The Pain and Pleasure Principle

by Vlad Dolezal on January 29, 2009

I have recently heard a very interesting theory about human behavior.

It’s incredibly simple. In fact, my first thought was “Hmmm, that’s all?”. But after a bit of thinking I realized it leads to some VERY interesting ideas. Are you ready?

All human behavior is motivated by two things – seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

Yeah, I know. What kind of new insights can you get from that? After all, this theory is hardly revolutionary. But often the simpler the theory, the more interesting insights it can give you. And the pain and pleasure principle is a great example of that.

My first experience with the pain and pleasure principle

When I was 3 years old, my mother took me to have a vaccination. I knew what was coming… needles, pain, AAARGH! So I spent the whole time in the waiting room crying and thrashing around and screaming that I don’t want the vaccination.

Well, once I actually got the vaccination, it was surprisingly painless. Just one little prick, about 5 seconds of mild pain, and that was it.

All the huge pain and misery was just in my mind. And yet if I had any say in the matter, I never would have gotten the first vaccination! I would be going through life risking terrible diseases… all because of my IMAGINATION.

And even as adults, we often fall victim to the same trap…

It’s all about the IMAGINARY pain and pleasure

Here’s the fun thing. We make decisions based on what we THINK things will feel like in the future, not based on reality. It’s all about our PERCEPTION of reality.

Here’s a great quick exercise I got from Paul McKenna that demonstrates this:

You have been invited to a party. You’re still deciding whether or not you will go.

First imagine standing awkwardly in a corner, surrounded by people you don’t know and have nothing in common with. Your least favorite type of music is playing way too loud in the background. How much do you want to go to the party, on a scale from 1 to 10?

Now instead imagine standing there comfortably, surrounded by people who are interested in spending time with you. Your favorite type of music comes on in the background at just the right volume. How much do you want to go to the party now?

Did you feel a difference there?

If you felt any difference at all, you can see how the images you make in your head can influence your decisions. Even this simple 30-second exercise changed how you felt about going to a friend’s party. So imagine how much difference you could create if you understood this principle, and used it ALL THE TIME! For hours each day.

You could completely change how you feel about certain actions. In other words, create motivation!

Pain and pleasure in learning

The pain and pleasure principle also gives me a new perspective on some old ideas. For example, I have written before about how positive feedback is the number one secret behind learning.

Positive feedback focuses you on the things you do right, and so reinforces the right behavior. But it also associates pleasure with learning. So if your learning is based on positive feedback, you will be EAGER to learn more! You will want to go back and learn again and again!

That’s one thing the education system really screws up. It does an amazing job of linking PAIN to learning. All the boring classes, annoying assignments, pointless exams… if you wanted to devise a system to link pain to learning, you could hardly to a better job than the present education system.

One of the biggest influences on learning is your motivation. So keep the pain and pleasure principle in mind, and notice when you start linking pain to learning. The moment you do, STOP! Then figure out a way to make learning fun again!

How the pain and pleasure principle can change your life

Okay, now I’m going to share some insanely powerful techniques with you. Stuff that can truly change your life.

I’m putting it here in the middle, without much prior advertising, because I wanted to be sure you only get here if you’re really interested. Hopefully, I have now weeded out all those who read the first three paragraphs and then got distracted and went to slap witty captions on pictures of kittens. If you’re still reading, you probably have a keen interest in psychology and personal growth. I like that 🙂

I’m going to tie together a few concepts I put forward in this post, as well as some concepts from another two posts I wrote recently – Are you rationalizing your decisions? and How to conquer fear.

I really encourage you to read those two posts, because I can’t do them full justice in a few paragraphs here. But here’s a brief rundown of the relevant bits:

In Are you rationalizing your decisions? I explain how all our decisions are actually based on emotions, not on logic. Yes, logic comes into play, and it can affect your decisions. But emotions are always the first step in making a decision.

In How to conquer fear, I explained the triune brain theory which states that our brain evolved in three stages:

  • the reptilian brain, responsible for reflexes and instincts
  • the mammalian brain, responsible for emotions
  • the higher brain, responsible for logical thinking

I also showed you that whenever an older brain disagrees with a newer brain, the older brain always wins. So if you logically know there’s nothing to be afraid of, but your reptilian brain is telling you to run, you will run.

Now let’s tie these concepts together with the pain and pleasure principle:

By changing the pain and pleasure you associate with certain actions, your EMOTIONS will automatically drive you to take action, which you couldn’t achieve by using logic alone.

