[Paleopsych] Steven Reiss: The Sixteen Strivings for God

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Steven Reiss: The Sixteen Strivings for God
Zygon, vol. 39, no. 2 (June 2004).

[The same, applied to religion. PDF converted by me.]

Steven Reiss is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and Director of the 
Nisonger Center at The Ohio State University, 1581 Dodd Drive, Columbus, OH 
43210-1296; email reiss.7 at osu.edu.

Abstract. A psychological theory of religious experiences, sensitivity theory, 
is proposed. Whereas other theories maintain that religious motivation is about 
a few overarching desires, sensitivity theory provides a multifaceted analysis 
consistent with the diversity, richness, and individuality of religious 
experiences. Sixteen basic desires show the psychological foundations of 
meaningful experience. Each basic desire is embraced by every person, but to 
different extents. How we prioritize the basic desires expresses our 
individuality and influences our attraction to various religious images and 
activities. Each basic desire is associated with a basic goal and a unique joy, 
such as love, self-worth, relaxation, or strength. We do not seek to experience 
joys infinitely; we regulate joys, in accordance with our core values, to 
sixteen balance points (sensitivities) that vary based on individuality. 
Religions help persons of faith regulate the sixteen basic joys by providing 
some images that strengthen joyful experiences and others that weaken them. We 
can strengthen our experience of selfworth, for example, by contemplating God 
in the image of savior; we can weaken our experience of self-worth by 
contemplating original sin. The theory of sixteen basic desires is testable 
scientifically and suggests such philosophical concepts as value-based 

Keywords: Gordon Allport; Aristotle and psychology; god-images; intrinsic 
value; meaning of life; means and ends; Reiss Profile; religion and motivation; 
religion and personality; sensitivity theory of motivation; sixteen basic 

Human beings embrace religion for a number of reasons, according to previously 
published theories. Religion can, for example, help individuals cope with fear 
and anxiety, especially the fear of death. This idea is expressed by the saying 
"There are no atheists in foxholes" (Argyle and Beit- Hallahmi 1975, 197) and 
explains why clergy are readily available in hospices and hospitals and near 
battlefields. Some religious teachings, moreover, are aimed at helping the 
faithful manage anxiety and experience inner peace.

Ritual observance has been suggested to be a significant source of religious 
motivation. Rituals are common in religious ceremonies; they help people cope 
with life's major events, such as birth of a child, child rearing, marriage, 
and death of a loved one. Sigmund Freud (1907) emphasized the significance of 
religious rituals, calling religion an "obsessive neurosis." John C. Flugel 
discussed the significance of religion in helping persons cope with guilt. 
Religions teach adherents to atone for their sins through sacrifice to gods. 
"Men [hold] the primitive notion that their God . . . is appeased by human 
suffering" (Flugel [1945] 1961, 187-88). We inflict punishment and suffering on 
ourselves and hope that our gods will forgive us, much as our parents forgave 
us after we had been punished as children. Being forgiven reduces our 
experience of guilt and increases our fundamental sense of acceptance and 

Freud thought that religion plays an important role in regulating sexual 
impulses. For example, religions ban incest, and Freud regarded such taboos as 
essential for the survival of our species. God images, according to Freud, are 
disguised father figures that help people manage their unconscious sexual 

Intellectual curiosity may motivate interest in religion (Allport 1961). We all 
wonder about life's larger questions-who we are and why we exist. Religions 
address our curiosity by providing explanations for the origin of the universe, 
the origin and purpose of human beings, and the nature of good and evil.

Religion can help people satisfy their need to find meaning in suffering and, 
thus, cope with poverty, illness, disappointment, and frustration. Karl Marx 
expressed this idea when he called religion the "opium of the people" (1964, 
43-44). As Kenneth Davis put it, "The greater [one's] disappointment in this 
life, the greater his faith in the next. The existence of goals beyond this 
world serves to compensate people for frustrations they inevitably experience 
in striving to reach socially acquired and socially valuable ends" (1948, 532).

Recently, a number of psychologists have suggested that spirituality is a 
unique motive. Ralph Piedmont (1999) presents some evidence for this idea, 
proposing a trait he calls spiritual transcendence. Piedmont has validated the 
concept of spirituality in factorial studies and studies of peer ratings of 
religious behavior. He has shown that spiritual transcendence has some 
independence from five-factor personality theory. At least part of the appeal 
of religion may be to satisfy our need for spiritual experiences. Scholars have 
ascribed these and other psychological motives for religious behavior. Anxiety 
reduction, fear of death, guilt reduction, enjoyment of rituals, and 
spirituality represent the most frequently cited.


