Knowing someone’s motives

Find their motives


Everyone has motives for everything that they do. Nothing is random. When I worked with criminal offenders, I quickly learned that terms like “impulsive” and “reactive” and “crimes of passion” were merely misunderstandings. Every criminal offender I’ve ever worked with had a clear motive (or multiple motives) for their crimes, whether they were conscious of it at the time or not, and that motive was in place well before the commission of the crime. Even acts that looked random and impulsive, like a guy suddenly losing his temper and striking his wife, would later be traced back to beliefs and patterns that were in place for years, or more likely, decades.


Every movement a person makes and every word out of a person’s mouth has a driver, a motive, a reason for being. It’s rare that the person is consciously aware of the motive, or accurate about what it is, but it’s there nonetheless. Many people feel like they’re either just randomly talking and acting spontaneously, or they’re acting out a carefully planned strategy, but most of the time they’re wrong on both counts. They are acting out a strategy every single time, but often they’re blissfully unaware of what that strategy really is.


Self-serving is not the same as selfishness. To accept humans (and yourself), you must first accept that everything we do is primarily for our own benefit, most commonly: preferred emotions (which includes getting preferred outcomes) or preferred self-image. In other words, we do what we do to either feel a certain way that we want to feel (not necessarily pleasure but most often it is), or we want to see ourselves as being a certain person – a hero, a victim, a good man etc. There’s nothing “wrong” with this, especially because it’s both natural and unavoidable – our survival depends on looking out for number one – but when it comes to figuring out someone’s motives, the first consideration must be: “What’s in it for them?”


Direct honesty is rare, but the truth is there to be seen. It’s extremely difficult to gauge someone’s true motives at first, especially as they themselves are often naive to them and people are rarely up front about their true agenda. However, it’s still actually pretty obvious when you know where to look. Motives simply cannot be hidden because they are painted over the top of every word and every action – one cannot express oneself without revealing one’s intentions. The way people are is a direct result of what they want, so the evidence is right in front of us.


Perhaps you’re not yet sure about why we should bother looking at someone’s motives, or why I would emphasise that this is in fact the most important thing to observe when communicating. So let’s talk a bit about why it’s worth checking into.


Why are motives important?


When you find out what the motive is, whether it’s your own or others’, you will much better understand behaviour in general. Acts that seemed “senseless” or “pointless” to you will start to become clear and totally understandable (though it’s not necessary to also condone these behaviours). When you understand one person’s “why” better, even if it’s just your own, you get a powerful insight into all humans. We are the same primate species made of the same basic stuff, and our brains work in the same basic way. 


Intentions create the outline of a person’s character. What we prefer is who we are – what makes a person unique more than anything else is their collection of preferences. If you look at my skin colour or my bank account or my friends you might get a small taste of who I am, but if you get a complete list of all my likes and dislikes, my preferences and priorities, and where I stand on key issues, then you’ll know me well, meaning that you’ll be able to accurately predict my decisions and actions, even if they don’t make sense to others. The best way to understand someone is to know their Why.


Look at this list of preferences:

  • Votes conservative
  • Enjoys hunting with a bow
  • Approves of the death penalty
  • Loves independent, hard working people more than others
  • Doesn’t like modern art
  • Pro-life
  • Prefers to spend Sunday morning at Church
  • Prioritises family over money and health
  • Wants to be seen as a good host and neighbour
  • Doesn’t like giving money to homeless directly, would rather donate to large charities
  • Doesn’t want to travel


Can you picture this person already? You don’t know their age, gender, race, nationality or any other demographic, but with this list alone I bet you could predict their views and subsequent behaviour on a number of topics. Would they prioritise free speech or protecting peoples’ feelings? How would they react to being forced to get a vaccination? If you were to make a business proposal, should you give them a big flowery song and dance marketing spiel or just give it to them bold, direct and honest? Yes, your guesses are probably correct!


Perhaps you’ve heard of “love languages” – a perspective that claims each person communicates love in different ways, e.g. gift giving, acts of service, compliments etc. When you understand what someone wants, as demonstrated by how they show their preferences (i.e. behaviours that indicate love and hate), you’ll be able to communicate with them more easily, and you’ll make yourself easier for them to understand. You can figure out how to express yourself in a way that makes sense to them, even when talking about something that goes against what they prefer.


