Sign up ×
Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for practitioners, researchers, and students in cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, and psychiatry. It's 100% free, no registration required.

There are many examples of people wanting what they don't have. For example, a single man may want to have a girlfriend, but after some time of having a girlfriend, he may want to be single again. Or for example, people in the city may want to live in the village and villagers may want to live in the city.

What causes individuals to desire something they don't have and once they have it we desire to have something else -- or something which we left behind a while ago -- again?

share|improve this question
Because it does not make sense to “want” something you already have? –  Gala Jun 30 '13 at 1:39
Your examples are all about choices between alternatives that have different advantages and disadvantages. If you live in the city, there are a lot of things to do, better infrastructure, but no quiet and clean air. In the village, things are reversed. Obviously people want both: quiet, when they feel like quiet, action, when they want action, clean air all the time, and good infrastructure. The underlying cause is that people want both alternatives at the same time. Your question needs examples where alternatives are not the reverse of each other and not balanced regarding (dis)advantages. –  what Jul 3 '13 at 10:33
Thanks for input... actually, it was meant to discuss exactly these alternatives. Why you incline to "go back" once you left something because you wanted to have something else. –  tsykora Jul 3 '13 at 10:39
If had time I'd provide a more referenced answer, but once seeking behavior is procedural, dopamine responses become linked with the procedure of seeking itself (and then there's a let down if the object is not found). –  Keegan Keplinger Jul 3 '13 at 15:31

8 Answers 8

up vote 1 down vote accepted

The reason for desire or want or liking is Pleasure. Various people have various things to get pleasure: from Money, from Power, from Love etc. etc.

But this pleasure is always based on comparison. For ex: I may have money, power, wealth and love. I am satisfied with all these. When I encounter another person who has all these things but with another proportion, then I tend to "HAVE/POSSESS" that. The reason could be, "THAT" appears more pleasurable to me than what I have.

There is no absolute answer to this question 'Why man seeks pleasure? or Where it comes from?'. We may need to understand the nature of pleasure, how it occurs etc etc. Read this link and you may understand scientifically what is want/desire/liking/pleasure.

There is also a philosophical answer to your question which is related to mind. As put by Hindu philosophy, Mind always seeks pleasure. This pleasure, found in external things, is always in the form of self satisfaction. It feels happy with possession of things outside.

But once it turns inward and looks at itself, it understands its nature. This comes out of intelligence. Then it gradually seeks inner calmness rather external cravings. Resting in inner peace and calm is more happier and blissful to Mind. But it is under illusion that it finds pleasure in things in the external world. The reason being mind, as put by Hindu/Buddhist philosophers, identifies itself with the body and it thinks it has a separate individuality - "I", "ME","MINE". When there is a separation like this, automatically there is a comparison. When comparison exists, desire sprouts. You better read about mind in Google. Lot of notes and articles are there.

share|improve this answer
Thank you for your insight! :) –  tsykora Jul 1 '13 at 10:43

This is more along the lines of novelty.

As you mentioned, once you have it, you want something else you don't have and on and on and on it goes.

Reason being, once a subject acquires the object longed and desired for, the novelty level within the subject is diminished and must be refilled.

To be more specific, what needs to be refilled is dopamine. Novelty produces dopamine and dopamine is well know as the brain's fuel driving satisfaction. So remove that and guess what your going to try to reproduce?

Check out:

share|improve this answer
Does hedonic adaptation play into this? –  Pieter May 26 '14 at 13:20

Why we want things is a very broad question. As to why we specifically want things we don't have, I commented in jest that it does not make sense to want something you already have. Basically if you attach value to something you have, you would say that you “like” it, not that you “want” it but the distinction might not necessarily reflect a difference in some fundamental psychological process.

The immediate reason could be that these things provide us with “reward” or “pleasure” – which is certainly often true at a phenomenological level and can possibly be associated with specific brain structures – but that's not explaining much. As Greg mentioned, there are also many empirical results and theories suggesting that, to a point, we seek novelty and stimulation for their own sake. That could be a reason to want things specifically because we don't have them already or at least in part because we don't have them already. (The idea is very old and has been expressed in various ways, e.g. the Yerkes-Dodson law.)

On the specific point of regret and wanting to go back, one thing is that we are not always good at gauging how we will feel about something we have not experienced yet. Research on this goes under the name “affective forecasting”. Once you have it/did it/experienced it, you might realize that it is not as good as you expected and reverse your decision (or not, incidentally). Also, the notion that we seek novelty implies that the novel stimulus will become less pleasurable with repetition (but the opposite process has also been observed, e.g. in “mere exposure” research). At some point, we might become “bored” and find any change attractive, even if it is to come back to something we tried before.

share|improve this answer

Why do we want what we don't have? There are many different answers stemming from diverse theoretical approaches. I will list a couple, drawing heavily on a older review by Lynn (1992) who has collected different ideas about why desirability can sometimes be increased when something is unavailable to us.

  1. We perceive things that few people have as important resources that signal social status. This can be seen in people's tendency for conspicuous consumption (Veblen, 1899), in other words the tendency to buy positional goods, which promise being superior to others (e.g. Solnick & Hemenway, 1998)

  2. Researchers such as Snyder and Fromkin (1977) posit that people can perceive similarity to others as a threatening. Therefore, scarce and unavailable things are desirable because they promise to fulfill a need for uniqueness.

