Who Am I?
The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Behavior and Define Our Personality

By Steven Reiss

Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam
a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.

Copyright © 2000 Steven Reiss, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-58542-045-X

Chapter One

What Is a Basic Desire?

Although most people are not used to thinking about human behavior in terms of fundamental desires, knowledge of our 16 basic desires can help you gain insight into who you are and why you do what you do. The desires give you a new way of analyzing your behavior; when you learn the 16 basic desires, you can figure out how your behavior and life goals are connected to them. Because your desires indicate the path of psychological growth that you need to take to become who you want to be, they can help you think about what you need in order to gain value-based happiness.

    The 16 basic desires also provide a powerful tool for analyzing the behavior of people you know. If we want to know what people will do, we should find out what they desire and predict that they will try to satisfy their desires. Desire may not tell us everything we want to know about ourselves or others, but what it tells us is very important for understanding behavior and happiness.

    Here are the 16 basic desires. The order of presentation is without significance.

    Power is the desire to influence others.

    Independence is the desire for self-reliance.

    Curiosity is the desire for knowledge.

    Acceptance is the desire for inclusion.

    Order is the desire for organization.

    Saving is the desire to collect things.

    Honor is the desire to be loyal to one's parents and heritage.

    Idealism is the desire for social justice.

    Social Contact is the desire for companionship.

    Family is the desire to raise one's own children.

    Status is the desire for social standing.

    Vengeance is the desire to get even.

    Romance is the desire for sex and beauty.

    Eating is the desire to consume food.

    Physical Activity is the desire for exercise of muscles.

    Tranquility is the desire for emotional calm.

    If you are interested in learning how to use these desires and do not require information on how our research was done, you can skip ahead to Chapters 2, 3, and 4, where the 16 desires are discussed in detail. The remainder of this chapter is concerned mostly with the underlying scientific research and philosophical analysis that led us to develop this particular list of basic desires and no other.


Let's consider where these 16 desires come from and how they are affected by experience and culture. William James and William McDougall said that our basic needs are genetically determined. This means that we do not consciously choose what we want from life; rather, our deepest desires arise automatically, and as soon as we satisfy one of them, we automatically experience another and want something else.

According to William McDougall, Every man is so constituted as to seek, to strive for, and to desire, certain goals which are common to the species, and the attainment of which goals satisfies and allays the urge or craving or desire that moves us. These goals ... are not only common to all men, but also ... [to] their nearer relatives in the animal world; such goals as food, shelter from danger, the company of our fellows, intimacy with the opposite sex, triumph over our opponents, and leadership among our companions.

    Each of the 16 basic desires that Susan and I found appears to fulfill McDougall's criterion of being common to the human species. For example, nearly everyone wants success (indicating the desire for power), self-determination (indicating the desire for independence), knowledge (indicating the desire for curiosity), and so on down the list. There are some minor exceptions to the universal nature of these goals, but we find that nearly everybody has each of these desires; the exceptions are rare.

    The 16 basic desires are common not only to the human species but also to our nearest relatives in the animal world. The expression in animals of nine of the basic desires is obvious—for example, the fact that animals explore their environments shows that they must have some degree of curiosity; animals who hoard food are motivated by the desire to save; animals socialize (indicating a desire for social contact), raise their young (indicating a desire for family), defend themselves (indicating a desire for vengeance), have sex (indicating a desire for romance), show fear (indicating a desire for tranquility), eat, and exercise. How the remaining seven desires connect to animal behavior is less obvious, but in Chapters 2, 3, and 4, I present observations to support these connections. For example, animals' common practice of licking themselves clean falls under the desire for order. The young bird's desire to gain attention in the nest may be the origin of the instinctual human desire for social status.

    The fact that all (or nearly all) of the 16 basic desires are seen in animals lends credibility to the claim that the list is important. When Susan Havercamp and I conducted the surveys from which we developed this list of desires, we did not ask people to tell us what values they shared with animals. We did not ask any questions at all about animals. Yet the desires that emerged from our survey research are largely those that are seen in animals. In fact, it can be argued that these desires have survival value in the wild and, thus, evolutionary significance.

