It’s easy to fall prey to the belief that we want the things, goals, activities, people that we want because it defines us, because we free-willingly come up with these ideas, or destiny brings us to desire these. Whatever explanations people can come up with, there are a few points that can explain all our desires.
1. What’s prevalent in your environment is prevalent in your mind
In a way we are pattern recognition machines. Wherever we are whoever we are (as long as we are living matter), we learn to predict what will happen next, and what will we need to do to ensure survival, how do we need to adapt to ensure that the potential future events will not kill us: do we need to alter the environment, change ourselves or do we need to leave to a new environment.
Naturally, if life decides what to do or how to behave regarding the predicted changes of the environment – and that is the way to ensure survival – processing the information about your current environment occurs, and it never ends. You’re always processing information about where you are, whether you’re aware of it or not.
That also explains Kahneman’s famous WYSATI – what you see is all there is – what’s prevalent out there, is prevalent in here. As is shown by research in marketing, and what Cialdini writes about in his Pre-suasion, we don’t need to be aware of those stimuli in our environment – subconscious processing is even better to alter what we’d buy. If it alters what we’d buy, it would also alter where our thoughts are moving. If the mood of the music you listen to or the type of food you ate for breakfast can alter your mood for the rest of the day, why wouldn’t the messages you keep hearing alter how or what you think about?
Let’s add another point to the equasion.
2. We want stuff we see other people want
When shown kids how an adult wanted to reach an object (a toy probably), kids would later reach and try to grab it too. If the adult only touched the object with the back of the hand, they didn’t try to grab it later (1). That gives plenty of evidence to conclude that we want the things we see or have seen others want. Just like when I was a kid and saw my sister go to the swing, I’d jump in and whine “I wanted to swing!” Although a second before I’d registered her intent, I had no clue what I wanted to do. I only thought post-hoc that this was my plan all along. Yeah right.
The point here is not about what we see people get, but about that they want it. Like in the study, it mattered whether they tried to reach, but failed, or tried to reach and grabbed, or tried to reach, only to touch. The third condition kids didn’t care about the toy when they were left alone with it. That means, what mattered was the perceived goal – in this case, to grab, to have the toy. Similarly, I felt that I wanted to swing too when I saw her want or intend to go swing if I saw her running there. I’d probably not wanted to do that if she’d run the same direction to climb a tree instead. What is desired is seen more desirable. That also might explain why fours and fives appear as sevens when they are with a date – someone wants them.
3. We imitate mostly goals, rarely activity patterns
When kids were shown an adult turn a lamp on with head – in one condition having hands full, in another condition with no apparent reason – a week later most kids(69%) who saw the adult turn on the lamp with no reason with their head also turned it on with their head, but of those who saw them have a reason for using a head, only 21% also used a head – the majority turned the lamp on with their hands, like normal people. Similarly, when kids are shown an adult use a tool that is not suitable for doing a task, yet the suitable tool is available, when left alone, these kids use the suitable tool for the task, even though they didn’t see the adult choose that tool before. Similarly, kids only imitated a random jumping of a toy mouse if there was no goal, the mouse was just shown to pass over a carpet – but when the mouse’s jumping had “a purpose” – it was shown to jumpy-jumpy to its house, then the kids didn’t bother to imitate the jumpy-jumpy and just put the mouse in the house – its “purpose” was to “go home”(2).
Similarly to the previous point, what matters is what we perceive as the goal that other people around us have, not what the real goal is. Maybe they don’t have a goal at all and are mumbling in the dark, imitating activities like so many step-by-step how-to-get-rich guides write about. If we perceive someone to be running a media business, because they want to get rich, the goal we’d imitate would be to get rich. If we’d perceive them to do it to get power, we’d imitate having the goal of being powerful. If they’d do it to do something they love, we’d imitate the goal of doing something we love. If they’d do it to solve a problem in the world, we’d imitate the goal of solving a problem. Funnily enough, if they themselves say why they do what they do, we generally believe. Just like when a person you’ve just met tells us they are careless, we tend to build an image of them as careless, even though it was not our own judgement. So if they communicate their goals, we take the communicated goal as granted and set ours according to that – no extra work on perception needed. And so when we imitate the goal, we choose the way how to get to the goal by ourselves. Unless, again, the imitation becomes the goal.
When we put the three points together, we understand that we don’t just randomly imitate every goal we see someone have. We don’t just randomly want all the things we see other people want. We want the goals that we perceive most of the people we are aware of, want. If people who are relevant to us and are so in our environment by being in our thoughts, or people who we hear a lot about, or people we see often, mostly want to achieve certain things, we will at some point desire acieving similar goals.
So if the startup world keeps saying they desire solving problems and deny they’re in this for the bucks they hope to get with an exit, so more people will do it for the problem-solving, and less for the hopes of getting rich. I think it’s truly a good thing. Yeah, that kind of lying is the best kind of lying you can do on such a large scale, just because of the message it gives people about your goals.
And a bonus point:
4. Your brain
And of course, let’s not forget the brain’s functioning. If your brain has learned that this sugar or that drug gives you a nice dopamine rush, then if you think you live spontaneously and listen to your body and do what you desire, you will indulge in those death traps that fuck you up. You will not stop smoking, drugs, drinking, losing weight. Your brain plays tricks on you. The urges you feel are likely not your free will, but your brain desiring some action in the nucleus accumbens*. Have an orgasm instead, maybe it eases the urge because of the dopamine rush.
So what we want is not ingrained to our DNA (apart from how dopamin-sensitive your brain is), nor it ist defined by who we think we are, but rather where we are, who are we surrounded with, what are the prevalent messages in our environment. We want the things that we think we see people around us want. That also means, the more varied our social field, the more we differ, the more unique thoughts and dreams we are able to have. And you truly are the average of your 5 closest friends because of all the brainwash they unwillingly cause.
That means, the question to ask yourself is not What do you want? – but rather: What do you want to want? – So you choose the environment which would shape you the way you’d want to be shaped.
*Nuccleus accumbens is where dopamine producing neurons reside. In the brain.
A deliberately incorrect referencing due to summer laziness:
(1) Toomela writes about that in Minu ise areng: inimlapsest inimeseks, pg 298-299. Studies by Hamlin, Hallinan& Woodward, 2008; Thoermer, Woodward, Sodian, Perst&Kristen, 2013 (wanting to grab vs just touching) – i was too lazy to look up the original stuff. Sorry not sorry, considering that this book inspired this post.
(2) Also from Toomela’s book, pg 326-329. Studies by Gergely, Bekkering&Kiraly, 2002 (the head-lamp study) and DiYanni&Kelemen, 2008 (the wrong tool study), Carpenter, Call&Tomasello, 2005 (mouse jumpy-jumpy study).