How do we see motives?


So, how do we establish someone’s key motives, whether it’s in general for their whole worldview, or within a single interaction?


I’ve learned that when you play chess, you must watch the other player and try to figure out what they’re planning, or you will lose the game. It’s amazing how many times I’ve just played like the other person isn’t also trying to win and outwit me. I’ll ignore their moves or treat them as if they’ve just moved arbitrarily. This leads me to fall into traps or overlook setups for a checkmate. I’ve lately figured out that the best way for me to play chess is to only focus on what they’re trying to do. You can even turn the board around and see the game from their perspective, and this allows you to see their long-term strategy more clearly, and see the difference between a clever gambit and a stupid mistake.


Whether it’s in a relationship or a single interaction, a question you should be often asking yourself is: “What are they trying to achieve here?” This isn’t about being suspicious and sceptical of everyone as if they’re trying to scam you, it’s more about empathy, trying to turn the board around and see the game from their point of view, to understand what they perceive as a threat and what their long-term strategies are. This isn’t the same as chess though, because most of the time you aren’t actually competing against the person; the best result is that you both win. But for that to happen, you must first figure out what “winning” means to them.


You have to let go of the idea that they think the same as you. Your goals, perceived threats, and definition of success are never exactly the same as theirs, and often are quite different. As we’ll soon talk about, if you’re dealing with someone who’s fundamental motive is different to yours, then everything they do will make little sense to you. They live in a different universe entirely, and you must first understand that universe before you can hope to connect well with them and achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. When I was rehabilitating criminal offenders, I had to first understand what it was like to live in a world where obeying the law is not a priority.


If, for example, you believe it’s a “win” to get your way in an argument, you might assume that letting the other person get their way will make them feel better. But if their version of a “win” is to be appreciated, they might feel like you’re just patronising them and ignoring them by giving them what they want quickly, and maybe they’d actually prefer to not get what they want so long as they feel heard. Maybe they didn’t even really want what they asked for: it was just a provocation for your attention because they felt ignored. It blows my mind how often my wife is willing to try something my way after first disagreeing with it, provided that I acknowledge her idea first.


The 3 fundamental motives – control, security, and love


While every interaction will have specific short-term motives and agendas, understanding someone’s fundamental motive is like a shortcut to understanding most if not all of their decisions and actions. This isn’t exactly science we’re going into here, more of an observation from my many years working face to face with people and trying to understand them. I’ve been able to chunk down core intentions to three main categories, and have found that when you correctly identify which one the person most subscribes to, you can read that person like a book from then on. While nearly everyone will be moved by all of these three, what you’re looking for is the one they prioritise over the other two if forced to choose.




You could also use the words “power” or “influence”; control is about getting your way. Like all of these three fundamental motives, control is about safety. Certain people feel safest when they believe that things are being influenced by them according to their way; the set of principles, rules and laws they believe are best, not only for themselves but everyone else. We see the most extreme examples in dictators like Adolf Hitler – people that try to force the world into a very specific way of being and become enraged at even the slightest disrespect to their way –  or even in prosocial influencers like Russell Brand and Elon Musk.


In more average, everyday people, controlling takes many forms that are less extreme. People-pleasing, sales tactics, political manoeuvring, assertiveness and dominance, manipulation, influencing, convincing, management, and so on. Controlling is identifiable by behaviour that is clearly designed to sway others into seeing things a certain way or moving in a certain way. Whenever you feel that someone’s expression carries a force to it, like you’re being pushed towards something, then the motive is probably control. It can even be seen in how someone phrases a question, like trying to change what you’ll eat for dinner by asking, “Are you sure you want to eat something that unhealthy?”


This motive is also identifiable by the reaction someone has when they don’t get their way. Controlling people are very resistant to authority and get easily upset by having their plans derailed by external forces. They don’t mind something “bad” happening as long as they were the one orchestrating it, and indeed will even defend bad results if they were the controlling factor (or blame bad results on something outside of their control). I’m the controlling type, and to this day it amazes me how distraught I get when my plans get changed by someone else’s actions, even if the change is better for me!


Controllers often give advice and guidance, even if not asked for it and even in areas where they lack expertise. They can’t seem to help themselves; they act as if they’re constantly being asked to handle everyone else’s business (that’s how we feel anyway). If you complain, they provide solutions. If you struggle, they help whether you want it or not. If you’re emotional, they try to make you feel better. All of this serves one grand goal: make everything the way I think it should be.


Classic examples (though not all of these will have control as their fundamental motive):

  • Politicians
  • Activists
  • Influencers
  • Thought leaders
  • Managers
  • Teachers
  • Designers 
  • Engineers 




Other words that would suit would be “wealth” or “status quo” or “safety”. People motivated by security protect themselves from threats by a) possessing a lot of resources and b) keeping things predictable (usually meaning keeping things the same). Whenever you wonder why a billionaire won’t donate more money, or why your dad always follows the same routine every day even though it’s boring, you can now start to think “security”. The extreme forms of this are those mind-blowing hoarders that documentaries are made about, or the wealthy-elite who still live frugally, like Warren Buffett.


In more regular people, you’ll see this take the forms of focus on money and focus on maintaining the status quo. You’ll see it in people who like to follow a set of rules, even if they don’t make sense or aren’t the most healthy, clearly preferring order to spontaneity, like religious people who haven’t even fully read the Bible doing whatever a “good Christian” is supposed to do. That guy who works really hard and does long hours but doesn’t like to spend much of his money, or likes to stockpile items when he goes shopping “just in case”. That person who votes for the same political party every single election even if the policies and people change significantly. That person who stays at a steady job they don’t enjoy even though they’re clearly qualified and skilled enough to get better work. The people who avoid risk-taking and like having a clear set of rules to follow, be it laws, cultural norms, religious dogma, or even something they made up themselves a long time ago, e.g. how some people get up early every day without a clear reason why.


And of course, they’re easily identified by their reaction to chaos and discomfort. They’re the first to line up for the new vaccine when the pandemic strikes. They’re the ones who go on a big rant on social media when the long-running soap gets cancelled from TV. They notice your weird new haircut and can’t stop commenting on it. They dissuade you from backpacking around Africa because they don’t know anyone else who ever did that. They panic and sell their stocks when the market drops suddenly. When the status quo gets disrupted, disputed or destroyed, they seem to have an unreasonably intense emotional reaction, even if the impact on themselves is relatively minor and recoverable.


When interacting with security-focused people, you’ll find they like to push to keep things the same. This should not be confused with being controlling. They’re happy for someone else to lead as long as it feels safe, and indeed will often give over control of their own decisions to someone who they trust, like an authority figure or their partner or their parents. They like to talk about sports and other similar topics because the repeated nature of such conversations is comforting. They re-read the same books and re-watch the same shows, or at least stick to a few authors and genres. Their main driver is to feel comfortable with the familiarity and predictability of their situation, even to the point where they’ll stay in an abusive relationship so long as it stays the same


Classic examples:

  • Property investors
  • Stamp collectors
  • Billionaires (who aren’t also trying to change the world)
  • Classic and traditional married couples
  • Religious/traditional/cultural devotees
  • Office workers and steady employees uninterested in progression
  • Joggers
  • People who stay in the same city they grew up in, or adults who keep the same circle of friends from high school
  • Sports fanatics
  • Stock traders
  • Bankers




Other words for love could be “belonging” or “significance” or “approval”. Safety is communal; it comes from knowing that other people, perhaps representing the wider universe, notice and appreciate your worth, giving you meaning through their experience of you. Love-focused people see others as their protectors but also as their persecutors; the judges of our “goodness” who get to decide if we matter, and determine our quality of life. They feel safest when loved undeniably by a few or adored from afar by many, or both. They feel most unsafe when rejected, lonely or hated. The extreme version of this would be the Kim Kardashian type who’d get plastic surgery and allow a sex tape to be made public so long as it gathered more approval (adored from afar), or the stalker who obsesses day and night about an unavailable person.


In the real world, this usually takes the form of either Performer types – extroverted attention-seekers who do almost anything for approval – or people-pleasing love addicts, the quieter types who dedicate themselves to the care, protection and love of a few. That person who hangs on their phone waiting for a text back from their date last night. That lad who prioritises having a cold one with the boys over anything, even over the security of his career. The desperate pleaser at work who can’t say No to anyone and ends up overworked and exhausted. That kindly kindergarten teacher who never seems to tire of high-energy toddlers. That serious patriarch who seems obsessed with his family being loyal to each other at all costs.


