The Echoes of the Mind – Desire


“We are awash in desire at virtually every waking moment.” ~ American philosopher William Irvine

The body needs sustenance, exercise, and sleep. The mind paradoxically craves stimulation and a sense of security. The mind-body wants comfort. These are basic biological needs and desires. Everything else that anyone wants is a product of social interaction.

“Desire is merely the fixation of the mind on an idea.” ~ Nisargadatta Maharaj

Biological needs do not necessarily take precedence over desires entirely fabricated by the mind or fostered by culture. Social demands can be just as compelling as biological ones.

“Social processes construct subjectivities not just as categories, but at the level of individual desires.” ~ Jeffrey Weeks

Achievement is a powerful motivator for many people. It first appears around the age of 3 1/2 years, as sense of self begins to jell. A yearning for achievement is inculcated culturally.

Desire and emotion are inexorably entangled. Desire’s impetus and its aftermath are a matter of affect.

“All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.” ~ American author James Thurber

Pleasure and pain are the imagined stars by which we navigate through the dark shoals of uncertainty to the future. As such, desire has 2 vectors: attraction and avoidance. Both are propelled by anticipation.

“Desire is the memory of pleasure and fear is the memory of pain. Both make the mind restless.” ~ Nisargadatta Maharaj

The allures that draw us in promise satisfaction, however momentary. Much human effort is expended for seconds of pleasure.

“It is hard to fight against impulsive desire; whatever it wants, it will buy at the cost of the soul.” ~ Turkish Greek philosopher Heraclitus

In contrast to attraction, avoidance is homeostatic: we desire relief from the prospect of pain or unpleasantness. Avoidance is the desire of remedy from the expected.

As people are generally loss-averse, avoidance is generally a more powerful motivator than attraction, but folks differ in how much fear they hold dear. A sense of inner security lessens risk aversion.

“The effect of incentives is dependent upon personal values.” ~ American psychologist James Shah et al

Overarching fear also determines how a person feels about accomplishment. People with a promotion locus are happier when rewarded than those who are not so achievement oriented. Conversely, those focused on prevention are more anxious when threatened than those who are not fearful. Despite individual differences, as a task becomes more difficult, incentive reverts to baseline biology: loss avoidance or fear of punishment trumps reward.

Modern psychology’s focus on behaviors supplanted the term desire with motivation: something that causes a person to act in a certain way. It is a needless empirical emphasis. Desire is the wellspring of motivation, which prompts goal-seeking behavior.

“A goal can play an essential role in the psychological situation without being clearly present in consciousness.” ~ Kurt Lewin

Empirical focus misses essential aspects of understanding psychology. Behaviors and the motivations associated with them are often loosely, even obscurely, related.

Desires are products of the mind and fulfilled in the mind. Any associated intermediate activity is merely instrumental, as evaluation of sufficiency in achieving desire is entirely mental. Some desires are dealt with without moving a muscle.

“Little is needed to make a wise man happy, but nothing can content a fool. That is why nearly all men are miserable.” ~ François de La Rochefoucauld

Desires can be an entangled nest, with inherent conflicts. People are only sometimes aware of these conflicts, or even conscious of all the motivations that propel them.

“Any segment of behavior can be consciously identified in many different ways.” ~ American psychologists Robin Vallacher & Daniel Wegner

How easy something is to do has much to do with how conscious we are of what precisely it is we think we are doing. When actions are easy, people are only generally aware of what is going on. When the going gets tough, awareness of specific motivations rises.

“People tend to gravitate toward a level of identification that is warranted by the action’s difficulty.” ~ Robin Vallacher & Daniel Wegner

For instance, awareness of the goal of screwing in a light bulb becomes more exacting when the threads do not instantly align. This illustrates the boundary between conscious and subconsciously driven behavior.

The context in which an action is performed also influences the level of awareness of what is going on. In a social situation, glib conversation takes a more reflective turn when some feedback cue indicates that one’s chat is not being well-received.

The immediate precursor to a behavior is a mental representation of the moment. But the mental representations that guide action vary in conscious awareness and affect the level of attention and control paid to an action. If a person does not seem to know what s/he is doing, it is because the observer is identifying the action at a level that is inapt – in a word: clueless.

An intrinsic motivation is one where actions taken are themselves rewarding, as the motivating desire comes from within. An extrinsic motivation provokes behaviors in hopes of reward.

“It is of the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most men live only for the gratification of it.” ~ Aristotle

Desire is catching. People are motivated toward what others want. This contagion is termed mimetic desire.

“The motive that lies at the root of ownership is emulation.” ~ American sociologist Thorstein Veblen


Coolness stems from appropriate autonomy. ~ American marketing academics Caleb Warren & Margaret Campbell

Subjective affinity to a somewhat unusual object casts it as cool. Coolness then needs confirmation among one’s social clique or the commodity quickly sheds its appeal. Fashion exemplifies the coursing of cool through culture.

An item becomes cool by adhering to convention in essentials but making a departure from the norm in distinct but incidental ways that are positively perceived.

“Consumers use cool brands as a means for pursuing symbolic goals, such as signaling a desired identity trait.” ~ Caleb Warren & Margaret Campbell

The irony of cool is that an item acquires its cool by a consumer seeking autonomy, yet it requires affirmation by an audience.

“Bounded autonomy is cooler than extreme autonomy.” ~ Caleb Warren & Margaret Campbell

Mental Control

Sense of certitude about the world shapes one’s mental world. Uncertainty rattles the mind, generating unease.

