Book Review: Who am I?

Steven Reiss had a life-threatening illness which led him to rethink what makes life meaningful. His research formed the basis of his book Who am I?: The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Actions and Define Our Personality. Steven Reiss describes at length the 16 basic desires1 that he identified together with Susan Havercamp:

  1. Power is the desire to influence others.
  2. Independence is the desire for self-reliance.
  3. Curiosity is the desire for knowledge.
  4. Acceptance is the desire for inclusion.
  5. Order is the desire for organization.
  6. Saving is the desire to collect things.
  7. Honor is the desire to be loyal to one’s parents and heritage.
  8. Idealism is the desire for social justice.
  9. Social Contact is the desire for companionship.
  10. Family is the desire to raise one’s own children.
  11. Status is the desire for social standing.
  12. Vengeance is the desire to get even.
  13. Romance is the desire for sex and beauty.
  14. Eating is the desire to consume food.
  15. Physical Activity is the desire for exercise of muscles.
  16. Tranquility is the desire for emotional calm.

Each desire must fulfill the following criteria2:

  1. The desire must be valued intrinsically rather than for its effects on something else. That is, it must be sought for its own sake.
  2. The desire must have explanatory significance for understanding the lives of nearly everyone.
  3. The desire must be largely unconnected to the other basic desires.

I found Steven Reiss distinction between feel-good happiness and value-based happiness interesting3, but otherwise I’m not convinced by Reiss’ arguments. I think, for example, that idealism and vengeance are related. Read Talking to the Enemy by Scott Atran and you will see that an act of vengeance also can be an act of idealism. Also, being influenced by Christopher Alexander, I think real beauty 1) can be valued intrinsically, 2) have explanatory significance for understanding our lives, and 3) is largely unconnected to the other 16 desires – most notably romance and sex. Actually, I think the desire for real beauty is related to, but more basic than, the desire for order. I might be wrong, but I suspect that it’s our personalities that motivate our desires, and not our desires that motivate our personalities.

1 Steven Reiss, Who am I?: The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Actions and Define Our Personality, (Berkley, 2002), pp. 17–18.
2 Ibid., p. 33.
3 Ibid., pp. 123–141.

Published by Jan Höglund

Jan Höglund has over 35 years of experience in different roles as software developer, project manager, line manager, consultant, and researcher. This is his personal blog where he shares his reading, book reviews, and learning.

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