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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A new study by researchers at Ohio State University has concluded that people have 15 fundamental desires and values that guide their behavior.

These desires include basic needs, such as food, as well as social desires such as prestige, social contact and honor (see chart at bottom).

“Nearly everything important a human being wants can be reduced to one or more of these 15 core desires, most of which have a genetic basis,” said Steven Reiss, co-author of the study and a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ohio State University.

“These desires are what guide our actions. In a sense, we are studying the meaning of life.”

Results of this research were published in the June 1998 issue of the journal Psychological Assessment.

Reiss said this is the first time researchers have ever conducted a scientifically valid survey of intrinsic desires. Other research has started with the assumption that humans have only one fundamental desire or value in life.

“Psychologists in the past have come up with theories that make one desire more important for people than any other,” he said. “For example, Freud thought that sex was the primary goal for everyone.”

“But our results show that when it comes to values and desires, one size does not fit all. There does not seem to be any fixed hierarchy of values true of all people.”

Reiss and Susan Havercamp, a graduate student in psychology, developed the list of 15 fundamental desires by first generating a list of more than 300 statements that refer to specific desires or values people might have. People 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 and values.

At least 12 of the 15 fundamental desires seem to have a genetic basis, Reiss said. Only the desires for citizenship, independence and fear of rejection 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.”

Based on this work, the researchers have developed a new test, called the Reiss Profiles, that can measure individual differences in these 15 desires and goals. “This is the first psychological test designed to profile what it is that a person intrinsically desires,” Reiss said. Testing has confirmed that people show a wide variety of responses to the various desires, Reiss said.

One example is the desire for sex. “Sex may be pleasurable to everyone, but it isn’t equally motivational. Some people orient their whole lives around sex, while some people put very little effort or energy into pursuing it. It’s the same for every desire: Some people are pursuing achievement and some people are not. Some people put a great deal of importance on family, and others don’t,” Reiss said.

“Understanding how important these fundamental desires are to individuals can explain a lot about how people act.”

The Reiss Profiles has a wide variety of potential uses, including the possible early prediction of mental illness. People with mental illnesses often have extreme or unusual desires or values that the test may be able to detect early on, Reiss said. Schizophrenics, for instance, often have little concern about what others think of them and may score low on desires such as the fear of social rejection or the desire for social contact.

“By evaluating extreme or unusual desires in children, we may be able to provide help before mental illness occurs in full force during adulthood,” Reiss said.

Reiss is continuing this research by studying how different groups, such as the mentally ill and substance abusers, score differently than others on the profiles. He is conducting the work with researchers from Dartmouth, Harvard, Dalhousie University and Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. This research was funded by the Nisonger Center at Ohio State.


15 Fundamental Human Desires and Values

Curiosity desire to learn
Food desire to eat
Honor (morality) desire to behave in accordance with code of conduct
Rejection fear of social rejection
Sex desire for sexual behavior and fantasies
Physical exercise desire for physical activity
Order desired amount of organization in daily life
Independence desire to make own decisions
Vengeance desire to retaliate when offended
Social Contact desire to be in the company of others
Family desire to spend time with own family
Social Prestige desire for prestige and positive attention
Aversive Sensations aversion to pain and anxiety
Citizenship desire for public service and social justice
Power desire to influence people


Contact: Steven Reiss, (614) 292-2390; Reiss.7@osu.edu
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu