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The Pleasure-Pain Principle (And How to Exploit it in Your Writing)

It’s no secret that we’re pretty basic in our desires. Every decision we make is either to gain pleasure or avoid pain. In fact, according to Freud, the Pleasure Principle is the driving force behind all our primitive urges including hunger, thirst, anger, and sex.

But don’t forget about pain. Because the avoidance of pain is actually higher up on our priorities than seeking pleasure. Studies have shown time after time that people will do much more to avoid short term pain that they will to gain short term pleasure.

Our aim is to achieve a comfortable and pain-free existence. Once we have that, the motivation to seek additional pleasure diminishes. In fact, we have developed negative opinions of people who continue to chase higher levels of pleasure: glutton, hedonist, nymphomaniac for example.

Identify the 'pain points' of your customers. What keeps them up at night?

All very interesting. But what’s this got to with writing? Well, if you’re seeking to persuade and influence with your writing, it’s extremely relevant. Once you understand that people are more likely to act to avoid pain than to achieve gain, you’re on to a winning formula.

And here is that formula… Known as PAS, this simple but effective blueprint is used by copywriters to write everything from websites to sales presentations and email campaigns.

Problem – describe the problem

Agitate – agitate by highlighting the emotions that go with that problem

Solve – offer your solution to the problem

What you’re looking to exploit are the ‘pain points’ that your customers regularly experience. Once you’ve identified the discomfort, amp it up by identifying all the negative emotions they experience. Then, and only then, do you offer the resolution to that pain. Which just happens to be your product or service.

Here’s an example for a holiday website:

PROBLEM: Finding the perfect hotel can be stressful and time-consuming.

AGITATE: Hunting down all your options, working out how far away the local hotspots are and reading reviews from other guests. Then, of course, there’s the price. And all within your lunch hour? Impossible!

SOLVE: Not impossible. makes finding the best hotel deals quick and easy. We compare hundreds of travel sites for you so you get the best hotel deal available. And it’s so fast, you’ll have time for an extra coffee before you head back to your desk.

The reason the PAS formula is so successful is because it focuses on pain rather than pleasure. Yes, benefits are great and they do need highlighting. But if you really want to grab attention, you’ll talk about all the hassles, risks, glitches, embarrassments and problems. That’s where our pain lies and that’s what we’ll do almost anything to avoid.

“The aim of the wise is not to secure pleasure but to avoid pain”


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