2. Understanding the Role of Motive in Human (and Criminal) Behavior

black Image of scales on white background with the words, "calibrate the scales" overlaid. As with any set of scales, the scales of justice must, from time to time, be recalibrated. Total balance is never achieved, but all in the criminal justice and legal systems must strive for it as much as possible.

By C J Oakes, May 12, 2017

One cannot understand why a person does what he/she does without understanding their motives. This is the reason Motive is considered one of the key elements of a crime.

One of the biggest mistakes anyone can make is to assume that anyone acts without motive, that nothing motivates their actions. This is to assume their acts are not rational, that the act is crazy, insane.

I will argue later that there is no such thing as insanity in the traditional sense. This will seem strange to most reading this because socially, we have been conditioned by the psychological community to label some persons insane. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I would argue that it is insane to label anyone insane.

The key reason I make this claim has to do with motivation as I will now explain.

Skinner box, a cage to perform behavioural exp...
Skinner box, a cage to perform behavioural experiments with animals (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone acts…unless they lack the ability of movement. The only people who do not carry out actions in their lives are those unable to do so. From the moment we are born, we start doing things. Our parents may not understand why we are doing what we do as an infant, but there is a reason. That reason may only be known to the infant and even decades later when the tiny human can enunciate he/she may not be able to explain their actions, but there is a reason.

Consider: A child of one is in a crib. The child has learned to walk and can manage some simple hand movements such as grasping their bottle without help, reaching for a cookie, or pulling himself up. One day, the child manages to climb out of the crib. We do not know why…he just did.

But do we assume the child is insane just because we do not know why he wanted out of the crib? Of course not. We assume he is normal because most children eventually try to get out of the crib.

But what if the same child does something like climb out of the crib, walk to the dog dish, and begin to eat the delicious morsels of Alpo? Insane?

Of course not. Can we understand what the toddler was thinking that led him to the dog food? No, but kids do such things. Nothing out of the ordinary, though really, it is.

The Key Difference Between Children and Adults Acting Strange

Pupcakes (dog-food cupcakes) from Sprinkles Cu...
Pupcakes (dog-food cupcakes) from Sprinkles Cupcakes, Beverly Hills (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a key difference between children and adults: Education.

We expect children to do things which are not wise such as eating dog food. But when an adult does these things, we assign a label to them: Insane.

This is a false assumption that the adult,

  1. Was taught better
  2. Was taught otherwise
  3. Shares our values
  4. Shares our understanding of the world
  5. Shares our concern
  6. Cares what we think

Such a false assumption stems from a false premise that we are right and someone else is wrong. Maybe they like dog food. Maybe they grew up eating dog food and know that it will not hurt them. In fact, most dog food factories are just as clean as factories which process human food; some are cleaner (and naturally, some are not). But the simple fact is that dog food is usually safe for human consumption. It usually lacks flavor, but in many cases is quite nutritious. And safe.

Also, the price is pretty decent in most cases, so this person who has made their diet of dog food cannot be rightly said to be insane…at worst, very poor, but nothing more.

Still not convinced?

The Role of Motivation in Behavioral Change

Rodgers and Loitz (2009) note that

“Motivation concerns energy, direction, and persistence. Motivation is the energy that directs our behavior. That energy can come from different sources. We can be motivated to pursue outcomes we want such as a pay check or a better body. We can be motivated to avoid outcomes we don’t want such as pain, boredom, or criticism. We also can be motivated to do things because we like and enjoy them. These examples reflect the direction of motivation.”

It is worth noting that this example comes from professional physical trainers, not Psychologists. This is because the same information provided by Psychologists tends to be convoluted as if uttered in a foreign language. Note how Gollwitzer & Oettingen (2002) state the same thing,

McClelland (1985) distinguished three basic groups of motives: the achievement motive, the power motive, and the affiliative motives. As food is the reward or incentive for hunger, so is improving one’s performance on a given task the incentive for the achievement motive. The incentive of the power motive is having mpact, control, or influence over another person. a goup, or the world at large. Finally, the incentives for the affiliative motives extend to sexual pleasures (sgigal motive), being together with people (need for alhitation), and experiencing harmony, concern, and commitment (intimacy motive). All of these motives may entail a fear or avoidance component. Trying to meet a standard of excellence may not be motivated solely by hope for success, but also by fear of failure, and spending one’s spare time affiliating with others may not be determined solely bv the anticioated positive feelin_es of togetherness, but also by strong fear of rejection. In principle, all humans share these various motives, although with different strengths.”

English: B.F. Skinner at the Harvard Psycholog...
English: B.F. Skinner at the Harvard Psychology Department, circa 1950 Français : Photographie en noir et lanc du psychologue américain Burrhus Frederic Skinner, auteur de « Walden Two » (1948). L’avant du crâne légèrement dégarni et portant des lunettes, B. F. Skinner est habillé d’un costume et d’une cravate. Derrière lui, une étagère de livres. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recall in the previous segment of this discussion that famed Psychologist William Schultz liked to call the field a modern priesthood because of such difficult to understand explanations. As can be seen from the above quote, his assessment makes sense.

So, in many instances throughout this book, rather than rely on the Psychological community in making clarification of important points, I will refer to other sciences because these often make sound application of known psychological principles and laws without the “psychobabble.”

The most important fact we can take from this is as Rodgers and Loitz (2009) stated, “Motivation…directs our behavior.” There is no simpler way to put it. What motivates us directs us. Our motives determine our choices, our actions. It does not matter whether we are engaging in behavior change or not, that which motivates us determines what we do.

So, What Motivates Humans to Act?

Just as B.F. Skinner proved with his Skinner Box and a bunch of lab rats, humans are motivated in two simple ways: Rewards and Punishers.

English: motives hierarchy public domain
English: motives hierarchy public domain (Photo credit: Wikipedia). I would argue a simpler concept: Needs ARE Motivators but these are shaped by Congnitions and Emotions.

In operant conditioning, reinforcements encourage desired behaviors while punishers eliminate behaviors (McLeod, 2007). (NOTE: this is over-simplifying it a bit, but again, I am not trying to confuse but rather, clarify. I will leave the confusion to the expert Psychologists. Incidentally, the reference listed provides simplified explanations of most things Psychology–I guess the publishers do not want to be seen as modern priests.)

I prefer to treat the matter more simply that that.

So, put in the simplest terms: People are motivated to act based on what they want or what they want to avoid. Pleasure versus pain. Why make it any more complicated?

If we want something, we will be motivated to do what it takes to get it. If we want to avoid something, we will do what we must to avoid it. Whether something is criminal or not matters only inasmuch as our values dictate what we are WILLING to do in the act or avoidance. This will become clearer starting in section 11.

Now we want to condense this so that it can be applied to ANYONE…ALL humans. People anywhere, living in any age, with any income level, of any race or nationality, any religion, or any other way we might divide people. Can this be done?


In the previous section, I introduced a chart showing the range of needs that can fit for anyone. I refer to these needs as motivators because, as noted already, our motivation guides our behavior. Our motives are the root of our behavior. So, it stands to reason that if we need something (like food, love, sex, fun) it is going to motivate us to some action.

This will be more fully discussed in later segments, but for now, we must consider whether irrational choices exist at all. In other words, in the next three segments, we are going to break down exactly what is “rational” behavior, “sane” behavior, and “insane” in terms of motivation.

Because motivation lay at the core of all we do, it is important to understand exactly how motives impact our choices, our actions. Only through this prism can we appreciate the three concepts to follow.

Continue Reading 3. What is “Rational” Behavior?

Return to 1. A New Way of Looking at Human (and Criminal) Behavior