16 Universal Desires & What Drives Your Behavior – Part One

“The important thing is to strive towards a goal which is not immediately visible. That goal is not the concern of the mind, but of the spirit.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

While we are each filled with individual differences, nuances, and uniqueness, there is evidence that we all gravitate toward 16 universal human desires. It’s based upon these deeply held – even hidden from ourselves – desires that goal-oriented behaviors are thought to originate. The individual differences in our universal desires lie in how we prioritize them and how strongly we express behaviors that are intended to meet those desires. It is clear that individuals vary in their goals, priorities, and values.

According to Maslow, we share common basic human needs related to physiology, safety, a sense of love/belonging, esteem, and (ideally) self-actualization. While we are likely to find common ground in these basic needs, there are individual differences in what some people find to be “rewarding” versus “punishing.” Research indicates that we tend to vary in the degree to which we prioritize certain basic desires that then serve to inspire motivation and drive goal-oriented behaviors. Many philosophers, psychologists, and researchers differ on whether or not there is any such thing as true intrinsic motivation.

Dr. Steven Reiss, whose theory of motivation and universal drives we will explore, states that “individuals differ enormously in what makes them happy – for some competition, winning and wealth are the greatest sources of happiness, but for others, feeling competent or socializing may be more satisfying. The point is that you can’t say some motivations are inherently inferior.” He notes that to label certain motivations as “good” or “bad” is inherently pushing one’s personal value system onto another. While this may sound extreme to some, it is important to remember that any motivations or behaviors specifically designed to abuse oneself or others are unhealthy. What is being referred to here is the concept that no one value, motivating force, or desire (that avoids harmful behavior) is inherently “better” than any other.

It is within this individual variation of universal human desires that we derive the ultimate source of motivation behind our actions. Why are some people more motivated than others to seek out companionship or building a family, whereas others may be more driven toward achieving power or status? It is likely that the answer to this simple, yet complex question, may have evolved from a complex interaction of biology, early interactions with caregivers, environmental factors, and personality traits.

Rather than ask “why,” your core motivations and goals are whatever they may be, consider the potential positive benefits that you may derive from understanding “what” your true desires and motivations are in the first place? This is one of many beginning steps along the path toward increased self-awareness, authenticity, and self-acceptance.

Research on the concept of universal human goals began in 1908 with William McDougall, a social psychologist at Harvard University. Since that time, psychologists have come up with many different ideas and lists of various universal human desires that drive goal-oriented behavior, although there has been little scientific validation of these ideas.

Stephen Reiss and his colleagues sought to solve this problem by conducting research wherein they surveyed thousands of people in an effort to understand universal human motives, desires, and the intrinsic feeling associated with each. Their research suggested 16 universal human desires from which 16 universal goals may be understood. The idea is that we all value these basic desires to some extent – individual differences come into play based on how we prioritize and express these universal desires.

16 Universal Desires that Drive Behavior

As you read through the list of these shared human motives, take the time to mindfully reflect on your own heartfelt desires. Try granting yourself permission to be honest with yourself about how you – consciously or otherwise – prioritize the motives and desires that truly drive your behaviors in life. Consider what’s most important to you, what you need and want more than anything else, and how far you are willing to go to achieve your most prized goals. Once you stop denying and start accepting what you truly desire in life – even if it’s not what you are “supposed” to want – you may notice a resulting sense of deeper self-knowledge, willingness to accept your most powerful motives, and then take effective action to live in greater accordance with your true values.

(1) Acceptance

The underlying motivation behind a strong desire for acceptance is as simple as desiring approval. This concept of acceptance extends beyond feeling accepted by family, friends, or coworkers… another important component of acceptance involves self-acceptance. When we deny or disavow parts of ourselves, denigrate who we truly are or who we believe ourselves to be, or refuse to give ourselves unconditional acceptance (which does not necessarily mean “approval”), internal peace may feel elusive. With acceptance, the resulting intrinsic feeling is self-confidence and deep-seated trust in our own intuition, emotions, and capacity to reason.

(2) Curiosity

The desire of curiosity represents a hunger for knowledge, followed by an intrinsic feeling of wonder or awe. For some people, this motivation to acquire knowledge may take the form of learning more about subjects that inspire passion, including a deep curiosity to understand oneself, others, and the world. Curiosity is also a component of developing a mindful attitude toward connecting with the present moment, which is also accompanied by an intrinsic sense of wonder and awe.

(3) Eating

The desire to consume sustenance in the form of food is driven simply by motivation to eat. This desire appears quite straightforward and is accompanied by an intrinsic feeling of satiation, or avoidance of hunger. For animals, this desire can manifest itself differently than in humans, in the sense that while we are both driven to eat in order to sustain life and avoid the pain of hunger, humans have the capacity to shut off or deny this survival-based motivation to eat due to emotional distress, body image concerns, and a wealth of other interpersonal and intrapersonal processes.

