[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  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.
THEORY OF BASIC MOTIVATION
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
BASIC GOAL (Core value)
knowledge, cognition (truth)
raise children (family values)
sound character (morals)
fairness (human condition)
organization (precision, cleanliness)
muscle movement (strength)
influence (leadership, glory)
prestige, stature (social class)
personal safety (prudence)
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
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
incomprehensible, ineffable God
fasts, dietary laws
mythical gods of abandonment
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.
THEORY OF RELIGION
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
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
SCIENTIFIC STUDY OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT
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
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
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