If You Know What People Want, You Know What People Will Donotable Nobel Prize speech in:
Like other social theorists of his time, Russell had a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature. What set humans apart from animals is that their desires were theoretically infinite. So while an animal has an appetite for food, it disappears when they’ve eaten. People, on the other hand, generate for themselves no end of desires of all kinds, and they’re frequently desires which by their nature can’t be fulfilled.
He saw man as a creature constructed from desire, and it follows that if you can read the shapes this desire takes in any person, you can understand their motivations at a very deep level. Russell outlined what he saw as four main “political desires,” which are, in ascending order of influence:
• Acquisitiveness (the desire to own material wealth)
• Rivalry (the desire to see others do worse than you)
• Vanity (equivalent to pride and ego)
• Love of power (the desire to control and rule over)
Not very flattering, huh? While most of us would argue that there are other more noble desires that motivate people (love, honor, duty—Russell would call these virtues) the idea is that the above four desires are primary. One need only look at the world to confirm that they do, sadly, dominate.
For Russell and the scholars who study his work, selfishness is not necessarily destructive or a problem, and people can in fact cause damage by acting in a way they feel is idealistic. In Russell’s view, people who claim to be driven by charity or principle or beauty or altruism are, when you look below the surface, actually driven by more selfish desires of vanity or the desire to control and possess.
At the time of Russell’s speech, the world was in the grip of fear of “mutually assured destruction” and deep pessimism about mankind’s course. But he would likely have felt that his philosophy was not pessimistic but rather honest—he believed that civilization would benefit from people honestly understanding and following their own selfish desires: “If men desired their own happiness as ardently as they desired the misery of their neighbors . . . the whole human race would cooperate.”
Whether you agree one hundred percent with Russell or not, his broad categories of human desire can be useful if you wish to tap into the rawest, most base desires of the people around you. It’s a little like stripping away the surface level justifications and narratives and looking plainly at the primary emotions behind people’s behavior. Let’s consider each in turn.
First, acquisitiveness, or plain old greed. This is a desire that arguably comes from the primary emotion of fear, specifically fear of scarcity. In a behavior like hoarding, it’s easy to see this desire in action. A fear of lack and scarcity prompts actions that gather up and accumulate. But as with all the desires Russell identified, this one is theoretically infinite—there can never really be enough hoarded or accumulated.
Though reading and understanding people on a personal level was never Russell’s aim, we can certainly use his insights to guide our own study of others. If we know what motivates people, we know how their world is structured, what their values are, how they are likely to behave, and how best to communicate with them. If desire is an engine at the center of life powering behavior and mindset, then understanding those desires gives us a basic grasp on what makes people tick, at the core.
If someone is primarily motivated by acquisitiveness, what can you infer about them? How can you tell that they are motivated this way in the first place?
Recognizing that people are materialistic and that the appetite for wealth and “keeping up with the Joneses” is an endless rat race is certainly not a new idea. Separate from the desire to boast about status/wealth, acquisitiveness is really about the objects themselves. Russell saw the grasping for material objects and money as the weakest of the desires. You may notice that people place a lot of importance and significance in the items they own, seemingly for their own sake. This may manifest as overeating, hoarding, “collecting,” or mindless shopping.
This desire can be overt, too: the person who claims to be a bookworm may play up their intellectual side, but if you pay close attention, you may notice that it’s owning piles of physical books that brings them joy. During the heat of the Covid pandemic, many people anxiously stockpiled groceries, water, or fuel.
Rivalry is claimed to be a stronger motive. This is captured in the sentiment, “I don’t care if I win, I just want them to lose.” Competitiveness often stems from the conscious or unconscious desire to see our rivals (enemies?) bested—it’s as though their suffering itself is the source of our enjoyment, rather than relishing our own satisfaction. If you doubt that people can be primarily motivated by such an unflattering intention, then simply wander onto any internet forum or social media site and watch how people behave when anonymous. On the surface, the aim seems to be discussion, but really, it’s a flat-out war: each side is trying to dominate, humiliate, mock, or shout down the other side.
If you’ve ever felt quietly smug when you realized an old acquaintance who used to bully you is now struggling in life, or felt a little bit glad that your ex had gotten fat, then you’re guilty of this, too! Revenge doesn’t have to be blatant.
The desire for vanity is even stronger, however. Much ink has been spilled about narcissism and self-obsession in the modern world, but this desire can be summed up simply: it’s the voice inside that says, “Look at me!”