  3. Unavailable resources often imply that having them means to have power over others (Emerson, 1962)

  4. Social comparisons can give rise to specific emotions that motivate us to seek things that are unavailable. People deliberately engage in downward comparisons (Wills, 1981) to enhance their self-esteem. Having something that not everybody has may thus give rise to pride. Upward comparisons with others (who have something we want) may cause envy, which can increase desire (Crusius & Mussweiler, 2012, Van de Ven et al. 2011)

  5. Scarcity has been portrayed as a heuristic cue that signals desirability (Cialdini, 1993), for example, because rare things are perceived to have a higher quality (Ditto & Jemmott, 1989)

  6. Sometimes, we don't have things because we are denied to have them. Such threats to our freedom cause reactance which increases our desire to have what we can't have (e.g., Brehm, Stires, Sensenig, & Shaban, 1966)

  7. Trying to attain something which is difficult to get increases arousal which fuels desirability (Brehm et al, 1983)

It stands to reason, however, that we are often quite good in rationalizing why we don't want the things that we don't have (e.g., Kay, Jimenez, & Jost, 2002).


Brehm, J. W., Stires, L. K., Sensenig, J., & Shaban, J. (1966). The attractiveness of an eliminated choice alternative. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2, 301–313. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(66)90086-2

Brehm, J. W., Wright, R. A., Solomon, S., Silka, L., & Greenberg, J. (1983). Perceived difficulty, energization, and the magnitude of goal valence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 21–48. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(83)90003-3

Brock, T. C. (1968). Implications of commodity theory for value change. In A. G. Greenwald, T. C. Brock, & T. M. Ostrom (Eds.), Psychological foundations of attitudes (pp. 243–275). New York: Academic Press.

Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: Science and practice (3rd ed.). New York: HarperCollins.

Crusius, J., & Mussweiler, T. (2012). When people want what others have: The impulsive side of envious desire. Emotion, 12, 142–153. doi:10.1037/a0023523

Ditto, P. H., & Jemmott, J. B. (1989). From rarity to evaluative extremity: Effects of prevalence information on evaluations of positive and negative characteristics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 16–26. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.57.1.16

Emerson, R. M. (1962). Power-dependence relations. American Sociological Review, 27, 31-41.

Kay, A. C., Jimenez, M. C., & Jost, J. T. (2002). Sour grapes, sweet lemons, and the anticipatory rationalization of the status quo. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1300–1312. doi:10.1177/01461672022812014

Lynn, M. (1992). The psychology of unavailability: Explaining scarcity and cost effects on value. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 13, 3–7. doi:Article

Snyder R., C., & Fromkin, H. L. (1977). Abnormality as a positive characteristic: The development and validation of a scale measuring need for uniqueness. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 86, 518–527. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.86.5.518

Solnick, S. J., & Hemenway, D. (1998). Is more always better? A survey on positional concerns. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 37, 373–383. doi:10.1016/S0167-2681(98)00089-4

Van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2011). The envy premium in product evaluation. The Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 984–998. doi:10.1086/657239

Veblen, T. (1899). The theory of the leisure class. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Wills, T. A. (1981). Downward comparison principles in social psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 90, 245–271. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.90.2.245

share|improve this answer

In economic terms this can also be defined in terms of marginal utility of a thing, experience etc. As soon as you have (enough of) something and/or got used to having it, something novel and/or relativelively scarce that might be useful will seem attractive. Maybe because it's evolutionary fit to strive for the optimal combination to increase pleasure.

share|improve this answer

Most frequently people want a different version of what they already have or have liked in the past. That's why there are countless "clones" of video games, movies and books.

Coolidge Effect explains why people devalue past sexual partners over time (as in your girlfriend example) and seek novel partners instead.

Another explanation is that people want whatever spikes their serotonin and dopamine reward systems the most.

enter image description here

share|improve this answer

So in general, what do people want?

  • People want happiness

What makes people happy?

  • Personal growth
  • Relationships
  • Community feeling by giving back

But some people are unhappy.

  • Money
  • Image
  • Popularity

Those things are extrinsic motivators. People believe that they will be happy if they get external things. Research says this isn't true. Once you get more money, for example, you quickly adapt to it. You may feel happy for a day or two, but then you go back to how you felt before.

There's very little difference in happiness between a person who makes 50,000 a year and a person who makes $50 million a year. There's a noticible difference in happiness between someone who makes 5,000 a year and someone who makes 50,000 a year. So as long as you can take care of your basic needs like food, shelter, etc, money won't make you happier.

share|improve this answer

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

People want the best stuff, which for the most part will never happen as most people are average joe's do they really expect to get a girl that looks like a Goddess, obviously if they do, they have dilusional fantasies that they spend their time on rather than on a reality check, of what they can actually accomplish. People also want stuff they can't have because they're jealous that someone has what they don't have, which makes them feel less than that person. There are many reasons why people are like that, but everyone that is like that shares all the basic fundamentals of jealousy, anger, feel less worthy, and want power. An example would be why do men rape pretty girls and boys, it is simply because they want the feeling of power to feel dominant and degrade the better things to make themselves feel better, Humans for the most part seek to demolish the better so they themselves can feel better, but deep in their consciousness they still know they really are just the same person and that just because they degraded something doesn't make them superior but rather inferior, since they have to prove it my trying to destroy something of better quality acutally proves to themselves that they are inferior.

share|improve this answer

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

We prefer answers to have citations to researched work. –  user3543 Nov 20 '13 at 23:00

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.