    Although almost everybody embraces the 16 basic desires, individuals vary in how intensely each desire is experienced. These individual differences in desire partially reflect genetic variations across individuals. For example, some people are born with the potential for very strong tendencies toward aggression (indicating a desire for vengeance), whereas others are born with the potential for only weak aggressive tendencies. Some people are born with the potential for enormous curiosity, whereas others are born with the potential for little curiosity. No two people have exactly the same potential for a particular desire. Across all 16 basic desires, the strength of desire varies significantly, depending on both the individual and the desire in question.

    The 16 basic desires make us individuals. Each person has his or her own hierarchy of basic desires, and in part this reflects the importance of each desire for the person's happiness. When we learn our desire hierarchy, also called a desire profile, we can gain insight into how we each prioritize the 16 basic desires. We learn which ones are stronger in us as compared with the average person, and which ones are unusually weak. It is how we experience the strength of the 16 basic desires in comparison to how others experience them that is most important in understanding how we relate to other people, and how they relate to us.

    We are individuals to a much greater extent that many people realize. Because of genetic variations in basic desires, no two people enjoy the same experience in exactly the same way. Your boss experiences the basic desires differently than you do. Parents experience the basic desires differently from each of their children. Wives experience the basic desires differently than do their husbands. According to the theory of 16 basic desires, for example, sex is a much more intensely pleasurable experience for some people than for others, based partially on individual variations in the genes that make sex a motive. Similarly, parenthood is a significantly greater potential joy for some than for others. Since we cannot experience the intensity of another person's enjoyment of sex or parenthood, we sometimes do not appreciate the extent to which these desires are or are not motivational for other people. We are prone to misunderstand why some people react to sex or parenthood differently than we do because we do not realize how the genetic differences between us have resulted in differences in intensities of pleasure. Often the consequence of this misunderstanding is a process I call "not getting it," which is discussed in more detail in Chapter 6.

    Because our basic desires have a genetic origin, we tend to have the same basic goals throughout most of our lives. People do not change very much in what they fundamentally desire. Curious children tend to become curious adolescents, who tend to become curious adults. People who have strong appetites tend to struggle with their weight all their lives. People who like to organize and plan things when they are adolescents will probably still enjoy organizing and planning things when they are adults. The underlying genes that influence these desires do not change much as we grow older.

    Can people change, or does a genetic origin of the 16 basic desires imply that our basic personalities are determined at birth? Genes are not the only important influence on basic desires and how we satisfy them. However, the genetic factors in our desires provide significant stability to our behavior. I suspect that people can change, but to a certain degree and not very easily.


To what extent can culture or experience change our basic desires? According to James and McDougall, desires occur automatically, but how we go about satisfying them is determined by our upbringing, culture, and experiences. For example, parents instinctively love their children, but how they express that love and rear their offspring depends on their culture and learned habits, not on their instincts. People instinctively desire sex, but how they satisfy that desire varies considerably from one culture to the next. Kissing is a good example of cultural differences in how the desire for romance is satisfied. In some cultures, emphasis is given to sniffing and smelling while kissing a lover. In Mongolia, a father does not kiss his son; he smells his son's head instead. Inuits and Polynesians rub noses. French kissing may have evolved as a symbolic effort to unite two souls.

    Achievement motivation (part of the desire for power) is a good example of how culture can affect a basic desire. Schoolchildren in the United States lag behind their counterparts in Japan and Taiwan from the day they enter school. The results of standardized achievement testing show significant advantages in favor of Japanese students in both math and reading. Within the United States, Asian-American young people seem to enjoy disproportionate educational achievement. Japanese-Americans score higher than average on standardized achievement tests and are disproportionately represented at elite colleges such as Harvard and Stanford.

    What accounts for the great achievement orientation of Japanese students? Some experts say it is the emphasis Japanese culture places on academics. Japanese parents have higher expectations of the school system than do American parents. Furthermore, Japanese students spend 240 days a year in school, compared with 180 for most American students.