My sensitivity theory (Reiss 2000a) holds that sixteen basic desires motivate 
much of our behavior, including religious behavior. In this essay I consider 
the main tenets of this theory and then apply the sixteen basic desires to 
understanding religious experiences.1

CONCEPTUAL FOUNDATIONS. Sensitivity theory represents an original combination 
of Aristotle's analysis of motivation ([330 B.C.E.] 1976) and Gordon Allport's 
concept of individuality (1961).2

Desires are Reasons. These are motives, defined as reasons for engaging in 

Ends are Intrinsically Desired. Sensitivity theorists divide motives into means 
and ends (see Aristotle ([330 B.C.E.] 1976). Means are behaviors we engage in 
because they produce something else, whereas ends are desired for no reason 
other than that is what we want. When a professional athlete plays football for 
a living, the game is a means of obtaining a salary. When a professional 
athlete plays football to exercise, the game is its own end. An analysis of a 
person's behavior may identify a series of means followed by one or more ends 
that complete the behavior chain. For example, a person may attend medical 
school to become a researcher (a means), seek the cause of cancer because it 
has killed a parent (a means), and show loyalty to a deceased parent out of 
honor (an end).

Automatic Nature of Ends. End motives occur automatically and cannot be 
deliberately chosen. As Aristotle observed, "Deliberation is about means, not 
ends" ([330 B.C.E.] 1976, Book III, iii, 79). We cannot choose whether or not 
we feel hunger, for example, but we can choose a diet to satiate our hunger. 
The idea of choosing an end is a self-contradiction: the ends are the criteria 
by which we make fundamental choices, and the means are the options that are 
chosen. As a matter of logic, any option we choose is a means to the criteria 
of choice and, thus, not an end.

Ends are Associated with Varying Degrees of Self-Awareness. Self-awareness of 
our end desire-both what we want and how strongly we want it- varies 
considerably depending on individuality, experiences, and possibly the effects 
of culture on attitudes toward the desire in question. When we increase 
self-awareness we are better able to use our intellect to select appropriate 
and effective means.

Basic Desires Exclude Certain Biological Needs. Basic desires (also called 
human strivings) are end motives, excluding those biological needs that have no 
relevance for psychology. For example, the need for constant body temperature 
is not considered a basic desire. As shown in Table 1, sensitivity theory 
recognizes sixteen basic desires.

Genetic Origin of Basic Desires. Theoretically, the sixteen basic desires are 
regarded as genetically distinct sources of motivation. Culture and learning, 
however, play significant roles in the strength of a person's desires.3

Basic Desires Imply End (Basic) Goals. Each of the sixteen basic desires is 
aimed at different ends, called basic goals because of their connections to 
basic desires. A person who is motivated by curiosity, for example, has a basic 
goal of acquiring knowledge, whereas a person who is motivated by idealism aims 
to improve society. Other basic goals are sound character, approval, and so on 
(see Table 1).

Basic Goal Experiences Produce Joys. The experience of a basic goal produces a 
joy (an intrinsically valued psychological state), a different joy depending on 
which basic (end) goal is experienced. For example, the joy of wonderment is 
experienced when we obtain knowledge, and the joy of beauty is associated with 
the experience of sex. I argue that the sixteen joys cannot be reduced to a few 
global categories such as pleasure versus pain or intrinsic versus extrinsic 
motivation (Reiss forthcoming a). Aristotle observed, "As activities differ in 
kind, so do their pleasures" ([330 B.C.E.] 1976, Book X, v, 322). The pleasure 
associated with the joy of wonderment, for example, is qualitatively different 
from the pleasure associated with the joy of loyalty.

Basic Goals Imply Core Values. The concepts of values and goals are closely 
connected. We value what we want and want what we value. Values connected to 
basic desires are called core or fundamental values; examples include family 
values, intellectual values, and humanitarian values. According to sensitivity 
theory, each basic goal implies its own core values.4

Core Values Drive Personality Development. Values, not pleasure and pain, are 
the primary motivators of human behavior and personality development, according 
to sensitivity theory. We sacrifice for our children because we value them, not 
because we want to avoid the guilt associated with parental neglect. Soldiers 
throw themselves on exploding grenades and save their comrades because they 
value their honor even more than they value their life. People survived Nazi 
concentration camps because they found ways to express meaningful core values 
(Frankl 1984), not because they found ways to make their experience 



Physical Exercise

Social Contact

BASIC GOAL (Core value)
approval (inclusion)
knowledge, cognition (truth)
food, sustenance
raise children (family values)

sound character (morals)
fairness (human condition)
autonomy (self-reliance)
organization (precision, cleanliness)

muscle movement (strength)
influence (leadership, glory)
sex (sensuality)
collection (frugality)

friendship (groups)
prestige, stature (social class)
personal safety (prudence)
retaliation (self-defense)

positive self-regard


lust, beauty

belonging, fun
inner peace, relaxation

RELIGIOUS IMAGES FOR MORE JOY (express core value)
Savior, baptism, confession
omniscient, God as Reason
totem animals, Eucharist, feasts
God in image of son/daughter

