Conceptual systems and reality

Earlier I have referred to ideas about how what think about the world is not the world itself, how we will never know the world itself, and how the structures of our bodies, particularly nervous systems, are inseparabe from how the world appears to us.

Our nervous systems respond to experiences by forming connections across the various areas of the brain. These connections shape which thoughts appear in our minds by association with other thoughts or experiences.

The connections we form result from what activities we engage in. Thus, whatever we do leaves its mark on our nervous systems by creating new connections or strengthening existing ones. Repetition of engagement in situations of a fundamentally similar nature (be it a game of tennis or a business negotiation) is the key component in forming such long-lasting connections that produce our ability to perform in similar situations. In our mental experience, this appears as prior skills and experience that are applicable in novel situations.

This highlights why we need more thatn the literal meaning of knowledge, or its factuality, in order to know what to do in real life. How do we translate things we learn from books or in studies into real-life activity? In this process we have to find a way to use our formal knowledge in real-life situations in a pragmatic manner. In other words, we need to make things work and to solve problems, and only ideas that help us do that have lasting value.

Societal pragmatics and conceptual systems

In the modern society where people operate and co-operate in different professional roles, based on education and life experience that is not accessible to other people that we work with. In professional practice, differing fields of study are joined together by similar pragmatic aims.

For example, the medical staff in a surgery room includes people who would not be able to perform each other’s roles and do not have access to each other’s education, but are all engaged in the same operation with the same end goal. These differently educated people who are working on the same pragmatic purpose work on the basis of multiple, only partially overlapping representations of what is relevant in the situation shared by all. Multiple pictures of what we consider the same event exist in the minds of the participants.

It follows that the same physical real-world event, such as a patient suffering from a disease, is conceptualized by different conceptual systems by different people. From the viewpoint of societally available knowledge, we could say that there are multiple levels of analysis, or conceptual systems, that could be applied to the same event.

This is demonstrated in the biopsychosocial model of psychiatry, which improved on the previous biomedical model by including a wider consideration of the social dimensions of disease (psychiatric or otherwise). Though we may consider a physical disease consisting of causes, biological processes and manifest symptoms, it is nonetheless true that being sick includes consistent psychosocial features as well, including worry, stress, ramifications for professional life, and so on. Diseases cannot be adequately considered as solely biological processes, since they routinely carry predictable psychosocial components as well.

The disease process as well as its psychological, social and societal dimensions are conceptualized as hierarchically ordered levels of analysis. Which levels are relevant for you depend on what aspect of the patient’s situation you are working with. This may be the genetic or organ-system manifestations of disease, the stresses of being sick, or possibly a disability pension system that may need to cover people who lose their ability to work because of the disease. The fundamentally same disease appears in multiple spheres or levels of natural systems, which also reflect societal pragmatics. These are organized to cover each other hierarchically.

A similar kind of thinking on levels of analysis has been applied in other analyses as well. Peter Berger described religion as a sphere of society which encompasses all the others. While societal formations based on material pragmatics are interested with mutually exclusive goals and involves in- and out-groups, religious thought covers all of these at the most abstract and most immaterial level. Religion is not concerned wíth the pragmatics of, for example, manufacturing, legislation or education. By being the most abstract and most encompassing level of analysis, religious knowledge is fundamentally not in conflict with any of the other spheres of society.

A shared yet non-shared world

Across the different spheres of society, or layers of human activity, we are engaged with a physical world that we assume is fundamentally the same. However, the part of our experience of the world that is produced by external stimuli being filtered to ou consciousness by our biological structure differs according to the unique life histories. These include shared education and other widely available social knowledge each of us has accumulated. As the Dire Straits song ‘Brothers in Arms’ goes, “We have just one world, but we live in different ones”.

Spheres of society, a well as the members of such spheres, are unified by a shared education and usage of its associated concepts, just as individuals have a unique life history, that also makes how we see the world inaccessible to others. However, what gives form to anyone’s personal view of the world in the form of the language we use to describe it, is shaped by pragmatics – i.e. what activites we engage in, based on either individual choice or professional affiliation.