    Can culture modify the strength of a desire as well as the way in which the desire is satisfied? Are some societies more status-oriented than others? Are some more idealistic? Some experts provide affirmative responses to these questions. Many psychoanalysts say, for example, that cultural differences in child-rearing influence the degree of anxiety adults experience and, thus, people's motivation to seek tranquility. One of the influential psychoanalytic studies that supports this viewpoint was conducted by former Harvard University Professor of Education John Whiting and former Yale University Professor of Psychology Irving Child. These researchers, who studied anthropological reports of 75 different cultures, concluded that how much anxiety and fear people experience as adults depends on the society's child-rearing practices.

    It's important to note that this book is based on research with Americans, Canadians, and Japanese. Although the research participants reflected some of the multicultural nature of these countries, we did not conduct research with other nationalities and cultures. Thus, we do not know the extent to which the 16 basic desires affect people in other cultures. But even if the average strength of the 16 basic desires were found to vary across cultures, I expect that the definitions of the 16 basic desires presented in this book would be proven to be universal. I base this expectation partially on the genetic origin of the desires.

    An individual's learning experiences also can influence the intensity of the person's 16 basic desires. For example, prudish parents can cause an adolescent child to feel guilty about sex. Although guilty feelings do not reduce the strength of the adolescent's sexual desire, they may combine with the adolescent's sex drive in such a manner that the overall (or net) motivation for sex is lowered. The individual will likely feel ambivalent about sex, sometimes feeling strong desire mixed with guilt feelings. This may not be the same as a person who is born with a potential for a weak sex drive, but we might see somewhat similar effects in terms of how strongly the individual is motivated toward sexual activity.

    A person's beliefs can influence desires significantly. In fact, some experts say that the quickest way to weaken or strengthen our desires is by examining what we believe about them. Albert Ellis, one of the founders of cognitive therapy, has put forth the idea of "must" beliefs. The belief that "everything must be in its place" for example, strengthens the basic desire for order. So does the belief that "rules must be followed." If the desire for order has become so strong that it causes problems in a person's life—such as a compulsive tendency to clean up—Ellis advocates challenging the person's "must" belief on the grounds that the belief is irrational. He has reported many clinical cases in which he has used his cognitive therapy to help clients solve their problems.

    These considerations show how complex human motives can be. Our basic desires have an evolutionary origin, but they are significantly modified by culture, beliefs, and individual experiences in ways that are still not well understood. What we desire is largely determined by our genes, but how we fulfill our desires is largely determined by culture and experience.


The surveys Susan and I conducted were not straightforward polls such as the ones conducted by marketing firms when they need to evaluate a product. We did not ask people to tell us whether power or tranquility was more important to them. At no point did we attempt to determine which of the 16 basic desires are most important to the largest number of people. Rather, the aim of our research was to learn what basic desires make our lives meaningful.

    I don't want to sound critical, but I must question the validity of a marketing approach to human desires, if only because so many people initially told us that this is what they thought we were trying to do. Let's take a look at a research study that actually adopted this marketing approach and see why the methods are invalid.

    On April 30, 1999, my local newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, carried an Associated Press story of a survey of desires conducted by a group of medical researchers at Columbia University. In a poll funded by the prestigious National Institutes of Health, the Columbia University researchers asked 500 adults about the importance of various aspects of life. The researchers found that 99 percent considered it very important to have loving family relationships, 98 percent considered that financial security was very important, and 82 percent thought that sex was very important. Ninety-four percent, about equally divided between men and women, agreed with the statement: "Enjoyable sexual relations add to a person's quality of life."

    The story was reported under the headline, "Good Sex Beats Good Job, but Family Ranks First." Having asked thousands of people about their desires for sex and family, I do not believe for a moment that the headline is a valid description of the relative importance of these desires. If family were a stronger desire than sex, few societies would need to adopt social policies to punish parents who have abandoned their responsibilities to their children. Furthermore, statistics on teenage pregnancy suggest that some men are much more motivated to have sex than they are to raise the child who is born as a consequence. History teaches that infanticide was common during ancient times—and still may exist in some primitive societies today—and social researchers say that child abuse remains far too common. People beat children, burn them, and kill them. Given these facts, I do not see how anybody could suggest that family is the greatest desire and is preferred by 99 percent of the population.