You probably don’t realize just yet how powerful this technique is. That’s alright, I didn’t believe it myself at first. But it works INSANELY well! In fact, I’m going to challenge you right now. I’ll challenge you to grab a piece of paper and a pen and make a few notes as you’re reading this article. You won’t believe the difference this will make to your life!

If you don’t have a paper and pen handy, just open your favorite word processor. It will do.

So why is this technique so incredibly powerful? Because it reduces the whole process of taking life-changing action to simply changing the pain and pleasure you associate with certain actions. It creates a whole chain of events:

1. Change the pain and pleasure you associate with an action
2. Your emotions will drive you to DECIDE to do something about it
3. Your emotions now work TOGETHER with your logical brain, instead of sabotaging it
4. Once you make a full-blown decision, action follows effortlessly. All you need is to brainstorm how to put your decision into reality.

And the real kicker is… changing the pain and pleasure associations is incredibly easy.

That’s right. EASY. Not just simple, as in you know what to do but you can’t bring yourself to do it. It’s actually EASY, as in it takes very little effort.

Do you have your pen and paper ready? If not, go get it, I can wait…

Okay, let’s get started!

I would you to think of three areas of your life where you LOGICALLY know what you want, but can’t quite feel it emotionally. And write them down. It could be quitting smoking, or getting the balls to approach someone, or quitting your job, or eating healthy, or anything else you want.

All the above scenarios have one thing in common. Taking action is too much of a hassle, so most people end up doing nothing. They say “Well, I would kinda like to stop smoking…”, or “It would be nice to eat healthy…”

That’s not enough. “Kinda”, or “Maybe” or “I would like to…,” aren’t good enough! In those cases, you simply associate too much pain with change.

The point you want to be at is “I’m going to get this part of my life handled, no matter what!” Where the pain of staying in the same old routine and the potential pleasure of change are so large, that you just CAN’T WAIT to get started! That’s when you truly decide to do something about it, and action the follows effortlessly.

So how do you get to that point? Simply associate pleasure with the desired outcome, and massive pain with sticking to the same old routine.

For evolutionary reasons, pain is a more powerful motivator than pleasure. So make sure you really associate a lot of pain to sticking with the old behavior. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why so much news on TV and in newspapers is negative. It gives us a stronger shot of emotions, and a shot of emotions is exactly why we watch news. After all, emotions are just addictive brain chemicals. But that’s a topic for another day…

How to associate pain and pleasure with the right actions

Ok, let’s get the associations started! By now you should have a paper in front of you with three areas of your life that you want to change. Even if you didn’t think of three, you REALLY need to have at least one example in your mind, as you follow along with me.

First think for a bit what associations you have right now. For example, if you’re a smoker, you probably associate smoking with relieving stress, and maybe feeling cool. Quitting smoking might be associated with the pain of withdrawal in your mind. In other words, sticking to what you’re doing is pleasure right now, and changing would mean pain.

So let’s change those associations. First we’re going to link pain to sticking to the same old routine. Go find some pictures of smokers’ lungs, go talk to some long-time smoker and notice how they cough and wheeze, go smell some long-time smoker’s breath, ask some non-smokers what they think of the smell of your clothing, calculate how much money you spend on smoking that you could save…

Whatever you do, make sure you really FEEL it. It’s not about logical thinking. Really feel the gut-level pain, and associate it with smoking.

Next, associate pleasure to quitting. Imagine what it would be like to go through your days without having to take a smoking break. All the extra stuff you could buy with the money you save. And any other pleasure that relates to changing your behavior.

And finally, make sure you can get any secondary payoffs handled. In other words, there are always some benefits you get from your current behavior. Figure out how to get them in a different way. If smoking relaxes you, find a different way to relax. (Actually a large part of why smoking relaxes people is the breathing pattern. Try breathing like a smoker, but without a cigarette in your mouth. Within moments you will feel more relaxed.)

I used the example of smoking, but this can be used for anything you want to change. If you decide you want to eliminate complaining from your life, just link up pain to it. Realize that it’s not outside events that make you feel bad. It’s your attitude towards them, like complaining. Associate complaining with feeling bad. Then think of and really picture in your mind how people will enjoy being around you more if you don’t complain, and how much more fun you will have. (The no-complaint experiment is quite fun. Give it a go some day.)

