15 June 1998

Can There Really Be More To Life Than Sex?

All human behaviour is guided by just fifteen fundamental desires and values, according to a controversial new study by researchers at Ohio State University. It may not be the first time people have sought to codify behaviour into a single list (cue the Ten Commandments or Seven Deadly Sins), but never before have list-makers claimed absolute scientific validity for their work. Nor have psychologists exploring the motivational factors behind behaviour considered such a wide spectrum of intrinsic desires. For Freud there was just the one - sex. For the psychologists at Ohio, sex jostles alongside such motivators as curiosity, vengeance and honour.

"Nearly everything important a human being wants can be reduced to one or more of these fifteen core desires, most of which have a genetic basis," says professor of psychology and psychiatry Steven Reiss, co-author of the study. "These desires are what guide our actions. In a sense, we are studying the meaning of life."

The findings, published in the June issue of Psychological Assessment, are based on surveys with more than 2500 people. Subjects were asked to respond to around 300 specially designed statements, such as "I would rather lose my life than lose my honour" or "I must avoid pain". A mathematical technique known as factor analysis was then used to group the responses into fifteen fundamental desires and values (see below).

Of the fifteen, only the desires for citizenship, independence and fear of rejection have no genetic component, says Reiss. "Most of these desires are similar to those seen in animals, and seem to have some survival value. This indicates they are genetic in origin."

The researchers have also gone a step further and developed a new test, the Reiss Profiles, designed to evaluate individual differences. Subsequent testing has revealed that people respond to various desires and values in radically different ways.

Take sex. "Sex may be pleasurable to everyone, but it isn't equally motivational," says Reiss. 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."

The Fifteen Fundamental Human Desires and Values are:

It killed the cat, but humans can't help themselves. The desire to learn is just irresistible.

The desire to eat almost goes without saying.

The desire to behave in accordance with given codes of conduct holds society together. English soccer yobs must be missing this one.

Fear of social rejection regulates our behaviour. Schizophrenics score low on this one, according to Reiss.

Freud would have put this one at the top of the list. Explains why Viagra is a best-selling drug.

Fat Les may not know it, but the desire for physical activity is intrinsic.

Not just Virgos desire a certain degree of organization in daily life.

The desire to make our own decisions.

Having just decriminalized duelling, Italians will understand the desire to retaliate when offended.

The desire to be in the company of others, even if it means milling aimlessly round the shopping mall.

The desire to spend time with your own family may not apply to busy executives.

The desire for perceived status and positive attention.

Aversion to pain and anxiety (and other people's used handkerchiefs).

Desire for public service and social justice. Has little to do with passports.

The desire to influence people. Exaggerated in dictators.