They’re easily spotted by their reaction to rejection and withdrawal from love. Where others might go, “Oh well, ya can’t make everyone happy”, the love-motivated person will ruminate on any loss of love from someone they place importance on, and will often go so far as to question their own worth when receiving even basic criticism from someone they take seriously. They’ll return to ex partners who are clearly not right for them. They’ll allow themselves to be abused by user friends just to stay part of the group. They’ll suffer from jealousy and paranoia in relationships. They’ll tolerate narcissistic parents and siblings to keep the family together and to be seen as a good little boy or girl. Their main driver is to feel connected and belonging to at least one other person or to a specific group, like the family, and the threat of withdrawing love guilt-trips them with a power that nothing else can match.


Classic examples:

  • Promiscuous players (those not motivated by control)
  • Stand up comedians
  • “Fun” bosses
  • Virtue-signallers
  • Family-focused people, e.g. stay at home mum
  • Nurses
  • Social workers and volunteers
  • School sports coaches
  • Social butterflies (extroverted and popular socialites)


Telling them apart


As you read through the above types, you probably saw yourself a little bit in each, and could probably place others you know well in almost every category. However, they are not all equal, and when push comes to shove I’ve found that people always prioritise one. If you’re unsure of where you or another person fits into this model, simply ask: “Which one wins in a fight?”


The control-motivated person will take risks with their money, possessions and routine if it means coming out as the most powerful person in the situation. They are happy to negotiate to get what they want, and even change who they are if that’s what it takes. They are less happy to sacrifice relationships, only because this is an area where they can often feel powerful, but they will walk away from a completely uncontrollable and chaotic person. They will sacrifice resources and approval to win (think: Donald Trump, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey). I’m a controller type, and I’ve moved to another country and completely rewritten my personality over the years, mostly – if I’m honest with myself – to have a better impact on the world (according to my way).


The security-motivated person is willing to stay put and stick with what they’ve got even if it hurts and even if it means losing others. They will lose the respect of their friends just to stay in a familiar relationship or an easy and dependable job. They will sacrifice opportunities to try new things, even if these are almost guaranteed to go “well”, preferring instead to hoard their resources and keep everything as it is. They don’t mind submitting to another person’s way so long as that person promises to keep things just the way they like them (hence the general pitch of the conservative politician). They sacrifice power and love to stay comfortable and safe (think: gang members, fundamentalist Muslims, investors).


The love-motivated person prioritises approval from others, either in general or from specific types only, over money and power. They will often sacrifice both of these to secure love, like the guy who pays for everything on the first date, or the girl who lets her husband control the finances including what she earns. All their resources seem steered towards securing love, like the Bitcoin investor who just wants to buy a fancy car so that the girls will love him, or they delegate power according to how much it will grant them approval, like the star-struck waitress bending over backwards to accommodate the diva-like demands of the celebrity diner. They sacrifice resources and control if needed to secure love and approval (think: weak managers who won’t fire a poor performing employee with a sob story, social media addicts who post about everything they do, stand up comedians who apologise for offensive jokes). 


Figuring it out


Figuring out which of the three types a person is, along with whatever other short-term intentions they might have in any given interaction, can be achieved in three different ways. I’ll list these now, going from least effective to most (which is not always available). 


First is guessing. If nothing else is available, I still recommend giving this a go, but hold onto it only lightly lest your cognitive biases make you cling to an inaccurate judgement. I think any idea is better than none; like when you’re playing chess, it’s better to guess what their strategy is than it is to play like they don’t have one. You’re most open to manipulation and foul-play when you think it won’t happen or it can’t affect you. So start with assuming something and then aim to correct it with information. Basically, this means asking yourself: “Based on what I know so far, what is the most likely goal they have in this interaction?” Guessing is best reserved for people whom you know little about or cannot trust.


