Social Media and the Pleasure-Pain Principle of Human Behaviour

Ankur Astha
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Experts-Speak social media and the pleasure-pain principle of human behaviour defines insight as: “An understanding of the motivational forces behind one’s actions, thoughts or behaviour.” A whole lot of theories have been proposed to fix the motivational forces behind human actions, but one that has stood the test of time and that seems most plausible (and practical) is the Sigmund Freud’s Pleasure-Pain principle.

The Pleasure-Pain principle originated in modern psychoanalysis and can be broken down into:

  • The Pleasure Principle
  • The Pain Principle

The pleasure principle states that we, human beings, seek immediate gratification of our desires so as to generate the feeling of pleasure in our ‘system.’ The pain principle extrapolates this concept and states: Whilst seeking pleasure, we also seek to avoid pain. Simply put, human beings are tuned to aspire for – and act on – things which enhance their pleasure and reduces their pain.

There is a joke that I came across recently on Facebook:

“30 percent of internet users go to Google to search for information and 70 percent of them go there to see if the internet connection is working or not.”

Kick the statistics and appreciate the power of this statement in identifying the consumer dynamics: it’s a ‘pain’ to wait for a website to open; Google is a ‘quick-win’ and has thus won over the majority through the ‘pleasure’ of speed and ‘light weight’. And it is not by accident that Google has become the darling of the audience. It has become so by persistently sticking to its philosophy of ‘keeping it simple’.

Google regularly surveys its users and one of the questions in the survey is: “Would you like to see more results per page?” Invariably, ‘yes’ wins over ‘no’, as an answer to this question, but Google refuses to give in to this temptation.

They know, possibly, that we, as consumers, want more when we buy but less when we use. Products worth billions of dollars, no wonder, are returned in the US because of people’s inability to use the ‘over-tech’ features these products offer.


Facebook is another ‘digital’ company that seems to have got its understanding of Pleasure-Pain principle right. While it has fallen for the temptations occasionally (introducing ‘Facebook Gestures’ against the bare ‘likes’ was like offering sea to a person who has just asked for a glass of water), by and large, Facebook can be considered a fairly simple interface (possibly the simplest among social media platforms).

Business Week, in May 2014, carried an article on the success of Facebook and claimed the human habit of ‘stalking’ to be responsible for the social media giant’s success. As per the article, the ability of Facebook users to anonymously view other people’s pages (colloquially known as stalking) is the recipe for its success. The article also compares Facebook with Mixi (a site similar to Facebook which was launched in Japan around the time of Facebook launch) and informs that with Mixi, people could know who had viewed their pages, while with Facebook you could wander from one page to another without anyone’s knowing about it.

Even if we consider this to be just partially responsible for the rate at which Facebook is growing (versus Mixi and a lot of other social websites), consider the strength of this small insight about human behaviour: ‘Voyeurism’ without the pain of having to reveal one’s identity. We can debate on the ideology and ethics bit of it, but from an enterprise standpoint, I don’t see any reason why a platform like Mixi would miss on such a basic feature.

80 percent of the clicks on Facebook, after all, are related to viewing other people’s content and only 8-9 percent are related to posting one’s own. And it is not only Facebook which is benefiting out of this insight. Properties such as Bigg Boss too are leveraging the consumer psyche of playing witness to the playfulness of others’ emotions.


Another social media player that is benefiting out of the simplicity that human beings crave for, is Twitter. While different people will rate Twitter differently (I, for one, am not a huge fan of Twitter for its lack of versatility), you can’t question the ease of accessibility that Twitter offers. Twitter fans, especially those who hate Facebook, often highlight the fact that you can send your first tweet within minutes of signing up, while for Facebook, you have to have friends to start interacting. That said, Twitter also caters to an innate need: to sound intelligent, well-rounded and ‘followed.’ As one tweet read: “Facebook is for connecting with people you went school with while Twitter is for people you wish you had gone to school with.”

So, Twitter has that desirability attached to it – and being desirable is an irrevocable human need.

Search for consumer insights and social media, and you would be inundated with reports on how different companies are using social media and its usage to devise innovations/products. What I find missing is how social media companies can use consumer insights data to improve their products to enhance their lives/longevity. “How long will it live?” is one question, after all, that is asked about every social media platform. Remember Orkut?

Social media Twitter Facebook human behaviour Pleasure-Pain principle Sigmund Freud