Human behavior is a term used to describe our physical and emotional behaviors. How we think, act, and interact with others are examples of human behavior.

At times our behavior is easy to understand. For example, assume you’re on a road trip, and your gas light comes on. In that case, you’d think, I need gas, then find the next gas station and fill up.

But human behavior isn’t always that logical. At times our behavior is confusing and hard to explain.

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Maybe you saw your partner talking with an attractive co-worker. Even though it was nothing more than a harmless work conversation, you felt jealous and picked a fight. Or, perhaps you have a successful career but feel an unexplainable urge to quit and begin a career as an artist.

Human behavior has a significant effect on your life. Positive behaviors improve your life, and negative behaviors harm your life. Therefore, there’s tremendous value in understanding human behavior.

Quality Of Life vs. Decisions Graph
Quality Of Life vs. Decisions Graph

This article is all about human behavior. In it, I’ll describe a simple system that can help you understand people better. Let’s get started.

It All Starts With Motivation

The key to understanding human behavior is understanding motivation. That’s because motivation is the driving force behind everything we do. When you know what motivates someone, you can make sense of their behavior.

At times it’s easy to identify the motivation behind an action. For example, it’s easy to understand why a thirsty person drinks. Yet, at other times, it’s hard to identify what motivates behavior. For instance, why would a jealous partner harm their relationship by picking an unnecessary fight?

Thankfully, the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow can help answer this question.

Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs

Maslow is best known for creating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—a categorized list of human needs. You can use Maslow’s list of human needs to understand motivation.

Here’s a breakdown of Maslow’s five categories of needs.

1. Physiological needs are our physical requirements for survival. Food, water, shelter, oxygen, sex, and sleep are examples of physiological needs.

2. Safety needs help us feel secure and in control of our lives. Our need for financial security, emotional stability, and avoiding danger are examples of safety needs.

3. Belongingness and love needs define our need for social connection. Our desire for friendship, romantic relationships, family, and community are examples of belongingness and love needs.

4. Esteem needs define our need to feel good about ourselves. Our need to feel important, respected, recognized, and appreciated are examples of esteem needs.

5. Self-actualization needs define our need to use our talents to the best of our ability. Personal development, career advancement, creative achievements, self-fulfillment, and curiosity are examples of self-actualization needs.

A diagram known as the Maslow Pyramid is based on this theory. The diagram shows basic physiological needs at the base of the pyramid and more advanced needs at higher tiers.

Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs Pyramid
Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs Pyramid

Maslow’s hierarchy is a good starting point, but it’s not perfect. Many have criticized Maslow’s model, and even Maslow himself reworked his theory many times. 1 However, with a few adjustments, Maslow’s hierarchy is a powerful framework for understanding human behavior.

What Maslow Got Wrong

Maslow initially believed that needs had to be met in order from basic to advanced. For example, to fulfill a level-four esteem need, a person would first need to fulfill all physiological, safety, and love needs.

Maslow also believed his theory could explain motivation and behavior. He suggested that people naturally feel motivated to fulfill new needs as they progress through the hierarchy. This means that once a person fulfilled their physiological needs, they would then feel motivated to fulfill safety needs. Once their safety needs were met, they would move on to belongingness and love needs. He believed this pattern of motivation and behavior continued up to level five of the hierarchy.

At first glance, this theory makes sense. After all, you can’t work on career development if you are dead. But, this theory quickly breaks down. That’s because once basic survival needs are met, human behavior does not follow a pre-defined linear path. Instead, human behavior is quite variable.

As long as you’re alive, deciding what need you want to fulfill is a matter of choice. For example, you can form a friendship (a level-three need) before achieving financial security (a level-two need). Or, you can start a business (a level-five need) before you feel respected (a level-four need).

In fact, most of Maslow’s ‘needs’ aren’t really needs. You don’t need financial security, romantic relationships, or self-confidence. Therefore, Maslow’s hierarchy isn’t a hierarchy at all.

Instead, it’s better to consider Maslow’s needs as categories of things that motivate us. Let me explain.

Multiple sources of motivation can produce the same behavior. For instance, you might accept a new job for many reasons.

If you’re broke, you need a job to pay the bills. If you’re lonely, you might enjoy connecting with colleagues. And, if you’re financially secure, perhaps you want an exciting new challenge.

This model makes it easier to understand human behavior. That’s because you don’t have to fit all human behavior into a pre-defined linear model. Instead, you can understand human behavior by connecting a particular behavior to a motive.

Understand People With Maslows Categories
Maslow’s Categories Of Things That Motivate Us

The Role Of Attention

The next step in understanding human behavior is understanding what motivates people to focus on one thing over another. Thankfully, attention can help answer this question.

Your motivation and behavior are highly influenced by what holds your attention. For example, seeing a bear in the woods motivates you to run. Feeling bored motivates you to experience self-fulfillment. And, if you’re single, an attractive girl or guy in a coffee shop motivates you to initiate a conversation.

