Monday, April 28, 2014

When we want what we can’t have

Remember Charlie Brown, who spent many of his precious childhood moments aching for the infinitely unreachable red-headed girl? 

It seems we want what we can’t have more often than not. Sure, it’s a cliché but it’s unfortunately and routinely true. This happens in all sorts of places, in all walks of life and involves people (perhaps that gal that got away), that house by the sea, more hair, that job… well, you get the idea. Even The Rolling Stones sang about it way back then. It’s entirely possible that we might just be gluttons for punishment.

But here are a few more reasons why

When we perceive something is scarce or in limited supply or a one-off, its professed value increases. You want it more because you think other people also want it. If you’ve ever bid at auctions you know the experience of that last-minute excitement as you watch the bids spiral upward. People also don’t like to be told they can’t have or can’t do something. This is related to not wanting to be controlled by others, especially if the situation feels unfair or arbitrary. Sometimes when something is hard to get (or forbidden) you immediately pay more attention to it.
Our reward system plays havoc with our innermost desires.  It only takes one or two times for them to form associations between random events in the outside world and something that feels so good we can’t stop craving more. For example, Dopamine floods our brain when it’s overwhelmed with pleasure. Having said this, it’s much much more difficult to understand why different people’s reward systems respond differently to so many different triggers.

Incidentally, in the words of the Rolling Stones, you “might just find [that] you get what you need.”

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