Nowhere in nature does there exist language without a person using it. How we use language is always tied to what we need or want, because those are our motivation to engage in and think about the world. As a result of those choices we get our priorities coded in our minds, our long-term memories and the structure of our nervous systems. The literal meanings of words and formal linguistics can never truly capture the historically unique experiences and purposes of the people who use the words.

Thought and reality

The image of the world that we have in our mind is not the world. Nor are the words we use to talk about the world.

At any moment, there are infinite details and patterns in going on in reality that we could focus on. We can learn a lot about the world simply by paying attention to what is happening.

Instead of doing that, we think. We are taught to talk of the finger and not the moon it is pointing at. Almost all of our socialization and education, depends on language. It involves joining a common picture of reality that describes features that we are taught are relevant, and excludes others.

We think of education as a good thing. It isn’t only that. As a society, education allows us to produce what we need, and as individuals, to support ourselves by becoming useful in this process. However, it also comes at a cost to our minds.

Once we have learned to think instead of experiencing, we envelop reality in concepts, and are expected to sign up on a life-long route of societal roles and activities. These keep us putting the world into more and more mental categories or boxes that are required in order for us to participate.

No activity is really over when we think it is over. Whatever we do leaves its mark on our minds, by forming neural connections that form the long-term memory associations that our thinking is based on. When we learn a useful skill or a new concept, we tend to filter our experience according to it. We experience reality as if through these mental categories, treating unique individual events as members of their categories.

There are no sheep

Consider the existence of sheep, for example. Every individual sheep is genetically unique and has had its own experiences during its life that have shaped what it is in the material level. In that sense there are no ‘sheep’, what exists in the world are historically and physically distinct and unique animals. The category of ‘sheep’ exists in our minds and patterns of social interactions.

If that seems absurd, consider that the same situation takes place in scientific research. Every study that makes statistical generalizations over large groups of people, for example, only reports its findings at the level of averages. If a study finds an association between a certain kind of diet and, say, heart disease, the finding represents an overall risk in large groups of people. Thes study sample will certainly include people who had no adverse health effect from the diet.

However, we are expected to act according to the overall findings from large groups of people, not from our actual situation. Playing our societal roles demands that we replace uniqueness with generalizations. To be more accurate, as we use language-based representations in our thinking, we replace our direct participation in the reality that the language refers to with generalizations.

This is not only the case within the participants in an individual study. By and large, we talk about research results as gross generalizations, such as “physical exercise helps prevent depression“. While this conclusion overall represents the line of research well, it discounts the fact that it is based on a number of individual studies. Every single study that this generalization is based on has its limitations, as scientific studies are never perfect, and there may even be some contradicting studies within a scientifically legitimate generalization.

Researchers will understand this, but as scientific knowledge is disseminated in the public in the form of sweeping generalizations by non-experts, the reality and details of the actual studies behind the conclusions are not part of the discussion. Even more, since more studies testing an elaborating on previous ones are published all the time, in extreme cases what we are today citing as scientific truth changes into untruth as the line of research progresses.

This is not to say that this is an issue specifically with scientific knowledge. All generalizations are just that: generalizations, no matter their source, and when we think in concepts we generalize.

What is the real event?

Reality happens at a given moment. What is real is there at the historical, unique moment you experience it. This can be sensory experience of things outside your body, which always takes its form within your body in the form of sensory organ and nerve activity. When you are recalling a moment in the past, you are still recalling it now.

Being aware of and representing in our minds something that we think about as a separate event in our minds, for example ‘my best friend’s wedding’, is an inseparable part of the event. Because we think in language or other symbols that exists in our minds, our intuition is that things and events outside our body go on even if no-one is there to witness them.

