Hedonism refers to a philosophy positing that people are motivated by the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. It assumes that pleasure and pain are the major motivating forces in human behavior. As a result, people often learn to approach pleasurable situations and learn to avoid painful situations. Hedonism is implicated in such a saying as “I do it because it feels good.”
Throughout human history, hedonism has been used to explain behavior. DemocritusOpens in new window, an ancient Greek philosopher who was born around 460 BC, maintained that we behave in pursuit of pleasure. EpicurusOpens in new window, another ancient Greek philosopher, argued that we are motivated to attain pleasure.
Many other prominent philosophers have applied hedonism in their doctrines. Herbert SpencerOpens in new window, a 19th-century English philosopher and sociologist, suggested that pleasurable behaviors are adaptive and typically have survival values for organisms.
In the field of psychology, Sigmund Freud contended that anticipated pleasure and pain are the fundamental motivation of all actions. In his view, hedonic principles account for behaviors; we often need not consider the role of thought processes in motivation. B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism is essentially a hedonistic theory; according to Skinner, organismas are motivated to seek “reinforcement’ and avoid “punishment.”
Hedonism as motivation does not necessarily mean that individuals do only what feels good in the moment. Being motivated by hedonism could mean that the pleasure sought or the pain avoided could be anticipated—that is, an individual is behaving in such a way as to increase pleasure or decrease pain in the future or over time.
Despite the widespread acceptance of hedonism as an explanation for motivated behavior, some have argued that pleasure does not necessarily increase the likelihood of a response (behavior), nor does pain necessarily decrease the likelihood of a response.
In case of reward or pleasure, sometimes the expectation of reward for an intrinsically motivated behavior can deteriorate the initial interest in the behavior (e.g., Bradley & Mannell, 1984). In addition, hedonism has been criticized for its limited explanations for certain types of behaviors, for instance, altruistic behaviors and mastery-guided behaviors (e.g., Sober & Wilson, 1998).
- Bradley, W., & Mannell, R.C. (1984). Sensitivity of intrinsic motivation to reward procedure instructions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 10, 426 – 431.
- Sober, E., & Wilson, D.S. (1998). Unto others: The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.