“It belongs to the imperfection of everything human that man can only attain his desire by passing through its opposite.” – Søren Kierkegaard 

In my last post, “16 Universal Desires & What Drives Your Behavior – Part One,” we explored the first eight of 16 universal human desires, the ways in which those desires drive goal-oriented behaviors, and the intrinsic feelings associated with each desire. This theory of 16 basic desires is based upon the research of Dr. Steven Reiss and colleagues. The underlying idea is that we all share common human desires, but our individual differences lie in the way we behaviorally express those desires and the amount of importance or priority that we place on them.

Multifaceted theories of end motivation, or engaging in behaviors for their own sake, have been discussed by philosophers, scholars, and researchers throughout history. There has been a great deal of writing, discussion, and research on the significance of human behaviors. Instrumental motives involve behaviors that – no matter how significant or insignificant they may be – are actually intended to move one closer to their ultimate, or end goal. In order words, these behaviors are not done “for their own sake,” but rather in pursuit of a more highly prioritized end goal.

For example, if your end goal is to become a powerful leader, your may perform a series of instrumentally motivated behaviors such as acquiring specialized skills/knowledge, seeking positions of prestige or respect, and so forth. Along the way, these instrumental behaviors may appear to be performed for their own sake, but once the end goal is accurately identified, it becomes more apparent what motivation has been the driving force along the journey.

As discussed previously, the point is not to judge any of the universal desires as “better” or “worse” than any other, but rather tho gain insight into why we act in the ways that we do and to appreciate the abundance of individual differences that exist within this shared set of universal human desires. Once we let go of judging others for having a more strongly expressed desire for something than we have, along comes a sense of greater peace and acceptance. We all have these universal desires… we just don’t prioritize them or behaviorally express them in the same way.

Acceptance of these individual differences can enable us to feel a deeper realization of our simultaneous interconnectedness and uniqueness. Seeing these desires as universal, yet distinctly manifested, has the potential to deepen compassion toward behaviors in others we misinterpret or judge. This is a step toward seeing ourselves in one another and feeling a deeper connection with humanity.

16 Universal Desires that Drive Behavior

As you reflect on the remaining universal human desires, allow yourself to consciously adopt an open, accepting, and nonjudgmental attitude of mindfulness. Consider the ways in which you behaviorally express the following desires – however personally valued or not. If you read about a particular desire and notice yourself having a thought such as, “Well, that’s not something I care about at all,” pause for a moment and sit with that thought and any accompanying emotions. There is a natural tendency to deny desires that we label as “bad” or “wrong,” or that bring up emotional wounds from the past. Consider any reactions or responses that you have as useful information with the potential to widen the scope of your self-knowledge.

(9) Physical Activity

This motivational drive is considered to be fueled by the desire to exercise one’s muscles and gain strength. There is often a common underlying motivation involving some form of self-assertion behind the drive toward engaging in physical activity. As with each universal desire and motivation, they are considered to be shared by all humans, simply expressed with varying degrees of strength and valued with different levels of personal importance. For example, someone with a low desire for physical activity – while they still “have” the desire – may place a lower priority on the desire than someone with a high desire for physical activity. The associated intrinsic feeling is vitality, or a sense of highly developed physical (or mental) vigor, exuberance, and the power to live/grow.

(10) Power

A motive for power is driven by a desire to influence and for leadership. In animals, the motivation for power is demonstrated through behaviors such as eating more food, dominating/leading the group, acquiring the most desirable mates, and so forth. In humans, we have many complex ways of behaviorally expressing an underlying desire to influence and lead others. When this is done effectively, individuals may have certain characteristics that make them more likely to be perceived as leaders or they may be more cognizant of what practical steps/actions need to be taken in order to reach the end goal of achieving a position of power. People who are motivated by a drive for power tend to experience an associated intrinsic feeling of efficacy.

(11) Romance

Motivational drives for romance are based on desires for beauty, sex, and courtship. Of course in animals, including humans, this motive is powerfully connected to reproduction of the species. It is worthwhile to notice how this – and all universal desires – manifests itself in your goal-driven behaviors. Interestingly, the intrinsic feeling connected to the motive of family is love, whereas romance is associated with an intrinsic feeling of lust. For some, a motivational drive for romance may provide the underlying foundation, impetus, and fuel toward an even more highly prioritized end goal of building a loving family. Notice ways in which many of these desires are intertwined and what connections between them you observe in your own life.

