Hedonic Theory

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.

Contemporary Iterations

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.


  1. Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Putnam.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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