God in image of father; Ten Commandments
social gospel, missionary work
God is self-sufficient
God's immortality; church rituals

God's infinite strength
Almighty, Creator, Brahman
holy matrimony
religious relics, mementos

Divine creation of humankind
freedom from anxiety and guilt(the Way)
wrath of God; war gods

RELIGIOUS IMAGES FOR LESS JOY (negative core value
original sin
incomprehensible, ineffable God
fasts, dietary laws
mythical gods of abandonment

devil's temptations
God's tolerance of illness and natural disaster
unity, Nirvana, attentive deities
impurity of body, soul; unclean food

celibate, ascetic, Puritanical
mythical gods of waste

retreat, solitude, vows of silence
human beings nothing compared with divinity
fear of God
conflict avoidance ("turn cheek")

Basic Goals Experienced as Meaningful. Because the meaning of a behavior is its 
purpose or aim, and because basic desires aim for basic goals, basic desires 
and goals are experienced as psychologically meaningful. The sixteen basic 
desires are the key psychological foundations for meaningful experience, 
according to sensitivity theory. In contrast, unmotivated behavior such as 
reflexes and biological events are without purpose and are therefore considered 
to occur without conveying a psychological sense of meaningfulness.

Organizing Role of Basic Desires. Under sensitivity theory, basic desires 
organize perceptions, values, cognitions, emotions, and behavior into coherent 
acts. Generally, we attend to stimuli relevant to our needs and desires and 
ignore irrelevant stimuli. We filter what we see through our desires and 
values. We want what we value, we value what we want, and we experience joyful 
emotions when we get what we want. Our values affect our attitudes, beliefs, 
and thoughts. A person with above-average motivation for status, for example, 
may pay a great deal of attention to prestigious versus less prestigious 
clothing labels, cars, residential neighborhoods, and so on; put on airs 
associated with high social class; wear expensive jewelry; dismiss lower-class 
persons as unworthy of attention; believe that one should not have to achieve 
in order to gain attention from others; believe that persons should associate 
with, and marry, within their social class; believe that those of high social 
class are more important than those of lower social class; be highly concerned 
with personal reputation; be careful to wear the "right" clothes; and be 
uncomfortable in the presence of lower-class persons or when visiting their 
homes or neighborhoods. In contrast, a person with below-average motivation for 
status tends not to notice the differences between clothing labels, cars, 
residential neighborhoods, and so on; may not value wealth or other marks of 
social class; may believe that social class is a trifle when selecting a 
marriage partner; may identify with working or lower-class persons; may feel 
uncomfortable when at a high-society gathering; and may dress sloppily, showing 
little interest in what others think about his or her appearance.

Summary. Sensitivity theory puts forth sixteen basic desires that include both 
biological needs such as eating and psychological needs such as acceptance and 
status. Each basic desire motivates people to embrace basic goals and express 
the core values associated with basic goals. Table 1 shows some of the 
connections between specific basic desires, basic goals, and core values. Basic 
desires occur automatically, with varying degrees of self-awareness, and are 
assumed to have a genetic origin. They may be altered by significant life 
events, but generally we do not know how to deliberately change them. Our basic 
desires and core values motivate personality development by organizing 
perceptions, values, cognitions, emotions, and behavior into coherent acts and 
behavioral propensities. Under sensitivity theory, the sixteen basic desires 
provide the key psychological foundations of meaningful experiences, because 
they determine what we care about and who we are.

EVIDENCE FOR SIXTEEN BASIC DESIRES. Deep down, what do people desire? What are 
the basic motives that drive our behavior and give psychological meaning to our 
lives? To find out, Susan Havercamp and I developed a questionnaire, called the 
Reiss Profile (Reiss and Havercamp 1998), which was completed by more than ten 
thousand research participants. The results of this work showed that sixteen 
specific desires guide much of human behavior.5

The research was conducted in three phases. In Phase 1, we showed the 
"factorial validity" of the Reiss Profile questionnaire and the sixteen basic 
desires. Factorial validity implies that if a person endorsed an item on one of 
the sixteen Reiss Profile scales, such as the scale for status, the individual 
(a) tended to endorse all other items on the same scale (such as all of the 
status items) and (b) did not necessarily endorse any item on a different scale 
(such as the items on the scale for curiosity or eating).

Phase 2 consisted of studies that assessed the psychometric properties of the 
questionnaire. These studies showed that people self-report their basic motives 
similarly at different points in time. They also showed that the results of the 
questionnaire were only minimally influenced by the social desirability bias 
factor (the tendency to respond in ways that make one look good).

In Phase 3 we validated the sixteen basic motives by showing that how people 
self-reported their motives on the Reiss Profile predicted significantly how 
they had behaved in their lives (such as choice of college major, interest in 
military or clergy), how they scored on psychological tests, meaningful aspects 
of romantic relationships and friendships, mental health diagnoses, and certain 
genetic developmental syndromes.