Oh, I almost forgot. One great techinque is to ask yourself “Where will I be 10 years from now, if I keep doing this?”

One of my friends tried that. He closed his eyes, and really immersed himself in his imagination. After a few moments, he suddenly jolted awake and went “God, no! No, no, NO! I do NOT want to go there!” – He realized where he would be 10 years from now if he didn’t change his behavior. And it meant massive pain to him! Suddenly he was more than willing to do whatever it takes to change!

So for each of the behaviors you would like to change, write down all the pain you can associate with the current behavior, and all the pleasure change would bring you. Then close your eyes and imagine it all vividly, to make sure you really FEEL the pain and pleasure.

You will know you have done enough when you get to the point of “I’m going to get this handled, no matter what!” After that, action and change will follow effortlessly, because your emotions are now aligned with your logical brain!

And that’s all I have to say about the pain and pleasure principle. If you enjoyed this article, I would appreciate if you shared it with others. Or simply gave it a thumb up on StumbleUpon. But more importantly, I would be really happy if you used what you learned here to change your life!

You now have no more need for “Top 10 motivation hacks” and similar articles. Because the pain and pleasure associations motivate ALL your behavior! And now you know how to change those, so you can motivates yourself for any behavior you want!

Happy personal growth!

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

RoberGoesBrazil January 30, 2009 at 19:55

Hey Vlad,
thanks alot again for this article. I am going to do exactly what you suggested right now. It´s not about quitting to smoke, but a similiar thing. This article is really a great help, or at least I hope it will be one in the future.
Just one thing: You were talking about the 3 human brains. Now, this way is good to understand how our brain makes decisions, but it has nothing to do with sience. As far as I know that theory has been around a long time ago and now has been proven wrong lately. I think it´s still working for your articles, the effect remains, but it just ins´t true.
But thanks anyway, I really enjoyed reading your article (and don´t want to complain anymore ;P )



Vlad Dolezal January 30, 2009 at 21:49


Yeah, that’s the fun thing about triune brain theory. Even though the model might be completely wrong on the biological level, it works extremely well on the psychological level, to understand why we behave the way we do. And that’s what matters to me.


Haider January 31, 2009 at 11:16

Dear Vlad,

Thank you for bringing up this crucial topic up. I totally agree with you that the pain/pleasure associations we have are at the core of our motivation.

I am in the process of writing an e-book to explain the concept of personal growth, and how we get our subjects muddled up at times. For example, our logical thinking should be used to process information. It isn’t used to drive us in the direction we want to take. That’s where emotions come in (and it’s also why we *feel* hungry, and not just think hungry… otherwise we might end up starving to death without having the motivation to eat!).


Juzer Ali March 1, 2010 at 16:04

Pain and Pleasure! Read that in an Anthony Robbins book.


Shankhadip Majumder March 14, 2010 at 06:24

Anthony Robbin’s “Awaken The Giant Within” talks about neuro-associations in this regard.Your article is very helpful.


Vlad Dolezal March 14, 2010 at 13:19


Yeah, I think Tony Robbins is who first gave me the basic idea of this principle.


Janet March 3, 2011 at 17:46

Hello Vlad; I am going to use some of your material in a Workshop I am creating for Belief Systems and How They Affect our Lives. Thanks for the addition exercise!


Vlad Dolezal March 3, 2011 at 18:12

No problem, Janet, I’m glad you’re spreading the exercises to other people who need them!


Jake April 20, 2011 at 14:20

While I personally do like this explanation and use it in my own personal development work – it’s about as old as Freud, and has a ton of fundamental flaws in the theory. No legitimate scientists believe it to be true.


I believe the concept is very powerful in helping us affect change in ourselves, and when used in the context of personal development (ala Tony Robbins version) it can be very helpful in changing your habits/beliefs.


Vlad Dolezal May 16, 2013 at 09:38

Yeah, I’m not saying it’s the be all and end all of personal development. It’s just one way of looking at things, and it can be pretty handy in giving you a new perspective in some situations.


Dauda musideen July 4, 2012 at 10:14

The article is really helpful,though i have read stuffs about plain and pleasure in one of anthony robbinson book titled ‘awaken the giant within’ it was also helpful too.this article has shown a practical way to apply the principle..thanks to the owner of this blog.


or May 7, 2013 at 14:28

i really really need help with this pleas help me how can i make pain to my old habit to try people will be satisfied from me? and there were some case that i was streess because of that pleas help me


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