Abstract The mechanisms behind the behaviour of concentration and charge density profiles in diffuse electric double layers are investigated quantitatively for 1:1 and 2:2 electrolytes. This is done by analysing various contributions to the mean force that acts on each ion. The forces are obtained from the calculated ionic charge and concentration distributions around individual ions at various positions in the double layer. These distributions are presented graphically which allows an immediate visual illustration of the mechanisms in action. Some features studied are charge inversion in double layers for divalent aqueous electrolytes, overcompensation of surface charge due to large amounts of physisorbed counterions, ion size effects in the double layer structure and various mechanisms that cause deviations from the predictions of the Poisson–Boltzmann approximation. A major objective of the paper is to present the results in a visual form and explain aspects of modern double layer theory in a simple manner.