Second is asking them directly. Sure, they might either lie to you or give you an incorrect answer that they don’t realise is wrong (most likely), or even just refuse to give you an answer. But again, like chess, whatever move they make will give you more information. I have a little rule when coaching people: their first answer is always a lie, they just don’t know it. If you ask someone, “What are you trying to achieve here?” whatever comes next is at best only what they want to think is the answer. The real answer will be a few levels deeper, which can be discovered by asking “Why?” For example, if someone says, “I was just curious”, you can respond with “And why are you curious about that in particular?” and go from there. Asking is best reserved for people with whom you have a healthy connection.


What do they do?


These two options are only secondary to the best measurement: observing patterns of behaviour. While it seems so obvious on paper, it continues to amaze me how easily influenced we are by people’s words: their assertions, claims, promises, hints and so on. And yet words are one of the least reliable measures of a person’s true agenda, even when they’re trying to be an honest person (because if they lack self-awareness they’ll lie to themselves and then pass that on thinking it’s the truth). What people want to think of themselves, or want you to think of them, will be expressed mostly with words. Who they really are will be expressed mostly with actions.


One hard lesson I learned managing criminal offenders is that they are adept at verbal manipulation, and I was often convinced by their words, only to find out later that the exact opposite of what they asserted was happening. It’s hard for us to believe that people can lie blatantly and right to our faces, that they can brazenly make something up and then sell it as the truth, and yet we are aware that nearly every movie, book and play is complete fiction. People are excellent at making fictional things seem true, to the point where they can even convince themselves to believe a lie that they made up!


What you must train yourself to look for in particular is patterns of behaviour. While someone can often back up a verbal untruth with a few actions, they’re unlikely to be able to sustain it for long without some cracks appearing. Nearly every con requires you to be at least a little bit convinced by words, otherwise the person would have to consistently act the way they’re pretending is true… making it actually true! Watching how someone acts and reacts to similar situations over and over again will tell you the true story about them.


Someone says they love you but consistently criticise you in areas they know are sensitive to you. Someone promises to get a job and yet is still unemployed three months later and has failed to show for interviews multiple times. Someone asserts that they are “an honest person” and yet they keep exaggerating the stories they tell at the bar. Make no mistake, you will find the things they say hard to ignore or overwrite, but you must learn to trust the facts. If a person’s behaviour says something different to their claims, it’s their behaviour that must be measured as the determining evidence.


Let me clear up a slightly confusing point: when I say someone’s actions I also mean things they say. When I say you can’t trust a person’s words, I mean what they say is who they are or what their intentions are. Other words they say, like how they treat you verbally or what they say behind your back or how they talk to retail staff comes under the category of actions. These kinds of words – the things they actually say or patterns of speech over time – are actually good measures of who they are, especially when you catch them not trying to convince you and just being who they are, like what someone says when they’re angry or drunk. It’s just what they say about who they are that you can dismiss as invalid evidence.


I don’t want to skew this in the negative. There’s also the person who says they aren’t good enough and yet regularly succeeds at everything they try. Someone says they aren’t a very caring person and yet pick you up from the airport when your flight gets cancelled. Someone claims that they aren’t very smart but consistently solve every problem that comes their way. People’s self-image can be inaccurately and unfairly negative as well as grandiose.


From these patterns, you can discern the motive. The guy who lies all the time when telling stories is also really funny, so he’s probably motivated by approval: the point of his stories is not to tell the truth, it’s to make people laugh so that they’ll like him (I used to do this a lot – as Chopper Reid says, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”). The psychopath who bullshits every time he sees his Parole Office isn’t concerned with getting any particular privilege, he’s just trying to successfully manipulate the officer in any way he can so that he feels powerful (it took me ages to figure this one out). The girl who’s late all the time and yet never learns from feedback – maybe being late is something she’s used to being, and she subconsciously makes herself late to create a familiar pattern – she’s “the girl who’s always late”, and while that’s not the most flattering persona at least it’s consistent. She’s motivated by security and comfort.

Dan’s Top Resources


Dan has 3 bestselling non-fiction books available in both written and audio form:

  • The Naked Truth, his latest release, shows you how radical honesty builds self-confidence and relationships
  • Nothing to Lose explores how to build confidence from the inside by correcting the programming in your brain
  • The Legendary Life is a very practical, action-focused guide on how to plan and execute a life plan that brings you your ideal lifestyle

Online courses

Dan continues to put out high quality online self-paced courses through the Udemy platform


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