INDIVIDUALITY. Sensitivities are about individuality in basic motivation and 
core values. The concept is similar in meaning to that of an Aristotelian mean. 
As Aristotle put it, "I call a mean in relation to us that which is neither 
excessive nor deficient, and this is not one and the same for all ([330 B.C.E.] 
1976, Book II, vi, 100; emphasis added).

Sensitivity is the term given to how strongly a person is usually motivated by 
a particular basic desire. Those who are strongly motivated by power, so-called 
dominant personalities, may be said to have a high (strong) sensitivity for 
power, whereas those who are weakly motivated by power, so-called submissive 
personalities, may be said to have a low (weak) sensitivity for power. 
Inquisitive persons may be said to have a high sensitivity for curiosity, 
whereas noninquisitive people may be said to have a low sensitivity for 

One way is to consider each of the sixteen basic desires as a continuum of end 
motivation anchored by opposite basic goals. In Figure 1, for example, the 
basic desire of curiosity is shown as a continuum between the basic goal of 
spending no time in effortful thought versus always being engaged in effortful 
thought. All other possibilities lie between these extremes. Sue is happiest 
when she spends approximately 15 percent of her time in effortful thought, 
whereas Mary is happiest when she spends about 70 percent of her time thinking. 
If the average person desires to spend about 20 percent time in effortful 
thought, Sue has normative curiosity, and Mary has high (strong) curiosity.

Sensitivity theory holds that we go through life motivated to regulate each of 
the sixteen basic desires to individually determined balance points, called 
sensitivities. In the example shown in Figure 1, Sue is bored when her 
intellect is challenged significantly less than 15 percent of the time; the 
boredom motivates Sue to seek out intellectual challenges. When Sue is 
intellectually challenged more than 15 percent of the time, she experiences 
intellectual fatigue, which motivates her to behave mindlessly for a while. 
Mary experiences boredom when her intellect is challenged significantly less 
than 70 percent of her waking hours, and she experiences intellectual fatigue 
when her intellect is challenged significantly more than 70 percent of the 
time. Practically speaking, Sue will rarely experience boredom and often behave 
mindlessly, but occasionally she will want to think things through. Mary will 
easily experience boredom and be thoughtful about nearly everything, but on 
some occasions she will be motivated to behave mindlessly. Sue will likely 
embrace anti-intellectual values, whereas Mary will likely embrace intellectual 

Figure 2 shows the hypothetical sensitivity points for Steve and Bob on the 
basic desire for independence. Bob places a higher value on self-reliance than 
does Steve. Sensitivity theory holds that whenever Bob and Steve experience 
more independence (self-reliance) than they desire, they experience an 
overwhelming sense of freedom and seek psychological support to moderate their 
experience. Whenever Bob and Steve experience less independence than they 
desire, they feel trapped and are motivated to behave in a self-reliant 
fashion. Because Bob and Steve are motivated to experience different degrees of 
independence, the same experiences can have opposite effects on their behavior. 
Suppose that Bob and Steve are being on his own when competing for the 
contract, but Steve should prefer to confide in a partner or pray for divine 
assistance to experience psychological support and reduce the frightening 
feelings of being on his own.

Desire Profile. Each of the sixteen basic desires motivates everybody, but to 
different extents. A Reiss Desire Profile is an individual's rank ordering of 
the sixteen basic desires, a display of an individual's sixteen sensitivities. 
Some military people may have a desire profile in which the basic motives of 
power, honor, and physical strength are highly valued, whereas some business 
executives may have a desire profile in which power and status are highly 

Generally, the motives most relevant to defining our personalities are those 
that are strong or weak relative to norms. People who are motivated by 
leadership, for example, show high (strong) power motivation relative to the 
norm and may show dominant, ambitious, authoritarian, or controlling 
personality traits. Those who are motivated to be followers show low (weak) 
power motivation relative to the norm and may show submissive, nondirective, 
and unambitious personalities.

VICARIOUS AND COGNITIVE EXPERIENCES. We have the potential to express our core 
values and experience the sixteen basic joys through vicarious experiences, 
such as viewing shows, and through imagination and reflection. When we watch or 
imagine our favorite team scoring a goal, for example, we experience the joy of 
efficacy (which falls under the basic desire for power) similar to what is 
experienced by the player who scored the goal. The vicarious experience of 
power is so apparent at sporting events that some fans thrust clenched fists 
into the air upon viewing the achievement. Although sensitivity theory allows 
for the possibility that the power experienced by the player is of higher 
quality than that experienced by the fan-it may be more enduring and more 
readily reexperienced by recalling the achievement-sensitivity theory holds 
that both player and fan experience the same joy of efficacy.

