What makes people do the things they do? And what makes people not do the things they want to do?

I have given more than 50 presentations in the last two years on the topic of mountaineering and adventuring.  The most common questions I get asked from audiences is:

“Why do you do it?”

“Why do you climb?”

“Why do you put yourself deliberately in these situations of danger just to climb a hill, to stand on top of a rock?”.

The more I think about the answer to these questions, the more I have become fascinated with the answer, and the reasons behind the answer.

Recently I had a discussion with a very good friend of mine and asked these five simple questions:

Question 1.  What is one of the biggest goals or dreams you would love to achieve in your life?

My friends Answer:  To become financially free within 5 years.

Question 2: Why do you go to work every day in your current job?

My friends Answer: Mainly due to fear. Fear of not having a steady job with a steady income, fear of what my boss will say if I do not turn up.

Question 3:  Will your current job lead you to becoming financially free within 5 years?

My friends Answer:  No it will not.

Question 4.   Do you feel you have enough information available on how to become financially free from books, internet and other sources?

My friends Answer:  Yes I think I probably do.

Question 5:  Why then do you not leave your current job and take a course of action that you know will help you to achieve your goal?

My friends Answer: Because I am scared of failing

‘Wow’ I thought to myself.  Here was someone who had a dream and a very clear goal.  Yet they were continuing a course of action that would not ultimately get them to their goal.  And they knew and fully understood that they were not going to achieve what they wanted to achieve by continuing in their current direction.  This then lead me to ask the second question. “Why do people NOT do what they WANT to do in life?”.   Surely if we can understand what makes people do the things they do, then we can also apply this to understand what makes people NOT do what they WANT to do?  I am interested in the fundamental principle which makes us make major choices in our lives.  Surely if we can begin to understand this principle it would unlock the understanding of the behavior of all mankind?

I did some research and soon found out that a chap named Aristotle had been asking similar questions around 300 BC.  Since then many people have also investigated the subject.  It even has its very own discipline called behavioral science.  Some theories around answering this question are very complex.  Extremely complex.  Hundreds of pages of complexity in fact.    But I wanted to approach this from a practical perspective more than a theoretical viewpoint.   I wanted to find an answer so simple that almost anyone could understand it.  I wanted to break it down to ONE SINGLE WORD.  As Albert Einstein so eloquently put it “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

What makes me qualified to write a post on this subject?  Well I have no formal qualifications in the field of behavioral science.  But just as Sir Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg did not graduate with MBA’s from the top business schools in the world, they have managed to become some of the most successful businessmen in the world.  I am not trying to denounce academia here.   However through my mountaineering and adventure life I am frequently making conscious, deliberate decisions which put me in high risk and stressful situations.   Why do I do this? I am also naturally curious and enjoy observing other people around me.  The decisions they make, the paths they lead, and the reasons they make their choices.    Why do they do this?  So any qualifications I have to talk about this subject come from observing and experiencing life itself.

And I believe I found the answer to the question.

The one word is:


The reason people do things they want to do, or alternatively DO NOT do things that they actually WANT to do is mainly because of EMOTIONAL DRIVERS.

Now some of you may be thinking this is a dangerous, sweeping generalisation.  Well I agree it is.  But let me give some facts that support my theory.

Firstly there are another set of lesser important influences called LOGICAL DRIVERS that also come into play which I will discuss in more detail below.

Secondly this idea is not really mine at all.  Dale Carnegie  (author of How to Win Friends and Influence People) wrote the famous quote: “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bustling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.”

Some people will argue that human beings are creatures of logic.  That the decisions we make are based on logic.  They will argue that people will look at a logical set of circumstances and the logical possible outcomes and make a completely logical decision about what choice to make based on this information.  Well if this was the case:

– Many more people would be closer to the physical shape they prefer to be in (because it is no secret how to change your body shape – it’s a very logical process of training and watching your diet)

– Hardly anybody would smoke (because they would follow the logical advice from their doctors on the dangers to their health)

– Many more people would be financially free or rich (because we would follow the very logical advice of people like Robert Kiyosaki – Author of ‘Rich Dad Poor Dad’)

– Far fewer partners would cheat on their spouses purely for some short-term sexual gratification (because they would understand the possible outcomes and logically would not want to warrant the risk).

–  No one would climb mountains as there is hardly any logical reason to put yourself through so much stress, hardship and danger for what is logically no real material gain or benefit.

Anthony Robbins the motivational speaker makes the point about information during his talks.  He says that if information was all that was required for people to make decisions and act, then surely we could ‘Google’ almost anything we wanted to do, get the information on how to do it, then go and do it!   So why then, if people have all the information required telling them how to achieve their goals, do they not act?  The answer as Anthony Robbins puts it is  because they need an emotional driver to kick-start them to make the decision!

