New theory of motivation lists 16 basic desires that guide us

July 07, 2000

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Professor Steven Reiss says there's nothing wrong with workaholics, non-curious schoolchildren and timid people.

While much of society may believe these people have problems that need to be fixed, Reiss said his research suggests they are probably happy just the way they are. They just have personalities that don't fit in with much of society.

Reiss, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ohio State University, has spent five years developing and testing a new theory of human motivation. The result of his research is published in the new book Who Am I? The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Action and Define Our Personalities (Tarcher/Putnam, 2000).

After conducting studies involving more than 6,000 people, Reiss has found that 16 basic desires guide nearly all meaningful behavior. The desires are power, independence, curiosity, acceptance, order, saving, honor, idealism, social contact, family, status, vengeance, romance, eating, physical exercise, and tranquility.

"These desires are what drive our everyday actions and make us who we are," Reiss said. "What makes individuals unique is the combination and ranking of these desires."

Reiss said at least 14 of the 16 basic desires seem to have a genetic basis. Only the desires for idealism and acceptance don't appear to have a genetic component. "Most of these desires are similar to those seen in animals, and seem to have some survival value," Reiss said. "This indicates they are genetic in origin."

The research is bound to be controversial with many researchers who have tried to reduce all human behavior to just one or two basic desires -- such as pleasure, pain or survival -- or who say that that there are some desires that all people share equally, Reiss said. But in looking at how people differ in these 16 desires, Reiss said he concluded that "we are individuals to a much greater extent than psychologists have previously realized."

For example, Reiss said our educational system is built on the premise that all children are naturally curious (curiosity is one of the 16 basic desires) and have the same potential desire for learning. But Reiss found that people can differ quite a bit in their maximum potential to enjoy learning.

"Not everyone is naturally curious," Reiss said. "A child may be very smart, but still not be interested in school. But our educational system cannot deal with the idea that there is someone who cannot enjoy learning and never will. Educators are making a mistake when they think all children were born with more or less equal potential to enjoy learning."

Reiss said parents of non-curious children should realize they will never be able to change their child's fundamental nature. "It's OK to be non-curious. As long as the child is not flunking and is meeting some minimum standards, parents should ease up on their expectations. By pushing a non-curious child to be more curious, all a parent is doing is ruining their relationship."

The same goes for any fundamental desire, according to Reiss. Workaholics may work a lot, not because they have some void or problem in their life, but because they have a naturally strong desire for power and status.

In Who Am I?, Reiss uses the term "self-hugging" to describe the assumption that what is potentially best for me is potentially best for everyone. "Using self-hugging, we think that workaholics would be happier if they worked less, even though workaholics say they are happy as they are," he said.

The failure to understand individual differences causes problems in everything from marital relationships to co-worker interactions. "People know that other people have different values and pursuits, but they cannot understand how this can be. Self-huggers waste enormous effort trying to change people who do not want to be changed."

How did Reiss come up with the 16 basic desires? He and Susan Havercamp, a former graduate student, generated a list of more than 300 statements that refer to specific desires people might have. Subjects in their studies were asked how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as "I love learning new skills," "I must avoid pain" and "I would rather lose my life than lose my honor." After testing more than 2,500 people, the researchers used a mathematical technique called factor analysis that grouped the responses into 15 fundamental desires. After testing about 3,500 more people a 16th desire (saving) emerged from the factor analysis.

Based on this work, the researchers developed a test, called the Reiss Profiles, that can measure individual differences in these 16 desires. Reiss said one key to the test is forcing people to think about priorities in their life. For example, if you ask people if sex is important to them, nearly 100 percent would agree. But, in determining people's desire for romance, the Reiss Profiles asks people if they agree to statements such as "I want all the sex I can get." "That's a very different, very direct question," Reiss said. "That's going to predict whether sex is going to play a more or less dominant role in a person's life. Sex may be pleasurable to everyone, but it isn't equally motivational. We want to find out what actually motivates people."

Reiss said the research presented in Who Am I? shows that psychologists cannot boil down human experience to just one or two basic desires that we all share equally. He noted that 2 trillion different profiles can be assessed by the Reiss Profiles. "Every person has a unique desire profile," he said.
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, 614-292-8457;

Ohio State University

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