This desire is not just fueled by obvious fame and attention. Criminals who attract disgust and ire from people are still, in their way, making themselves the focus of attention. And those who claim to be ultra-enlightened philanthropists may deep-down be deriving satisfaction not from their activities, but from the sense of themselves being beheld as good, admirable people. Sometimes, the deepest narcissists are those who don the cloak of victimhood.
Finally, the desire that Russell felt ruled them all is, fittingly, the desire to power. This is the desire to exert our will on events and people, to control, to be in charge, to flex our muscles over others or over our circumstances. Some people have power, yes, but they may not be primarily motivated by it, or see it as a means to an end. Others, however, place the love of power as a first motivation and relish the sensation of towering over others, toying with their fate.
It is sadly not hard to find people with this engine at the heart of their being. Think of the archetypal bullying father who styles himself the king and master of his home, intimidating and ordering his wife and children around, enjoying the fact that he can at any time control them or even hurt them. Abusers, bullies, and tyrants of all kinds love power, but then again so do status-conscious go-getters, politicians, social climbers, and meddlers.
This is why rapists are often said not to be motivated by sexual desire—their desire is not sexual in the least, but rather comes from the thrill of being able to make others do what they don’t want to. A person can also be driven by and desire power without having all that much of it: the bureaucrat at the DVLA has the power to say “no” to you for no good reason, and they may well delight in that power. Just like the other three desires, it’s less about seeking one’s own enjoyment, meaning, and purpose and more about interfering with another person’s ability to do so.
As for the ultimate drivers of human behavior, the above seem pretty bleak. Russell did point out, however, that there was some good in these drives. The desire to dominate and control has led many people to master their fears and challenges, becoming better people. In fact, Russell might argue that the entire scientific method and all its associated advances stem from the above desires, particularly the desire to dominate over nature, to do better than one’s fellow man in that mastery, and to be recognized for those efforts (or power, rivalry, and vanity, respectively). Similarly, a philanthropist who is truthfully motivated by vanity nevertheless does some objective good, one way or another.
In the same way that the “primary colors” of the primary emotions can be mixed into many subtler shades, the core desires can express themselves in countless nuanced ways, depending on a person’s innate capacities, their culture, and context. They can be strong or weak influences, hidden or overt, adaptive or maladaptive, promoted by the surrounding culture or discouraged.
In addition to these four motives, Russell also outlined some secondary motives—for example, the love of excitement over boredom. He believed that an ancient impulse for strenuous physical activity manifests in sedentary modern life as boredom and agitation. Perhaps we could understand many people’s actions and beliefs by looking into this motivation. If people are belligerent, restless, or looking for drama, Russell believed it was often because they had thwarted a more basic physiological need for strenuous physical activity and the hard work of survival that our ancestors evolved to master. This theory could provide a fascinating insight into the teenager who seems to be picking fights with everyone, the guy in the office who is constantly vacillating between tantrums and zoning out, and the woman who pushes herself to do extreme sports on the weekend: the love of excitement.
Let’s explore how we can put some of Russell’s ideas into practice in real life.
We can observe people’s expressions and body language in the moment to understand how they are presently feeling. But if we want to see what people value on a more general scale, we need to broaden the scope of our observations. Truthfully, people communicate their priorities, their values, and their preferences all the time, should we care to look.
We can take Russell’s four desires as foundational, but assume that people will express these with infinite variability.
First, look at people’s physical surroundings, including the way they dress.
Acquisitiveness is the most obvious desire to see in action. If you can, observe what people spend their money on. Notice their homes—are they enormous homes filled to the brim with objects? Maybe you notice a friend always has an oversized handbag with millions of things stuffed inside “just in case.” Notice a collection of figurines or porcelain plates—the collection itself isn’t as important as the meaning the person attaches to it. Can you imagine them cradling their possessions, deriving pleasure and meaning from the fact of owning them?
Notice if people routinely serve themselves more food than they ever eat or buy two-for-one deals on items they didn’t even want one of. Notice if a friend turns up to a camping holiday or new sport activity with all the latest brand-new gear.
You might think that someone who sports designer labels and expensive accessories is acquisitive, but this is more likely an expression of vanity or even the desire to boast about power. The acquisitive person will hold onto bits and pieces and get angry if you try to throw them out. More abstractly, these are the people who value predictability, stability, tradition, and order. They’re the ones who will freak out at the idea of unstructured vacation plans or “minimalism.”