This is not entirely true. They cease to be things and events if no-one is thinking about them as such. They appear in our minds, then they disappear, but apart from that there is nothing in between that we can be aware of. Even when we try to grasp what the outside world is like when we aren’t thinking about it, the outside world appears in our mind. We imagine what takes place in between the periods when we are thinking of something, but even then it is just that – something we imagine in our minds.

It is easy to neglect that thought is also an event that happens in a specific place and at a specific time. Like sensory experience, mental experience takes place within our bodies in the form of brain activity. The content of our experience that we experience is correlated with brain activity. It is not that sensory or mental experience causes brain activity: artificially induced brain electric activity also causes us to have mental experiences. Stimulating someone’s brain with an electrode causes the person to experience urges to move or sensory percepts, depending on what part of the brain is being stimulated.

No matter if it is an external or internal event, we experience it in transient form. When we recall a past event to memory or think about the future, we are doing it now, and our act of doing it only lasts as long as it does.

When we think in symbolic terms, the formal content of thought, such as the word ‘sheep’, is unchanging. However, the meanings that we give it are different at different times. We may be sitting in our car, annoyed at a herd of animals slowly crossing the road before us, or we may be reading about how the species evolved. Formally the concept ‘sheep’ appears to be temporally stable and to correspond to a definition that could be given in a dictionary, but it is used in unique situations.

In our thinking, language is stored in our brain structure and thus our long-term memory. It is a means to relate the present to the past either in the form of abstract learning or memories of past events. Thus the past only ever appears in the ‘now’, because the act of thinking is an event, which exists in physical form in our brain structure and activity.

Further, our thoughts about the world do not really simply refer to the world outside our bodies. They refer to the activity of our nervous system either as it receives stimulation from outside events, or as we recall them in our memories. In turn, our nervous system, specifically the nerve connections in our brains, is continuously reshaping itself in response to our experience and learning.

The truth created by language

The way we are first taught language is by giving objects common names, which place them in categories. The sheep is not a member of the category ‘sheep’ before it has such a name, as before then the entire category does not exist. This is no different with other kinds of words we use. They are symbols for something non-linguistic. We learn no only the symbol, but also how to use them in conjunction with other symbols, and we do this as we participate in social interactions.

Even the best scientific knowledge we can produce is like that. Societal knowledge is still a symbolic representation of the world, coded on our brains and repeated and modified by the social patterns in which we use them. It is not the world. Sticking to scientific facts does not change that our thoughts refer to our the state or shape and activity of our nervous system. We had to learn those facts the same way we learn anything else, and we will have to use language (or other symbols such as number) as symbols or category labels that we use to refer to parts of historically unique events in the now.

Even as I sit here writing this on my computer, I may talk about science and socialization, but neither is anywhere to be seen. They were present while I thought and wrote about them, but they will disappear when I cease to do so. They may return later. That is the nature of mental pictures, or the act of thinking or saying “something is (like) something”. Their essence is in the act of saying or thinking.

No matter what we think the ‘real’ state of affairs in the world is, it isn’t. It is always a mixture of ‘it’ and ‘us’.

Dual processing, unconscious and what we are aware of

Our bodies do a whole lot of things we didn’t ask them to.

Eventually they get old, but even before that, our bodies produce all kinds of urges, pains and stomach growls in highly inopportune situations. Of course, usually this is right when we’re on that important date or business meeting.

Likewise with our minds. When we go through, say, our everyday morning routines, we can go through the movie we watched last night in our minds while our hands go through the motions of making coffee. We can also go through the movie in our minds during an important work meeting and miss the part where the boss told us what we’re supposed to for the project do this afternoon.

Our minds have an inseparable connection with our bodies, or more accurately, our nervous systems. We can focus on the part of our surroundings and our bodies that we need to observe or control really closely, but the vast majority of what is going on in our bodies is unconscious. Likewise with our minds: thoughts seem to follow a certain track of their own unless we expend conscious effort to make them do otherwise.

