Core Motivators of Human Behavior

by Shari Levitin

Human beings are more alike than we are different. We all yearn for deeper connection. We all want more time and less stress. We all desire health and well-being, freedom, adventure, revitalization and self-improvement, but most of all we crave significance — a sense of purpose.

When companies connect with their customers’ deep emotional motivators, the pay-off can be huge.

The food chain Chipotle Grill created one of the most famous emotion-based ad campaigns in recent history — one that spread to 6.5 million YouTube subscribers in less than two weeks. The ad tugs at our heartstrings by increasing customer awareness of animal confinement, growth hormones and toxic pesticides. This shows that even a fear of negative and painful emotions will drive sales. (This was before Chipotle’s negative press regarding foodborne illnesses in 2015.)

Advertisers drive our purchase decisions by linking high-end kitchen stores with elegance, lingerie with sex, and candles with a feeling of revival. No one is immune. Just last week, I paid double the price for a Smart Water over a generic brand to keep me going during an upcoming business meeting.

It raises the question: Do we buy anything without emotion? Several years back, I found myself sitting next to the vice president of sales for one of the top tire companies in America. After explaining to him what I did for a living, I said, “I suppose it’s a little tough to sell tires emotionally.” “Are you kidding me?” he laughed. “Haven’t you seen the baby ads?” Then I remembered the famous Michelin tire commercials from the 1980s: “Because so much is riding on your tires!” I realized that Michelin had bought and paid for — decades earlier — space in my brain that said, “Michelin is the safest tire.” Wow! There’s no question that we make purchase decisions based on unconscious yearnings and emotional motivators. The question is: What are the most common motivators? What are the drivers that cause us to act, buy and consume?

For years, my training has centered on highlighting the few core emotional motivators that salespeople, marketers, advertisers and publicists must uncover and sell to. Here are the seven motivators I’ve found to be particularly powerful:


The news continually bombards us with stories that show the extent to which humans move toward safety and away from danger. The U.S. Department of Defense spends more than 57 million dollars per hour to keep the American people safe. The need for self-protection is a desire that is timeless and universal. Our brains are hard-wired for self-preservation. We buy life insurance, make financial investments, vote and choose mates to secure a comfortable future. We hunger today — and postpone immediate gratification — for a more secure tomorrow. Our desire for safety and security is a common motivator for such products as banking, real estate, certain types of software, and pharmaceuticals and healthcare products and services.


We invest in fly-fishing trips, four-wheel Jeeps and the latest in fancy gadgets so as to grow, play and experience new things. We drink unblended Scotch, play cards, travel to Tahiti, dance, ride rollercoasters and jump out of airplanes (well, some people do) to stimulate our desire for adventure. Simple and complex pleasures drive us to do everything from wandering into a cookie store and buying extra chocolate chips to investing in a pontoon boat. Our desire for adventure is a common motivator for products like vacations, automobiles, fashion, new technologies, fine wine and beverages.


People today are consumed with a desire for “likes,” friends, connections and fame. The average millennial today shifts between devices like phones and laptops 25 times every nonworking hour (and probably even more when they’re supposed to be working).

A few months ago, I attended a training session where I heard that guests on Oprah Winfrey’s show — from heads of states to rock stars to presidents, including the Duchess of York, Tom Cruise and Michael Jackson — shared a common concern. At the end of the show, when the lights went down, these international celebrities all asked Oprah the same question: “How did I do?”

It just shows that fame doesn’t keep people from feeling insecure. In fact, nothing does, because life itself is insecure. A desire to feel that our life is significant is a common motivator for such products as branded accessories, fancy cars, members-only clubs, hotels, home furnishings and athletic wear.


Relationships give meaning to what would otherwise be a lonely, angst-ridden existence. Connection is why we’re here; it’s how we make it through heartbreak, death, birth and jealousy. Feelings of disconnection are usually found at the heart of shame and pain. Research shows that people with stronger relationships have tougher immune systems; they get sick less often and heal faster when they do. Research shows that we’re happier, more successful and healthier when we’re surrounded by a large social support system. A desire to connect is a common motivator for products such as jewelry, food and alcohol, beauty products, coffee houses and travel.

Health and Wellness

Health in today’s world means more than just not getting sick. It reflects our deep yearning to feel good and look good. The popularity of spas, revitalizing creams, supplements and “you deserve it”-type products and services has increased 50-fold over the past few years. We’re tired, overworked and jam-packed with to-dos. Revitalization products promise a mental, physical and emotional retreat — and consumers will pay for it! Wellness is a common motivator for products such as spa services, supplements, weight loss, yoga and meditation classes, and health clubs.

Success/Sense of Purpose

Our day-to-day goals are but a smokescreen for the sense of purpose that burns within us. The desire for a sense of purpose is a common motivator for products that leave a legacy, offer us the opportunity to give back, and have investment potential.

Growth and Education

Science confirms that humans naturally search for order and reason; we want explanations for how objects, people and processes work. However, there are other reasons we seek knowledge. We’re curious. We want to pass down what we’ve learned to the next generation in the hopes that they won’t repeat our own foolish choices. But it’s more than that. Knowledge makes us more interesting. Smart is sexy! It makes us better able to attract mates, more likely to excel in business, and more likely to contribute to the success of the community, all of which are traits that evolution has bred into us. The impulse toward education is as much a part of our DNA as our eye color.

A need for education and growth is a common motivator for products like advanced training courses and programs, educational books and videos, and coaching and mentoring services.

When you ask anyone over the age of 21, “What’s the most important thing in your life?” you’ll hear some variations on those seven desires. The order may be different, but our basic needs are universal. Throughout our lives, our core motivators will shift and twist but, in my experience, people find common themes that they return to time and again.

Shari Levitin, author of Heart and Sell, is an internationally known sales strategist, speaker and entrepreneur. She is CEO of Shari Levitin Group, a global training and consulting firm with clients in more than 48 countries and one of Inc. Magazine’s Fastest Growing Companies. Levitin has worked with companies that include Hilton, Hyatt, Adobe, RCI, Jaguar, Wyndham Worldwide and financial service groups, as well as individuals. Shari Levitin Group also includes Levitin Learning, a unique virtual university with more than 240 online courses.  


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