Why People Behave the Way They Do

27 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2008

See all articles by James G. Clawson

James G. Clawson

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business


This note outlines a simple but powerful model, in managerial language, for understanding why people behave the way they do. The model builds a set of relationships among perceptions, beliefs, conclusions, defense mechanisms, and behavior. The note provides a framework that has been useful in a variety of settings for practicing managers.




To be autonomous means to act in accord with one's self—it means feeling free and volitional in one's actions. When autonomous, people are fully willing to do what they are doing, and they embrace the activity with a sense of interest and commitment. Their actions emanate from their true sense of self, so they are being authentic. In contrast, to be controlled means to act because one is being pressured. When controlled, people act without a sense of personal endorsement. Their behavior is not an expression of the self, for the self has been subjugated to the controls. In this condition, people can reasonably be described as alienated.

—Edward Deci, Why We Do What We Do

Leaders influence people. Unless leaders understand why people behave the way they do, their efforts to influence others will have random, perhaps unpredictable, even alienating effects. You might try to influence someone and get just the opposite effect that you expected. Perhaps you have been trying to get subordinates to do something at work, and no matter what you do, they just won't respond. Or maybe your boss has been asking you to do something, and you resist. If you've ever asked yourself as a leader or a colleague, “Now why did he do that?” you've wrestled with this problem. At home, at work, or at play, you have no doubt observed people doing things that seemed—to you—unexpected or unusual. You may have seen two people in very similar situations respond in very different ways. These examples raise the question: Why do people behave the way they do? This note will introduce some fundamentals about what motivates people and under what conditions they will give their best efforts and then offer a summary framework that has proven pragmatic and powerful for leaders in a variety of situations.

. . .

Keywords: values, beliefs, behaviors, human resources, management, individual behavior, interpersonal behavior, management skills, managerial psychology

Suggested Citation

Clawson, James G., Why People Behave the Way They Do. Darden Case No. UVA-OB-0183, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=910358 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.910358

James G. Clawson (Contact Author)

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business ( email )

P.O. Box 6550
Charlottesville, VA 22906-6550
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.darden.virginia.edu/faculty/clawson.htm

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