The hypothesis that the sixteen basic desires motivate vicarious experiences 
should not be confused with catharsis. Like sensitivity theory, catharsis 
theory predicts, and the results of research studies confirm, that people are 
attracted to shows with content relevant to their basic motives and core 
values. Aggressive children are attracted to aggressive television programs 
(Huesmann and Eron 1989; Freedman 1984), sex-oriented people to programs with 
sexual themes (Greenberg and Woods 1999), religious people to religious 
programs, and curious people to television news (Perse 1992). Unlike 
sensitivity theory, however, catharsis theory predicts that basic motives can 
be satiated vicariously-that, for example, viewing aggression temporarily 
satiates the need to release aggressive energy. The available evidence does not 
consistently support this viewpoint; in fact, children who view aggressive 
models may imitate aggressive behavior rather than show satiation for 
aggressive motivation (Bandura and Walters 1965). If viewing aggressive models 
serves as an outlet for the viewer's aggressive energy, as predicted by 
catharsis, why are viewers no less aggressive after viewing violence than 

Sensitivity theory does not predict that viewing aggression usually leads to 
reductions in aggressive behavior. Sensitivity theorists do not view aggression 
motivation as a pool of energy that can be released vicariously through viewing 
experiences; under sensitivity theory, the basic motive of vengeance expresses 
enduring personality needs to experience vindication frequently and at high 
magnitudes. Vindication is a joy, not a pool of negative energy awaiting 
release, for highly aggressive people.

To summarize, sensitivity theory holds that we have the potential to experience 
the sixteen joys through imagination, fantasy, and contemplative experiences 
that have content relevant to the sixteen basic desires. An aggressive person, 
for example, may experience the joy of vindication by watching a violent movie.


We regulate, in accordance with our core values and sensitivities, how often 
and how intensely we experience each of the sixteen basic joys. Some people 
seek to experience a particular joy frequently and intensely; others seek to 
experience the same particular joy moderately; still others seek to experience 
this joy only infrequently and at low intensity. Intellectuals seek to 
experience wonderment frequently, the average person only sometimes, and 
nonintellectuals infrequently-and they also may behave mindlessly at times as a 
tactic for minimizing cognition. In each case, the individual is regulating the 
experience of wonderment to a desired level.

In order to regulate or balance the sixteen basic desires, we need two kinds of 
experiences: those that enhance each of the sixteen basic joys and those that 
block, impede, or reduce them. For example, we have the potential to experience 
the joy of vitality by playing a sport, and we have the potential to decrease 
our experience of vitality by resting. The balance we seek between physical 
exercise and rest depends on individuality-on our sensitivity to and our 
valuation of physical exercise.

We have the potential to express our core values and regulate the sixteen basic 
joys through both secular and religious means. Religious people aim to satisfy 
their needs through spirituality and nonreligious people through secular 
activities. Religious experiences are well suited to help us regulate these 
joys and express the associated core values.

Many god-images are "pure" expressions of core values. Throughout history, 
people have imaged gods of power, status, knowledge, order, vindication, 
acceptance, and so on, as outlined in Table 1. Human beings strive for power, 
status, knowledge, order, vindication, acceptance, and so on. Many religious 
images express the specific core values and produce the same joys as those 
associated with the sixteen basic desires.

The following comments are intended to show the relevance of religious 
experiences for the management of the basic desires. Although religious 
experiences address all sixteen, Judeo-Christian values are more relevant to 
the management of some basic desires than others. Because of space 
considerations, the discussion here is limited to those basic desires most 
relevant to Judeo-Christian values. Table 1, however, shows that sensitivity 
theory is potentially relevant for understanding spirituality, not only 
Judeo-Christian religions.

Acceptance. The desire for approval expresses the value of inclusion and 
produces the joy of positive self-regard. This desire forms a continuum between 
always seeking approval and never seeking approval. Psychological studies show 
that people regulate this desire. In laboratory experiments, for example, 
people given the opportunity to self-reward themselves for their performances 
usually choose moderate amounts of reward consistent with their self-esteem; 
people rarely give themselves maximum reward or no reward (Bandura 1977).

We have the potential to experience acceptance by imagining gods in the form of 
savior or redeemer. The Christian belief that Jesus died to atone for the sins 
of humanity increases feelings of acceptance and selfworth in the minds of the 
faithful. Roman Catholic priests forgive people who confess their sins, 
increasing their sense of acceptance and self-worth. Baptism is a religious 
ritual that atones for original sin, producing a sense of fundamental 
acceptance from God.

When we experience a level of acceptance greater than we desire, we feel 
uncomfortable and are motivated to reduce acceptance. At these times religious 
people may find themselves attracted to preachers who talk about original sin 
and the sinfulness or unworthiness of human nature.

Family. The basic desire to raise children expresses the value we place on 
children and child rearing and produces the joy of love. Adults vary 
significantly in how much time they want to spend raising children. Some do not 
want to have children, some have children but are not around to raise them, and 
some organize their lives around their children's needs.

