Why do we do the things we do?


Why do we do what we do?
Why do we choose a certain behavior/action over other options?
What rules govern our decision-making? 
Why do we become indecisive at times?

Answers to all these questions are contained in a terminology that we’ve borrowed from economics, namely ‘cost/benefit analysis’.

In economics, a business decision is made after weighing its potential costs and benefits. This does not apply only to business decisions, but to all human decisions, or in other words, to all human behaviour. 

Cost/benefit analysis in human behaviour

We all have a kind of mental weighing scale on which we weigh the likely costs and benefits of a decision or a future course of action. When the benefits outweigh the costs, in quantity or quality, only then do we execute that decision or course of action.

For example, on a cold wintry morning, you may want to get out of the bed as soon as you can because you have tons of stuff to do but you postpone it because it’s too cold outside. In this case, getting out of bed has the benefit of letting you start working on your projects earlier but it also carries the cost of leaving your warm and comfortable bed.

Since you chose to stay in bed it means the cost of getting out of bed outweighed its benefit. Or in other words, the benefit of getting out of bed did not outweigh its cost. Hence, no action of ‘getting out bed’ was performed.

Now, what if you check the time and realize it’s getting too late? You had decided to get up at 6 a.m. and now it’s around 8 a.m. For the past 2 hours, you’ve been lying in your bed with quiet desperation. Suddenly, alarm bells start ringing in your head…

“Oh no, it’s too late! I’ll never finish my work if I stay in bed any longer. I’ve got to get up NOW!”

What you basically did here is ‘increase’ the perceived cost of staying in bed so that its benefit is outweighed. The cost of staying in bed is now greater (you won’t finish your work) than its benefit (warmth and comfort).

To rephrase, the benefit of getting out of bed (finishing the work) now becomes greater than the cost of getting out of bed (losing comfort) and so you muster the will to jump out of your bed.

To give you another example, say you’re attracted to someone and want to approach them. You first evaluate the possible costs and benefits of this course of action in your mind. Suppose the cost of carrying out this action is more than its benefit.

You decide not to approach because you fear getting rejected (which is a cost because it can lead to reputational or ego damage).

Now, what if something happens that mitigates this cost? 

What if a friend tells you that your crush was singing your praises the other day?

Now, the cost of approaching the person has been significantly reduced because those who sing our praises tend to like us and are less likely to reject us. You’ll now approach that person with confidence because the benefits (possible friendship/relationship) outweigh the costs (possible rejection/ego damage).

why do we do what we do
Cost/benefit analysis applied to career choice. Clearly, this guy is going to go for it.

What causes indecisiveness?

In view of the conceptual background that I just provided you with, it should be rather easy for you to figure out the reasons behind indecisiveness. 

Indecisiveness is caused when the potential costs and benefits of carrying out an action are equally strong i.e. they do not seem to outweigh each other. This makes a person vacillate between two choices for long or even suspend making the decision altogether.

After much thought and advice-seeking, the person may finally decide to pursue a course of action, but it’ll only happen if the benefit of pursuing that course of action is greater than its cost, no matter how slightly.

Unconscious cost/benefit analysis

So far we’ve been more or less discussing conscious actions, decisions, and behaviours. But what about our unconscious behaviours? Do they follow the same principles?

Of course, they do. Even if a behaviour occurs unconsciously, it will only occur when its benefits are greater than its costs. We tend to think that cost/benefit analysis requires complex calculations that can only be carried out by the conscious mind. But this is not the case.

In fact, the subconscious mind carries out cost/benefit calculations that are much more complex than the conscious mind can even begin to grasp and in much more speedy and accurate ways.

Take for example our bodily functions such as respiration, digestion and blood circulation. All these activities carry the highest benefits for us because they’re critical to our survival. These processes are in the hands of our unconscious and they keep going on in the background because our unconscious mind already knows that their benefits outweigh their costs.

But this doesn’t mean our unconscious mind has set them on ‘automatic mode’ and forgotten about them. When we encounter different situations, our unconscious mind re-evaluates these processes, calculates their costs and benefits and decides a course of action, even if our conscious mind has no idea what’s going on.

For example, in a life-threatening fight-or-flight situation, our unconscious mind alters our normal blood circulation and respiration. It makes our heart beats faster so that more blood is pumped and makes our breathing heavier so that more oxygen is taken in.

Not only that but it is also ensured that more blood is supplied to the limbs (as our limbs require more energy during fight/flight) and less to other physiological processes like digestion. 

The unconscious mind knows that supplying more blood to the limbs (which can be costly for other physiological processes like digestion) is more beneficial than not doing it and risking survival (getting eaten by a predator). 

While our conscious mind may not have fully grasped what’s going on yet, our unconscious mind is quick in carrying out its cost/benefit calculations and choosing the most suitable course of action.

The same is true for our reflex actions. When you touch a hot stove, the benefit of pulling your hand back is much greater (not burning your hand) than keeping it there (burning your hand). So you unconsciously pull your hand back in a flash before your conscious mind gets the time to evaluate what’s going on.

To give you a subtler example, consider a guy who is addicted to smoking and sees his behaviour as costly (wastage of money and potential health risk) and as a result, comes to the conclusion that cost/benefit analysis principles do not apply to human behaviour.

After all, why would he continue doing a behaviour that is so costly for him?

But when he realizes that, subconsciously, smoking satisfies his important need to look cool and socialize with his ‘cool’ smoker friends, he’ll surely change his mind about the legitimacy of the cost/benefit analysis when applied to human behaviour.

In order to make the best decisions, we should make use of both our conscious and unconscious minds when we can.


Behind every action/behaviour, there is a perceived benefit, conscious or unconscious, that has successfully outweighed all the costs associated with carrying out that behaviour.