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Hedonism and Motivation

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Can the theory of hedonism be used to account for all motivation?

Hedonism cannot explain all motivation. “Hedonism emphasizes the subjective nature of motivation: pursue pleasure and avoid pain. The law of effect, however, emphasizes the objective nature of motivation: some stimuli increase behavior and other stimuli decrease it (Deckers, p. 25).

The internal incentives of hedonism, and the external incentives of law and effect are two different sources of motivation, however, they can share a valuable end state – the preservation of life. The absence of a punishing stimulus would have been enough to convince primitive man that he needed to be good at throwing rocks if he wanted to escape death from a wounded animal. In addition, might decide that the risk is too great for an accurate shot, and opt for a reward of berries instead of meat.

Hedonism could account for the evolutionary aspect of motivation. “Locke would argue that unhappiness has a greater motivational impact because when experienced an individual is motivated to reduce that feeling. Happiness, however, is a future promise based on a person’s current actions” (Deckers, p. 26). In ancient times, striving for the greater good was rewarded by being able to live longer and in circumstances that are comfortable. Delayed gratification is the result of self-control, but the evolution of the human race has caused the consequences to be different and not life threatening when compared to the primitive man. Self-control nowadays, or the lack of it, is evident for people who are trying to lose weight. People become impulsive and break the good habits of exercising and eating well because the delayed result is less appealing than the thought of eating a candy bar in the next five minutes.

Lillian Moller Gilbreth described incentives as “that which moves the mind or stirs the passions; that which incites or tends to incite to action; motive, spur" ref (Gilbreth, 1915)”. As important as it is though, the motivation to maintain health might be less important because the physical pain is relieved in the short term by taking medicine. Therefore, the incentive of being slim and feeling great (pleasure) is less attractive in the absence of pain, because that reward will not be available anytime soon. In addition, it will not come without considerable effort (pain).

The discussion of Thorndike’s law of effect says “in general, a satisfying effect strengthened behavior, and a dissatisfying effect weakened behavior” (Deckers, p. 25). The behaviorist view of Watson and others might specify the pleasure of freedom that comes with a cat escaping the confinement of a cardboard box. Either way, this kind of behavior is an example of the incentive we call instant gratification, in lieu of another explanation provided by the cat. The cat is possibly happy in the box in the absence of food, but the food was the incentive he needed to get out of the box (pleasure), and not the need for freedom.

On the other hand, the cat might choose to leave the box temporarily to avoid a different unpleasant experience. If he sees you are about to hit the box with a broom, he might leave the box and run to another room whether food was offered or not. A cat stuck who is in a box probably doesn’t consider the long-term consequences of being help captive, but we do know that a person would at least consider these reasons as some of the most compelling incentives to obey the law so they don’t go to prison.

Drinking too much alcohol or using illegal drugs can provide instant gratification for the abuser despite the unpleasant circumstances he will experience in the future. Variables like addiction then, can cloud judgment and make avoidance of pain difficult for some people.


Deckers, L. (2010). Motivation: Biological, psychological, and environmental (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.

Gilbreth, L. (1915). The Psychology of Management. 1914, BY THE MACMILLAN COMPANY, New York



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Kerry Hosking

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