A lot of the time our thinking consists of just noticing what pops up in our minds and going along, whether it is to remind ourselves to book an appointment to the dentist or to act in a welcoming manner around the new guy at work. Even what our minds are drawn to, what grabs our attention, happens without us ever making conscious choices. To illustrate the only partially conscious nature of what is going on in our minds, Carl Jung likened our consciousness to an island in the middle of a sea of unconsciousness.

All thought is not alike

Research in cognitive psychology suggests that our thinking falls into two broad categories. These are the autonomous but quick-acting, and the consciously controlled but slower kind, which are often called Type 1 and Type 2 thought (or cognition).

Type 1 thought is what we would call intuition. It is based on previous experience and decision-making rules-of-thumb or heuristics. It doesn’t require mental effort, and in fact happens all the time whether we want it or not. So, most of the time we end up operating under Type 1 thought. Learned skills become automatic as the brain codes experience into connections between different areas of the brain. Eventually we no longer need to pay attention to things we have done countless times. We also learn to perform complex tasks like driving a car, by making parts of it automatic under conscious practice. This is how our common thought-patterns form: by repetition.

However, Type 1 thought is based on what we already know. As such, it is prone to lead to mistakes in novel situations. It will give us the kind of answer that has always worked for us in the past, but that’s not always what we need.

For situations that require a new kind of response, we use Type 2 thought. It is effortful and has a limited capacity, so we won’t be able to engage in it for too long and we cannot use it to work on infinitely complex problems. This kind of thought never happens without conscious control, but it is our only way of reaching new kinds of solution and to correct the behaviors and thought patterns that are giving us bad results. This way, we are able to relate new ideas to our behavior and try new things – which we will then be able to use under autonomous Type 1 thought once we repeat them often enough.

A good description of the relationship between the two types of thought is that Type 1 gets us in the right neighborhood, while Type 2 gets us at the right door. Also, since Type 2 thought requires us to think actively, and as we experience every thought-operation that we take under it, we identify with Type 2 thought. Type 1 thought, on the other hand, feels like it ‘just happens’ so it doesn’t produce a similar feeling of agency, of being in control of our thoughts.

The broad strokes of thought

The overall situation with our thinking seems to be that whatever our minds are drawn to and what motivates us to act ‘happens to us’; if we can get it using the means we have always used we will do that. If we don’t, we have to formulate a new strategy, learn a new skill and apply it under Type 2 thought. If it works, we will keep using it in similar situations, which will cause the strategy or skill to become automaticized so we will be able to use it under Type 1 thought. We will then have learned something new that will enable to get results that we didn’t have access to before.

Importantly, Type 2 cognition includes our highest-order thought, known as the executive functions. These include self-regulation, inhibition, strategic thinking and reasoning – how we control our own track of thought. Overall, Type 2 cognition is what we want when we try to make sure we are doing the things that produce the kinds of result that we want in the long run.

Another implication of the dual-process view is that unless you stop and engage in consciously controlled thought before you act, you will do the same thing as you have always done. If you engage in Type 2 thought you will definitely know you did, just because it doesn’t happen otherwise and it is effortful and demanding. For the same reason, as a rule you don’t do so. Instead we tend to keep trying to apply old answers to new problems, and often it doesn’t cross our minds that we could do things differently.

Research on these dual cognitive processes tends to emphasize the fact that Type 1 cognition produces errors in thinking when compared to logical rules or probabilities. This is, of course, important in the context of professional decision-making.

To understand how our minds operate, I like to think that the primacy of Type 1 cognition means we shouldn’t assume that people generally follow formal decision-making rules. Instead, these are valuable skills that must be learned and then applied again and again in specific contexts, and they cannot be taken for granted indefinitely. Doing the smart thing is usually hard, but it tends to produce better results.

The correct reference point of ‘correct’ thinking

Using whether people follow formal decision-making rules or not as the norm is not the correct point of view for understanding how any of us think. For that purpose, our social roles and performance are not the correct starting point. These roles form the exception and not the rule, though we often evaluate the quality of thought based on them since in professional situations we except people to perform according to their roles.

The correct point of reference in this sense is our organisms that form part of the flow of time and nature, as that is who made the choice to acquire this particular profession and made its associated skills and knowledge part of its nervous system by learning it. Looking at who we are in terms of social roles or thinking learned in social contexts and basing our expectations on them is putting the cart before the horse.

We make use of socially acquired and shared knowledge, roles and decision-making skills, but we aren’t them. Society runs on the active effort required to act according to its conventions, but the effortless, autonomous existence of not trying to make a certain end result happen is the basic, default state. Following our language-based socialization, we tend to pay attention to the thoughts in our head more than the world right in front of us.

The socially acquired, language-based thought is only parts of the whole situation going on at any given moment. They exist in our minds and in patterns of social interaction. But even when we only see our thoughts, the rest of what is going on does not simply vanish. It is just that our awareness is fused with our thoughts and their meaning, and as a result we lose awareness of the rest that is there. For avoiding cognitive fusion as well as the higher-order executive control of our thoughts, we have to be aware that we have the ability to change our thoughts.

Quite the big picture

Consider this:

According to the Big Bang theory, the entire universe was contained in a single spot with infinite density and heat.

That would contain every particle of matter currently in your body, as well as every particle in the food you will eat next week, and every atom that leaves your body by whichever means.

And here you are, thinking about the singularity, which contained everything – including all the matter and energy that you now consider to be ‘you’.

What is going on here?

If you find that odd, it’s because you ran into an unusual aspect of ‘you’.

‘You’ is a word, and you use it for thinking and for communicating with others. You use the word according to how people around you use it, just like everyone else.

Reality and experience of reality

Alan Watts, a highly significant influence in opening these philosophies up to Western thought in the 1960s and 70s, gave wonderfully illuminating lectures on the words we use to refer to ourselves. Modern scientific cosmology and the metaphysics of Eastern religions – Daoism, Hinduism or Buddhism – are interestingly compatible.

Words or ideas refer to something outside themselves, but in our minds we treat the words as reality itself and don’t even notice it. The way we’re socialized, thoughts – knowledge, opinions – about the real world are emphasized over direct experience.

Eastern philosophies on the other hand place direct experience as the starting point of thinking, not its formal content or meaning. As the Buddhist teaching goes, when you see a finger pointing at the moon, you’re supposed to look at the moon and not the finger.

We also experience the words that appear in our mind. We experience them by hearing or seeing them in printed form as we learn them, and they are stored in our brain and experienced again in the form of memories. When we use language, part of its meaning comes from the situation at hand, which comes to us as part sense-experience, part memory. Like everything else, we can only experience language as our sensory organs can receive it and as our brain processes it.

In this sense the reality, the ‘moon’ that the metaphor guides us to pay focus on, is subjective. We cannot know ‘reality itself’, since we will always only experience it in the form our body can give to it. When we talk about reality, we necessarily talk about our experience of reality. ‘Objective reality’ essentially means that our individual, limited perceptions and any other kinds of measurements we make agree.

Language

Language is a physical phenomenon. In communication language is transmitted between people as sound waves in the air or as readable words on a surface. Language is also stored in our memories, which reflect the structure of our brains. In our thinking and its representation in the brain, conceptual thinking is connected with non-conceptual mental contents such as sensory memories or emotions. That is how we are able to recognize a word when we hear or read it and connect it with, for example, memories not in linguistic form.

Expressing non-linguistic objects in language also gives form to their relationships with other ideas, as then they are able to form logical relationships. These are a property of the formal content of language, but not reality itself, as it requires splitting reality that is fundamentally continuous into separate objects according to the ideas in our heads.

When we think or communicate in logical terms, the words contain those aspects of experience that can be sufficiently put to words. However, words alone cannot contain the experience that we want to share. In person we supplement words with gestures and non-verbal communication. We also experience emotions, we simply sense some things, and we have vague intuitions that we may not be able to put into words at all. We don’t need to have words for everything; only that part of our experience that we communicate to others.