    How did this poll produce such flawed findings? It is because the results depend entirely on how the questions were worded. Although virtually everybody endorses the statement, "sex is important" only a minority of people endorse the statement, "sex is the most important goal in my life" and hardly anybody endorses the statement "I would rather die than live without sex." Although nearly everybody agrees that "family is important," fewer people agree that "my children are the most important people in my life" and even fewer would say, "my greatest goal is to raise children." Depending on how the questions are worded, the results of a poll could show that family is more important than sex, or that sex is more important than family, or that both are important to 99 percent of the population, or that the majority of people do not think that either is important.

    The research methods that Susan and I used to study basic desires were very different from those used in a consumer poll. We began by developing a comprehensive list of all the important goals we could think of. Over a period of about three months, we asked friends and colleagues to help us develop the list. We included only those goals that people might intrinsically value and that we considered psychologically significant. We placed more than 400 goals on our initial list—far too many to be of practical use in analyzing human behavior. We pared the list down to 328 goals by eliminating apparent redundancies and psychologically insignificant goals that account for a relatively small amount of our behavior. We cut out many basic biological needs, such as drinking water, because they are not relevant for understanding who we are. People spend relatively little time drinking water, and the behavior of drinking water is very similar from one person to the next. Our culture says very little if anything about drinking water. Although drinking water is important in biology and essential for life, it is not important in psychology. In contrast, eating is an important topic in psychology. People spend a great deal of time preparing and consuming food, many cultures and religions have dietary rules, and many people have eating disorders. Since our eating habits are important to who we are, but our habits of drinking water are not, we kept on our list the desire to eat but we eliminated the desire to drink water.

    We then asked a group of 401 adolescents and adults from diverse stations in life to rate how much they like or dislike each of the remaining 328 items. The participants were sampled from six sources (three universities, a high school, a seminar for persons in community agencies serving people with mental retardation, and a church group) in Ohio and in Pennsylvania. About one-third of the participants were male, and three-fourths were under the age of 55. A total of about 10 percent were African-American, Asian-American, or Hispanic. The participants did not represent a random sample of a population of interest because that is rarely required for the kind of research that we did; generally, it is sufficient to work with a group of at least 300 people of diverse backgrounds, ages, and ethnic groups. The results of the research have been reproduced three times with different samples from various parts of the United States and Canada.

    After the data we received from questioning the 401 participants were entered in a computer, we used a mathematical technique called factor analysis to search for the root meanings of people's responses to our questionnaires. We instructed the computer to reduce the 328 goals to l0 categories based on root meanings. The computer evaluated thousands of possible ways to do this and then selected the 10 categories that embraced the largest number of goals. We then started all over again, this time instructing the computer to create 11 categories of desires based on root meanings. Again, thousands of possible root meanings and combinations were evaluated and compared until the 11 categories that embraced the largest number of goals were found. The process was repeated for up to 20 categories of desires. We then studied each result to determine which one offered the most powerful categories of basic desires based on root meanings. Eventually, our results showed that 15 or 16 categories summarized the 328 goals with an unusual degree of accuracy and comprehensiveness. Adding another category gave us only slightly greater accuracy, which was not worth the added complexity of a seventeenth category. Using only 14 categories left out several important basic desires. The results were clear: about 16 categories was the best description of basic motivation.

    Once we had identified the 16 basic categories of human motivation, we conducted research designed to measure these categories in the most efficient and accurate manner. This work used literally thousands of additional research volunteers from many walks of life, and resulted in the Reiss Profile of Fundamental Goals and Motivational Sensitivities, a 128-item questionnaire, or psychological test, that takes about 15 minutes to complete and can reveal a person's hierarchy of desires and motives. This test enables us to study motivation comprehensively (we can profile 16 categories of goals), objectively (our questionnaire not only meets but exceeds conventional requirements for a standardized test), and scientifically (our conclusions lead to numerous predictions so that people can accept or reject our ideas based on what they themselves can observe). The Reiss Profile is a reliable tool that can help us understand relationships, choose jobs, figure out why our kids do what they do, and analyze personality problems.

    The Reiss Profile can help you identify your most important basic desires. Professional ethics restrict the use of the test to professionals who have expertise in how to score and interpret it. However, I have developed for this book a series of general questions that will help you find those basic desires that are most and least important in driving your behavior. These questions are presented in Chapters 2, 3, and 4, and are summarized in the Appendix. If you wish to take the test itself, you may do so through a licensed psychologist, school counselor, vocational counselor, or marriage counselor.

    People who are skeptical about the validity of psychological tests have asked Susan and me how we know that the research participants answered our questionnaire truthfully. We completed the studies twice—first by asking people to rate themselves, and a second time by asking observers to rate them. We received similar results from both the self-report and observer methods. Further, we administered psychological tests of faking to our subjects. The results showed only trivial levels of faking, indicating that the subjects did not become defensive when we asked them about their desires. Based on these considerations, we can be confident that people responded accurately to our questionnaires.

    Along similar lines, we are often asked if the answers people give on the Reiss Profile have any significance beyond the test itself. "Maybe people are just saying things that have no relationship to how they actually behave," some people say. This is a valid point. All psychological tests need to be studied carefully to determine the degree of correspondence between the answers provided on the test and the actual behavior of the people in the "real world."

    Susan and I, and others, have been looking carefully into this issue of the predictive value of test scores. Generally, our results are showing a good degree of predictability. How a person scores on the Reiss Profile can predict such important behaviors as a person's college major, membership in a club or interest group, and scores on various other psychological tests known to be valid measures of personality or anxiety. Later in this book I present evidence that Reiss Profile scores can predict how religious or athletic a person is, perhaps imperfectly, but at a statistically significant, above-chance level. The scores also vary systematically with the presence of certain genetically determined clinical disorders. Based on this evidence, it is unlikely that a person's scores on the Reiss Profile are unrelated to that person's behavior. Research evidence shows that this is not true of large numbers of test-takers.

    In this book, I use the term basic desires to refer to the 16 categories of goals that were the result of our research. By definition, a basic desire is a category of more narrowly defined goals and motives that have a common theme. Further, each basic desire is largely unrelated to all other basic desires.


When I discuss basic desires in this book, I am always referring to end goals. The idea of an end goal dates back to Aristotle (384 B.C.—322 B.C.), who divided human motives into means and ends. Means are things done because they produce something else, whereas ends are what we intrinsically value (desire for its own sake). For example, when a person swims for the fun of it, swimming is an end. When a swimmer competes in a meet, however, swimming is an intermediate step toward the end goal of winning the competition. In order to understand why people swim for the fun of it, we need to study the basic desire for physical exercise. In order to understand why people want to win swim meets, however, we need to study the motive of competition (which falls under the basic desire for vengeance.)

    Aristotle noted that means are intermediate steps toward accomplishing a goal, whereas ends are the last step, or the ultimate goal. Although the number of means in life is limited only by our imagination, the number of potential ends is determined by genetics. The questions Susan and I asked ourselves, therefore, are how many ends guide our behavior and what they are.

    There is more to the idea of an end goal than meets the eye. End goals are just that, namely, the end of an explanation of human behavior, and this point is often misunderstood. For example, I had a discussion with a colleague concerning my idea that vengeance is an end goal. I was talking about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two students who opened fire on their classmates and teachers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

    "The students' behavior can be explained as vengeance," I asserted.

    "They obviously wanted vengeance" declared the colleague. "A four-year-old could figure that out. There must have also been more at work than that—maybe they were brutally attacked as children and were trying to get even with the attacker. Maybe their parents made them feel unimportant and powerless, and they were trying to prove their worth or get attention."