Desire fulfillment feels most assured when one feels in control. The practical aim in understanding is to create predictability, by which we may intercede in events to reap from opportunity – or, more brazenly, to craft events to create opportunity.

Without control we are mere pawns of fate. Feeling in control we willingly take risks, feeling that the odds are in our favor.

Lack of control is sometimes compensated for by illusory pattern recognition: seeing meaningful patterns where none exist. Such sense of false comprehension yields some certitude where none should exist.

“Certainty of risk is easier to bear than uncertainty.” ~ Robert Trivers

Illusion of Control

Uncertainty can be so debilitating that the mind may cover it with self-deception by creating an illusion of control: believing that one has more control to effect an outcome than exists. American psychologist Ellen Langer labeled the illusion in 1975.

4 factors facilitate an illusion of control: 1) that one may act to produce the outcome (as opposed to others acting), 2): the desired outcome is known, 3) the situation is familiar, and 4) belief in the probability of a successful outcome.

Optimism is essential to the illusion of control. Depressed or pessimistic people tend to be more realistic than optimists, and so less likely to fall prey to an illusion of control.

“Illusions of control are common even in purely chance situations. They are particularly likely to occur in settings that are characterized by personal involvement, familiarity, foreknowledge of the desired outcome, and a focus on success.” ~ American psychologist Suzanne Thompson

Gambling would lose much of its appeal without a lingering illusion of control. For instance, people think they have more control when they throw the dice themselves than when someone else tosses them. The illusion of control plays a part in more highly valuing a selected lottery ticket than one which is handed out.

“Optimistic self-appraisals of capability that are not unduly disparate from what is possible can be advantageous, whereas veridical judgements can be self-limiting.” ~ Canadian American psychologist Albert Bandura

“An illusion of control can provide motivation for persistence at a task that might otherwise be abandoned. The flip side to this is commitment to a course of action doomed to fail. Much entrepreneurial effort has been powered by the illusion of control.


The object of power is power.” ~ English novelist George Orwell

Realizing desires in the social realm sometimes requires control over others. The means of obtaining social control is power.

The assertiveness of humans is axiomatic. Conspecific conflict is so common as to be unremarkable. It then seems natural to seek influence over others to stem conflict and obtain social harmony. Though such diplomatic beneficence does exist (especially among women), that idyllic scenario has nothing to do with the reality of people seeking power.

The prowl for prestige is a duffer’s game of power. There are a lot of duffers out there propping up luxury goods markets.

The search for power is one of authority, of dominance over others. It is social climbing in the extreme.

A sense of power is intoxicating to those who crave it.

“In order to obtain and hold power, a man must love it.” ~ Russian writer Leo Tolstoy

For power-seekers, “friendships” are understood in terms of opportunities to advance one’s own agenda of control and dominance. Relationships are apprehended in power terms. Self and others are understood as indelibly separate.

Those who knowingly befriend power-seekers know what they are there for. Toadies take advantage of opportunities for self-display and self-aggrandizement within the bounds of the relationship.

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“High- and low-power individuals inhabit and, through their own actions, create strikingly different worlds.” ~ American social psychologist Dacher Keltner

Sense of self-empowerment vastly influences attitudes, attentions, and behaviors. People who feel powerless are self-inhibited. They are sensitive to others, and to the prospect of punishment.

As individuals feel more powerful, they become more receptive to rewards, have less affinity for details, and tend to lose empathy. Those imbued with a sense of power typically overestimate their abilities, take greater risks, think stereotypically, and ignore outside viewpoints.

“Power corrupts our mental processes almost at once. When a feeling of power is induced in people, they are less likely to take others’ viewpoint and more likely to center their thinking on themselves. The result is a reduced ability to comprehend how others see, think, and feel. Power, among other things, induces blindness toward others.” ~ Robert Trivers

People with a sense of self-entitlement are more apt to alter the environment they are in, or at least try to.

“Power allows people to act freely.” ~ American social psychologist Susan Fiske

While feeling freed from others’ opinions may help big-picture thinking and facilitate bold decisions, achieving authority has an overall negative effect on how a person thinks and acts in a social context.

Construal level theory ascribes a relation between psychospace and the extent to which an individual’s thinking about things is concrete or abstract. Psychospace is the subjective experience of space and time. Objects and events seem closer or farther depending upon one’s mental level of personal involvement with them (physical and temporal distance aside). People tend to think concretely about things perceived as close but increasingly abstractly about things at a psychological distance. (Climate change worries few people because it is not a personal problem, and most folk figure that it does not directly affect them. Such lack of concern illustrates how inherently dysfunctional democracy is for solving societal problems, as contrasted to issues affecting personal welfare or fear (e.g., defense spending).)

Those in power tend to think more abstractly about those around them (physically proximate). When leaders see their subordinates as distant, abstract objects, it renders them less likely to consider subordinate perspectives or care about their desires. Studies repeatedly show that those in power tend to be more selfish and less moral.

“The less limited one feels, the more intolerable all limitation appears.” ~ Émile Durkheim

Testosterone has a strong effect. Men with high testosterone levels are particularly prone to act out the antisocial behaviors associated with power.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” ~ English historian John Dalberg Acton

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The urge for power is driven by insecurity. Its overt manifestations carry more than a whiff of psychopathy in their wake.

“Power lacks moral or principles. It only has interests.” ~ Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya


Streams of desires drive each life unto its expiration. Beyond natural needs, desire defines a person.

“Desire shapes destiny.” ~ Nisargadatta Maharaj