What is it that we experience?

As mentioned before, sense-experience only comes to our awareness as our bodies are able to receive it and present it to our minds. What we are aware of is experience of our bodies from the inside. There are aspects of the external world that we cannot be aware of, but other animal species can. Animals experience a completely different world than human beings, having very different sensory systems, but we don’t live our lives feeling like we’re missing out on something. (The animals likely don’t feel that way either.)

More than that, animals with echolocation or lateral line sense, for example, have entire dimensions of experience that human beings cannot really imagine. This is similar to how we cannot access another person’s experiences, memories or feelings. We can talk about what is happening in the world and seemingly agree on it, but we can never know for sure if what another person means by the colour red really looks the same as what we call red.

Seen this way, we realize that our bodies is inseparable from the events we experience. This contrasts with the everyday conception of reality as we experience it. Reality is not at all what we think it is. No matter what we think reality itself is, it isn’t. When you think about ‘reality itself’ that is there when you do not experience it, you are imagining it based on past sense-experience.

This is similar to how really is no way to know just by looking if the light in the refrigerator goes off when the door is closed. The question is meaningless if you only accept direct sense-experience as an answer, since it is impossible to get it. However, once you learn there is a mechanism that turns the light off, you can accept that the situation as a whole makes sense.

The experience of thoughts

What we experience is our bodies being acted on by outside forces, such as light on the receptors in your eye. These forces appear in our minds as we have deduced them of based on regularities in our experience about the world, and as we have described them using words or other kinds of symbols, such as mathematical ones. However, our awareness of these experiences is separate from what we are experiencing. Even when there is a world full of sense-experience right in front of us, we can exlude it and focus on our thoughts instead.

We can lose ourselves in our experiences, thoughts and memories, but we can also detach them and notice that we were lost in them. There is a psychological concept called cognitive fusion, which means losing awareness that our thoughts are thoughts and not reality. This is not different from being absorbed in sense-experience, or in other words, taking in events in the outer world just like we usually do and forget that we are observing them – where we don’t feel like we’re being absorbed in anything. Since both the sensory stimulation and the thought happen within the body, in both of these cases our awareness is lost in something taking place in the body itself.

Thoughts about experience

Our bodies are continuous with the rest of the world. Like the rest of the universe, we are the matter and energy from the singularity that was thrown into expansion in the big bang. Our bodies are in constant flux as they rebuild themselves from matter from the environment, and shed used or worn material. For a large part of our adult lives the change is so slow that we are not aware of it, but there is not a single cell in your body now that was there ten years ago. Our bodies are also inhabited by a vast cadre of micro-organisms which are separate from our bodies themselves.

The distinction between ‘me’ and ‘not me’ is conceptual. It is there only when we think about it. Alan Watts explained human existence as a pattern in the whole of the universe using the analogy that human beings are an integral part in a universe that produces human beings in the same manner as apple trees produce apples. There is no definite way to pin ‘you’ down in words because you are not a definite thing, and you do not keep a definite form over time.

Thinking of ourselves using words means being aborbed in the pattern of concepts used in communication between people and stored in our brain structures and patterns of social interaction. This is part of being ourselves. Making mental and linguistic pictures is something human beings do, but we are not those pictures. What we are is simply what is right here right now, regardless of whether we think about it or not.

When you use a concept to make sense of something in the world, what your thinking is “making sense of” is the concept. That is, the neural, linguistic, social representation – that is where your awareness is focused on when you think conceptually – and not the thing itself.

No matter how clever a conceptual definition that we suppose is about reality itself we come up with, this will always only lead to more thoughts about thoughts, and more words about words. The only way out in the conceptual sense is to realize this is the case. However, that will only change your conceptual system, and what it refers to is no different than it was before. So the pragmatic solution is not to bother yourself thinking about it too much and simply live your life.

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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