What exactly is an emotion then? Well this is hard to pin down exactly to a one word answer. Here are some examples of some definitions:

“Emotion: Most people have little problem recognizing and identifying when we are having an emotion. However, emotion is one of the most difficult concepts in Psychology to define. In fact, emotion is such a difficult concept to define adequately that there are at least 90 different definitions of emotions in the scientific literature. A simple definition of emotion is that it is a response by a whole organism, involving (1) physical arousal, (2) expressive behaviors, and (3) conscious experience” (source: http://www.alleydog.com/glossary/definition.php?term=Emotion)

Wikipedia has the following description:

Emotions are what people feel. In terms of evolution, they are very ancient, and can be seen in all mammals. They are caused by a complex mixture of hormones and the unconscious mind. Only with great difficulty can we control our emotions by conscious effort. They cause mammals to change behaviour according to changes in their situation. In our case they sometimes run against our attempt to live our lives in a logical way”

So it seems emotions are pre-programmed into us through millions of years of evolution almost as a survival trait.  Charles Darwin had a theory that emotions played a functional role in survival because they generated actions to counter dangerous situations (source: http://library.thinkquest.org/26618/en-1.4.1=What%20are%20emotions.htm).

Aristotle – that dead guy I talked about earlier, was one of the first to categorise emotions and split them up into 14 major categories.   Since then other groups such as ‘The Human-Machine Interaction Network on Emotion’ (HUMAINE) have made expanded on this.  HUMAINE classifies emotions into 48 categories.

List of 48 emotions as defined by HUMAINE (source: http://emotion-research.net/projects/humaine/earl)

List of 48 emotions as defined by HUMAINE (source: http://emotion-research.net/projects/humaine/earl)

So there you have it.  I have solved the riddle.  But hang on.  How about that secondary set of drivers? The logical ones.  How do these have an influence on us?

We have established that emotion is the main driver which makes people do the things they do or NOT do the things they WANT to do.

BUT!  It appears this is the case ONLY WHEN THEY ARE ACTING IN THEIR PERSONAL CAPACITY WITH REGARD TO THINGS THAT AFFECT THEM PERSONALLY.  When it comes to someone making a decision on behalf of someone else, the situation is reversed.  Then LOGICAL factors become more influential and outweigh the emotional drivers.

Take these examples.

We all have a friend who is in, or has been in an unhealthy relationship with someone.  From the outside it is easy to spot.  A 6-year-old could spot it.  Their partner is either abusive, dis-honest, cheating on them or just plainly a wrong match.  Maybe they just don’t bring out the best in each other.  You try to speak to your friend.  You try and tell them about this in as gentle and polite a manner as possible.  Some part of you thinks your friend understands the situation also.  BUT – they choose to stay with the person? Why? Why do they do this? You ask yourself this question over and over again.  Some time later your friend finally splits up with that person, and when you get together they tell you “you know – I knew it is was wrong all along, I just loved him/her, that’s what I stayed”.

Another example.  A manager of a multi-national company makes a decision about a change in strategy which will affect the way employees work.  But the change is not the managers own office but for a branch office on the other side of the world.  The change will have many positive outcomes in the long run.  But when the decision is announced to the branch office – it is not taken at all well.  Their is anger, dis-belief, disappointment, fear and frustration. The manager cannot understand why the people do not welcome the changes.  It is a logical decision that should benefit the company in the long run.

In situation one above, you are evaluating your friends relationship from an outsiders point of view. You are not directly and personally involved in their relationship.  Therefore it is easier for you to act and think more logically.  Of course you can see the relationship is wrong, of course its going nowhere, of course they should end it, its easy for you to see.  But for your friend, the situation is different.  They are directly involved in a very personal way in the relationship.  For them emotional drivers far outweigh the logical drivers.  The emotional drivers of love, affection, pride and fear(of ending the relationship and being single and lonely) are the main factors affecting their decision making or actions.

In the second scenario, the manager is not directly personally affected by the changes he is making to the branch office far way from his location.  Therefore he can view the situation from a more logical perspective.  Sure he understands that the changes will be disruptive in the short term, but he can easily see that logically in the long run, it will be better for everyone.   The employees in the branch office however, ARE DIRECTLY and PERSONALLY affected.  The situation brings about change to them personally.  It is well understood that change is very unsettling to peoples lives and evokes strong emotions of fear, confusion, anger and even distrust. They are therefore acting on emotional drivers rather than logical drivers.

