Hedonic theory, or theory of psychological hedonism, is the idea that human behavior is motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain (or, more accurately, displeasure). Its origins can be traced to the beginnings of Western philosophy. Although its prominence within psychology waned during the 20th century, updated versions of hedonic theory have emerged in behavioral economics and neurology. As researchers in exercise psychology have begun searching for postcognitivist explanations for variations in exercise behavior, hedonic theory has attracted attention as a perspective of considerable potential value.
Early expressions of hedonism can be found in Aristippus (435–366 BCE) and Epicurus (341–270 BCE), both of whom considered pleasure as the ultimate good. Aristippus emphasized physical pleasures, whereas the Epicureans promoted a holistic view of pleasure that included serenity, a sense of belonging, and overall well-being. Holistic views of pleasure were also promoted by Plato (428–348 BCE), who believed in the balance of the rational, emotional, and appetitive parts of the soul, and Aristotle (384–322 BCE), who coined the term eudaimonia to signify the pleasure derived from a virtuous and fulfilling life.
Hedonism reemerged during the Renaissance, with thinkers struggling to align hedonistic ideas with the stern doctrine of the Church. Erasmus (1466–1536) and Thomas More (1478–1535) argued that the pursuit of pleasure is consistent with religion. René Descartes (1596–1650) accepted that passions, including pleasures, influence human behavior but maintained that the mind must control these passions in its pursuit of higher ideals.
In Britain, hedonism was at the core of debates on the appropriate goal of societies and political systems. Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and David Hume (1711–1776) accepted that humans are motivated to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Hume further claimed that reason, which previous thinkers from Plato to Descartes considered capable of keeping passions under control, is powerless. French philosophers La Mettrie (1709–1751) and Helvétius (1715–1771) also endorsed hedonism, arguing that pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain are and should be the primary human motives.
Hedonistic ideas gained wide exposure in utilitarianism, a movement pioneered by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and continued by James Mill (1773–1836) and his son John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). Utilitarianism was an ethical philosophy, according to which the goal should be the maximization of utility. In Bentham’s hedonic calculus, the utility (usefulness) of each action is computed as the algebraic sum of the pleasure to be obtained minus the pain to be caused. The fundamental axiom of utilitarianism was that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number . . . is the measure of right and wrong.” In the opening lines of his book Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham famously wrote that “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure; it is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”
The utilitarian pursuit of pleasure was criticized for encouraging unprincipled self-interest and a disregard for costs to others. Critics argued that this emphasis on pleasure abolished any distinction between humans and animals, characterizing hedonism a doctrine “worthy only of swine.” This attack prompted John Stuart Mill to revise Bentham’s earlier undifferentiated view of pleasure by distinguishing between lower and higher forms (e.g., education, art), the latter being of higher utility.
The ideas of the utilitarians greatly influenced the psychologists of the 19th and early 20th century. Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) emphasized the evolutionary advantage of hedonism, insisting that the only type of behavior that is conducive to life is the behavior that ensures a surplus of pleasure over pain. This evolutionary advantage was also highlighted by Alexander Bain (1818–1903), William James (1842–1910), and William McDougall (1871–1938). Their opinions diverged on the question of whether the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the only (the ultimate) human motives, with Bain supporting and James and McDougall rejecting this notion. The writings of Bentham also influenced Sigmund Freud’s (1856–1939) pleasure principle.
Fragments of hedonic theory can even be found during behaviorism and cognitivism, periods during which psychology largely ignored subjective states, such as pleasure, focusing instead on overt behavior and cognitive appraisals, respectively. According to Edward L. Thorndike’s (1874–1949) law of effect, when a behavior is paired with pleasure, it becomes more likely to be repeated, whereas, if it is paired with displeasure, it becomes more likely to be avoided. Similarly, for Albert Bandura (1925– ), pleasant and unpleasant emotional states can have an influence on behavior, albeit not directly but rather by influencing self-efficacy.
References to hedonic theory in contemporary psychology are rare because, in the prevailing view, behavior and decision making are driven by the rational cognitive analysis of information. Among the exceptions have been emotion theorist Silvan Tomkins (1911–1991) and his students, who have considered affects, including pleasure and displeasure, as the prime human motives. Revivals of psychological hedonism have come mainly from disciplines outside of psychology proper. In behavioral economics, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman proposed that, because human rationality and cognitive ability are limited compared to the complexity of the problems that humans face, decision making is aided by heuristics, including the affect heuristic, that is, people do what makes them feel better and avoid what makes them feel worse.
In neurology, Antonio Damasio, working with patients with focal brain lesions, showed that when areas involved in affective processing are damaged, one may be able to list the pros and cons of various behavioral options but has difficulty making decisions. According to Damasio, different behavioral options are associated with pleasant or unpleasant configurations of bodily state, called somatic markers, which influence the decision-making process.
Application in Exercise Psychology
Prompted by the limited variance in exercise behavior explained by cognitive variables, researchers have begun exploring the potential of hedonic theory. Data show that exercise enjoyment (which partly reflects pleasure from exercise), affective associations (pairing the idea of exercise with positive or negative descriptors), and ratings of pleasure–displeasure obtained during exercise are significant correlates and predictors of exercise behavior.
- Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Putnam.
- Ekkekakis, P., & Dafermos, M. (2012). Exercise is a many-splendored thing but for some it does not feel so splendid: Staging a resurgence of hedonistic ideas in the quest to understand exercise behavior. In E. O. Acevedo (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of exercise psychology (pp. 295–333). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Kahneman, D. (1999). Objective happiness. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Wellbeing: The foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 3–25). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
- Mees, U., & Schmitt, A. (2008). Goals of action and emotional reasons for action: A modern version of the theory of ultimate psychological hedonism. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 38, 157–178.
- Slovic, P., Finucane, M. L., Peters, E., & MacGregor, D. G. (2002). The affect heuristic. In T. Gilovich, D. W. Griffin, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment (pp. 397–420). New York: Cambridge University Press.