Desires, the sources of meaning and misunderstanding

People often act in ways that seem incomprehensible. Why is that?

Family members and relatives, colleagues, not to mention complete strangers often make choices we wouldn’t do. People leave aggravating comments on our favorite youtube videos, and it’s obvious to us that they just didn’t get it.

According to psychologist Dr. Steven Reiss, this happens because we desire different things. Even when we do the same things, we do them for different reasons. However it is often hard to know exactly what these desires are. Our desires and aversions make themselves known simply as a feeling that we want to do something – or don’t.

For example, you could want to be a doctor for many reasons. You could enjoy helping people, or you could want a job that provides financial security, or gets you respect and status. You might be just as happy in another kind of job as long as you get what you want out if it.

Activities that meet our basic desires just feel meaningful and fulfilling. We want to do them just for the sake of doing them, unlike the things we do for a reward like going to work because we need the salary. Any of the desires above could be why want to become a doctor, and any of them could make you want to do your work well.

This is essentially the same thing as the basic conflict of House M.D.. The main character cured patients no-one else could, not because he cared about them (he obviously didn’t), but because he wanted to figure out what causes their problems. We have our reasons for doing the things we do, and others may not be able to empathize with them.

An important insight by Dr. Reiss is that we tend to automatically assume that goals and values that match our desires are the correct ones. As experience easily verifies, our feelings arise automatically before we can think things through. It is only natural that our immediate reactions to other people’s actions reflect our feelings, not the feelings of the people we are reacting to.

It follows that we routinely misunderstand people whose desires are different from ours. According to Dr. Reiss, we tend to encourage others to act in ways that make sense in terms of our own desires, not theirs. We may even pressure or coerce others to make them behave in line with our desires, since their motivations don’t make sense to us. I’m sure most of us have been on both the giving and receiving end of this kind of ‘everyday tyranny’, and I don’t think the results are ever good.

The basic desires theory gives our individual feelings their due as the reason we do anything. Desires originate in our physical, biological bodies and are the starting point of everything we do. Desires and feelings are to be noticed, they are understood by awareness and not analysis, and cannot be changed at will or with reasoning. How we choose to act on those feelings (if at all) is where rationality, skills and learning comes in. Feelings are about what we want and what we don’t. Actually being able to get what we want is another thing entirely.

In the case of conflicting desires between people, we are eventually forced to accept that we will always want and value different things. Once we do, it is clear that our choices are either conflict that will be fruitless to at least one side of the argument, or negotiation based on what each of us truly wants and needs – and accepting that everyone may not be able to get their way.

For those interested in the theory, Dr. Reiss and his research group boiled the number of basic desires down to 16. Examples include the desire for power, usually fulfilled by achieving high goals and working in leadership positions, or the desire for order, fulfilled by arranging our lives so that they feel under control. More light-hearted ones include the desire for close long-term friendships, or the desire to engage in physically demanding activities such as work or sports.

Each desire can be rated either as very important, average, or less important to us. The 16 basic desires theory has been presented in an easily approachable book, which also includes an easy guide to find out the desires that are important to you.

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