We have the potential to vicariously experience parental love by worshipping 
God in the image of sons or daughters. Various ancient societies, including 
prehistoric people who left behind artifacts such as figurines and drawings, 
worshipped child gods (Armstrong 1993). Jesus Christ represents God in the 
image of a son. Although some mythical gods were antifamily (Cronus ate his 
children as they were born), mainstream institutional religions express family 
values. Persons who want to reduce time spent with family or express antifamily 
values probably will not be able to accomplish this goal through religious 

Honor. The desire to behave morally expresses the values of duty and 
responsibility and produces the joy of loyalty. Honor motivates psychological 
connections between ourselves and our parents and ancestors. This desire forms 
a continuum between absolute goodness (God) and absolute evil (the devil). 
Dutiful people obey traditional moral codes of conduct, whereas expedient 
people are quick to take personal advantage of any opportunities that may 
arise. Some adult children may feel guilt when they are disloyal to their 
parents or heritage.

We have the potential both to increase and to decrease our experience of honor 
through religious means. We can honor our parents by embracing God's 
commandments, or we can dishonor them by behaving immorally. We can choose to 
behave morally in most areas of life but expediently or unethically in others 
so that our overall experience is consistent with our individually determined 
balance (sensitivity) point for honor.

We can increase our experience of loyalty by worshipping gods in the image of 
father. We also can embrace the religious affiliation of our parents (Kendler, 
Gardner, and Prescott 1997). Loyalty can be experienced each time an adult 
child thinks about his/her observance of family religious traditions or his/her 
efforts to marry or raise children within the religion of the parents. We can 
decrease our experience of loyalty to religious parents by behaving immorally.

Independence. The desire for self-reliance expresses the value of taking care 
of oneself and produces the joy of freedom. People normally aim for a balance 
point (interdependence) between absolute independence (never in need of others) 
and absolute dependence (always in need of others). In its extreme variant, 
absolute dependence implies a diminution of the sense of I to the point of 
unification with love objects. In love, we see some type of wish for loss of 
the sense of I and desire for union with the loved object.

We have the potential to increase or decrease our experience of independence by 
embracing various religious images and beliefs. We can increase our sense of 
independence by embracing god in the form of Reason. Using this imagery, many 
intellectuals believe that we have the potential to discover scientific 
principles (the rationality of the natural universe) and then apply those 
principles to increase our control over our destiny. We philosophical concept 
of divine substance.

We can decrease our experience of being on our own by imagining attentive and 
supportive deities who care about us and listen to our prayers. When we imagine 
caring deities we tend to experience psychological support, which moderates the 
experience of independence. An especially discomforting aspect of dying, for 
example, is that human beings die alone (Malraux 1961). Persons who face death 
have the potential to moderate the feeling of being on their own through faith 
in gods who care.

Order. The basic desire for organization expresses the values of precision, 
neatness, cleanliness, and perfection and produces the joy of stability. Order 
can be viewed as a continuum between the extremes of constant flux or chaos and 
unchanging form. Organized persons pay attention to detail, follow rules 
religiously, and enjoy rituals and planning. Spontaneous persons enjoy 
ambiguity and spontaneity, interpret rules flexibly, and dislike detailed plans 
and organization. Some spontaneous persons introduce ambiguity into arguments 
because they enjoy ambiguity more than they enjoy persuading others of their 
opinion. Others will mess up a neat and clean room just enough to feel 

We have the potential to increase our experience of order by embracing various 
religious images and beliefs. Immortality, a characteristic of many gods, 
conveys a sense of infinite stability and permanence. No matter what might 
happen in life, religious people believe that the Divine will be unchanged. 
Although the physical universe is in constant flux, divinity is stable and 
permanent. Stability also can be experienced through the practice of religious 
rituals and traditions. Nations may come and go, but certain religious rites 
and rituals have remained little changed since antiquity. Religions have put 
forth many rituals that express the value of cleanliness, which falls under the 
desire for order. Cleanliness is a form of perfection and organization.

Since antiquity people have worshipped gods who create order. The first gods of 
ancient Babylonia were organized structures that emerged from a primordial soup 
of divine substance (Armstrong 1993). These gods did not create the world and 
did not intervene in people's lives. They expressed the human beings' yearnings 
for permanence and stability. When Babylonians worshipped these gods, they 
experienced a sense of stability by contemplating the order in the universe. 
Further, the first sentences of the Bible describe an orderly creation. 
Religious values favor order and cleanliness over flexibility and sloppiness. 
Religions have provided few images that decrease our experience of order. 
Religious services and ceremonies rarely encourage spontaneity.