(4) Family

The motivation behind a drive toward family is considered to be driven by a desire to raise children, and is connected with an intrinsic feeling of love. For example, a person who highly prioritizes family may make other behavioral steps along the path toward this ultimate goal that may initially appear unrelated, such as seeking out a job/taking on a second job and being motivated to earn a salary/seek a raise. Reiss explains this as an example of a “simple behavior chain” with the desires for a job and salary representing instrumental goals and family serving as the end goal.

Reiss (2004) elaborates by noting that “logically, only goals that are desired for their own sake can serve as the ‘end’ of a purposeful explanation of human acts” (p. 179). Remember that this concept applies to any of the universal desires – it is only a matter of the degree to which each of us prioritizes these desires (which we are all thought to have in various forms) that discriminates the “end goal” from an “instrumental goal.”

(5) Honor

A motivational drive for honor is fueled by a desire to obey moral codes and/or construct an upstanding character. The intrinsic feeling is loyalty and a sense that one has acted in ways that meet with the approval, behavioral expectations, or values of the group to which the individual wishes to belong. In animals, this drive may be displayed by defending the pack from predators or returning back to the pack (i.e., choosing or identifying with their own “group”) when threatened by other animals. For humans, a drive toward honor is often connected with desires to be seen positively by individuals or groups that are given importance, such family/spouse, friends, coworkers, or society at large. From a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) perspective, the adaptive function of shame is to realign our behaviors to be in accordance with the group from which we desire a sense of belonging – that is, a person with a strong motivational drive to display honor may be particularly sensitive and responsive to the emotional impact of an emotion such as shame.

(6) Idealism

This drive is thought to spring from a foundational desire for altruism or social justice. This motivational drive may be expressed behaviorally through taking actions to correct what appears to be unjust or through giving one’s time, energy, or goods to others who are perceived to be in need. Along with these behaviors comes an intrinsic feeling of compassion. While the philosophical debate over whether or not true altruism is possible is nothing new, the desire for justice and motivation to act in ways that one perceives will manifest that vision into reality is “real” to the individual who is driven to live accordingly.

(7) Independence

The drive for independence is thought to be motivated by a desire for self-reliance/autonomy. Again, this is a desire that we all have – it is simply expressed in varying degrees and with various behaviors, depending upon the individual. Some people may express a desire to be self-reliant by learning various skills or information that allow them to rely less on assistance from others and feel a greater sense of self-efficacy. Others may express the desire for autonomy by seeking support from within themselves, rather than from others. However the desire is expressed, the accompanying intrinsic feeling is that of freedom. It is dependent upon the individual what that sense of freedom means to them personally, although it may be understood through behavioral observations of how one lives, directs, and organizes his or her life.

(8) Order

This motivational drive is based on a desire for organization, cleanliness, and routine. In many ways, this universal desire is important to maintain not only one’s physical health, but also one’s mental and emotional well-being. The associated intrinsic feeling is stability. As with each of the universal desires, it is important to be mindful of the extremity with which the desire and its associated behaviors are expressed. For example, an extremely low desire for order may manifest itself as uncleanliness/lack of self-care, chaotic disorganization, and complete lack of routine. At the other extreme end of the spectrum, the desire for order may develop into debilitating perfectionism, obsessive-compulsive or ritualistic behaviors, and unwillingness to deviate from a routine/schedule.

The consistent message behind all universal human desires is to find a healthy balance that allows you to most effectively move toward the goals that you cherish. Try letting go of the idea that any one desire or motivation is “better” or “worse” than another. Recognize that people are dynamic, nuanced, and cannot be truly understood in distorted or dichotomous terms. We all are the way that we are, desire the things that we desire, and engage in the behaviors that we do for a multitude of reasons that cannot be summed up with one word or label. Notice how your life will begin to feel freer of anxiety and fear if you let go of this mindset and allow yourself to become more deeply in touch with what it is that you truly desire in life. This is part of being your true self.

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I look forward to exploring eight more universal desires that drive our goal-oriented behaviors in my next post, “16 Universal Desires & What Drives Your Behavior – Part Two.”

For more information: “Reiss Motivation Profile (RMP)”

Reiss, S. (2012, May 30).  Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/who-we-are/201205/what-motivates-you

Reiss, S. (2004). Multifaceted nature of intrinsic motivation: The theory of 16 basic desires. Review of General Psychology, 8, 179-193.

Featured image: Be What You Love by MyVisualPoetry / CC BY 2.0


About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Dave on September 27, 2014 at 10:05 pm

    How do we know that there are not more than 16 desires? How are these quantized and compared to one another? And how are we sure that one of these desires is not merely an extension of another desire?

    • Bo on May 20, 2015 at 10:03 pm

      The original study used a statistical technique called factor analysis to solve these issues. If you are unfamiliar with that term, look it up and you will see why these findings are so exciting (albeit not perfect).

  2. Mira on May 10, 2017 at 6:27 am

    Hi Laura,

    thank you for this article – and part 2 also.

    Some of these desires come one on the other at some points. As an example, I really feel that Power and Independance can really be attached sometimes. Someone with a high desir of power could be in need of a lot of independance.

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