In general, as your level of stability increases, so does your freedom to choose where you focus your attention. That’s because lower-level needs tend to grab your attention more than higher-level needs.

If you find yourself without oxygen, you have little choice in where you focus your attention. But if you are rich, emotionally stable, and safe, you have many options. When you don’t have to worry about survival and safety, you are free to focus on things like self-confidence and self-fulfillment.

Freedom Of Choice vs. Stability Graph
Freedom Of Choice vs. Stability Graph

However, it’s important to keep in mind that choice also plays a role in attention. For example, the starving artist exemplifies someone who chooses to place creative achievement above financial security.

How To Understand Human Behavior

Given what you’ve learned above, here are three strategies you can use to understand human behavior better.

1. Don’t Overcomplicate It

Maslow didn’t get everything right, but much of his theory was brilliant. His categories are particularly helpful because they’re a simple model for understanding behavior. In fact, you can explain any behavior using one or more of Maslow’s categories. Here are a few examples.

You eat dinner with friends because it satisfies your desire for food and friendship. You check Instagram because it satisfies your desire for social connection and recognition. And you start a business because it satisfies your desire for financial security and self-fulfillment.

So many people believe that human behavior is more complicated than it is. They look for deep psychological explanations for every behavior, but that isn’t necessary.

The main lesson here is to keep it simple. The next time you’re trying to understand what’s driving a particular behavior, look no further than Maslow’s categories.

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2. Pay Attention To Attention

If you understand what has someone’s attention, you’ll improve your odds of understanding their behavior. Here are a few examples.

If a straight-A student is having trouble at home, that might explain why their grades are slipping. Or, if your best friend is in a new romantic relationship, that would explain why they have less time for you.

You can also use this strategy to understand your behavior. For example, maybe you are spending more time in the gym because you’re newly single. Or, perhaps you’re struggling to stay focused at work because someone you love is sick.

3. Ask If They Are Gaining Or Maintaining

When analyzing human behavior, many people only consider what a person has to gain. For example, a person might take a job to gain financial security.

But, by itself, this is a limited view. That’s because a lot of human behavior is motivated by what a person has to lose. For example, a person might not follow their dream of becoming an entrepreneur because they fear losing financial security.

Once a need is met, many people will behave in ways to maintain it. This explains why a jealous lover would pick an unnecessary fight with their partner.

When a jealous lover sees their partner talking to an attractive co-worker, they fear losing their romantic relationship. As a result, they start a fight in an attempt to control the situation and preserve the relationship.

How To Overcome Problems When Following This Advice

It can be challenging to evaluate your own behavior. As a result, you can easily attach the wrong motive to your behavior.

For example, you might be in an unhealthy relationship because, deep down, you have a fear of loneliness. But, you might believe you are staying in the relationship because you value commitment and working through problems. Unfortunately, this confusion can encourage you to make the same poor decision for an extended period.

You can help prevent this problem using the following two ideas.

1. Consider how you’d feel if you took the opposite approach. In this example, imagine how you would feel if you ended the relationship. If your answer to that question is lonely, that tells you something.

2. Think about what has your attention. If every fight with your partner leads to a fear of being alone, consider what that fear tells you.

How To Know When You’ve Taken These Ideas Too Far

The ability to understand human behavior is a helpful tool, not a superpower. So don’t assume reading this article gives you the capacity to read minds. Rather, use your understanding of human behavior to improve communication.

If you sense that your spouse is upset with you, don’t automatically assume you’re right. Instead, let that information act as a sign to ask your spouse if everything is ok.

In A Nutshell

Here are the key takeaways from this article.

  • Human behavior describes all our physical and emotional behaviors.
  • By understanding why we behave the way we do, you can better understand yourself and others.
  • Motivation is the driving force behind everything we do.
  • When we understand what motivates people, we can understand why they behave the way they do.
  • Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory that defines five categories of motivation. These categories of motivation influence human behavior.
  • With a few tweaks, Maslow’s model is an excellent framework for understanding human behavior.
  • Maslow initially believed that we had to address needs lower in the hierarchy before addressing higher needs. This belief is false.
  • It’s better to consider Maslow’s needs as categories of things that motivate us.
  • Your motivation and behavior are highly influenced by what holds your attention.
  • To understand human behavior, (1) don’t overcomplicate it, (2) pay attention to attention, and (3) ask if they are gaining or maintaining.
  • To avoid common problems, (1) consider how you’d feel if you took the opposite approach, and (2) think about what has your attention.
  • To prevent yourself from taking these ideas too far, remember that understanding human behavior is a helpful tool, not a superpower.

Books That Influenced This Article

The following book links are Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase a book after clicking one of the links, I will receive a commission.

Hardwiring Happiness
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How To Own Your Own Mind
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  1. Saul McLeod. Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs. Simply Psychology. (April 4, 2007).


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