    "Simplicity is a virtue in explaining behavior," I protested. "When I say that vengeance is an end goal, I mean it has intrinsic value. Although we hate to admit it, getting even is fun for many people and a need for many others. In the warped minds of the attackers, they were having 'fun.'"

    "But people are interested in the non-obvious, in what is hidden below the surface," the colleague persisted. "Everybody knows that the students killed out of vengeance."

    "But everybody does not realize that there might be no deeper explanation. The desire to get even is a basic human need. It may have been stronger in these two students than in most people. These people were born to hate."

    There is no obvious way to predict such behavior before it happens, but the system of 16 basic desires predicts certain behaviors better than any other tool I know. If you want to predict who will become a hater, look at who strongly values vengeance. People who say they strongly value vengeance as its own reward—for no other purpose—are your current or future haters. Of course, knowing that somebody is born to hate does not mean that the person will become a killer, but I suspect it is an important first step in that direction.


One of the first questions that occurs to many people when they look at the list of 16 basic desires is, "Why didn't you include the desire for survival? Or the desire for money? Or the desire for shelter?" Many people think, "I have a real need for the presence of God in my life. Isn't religion a basic desire?" These are certainly valid questions.

    Our research on basic desires was aimed at finding the fundamental psychological elements of meaningful experiences. We sought a list of desires that would allow us to take a totality—for example, a romantic relationship or satisfaction with a job—and analyze it into its psychologically meaningful components. In a sense, we are looking for the building blocks of psychological meaning.

    Although the desire to know God is a profoundly meaningful experience, it cannot be reduced to one part of a totality. Rather, the desire to know God is the totality itself. In this book, I treat spirituality as a totality and show how it is connected to all 16 basic desires.

    Spirituality is such a deeply personal feeling that some readers might agree with my position while others might disagree. Whatever your initial reaction, I hope you hold off coming to a firm conclusion until you have read Chapter 12.

    What about the will to survive? It does not meet the criteria for a basic desire for the following reasons: First, it is not unrelated to the other basic desires. Eating and the will to survive, for example, are not unrelated. When a person no longer cares if he or she lives, the person may not care about eating. Second, little meaningful behavior can be explained in terms of the will to live, and by definition, a motive must have significant explanatory value to be considered a basic desire. Look at the topics that comprise what we call psychology—relationships, family, human growth, mental illness, and so on. The will to live is not highly relevant to these topics. Biologists talk much more about the will to live than do psychologists. If you want to understand meaningful human behavior—and to keep the list of basic desires to a workable minimum—the will to live lacks the generality of explanatory significance needed to make the list.

    Since the need for shelter, which helps us maintain a constant body temperature, has little significance in explaining human behavior, it was not included in our initial list of 328 goals, and it is not considered a basic desire. Shelter doesn't motivate much behavior; for example, it is not relevant to interpersonal communication, romantic relationships, parent-child relationships, career counseling, spirituality, or mental illness. Again, the desire for shelter is more relevant to biology than it is to psychology.

    What about the yearning for wealth, or for freedom? As we shall see, these motives are included in the 16 basic desires. The desire to be wealthy for the sake of being rich falls under the desire for status, and the desire for freedom falls under the desire for independence.

    Keep in mind that the system of 16 basic desires is a scientific theory. In the final analysis, what matters is the factual validity of the theory and how accurately the 16 desires can be used to predict behavior.

    Some readers may enjoy trying to think of a seventeenth desire that Susan and I overlooked. For readers who are interested in this challenge, here are the ground rules. You need to look at these criteria:

1. The desire you are thinking of must be valued intrinsically rather than for its effects on something else. That is, it must be sought for its own sake.

2. The desire must have explanatory significance for understanding the lives of nearly everyone.

3. The desire must be largely unconnected to the 16 basic desires already on the list.

    Only if all three of these criteria are met can we consider the possibility of a seventeenth basic desire. And if all three ground rules are met, we must still determine if a system of 17 basic desires can predict meaningful behavior significantly more accurately than can the present system of 16 basic desires. Although not impossible, it is a formidable challenge to be able to find a desire that should be added to our list.