(12) Saving

This motive is driven by a desire to collect and based on the value of frugality. For animals, they may express this drive through behaviors such as collecting or hoarding supplies of food. In humans, this is a desire that, once again, can be taken to extremes in either direction.  Someone who becomes obsessed by a high priority on saving may exhibit unhealthy hoarding behaviors or miserly behaviors that have the potential to come across as a lack of generosity or a fear of letting go of possessions, whereas someone who places an extremely low priority on saving may spend frivolously/irresponsibly or they may exhibit such intense generosity that they are willing to give practically all they have to others. The intrinsic feeling connected to this desire is ownership.

(13) Social Contact

A motivation for social contact tends to be driven by a desire for peer companionship or play. As with all desires, once a desire has been satisfied, it is thought to return again at a later time with similar strength and importance. For example, a desire for peer companionship and play may be fully satisfied by spending a day socializing with friends and engaging in playful activities, thus satiating this desire for the time being. Depending upon the individual, desires tend to reassert themselves within hours, days, etc. As you begin to more fully understand the ways in which you prioritize your own motives and desires, notice how long it usually takes for a satisfied desire to reemerge with equal strength. This is a clue regarding the extent to which you prioritize that desire and how willing you are to engage in goal-oriented behaviors to reach the relevant end goal. A drive for social contact is associated with an intrinsic feeling of fun.

(14) Status

A motivation for status is thought to be driven by a desire for respect based on social standing and attention. Reiss (2004) comments on this motive by stating, “A person who is highly motivated to gain social status… may be observant of marks of social distinction, may think often about issues pertaining to wealth, may especially enjoy the feeling of self-importance, and may behave in ways associated with upper-class status” (p. 179). Seeing as these desires are considered to be universal, just differentially prioritized, someone not particularly interested in or motivated by social status may not display any of the aforementioned characteristics or behaviors, but instead may feel a more calm or quiet sense of security/ease in knowing that they are respected by social groups of importance to them, that they can sustain themselves, and that their behaviors are valued by the social groups to which they feel most connected. The associated intrinsic feeling is self-importance.

(15) Tranquility

The motive for tranquility is considered to be driven by a desire to be free from anxiety, pain, and fear. Depending upon the individual and how one conceptualizes “tranquility,” this desire may manifest itself in a variety of different behavioral expressions. For example, two people may have equally strong drives for tranquility, but one person may engage in behaviors such as self-medicating with substances to avoid anxiety, pain, or fear, whereas another person may choose to practice mindfulness meditation, yoga, or engage in self-care activities in behavioral attempts to reach the same end goal. The associated intrinsic feelings are safety and relaxation.

(16) Vengeance

When one is motivated by a drive for vengeance, the recognized underlying desire is get even or confront offenders (including desires to compete and win). For some people this desire may be suppressed, or pushed down and away from conscious awareness. For others this desire may feel relatively unimportant – that is, when they experience offenses they respond to them through lack of assertiveness/fear of confrontation or through directing active forgiveness and compassion toward the offender. Still others may find their lives dominated by a desire to “get even,” even at the expense of discovering themselves, meeting personal goals, and allowing internal space for happiness. The connected intrinsic feeling is vindication.

Notice the priority that you place upon each desire while becoming aware of the distinction between placing a high priority on a desire and behaviorally expressing it with unhealthy extremity. For example, one may place high priority on a drive for power, while still recognizing that part of effectively manifesting that desire into reality involves mindfulness of moderation and avoidance of overly extreme behaviors. For some people who have a deep passion for life and fulfilling their dreams, it may be difficult to manage this behavioral balance – that is, to find ways to authentically and enthusiastically express passion for life, dreams, and desires without going to such behavioral extremes that the ultimate realization of those dreams becomes elusive.

What insight have you gained from reflecting on these 16 universal human desires and motives? Did you allow willingness to see some part of yourself – however small – someplace within each universal desire? Once there is conscious awareness of your authentic desires and motives, there is a naturally arising experience of freedom and responsibility that comes along with possessing of that information. What actions and changes are you willing to make in your daily life to turn those authentic desires into the manifestation of your true end goals?

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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 desiresReview of General Psychology, 8, 179-193.

Featured image: I am ONE by Seide Tripp / CC BY-SA 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 Comment

  1. Mira on May 10, 2017 at 6:31 am

    Hi Laura,

    another time thank you for these posts. I didn’t know Reiss’s theory and your clear and rich enough articles was truly helpful for me.

    So, I assume after this reading, that Reiss did not talk about spirituality and the need to believe in an higher force. I am surprise not finding this in Ideal. There is some wonderings about “the world” and “meaning of life” in Curiosity but I really don’t think that this concept around “spirituality” can be reduce in another desire. Faith, in one God, multiple humanlike or natural divinities or even in the Absolute Truth of science is really universal.

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