We analyze the superposition of Cartesian multipoles to reveal the mechanisms underlying the origin of optical forces. We show that a multipolar decomposition approach significantly simplifies the analysis of this problem and leads to a very intuitive explanation of optical forces based on the interference between multipoles. We provide an in-depth analysis of the radiation coming from the object, starting from low-order multipole interactions up to quadrupolar terms. Interestingly, by varying the phase difference between multipoles, the optical force as well as the total radiation directivity can be well controlled. The theory developed in this paper may also serve as a reference for ultra-directional light steering applications. (C) 2020 Optical Society of America under the terms of the OSA Open Access Publishing Agreement