How to Detect People’s Hidden Ulterior Motives

The motives by which people operate are difficult to grasp and understand.

It’s safe to say that many of the behaviors you see played out by those around you are driven by ulterior motives. True motives for our behavior may be embarrassing, sensitive, malicious, or described by a myriad of other traits.

We often find ourselves in situations within which we don’t have a desire to unveil our true motives. For example, the host whose gathering we’re at may not want us to leave, and expressing that we’ve had enough of their presence outright may not be the proper action to take. Our unmentioned motives often serve to protect the people who we mask them from.

You’ll meet people who attempt to hide their genuine motives around you. They will tend to repeat certain patterns of behavior once they notice that others are getting a hunch that ulterior motives are at play.

This article aims to highlight two patterns you’ll recognize in those attempting to hide their ulterior motives.

This is by no means intended to be a full encompassing guide on how to best deal with manipulative individuals. However, you may notice that once you tune into noticing the actions mentioned below, they’re rather common in those who attempt to mask ulterior motives.


Noticing Another, False, Motive to Serve as a Distraction

People who suspect others to be catching onto the ulterior motives which drive the things they do and say, will attempt to divert attention. Those who realize that their audience is searching for, and attempting to discover an ulterior motive of theirs will try their hand at distracting the ones who search.

The best way to distract someone who’s attempting to figure out why we’re committing certain actions and saying certain words, is to make them believe that they’ve discovered our ulterior motive without actually revealing it.

Those who hide their motives will attempt to seemingly reveal false motives in order for you to stop looking for the authentic ones. They will begin mentioning unfavorable traits of theirs, will mention things they may find embarrassing about themselves, and will present an image of being brutally honest with you.

Their goal will be one of attempting to distract people in their search for authentic motives. They’d essentially be making a trade of seemingly embarrassing, selfish, or malicious information for the ability to keep their even more embarrassing, more selfish, and more malicious motives hidden.


For Example:

“Throwing” someone “under the bus” is a popular term used in the corporate work-space.

To throw someone under the bus means to reveal information about their lack of adequate completion of work to superiors or colleagues which results in getting them in trouble. People throw their colleagues under the bus for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they have no other option, other times, there are political motives at play.

A political motive for throwing someone under the bus is expected to remain hidden by the individual doing the deed.

Let’s assume there’s an instance of someone throwing a colleague of theirs under the bus with a motive for increasing their chances of being promoted to team lead.

While attempting to expose the other’s inadequate work output, they’ll begin to realize that their motives for doing so may become public. Publication of the knowledge that they’re making a political ploy against their colleague would not be beneficial to their cause. With that realization, the reason they give during their act of sabotage may be:

“…because Julie did not complete her task on time, I had to feel the brunt of our end users’ complaints. Covering for Julie made me look bad in our customers’ eyes, and I’m now perceived as an unreliable service agent in their view.”

The motive that was publicized above is one of losing a credible personal reputation in the eyes of stakeholders. That motive for bringing Julie’s lacking work ethic to the forefront is sensitive, private, and perhaps selfish enough to be believable. It seems like an authentic motive for voicing this concern. It does a good job satisfying those who listen in their attempts to figure out why the person they’re listening to is throwing Julie under the bus. It puts a halt on others’ attempts to dig for motives which are perhaps more malicious.


The successful identification of someone attempting to mask their motives depends on evidence and actions which they take. You’re not advised to always assume someone to be attempting to divert attention from their authentic motives. When the evidence points to other motives being at play however, their drastic attempts to distract you from those motives can be additional evidence for their authenticity playing a part.


Applying Deductive Reasoning: Noticing What Has Not Been Said

You’re a person who may be employed, have a family to go home to, and even have a few regrets in life. When considered at length, you can land on many general truths about others without them needing to tell you anything.

For example, you’d know that a large part of your workplace manager’s focus is to make senior leadership happy. Though this manager may seldom mention their goal of pleasing those who pay their salary, a simple exercise in deductive reasoning can land you at an accurate portrayal of your manager’s goals at work.

As a general rule, you’d understand there to be a hierarchical management structure in your organization. Since your manager would be occupying a rung on that ladder, you’d be able to safely assume them to be operating under similar pressures with their managers as you are with yours. They’d be expected to meet deadlines, and hit certain performance thresholds. They’d be expected to report on their tasks just like you, and their behavior at work would be greatly influenced by those who are senior to them.

Such exercises of applying general rules to specific situations in your life will place you ahead of the curve when figuring out ulterior motives.

Once you work your way through a deductive reasoning approach to figuring out general rules of thumb about individuals, begin to focus on which of these truths they explicitly talk about and mention, and which of those truths remain in the shadows of conversation.

People don’t like to talk about domains in which their ulterior motives live.

For instance, if you never hear your manager mentioning their senior leaders’ expectations and timelines when they interact with you about your tasks, then they may not be being honest at to why certain things need to be done a certain way and by a certain time. Their ulterior motive in their assignment of tasks may be to make themselves look good at next Wednesday’s project management meeting, but their expressed reasoning for assigning a Tuesday night deadline for your work may not mention the pressures of their own timelines and desires.

This is not a science, so take a conservative approach to making assumptions about the truths which go unmentioned.

What should increase your confidence in ulterior motives existing, is the mentioning of seemingly everything that surrounds the domains which remain unmentioned but which you know exist. For instance, your manager may tell you that end-users are sending emails about the timeliness of the software update, and may reverse engineer the workload they’ve assigned in an effort to prove to you that it’s doable by Tuesday night. However, your knowledge of the existence of a major factor in their judgement of due dates should begin to demand your attention the less it’s mentioned.

When you suspect a topic of conversation not getting a deserved level of attention, it will be your clue to dig further in that direction.

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Disclaimer of Opinion: This article is presented only as opinion. It does not make any scientific, factual, or legal claims. Please critically analyze all claims made and independently decide on its validity.