not own one. He is unlikely to express this explicitly by asking a patient to get an x-ray because “I want to make more money.”

The unconscious mind does much more decision making than most people imagine. Studies have found unconscious brain activity can predict our conscious decisions several seconds before they happen. A metaphor for this, the conscious and unconscious mind, are like an elephant and rider. To have a smooth ride, the elephant and rider must move together.  Psychologists have found when your implicit and explicit motives do not match, you are likely to be unhappy.

Therefore implicit motives are difficult to determine because they are often unconscious while explicit motives are often explanations. Motives are also attributed to others. These are likely to be even less accurate. When two groups have a hostile relationship, individuals attribute negative motives to the people they are fighting. Some people will also believe in conspiracy claims if there is an apparent motive, even if there is no good evidence for the conspiracy.

In summary, motives are difficult to determine, and we should be skeptical of the explanations people give for their behavior and even more skeptical of the motives others attribute to people with whom they disagree.

Selected References

  1. Definition:
  2. Flip Wilson Wikipedia entry:
  3. Stoeckart PF, Strick M, Bijleveld E, Aarts H: The implicit power motive predicts action selection. Psychol Res. 2016 Mar 23
  4. Singel R: Opinion overlooks profit motive for taking X-rays. CDS Rev. 2016 Mar-Apr;109(2):6.
  5. Sano N, Kyougoku M. An analysis of structural relationship among achievement motive on social participation, purpose in life, and role expectations among community dwelling elderly attending day services.  2016 Jan 28;4:
  6. Mchitarjan I, Reisenzein R: The Culture-Transmission Motive in Immigrants: A World-Wide Internet Survey.  PLoS One. 2015 Nov 3;10(11):e0141625
  7. Arrighi Y, Davin B, Trannoy A, Ventelou B: The non-take up of long-term care benefit in France: A pecuniary motive?  Health Policy. 2015 Oct;119(10):1338-48.
  8. Hofer J, Busch H, Schneider C, Šolcová IP, Tavel P: The higher your implicit affiliation-intimacy motive, the more loneliness can turn you into a social cynic: A cross-cultural study. J Pers. 2015 Oct 9. [Epub ahead of print]
  9. Anderson C, Hildreth JA, Howland L: Is the desire for status a fundamental human motive? A review of the empirical literature. Psychol Bull. 2015 May;141(3):574-601
  10. Waytz A, Young LL, Ginges J: Motive attribution asymmetry for love vs. hate drives intractable conflict. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Nov 4;111(44):15687-92
  11. Bost PR, Prunier SG. Rationality in conspiracy beliefs: the role of perceived motive.  Psychol Rep. 2013 Aug;113(1):1130-40
  12. Wu MS, Sutton RM, Yan X, Zhou C, Chen Y, Zhu Z, Han B: Time frame and justice motive: future perspective moderates the adaptive function of general belief in a just world.  PLoS One. 2013 Nov 28;8(11):e80668.
  13. Implicit vs. explicit motives:
  14. Uauy: Do we believe Derek’s motive for taking his new job at PepsiCo? Public Health Nutr. 2008 Feb;11(2):111-2.
  15. Unconscious decision making:
  16. Heath Chip, Heath Dan: Switch:  How to change things when change is hard.  Broadway Books, New York, 2010


David Trachtenbarg, M.D.

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