Power. The desire for influence expresses the values of leadership and 
achievement and produces the joy of efficacy. Individuals differ in how much 
power they like to experience. Dominant personalities usually enjoy being in 
charge, giving advice, making decisions, and controlling things and may seek 
high levels of achievement (influential works). Submissive or nonambitious 
personalities usually prefer to be followers and to let others make decisions.

We have the potential to express our core values regarding power by embracing 
various religious images and practices. The image of god as Almighty Creator 
expresses infinite influence and conveys efficacy: Creation is arguably the 
greatest achievement human beings can imagine. We can decrease our experience 
of self-efficacy by imagining god in this form, as lord over all. When we 
reflect on this god's power over us, we feel powerless relative to divinity. A 
highly successful person, who may tend to look at his or her accomplishments 
and feel extremely competent, may experience humility through religious 
submission. Psychologically, humility moderates the experience of efficacy.

Status. The basic desire for prestige expresses the value of stature and 
produces the joy of self-significance. Individuals vary in how strongly they 
are motivated by status and in the level of status with which they feel most 
comfortable. People who are highly motivated by status are often concerned with 
their reputation and stature. They tend to seek wealth or popularity or social 
standing as means of gaining an impressive reputation. People who are weakly 
motivated by status care little about what others think of them and pay little 
attention to marks of social class, such as wealth and popularity.

We have the potential to regulate our experience of status by embracing various 
religious images and beliefs. The religious idea that gods created humanity and 
that they are aware of what happens to us implies that we are so important that 
we command attention from divine sources. The concept of a soul also suggests a 
special status for human beings. We can decrease our sense of self-significance 
by imagining gods who are too busy to pay attention to us.

Vengeance. The basic desire to retaliate expresses the value of selfdefense and 
produces the joy of vindication. This desire can be considered as a continuum 
between the extremes of "seeks to experience conflict 100 percent of time" and 
"seeks to experience conflict 0 percent of the time." Vengeful people tend to 
be highly vigilant to signs of offense, may strike back quickly, and may value 
self-defense and aggressiveness. Conflictavoidant people tend to look the other 
way when offended, strike back very slowly, if at all, and may value 

We have the potential to use religious imagery and practices both to increase 
and to decrease our experience of vindication. Since the dawn of history, 
people have prayed to war gods for divine assistance on the battlefield. God 
has been invoked on both sides of the war in Iraq, for example. Prayers for 
divine intervention may arouse images of battlefield victory, which lead to 
feelings of vindication. Hindus have the potential to experience vengeance by 
imagining and identifying with the destructive goddess Kali and the god Shiva, 
who is experienced in the image of destroyer. It is said that more temples have 
been built for Shiva than to God in the form of creator and preserver combined 
(Smith 1991). Christians can reduce the experience of vengeance by focusing on 
teachings of kindness and "turning the other cheek." Thus, we can regulate our 
experience of vengeance by imagining different aspects of divinity.

Tranquility. This basic desire for personal safety produces the joy of 
relaxation and expresses the value of prudence. Individuals differ in how much 
risk they like to take. People with high tranquility tend to be cautious, 
risk-avoidant, fearful, and anxious, and they have a propensity to experience 
panic attacks (McNally 2002). People with low tranquility tend to be risk 
takers, fearless, and nonanxious.

Through faith we have the potential to overcome fear and anxiety and experience 
tranquility. According to Reinhold Niebuhr (1949), we become anxious when we 
realize how precarious our lives are. We develop fundamental fears concerning 
death and human insignificance. Niebuhr thought that faith offers the best 
opportunity to overcome such anxieties and experience tranquility. There is 
less of a tendency to panic over the possibility of death if you believe your 
soul is headed for Heaven.

Buddhism and Taoism offer religious paths for gaining tranquility and coping 
with anxiety, pain, and suffering. In Taoism, the Way is a state of complete 
contentment, tranquility, and harmony with nature (Smith 1991).

Compound Motives. Much like all chemical compounds reduce to combinations from 
the chart of elements, sensitivity theory holds that many complex human motives 
are combinations of two or more of the sixteen basic desires. Some religious 
images, concepts, and experiences, therefore, may be related to the regulation 
of more than one of the basic desires. The religious concept of sin, for 
example, is multifaceted. Sin reduces our sense of honor and our experience of 
loyalty to parents, because it is a violation of our moral heritage; sin also 
reduces our sense of acceptance, because it represents an estrangement from 
God; and sin reduces our experience of order, because it is a violation of 
rules, giving impressions of impurity. The concept of sin, thus, is relevant to 
the regulation of at least three of the basic desires-honor, acceptance, and 