The primary emotion at the root of this desire is fear. You can get alongside such a person by creating a feeling of safety and trust in them. You sever your connection by threatening their routine, their belongings, or even their more abstract “possessions”—their customs, beliefs, and traditions. At its best, this is the picture of material comfort and protection. At its worst expect to find stubbornness and even superstition. Push against such a person and their innate fear, and you can expect them to only dig in their heels further.
Notice their attitude to competition.
To spot a foundational desire for rivalry in someone, look at how they conduct themselves in games, sports, or at work. People driven by a desire for rivalry often frame ordinary social interactions as combat. Every discussion is an argument or contest. Neutral activities are ranked, and a winner and loser are identified. Actions are reframed as a performance, and from there, the performance is assessed and rated relative to others.
At the heart of the desire for rivalry is overactive disgust, fear, and an abiding sense of shame. Whether that shame is directed inward (“I’m a loser”) or outward (“haha, he’s the loser”) is irrelevant. A person with desires that stem from these primary emotions will tend to think in all-or-nothing, black-and-white ways. Their entire philosophy is a zero-sum one: I can’t be happy unless that other guy is sad. I can’t get what I want in life unless someone else gets nothing.
This is why you can sniff out someone ruled by rivalry by noticing how they frame and interpret social interactions. If they tend to turn everything into a hierarchy, a challenge, a contest, or a war, you can bet there’s some shame lurking somewhere. These are the people with polarized and polarizing opinions. They’re the people who like to rub their achievements in the face of others, or who relish the prospect of revenge.
Notice if someone is always one-upping you in conversation. Listen to the language they use, and prick your ears for “warlike” terms and phrases used in business or dating. Such people may outright call people who disagree with them enemies, or call their peers rivals and opponents rather than comrades. One surefire way to identify someone driven by rivalry: they collapse into shame when they lose a game. Once identified, expect such a person to always act in a way that is in opposition to something. Figure out what that something is and you can predict their behavior with surprising accuracy.
Pay attention to the flow of attention.
It may be a little trickier to identify those motivated by a desire for vanity. Remember that this desire is all about capturing attention and getting other people’s focus to fall on you. One of the easiest ways to do this in any interaction is to carefully observe where the flow of attention is going.
As an example, a counselor has an entire family in the office for a family session. Ostensibly, they are there to address the father’s temper and the children’s rebellious behavior. The therapist watches for a few sessions and first assumes that the quiet mother in the corner is the victim of the family, never speaking up, never exerting power over anything. In time, however, the therapist notices that even though she is largely silent, the flow of everyone’s attention is constantly on her. “See? You’ve made mom upset.” The therapist notices that when the family’s attention shifts away from the mom, she begins to cry or sigh loudly until everyone’s attention is back on her. When the therapist asks the children to talk about their father’s temper, the mother interrupts with a little story about how guilty she feels for not protecting them better against his anger (i.e., it’s all about her).
Had the therapist only looked at the words being spoken, or the behavior, she would have missed one crucial bit of information: the mother is the most dominant person in the room, and everyone’s attention is constantly flowing toward her. Vanity and narcissism sometimes hide very effectively, but you can see it clearly when you simply ask yourself: where is everyone’s attention going right now? Why?
People who are driven by this desire will use millions of colorful ways to keep attention on them. They’ll act outlandish, seductive, bizarre, or controversial. Overly loud or suspiciously quiet, they get you to turn your awareness onto them. Watch for little ways they nudge things back to themselves—they’ll gently steer every conversation to themselves, or use “I” frequently. This is because while trying to get you to notice them, they’re also absorbed in noticing themselves. Look for people whose most fascinating point of focus is always themselves—and yes, that includes people who are engrossed in their own trauma or victimization.
It’s easy to predict what such a person will do: they will primarily act to generate attention or else maintain it. You can easily get alongside them by flattery and focus. Expect everything else to slip under their radar!
Notice what people do with responsibility.
Finally, the big one: power. Russell wrote extensively on the love of power, but we can cut to the chase: you can identify anyone who functions from a desire for power by simply noticing what they do with responsibility. Those who take the opportunity to set themselves above others and then try to wield their authority are power-driven, whereas those who act from duty and obligation are not.
Put someone in charge of something small and see what happens. It’s not about how well they perform the task, but rather where their sense of joy, meaning, and self comes from. If they’re really enjoying being the proverbial king of the castle, well, you’re dealing with someone driven by power.