I believe everyone has different emotional drivers which affect the decisions they make in their lives.  Looking at my own personal life – I have identified 4 emotions from the list of 48 listed above which have the strongest influence on my decision to climb mountains and undertake long and risky adventures. These are:

1.  Curiosity – all my climbs or adventures start with the emotional driver of curiosity.  For example my dream to climb Mt Everest started from a natural curiosity about the mountain.  I read every book I could find on Everest, watched every movie and documentary I came across and had an intense interest in all things Everest.  I was completely fascinated by the subject.  This eventually led to the next emotion, desire.  A desire to attempt to climb the mountain.

2.  Desire – this is where my curiosity turned to actual longing to go and climb the mountain.  Desire is an enormously powerful force in human motivation (in fact a chap called Hobbes (1588–1679) asserted that human desire is the fundamental motivation of all human action.)  Successful people in life generally have very strong desire.  Desire to succeed, desire to be the best, desire to change or improve their current situation, etc.

3.  Fear – I get scared before climbs.  I get scared of what can go wrong.  On Mt Everest during my second attempt I became scared of failing. I was scared of how I would feel when I returned home to Singapore having failed a second time after so much work.  But I have also learnt to use fear positively.  It is a great motivational tool to make me train and prepare harder for climbs.  When I am woken at 5AM before work by the alarm clock and feel tired and want to roll over and go back to sleep, I just need to imagine myself on the side of the mountain and being caught in a dangerous situation because I am not fit enough.  The fear this thought invokes is powerful motivation to get me out of bed and train hard.

4.  Passion – the 4th and last of the main emotional drivers which affect what I do.   Over the years I have come to love the ‘process’ of mountaineering.  I love the research, training and preparation before the climb.  I love the travelling to remote and foreign cultures, I love the camaraderie with close team mates and I love challenging myself on the expeditions.  The late Steve Jobs made this quote about passion.  “People say you have to have a lot of passion for what you’re doing and it’s totally true. And the reason is because it’s so hard that if you don’t, any rational person would give up. It’s really hard. And you have to do it over a sustained period of time. So if you don’t love it, if you’re not having fun doing it, you don’t really love it, you’re going to give up. And that’s what happens to most people, actually. If you really look at the ones that ended up being “successful” in the eyes of the society and the ones that didn’t, oftentimes it’s the ones [who] were successful loved what they did, so they could persevere when it got really tough. And the ones that didn’t love it quit because they’re sane, right? Who would want to put up with this stuff if you don’t love it? So it’s a lot of hard work and it’s a lot of worrying constantly and if you don’t love it, you’re going to fail.

After 39 years of life on this planet, I know that if I am going to be successful in the long-term at something, I need my emotional drivers to far outweigh my logical ones.   On my 1st attempt to climb Everest I had a terrible expedition.  I suffered a severe attack of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and came as close to choking to death on my own bodily fluids as I ever want to.  I returned the following year and managed to summit.   The reason I returned was mainly because of three emotional drivers:

1.  Desire (to reach the summit)

2.  Passion (I loved being on that mountain and climbing in general)

3.  Fear (of having to look myself in the mirror everyday for the rest of my life and asking ‘what if’?)

Logically, I had EVERY REASON IN THE WORLD not to go back.  Doctors had told me not to return to high altitude because I would be more susceptible to HAPE.  Financially it cost S$ 50,000 per expedition to climb the mountain and it was money I did not have.  Time-wise I needed another 70 days off work.  It was leave I did not have.

But I decided to give the ‘logical’ drivers another name.  I renamed them all to ‘excuses’.  Instead of using them as logical reasons NOT to go, I treated them as excuses NOT to go and worked on solutions to overcoming the excuses. For example:

The HAPE excuse – The solution to this was to go back two weeks earlier to high altitude and give my body more time to acclimatise.  So I went to Nepal earlier than my team mates to begin acclimatising.

The money excuse – The solution to this was to find more sponsorship.  I was lucky that my previous years sponsor John Foord came on-board again to support.

The leave excuse – I worked very hard in my job as a sales manager and managed to hit my yearly target early in the year before I left for the expedition.  This made applying for the unpaid leave easier for my company to allow.  I also work with a great team of people who supported me and backed up for me when I was gone.

To test my theory on other human beings I conducted a simple survey on Facebook.

I asking the following very basic question:

“What makes people do what they do? And what makes people not do what they want to do? Can anyone sum up in one word the answer to this question?