Sensitivity theory is best viewed as a theory of behavior. Only years of 
research can establish the validity of these ideas, and I urge behavioral 
scientists, philosophers, and theologians to conduct future work in the 
sensitivity theory of religion. I conducted an early empirical test of this 
theory by evaluating which basic desires play large roles in motivating 
religiosity- defined as how religious a person says he or she is. I asked 558 
mostly Christian adults to complete the Reiss Profile questionnaire and then 
describe themselves as very religious, somewhat religious, or not religious. 
The results showed that how religious people said they were was strongly 
associated with the extent to which they said they were motivated by honor (see 
Reiss 2000b). I interpreted this result to mean that many people embrace 
religion to honor and show loyalty to parents and ancestors. The results also 
showed that religious people place below-average value on independence 
(self-reliance). The more religious a person said he or she was, the less the 
individual sought to be self-reliant. This result is consistent with the 
religious literature that emphasizes the significance of being absolutely 
reliant on God. Although religious people desired to be in need of God or 
others, they showed average desire for personal power or influence. Indeed, 
some religious people saw opening their hearts to God as a means of gaining 

Self-reported religiosity also was associated with above-average motivation to 
raise a family, avoid conflict (low vengeance motivation), and experience 
order. These findings are consistent with Christian teachings on the importance 
of family and the concept of "turning the other cheek." Since self-reported 
religiosity was associated with order motivation, the psychological 
satisfactions of rituals may play a significant role in attracting people to 

Havercamp has studied preliminarily the basic desires that drive young adults 
to join the clergy. She administered the Reiss Profile to 49 students (26 men 
and 23 women) enrolled in one of three Midwestern Protestant seminaries and 
showed profiles of low independence, high idealism, and low status (Havercamp 
1998). The significance of low scores for the basic desire of independence 
already has been discussed; it implies a desire for psychological support (as 
in submission to God). High scores for idealism suggested that the seminary 
students sought to improve society. The seminarians also scored more than a 
half standard deviation below the general population norm for status, 
suggesting that they should feel comfortable taking vows of poverty.

Although these initial studies have provided empirical support for sensitivity 
theory, they need to be replicated and extended with participants from more 
diverse religious backgrounds. Future research could determine which desire 
profiles are associated with various god-images and specific religious 
practices. I suspect that the world's major religions address the same basic 
desires but in different ways. Administering the Reiss Profile to large groups 
of people practicing different religions and comparing the results based on 
religious affiliation might produce interesting results.

Sensitivity theory expresses a number of ideas that would benefit from further 
analysis by philosophers and theologians. One idea is that basic desires are 
great equalizers (see Reiss 2000a). I believe that the child who overcomes a 
physical handicap to dribble a basketball experiences the same sense of 
accomplishment Michael Jordan experienced when he won his fifth National 
Basketball Association championship. The adult with mental retardation who 
prays to God experiences the same psychological support experienced by anyone 
who prays to God. Under the theory of sixteen basic desires, all people-rich 
and poor, smart and dull, handsome and plain, healthy and sick-have 
approximately equal potential to embrace their basic desires and experience 
life as psychologically meaningful.

I distinguish two kinds of happiness that I call "value-based happiness" and 
"feel-good happiness" (Reiss 2000a). Value-based happiness refers to a sense 
that life is meaningful, and feel-good happiness refers to the experience of 
sensual pleasures. Value-based happiness occurs as a by-product of experiencing 
basic goals (satisfying our strivings), whereas feel-good happiness occurs when 
certain senses are excited. Arguably, the study of value-based happiness, which 
is what the sixteen basic desires are all about, could be seen as a scientific 
study of the human spirit.


1. Sensitivity theory addresses the psychology of religious experiences and has 
no implications for the validity or invalidity of religious beliefs.

2. See Daniel L. Robinson's account (1989) of Aristotle's psychology, 
especially the discussions of self, for an overview of this subject matter. 
Sensitivity theory is an original theory that reflects the influence of 
Aristotle's work.

3. Under sensitivity theory, genetically influenced behavior is not necessarily 
unchangeable. Sometimes significant life events alter our fundamental desires 
and change who we are, but usually these are unplanned. Generally, 
psychologists do not know how to deliberately change their patients' basic 
desires and core values. For the most part, therapy is about changing means, 
not ends. Usually its goals are to teach patients effective means for 
satisfying their basic needs (such as teaching social skills to a person having 
interpersonal problems) or reducing conflict with regard to the means an 
individual has chosen to satisfy different ends.

4. For more than twenty centuries the scholarly study of human motivation was 
classified under the heading of "ethical philosophy" because we value what we 
want and want what we value. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics ([330 B.C.E.] 1976) 
includes lengthy discussions of motivation and temperament.

5. Details of this research are reported elsewhere. See Reiss 2000a; Reiss and 
Havercamp 1996; 1998; Reiss, Wiltz, and Sherman 2001; Wiltz and Reiss 2003; 
Dykens and Rosner 1999; Engel, Olson, and Patrick 2002; Lecavlier and Tasse 
2002; Reiss forthcoming a, b; Reiss and Havercamp forthcoming; Havercamp and 
Reiss 2003.


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