I received 41 responses to this question.  Below is a summary of the answers:

Fear (4), Pleasure, Money, Mana (pride), Motivation, Universe, Self belief, Faith, Genes, Beer, Life, Experience, Environment, Priorities, Confidence, Belief, Nature , Circumstances,  Self-interest, Curiosity, passion (2), hunger, knowledge, confidence, competitiveness, belief, Purpose, Negativity, Positivity, Willingness, Alchohol, Commitment, Love, Instinct, Inspiration, Attitude, Determination

I lump the answers into four categories:

Emotional drivers:

30+% of the answers are emotional drivers.  These are: Fear (4 responded with this), Pleasure, Pride, Curiosity, Passion(2x), Love, ‘Hunger’ I include together with the emotion ‘desire’.

Feelings which come from emotional drivers: (there is a difference between a feeling and an emotion.  In short feelings are a learned response influenced and ‘taught’ by the culture we grow up in (e.g. how a muslim person may feel revolt at the thought of eating pork), while emotions are cross cultural, the same the world over and pre-programmed into us for survival as Darwin theorized).

‘Self Interest’, ‘Willingness’, ‘Competitiveness’, ‘Purpose’, ‘Self-belief’, ‘Confidence’, ‘Faith’, ‘Negativity’, ‘Positivity’, ‘Motivation’, ‘Commitment’, ‘Priorities’, ‘Attitude’,’Determination’ are all feelings that come from emotional drivers.

‘Money’ is traced directly back to an emotional driver such as desire or greed.

‘Alcohol’ and  ‘Beer’ are drugs which are well known to affect our feelings or emotions.  The reason these can make us take action is they inhibit some emotions e.g shyness, and promote others e.g. euphoria and happiness.

Logical drivers:

‘Experience’, ‘Knowledge’, can be logical drivers.

‘Environment/ Nature, Circumstances’ – all can be logical drivers.  However our environment or circumstances also influences our emotions. E.g. if you work in a very dirty and messy office it may be difficult to experience the emotional drivers of pride, contentment and satisfaction. Instead you may feel despair, disgust, negativity or frustration

I do not understand exactly in what context the answer was meant:

‘Genes’, ‘Universe’


The majority of participants in the facebook questionnaire answered with either emotional drivers, or with feelings that are attributed directly to emotions.  What I find interesting is what people did NOT say.  No one came up with an answer such as ‘talent’ or ‘ability’.  In my own life, emotional drivers have the most influence on the greatest decisions I have made.

So I conclude that the reason we do the things we do and NOT do the things we WANT to do is mainly influenced by emotional drivers.  This is so when the circumstances directly affect us. Logical drivers play a secondary role.

But when we look outside our own personal situation, we apply more weight to logical drivers and less weight to emotional drivers.

By understanding what emotional drivers affect ourselves and others, we can begin to understand what motivates people to do things.

The most important attribute in achieving your personal goal or dream is tonnes of emotion.  Emotion will give you the motivation, courage, commitment and self-belief you require.  The logical reasons will give you the excuses not to do it.

So what are your emotional drivers?

Posted on April 9, 2013, in All sorts. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Im glad nothing drives me 🙂


  2. Who is this Aristotle bloke? Does he play for the Wallabys?


  3. I think I got lost half way through! Cheers Kate


  4. Nice post, Axe. I read it from start to finish and concluded in your case, definitely alcohol. In fact, I think I’m going to have one now. 😉

    Didn’t Aristotle play midfield for Brazil? Or was that Socrates? I forget.


  5. Alcohol, or no alcohol, I get it…Great read, thanks Axe!


  6. I have also thought on this topic Axe in my opinion if you have a deep passion about something you have to go for it, if you don’t it will haunt you. I have passion and I go with it ,it opens doors it’s scary at times but hell you feel alive. I’m going back to the Himalaya trekking and climbing for a month in October, I am 55 and I will always be walking through another door. Good topic Axe.


  7. Interesting read. Causes one to think about one’s own personal motivation. All for now, must get ” oot and aboot”.


  8. Should we be emotional or logical? Another great mystery! …


  9. lol you almost found the answer. It was right in front of you to. It was hiding in plain sight. We all know though that hiding in plain sight is not so easy to see. Me like you never got a proper education but think it would have stopped me from knowing what I do. I too might have not all the answers but feel, after 20 years, I’m on the right track. I don’t know about explaining it to a 6 yr old but I try to break it down as simple
    as I can. I find I have to make it simple because people’s understanding is very limited. I know how it all works on a simple level and will leave the complexities to others cause I don’t have another 20 yrs to learn it all by myself.
    Thank you
    Have fun


  10. I have been studying freewill for over 20 years now, authoring the CDF, Comprehensive Decision Finder, in 2005, it shows “decisions are based upon your emotional response to your beliefs.


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