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What Do We Really Desire?

We always desire what is denied us.

"We always long for the forbidden things, and desire what is denied us." —Francois Rabelais

"Burning desire to be or do something gives us staying power—a reason to get up every morning or to pick ourselves up and start in again after a disappointment." —Marsha Sinetar

There are many aspects influencing our romantic desires, some of which relate to personality characteristics and others to circumstantial factors. In this post, I would like to focus on two major aspects—the aspect of attainability and the aspect of the reality of what we desire.

With regard to this issue, there are two prevailing claims: a) our desire is greater when the object is real and attainable; (b) our desire is greater when the object is imaginary and unattainable. Which claim is correct? Do we desire the one we have more than we desire the one we imagine having? There are good arguments for both claims.

The major argument for the first claim is that something real is more relevant to us. Indeed, the more real the situation, the more intense is the emotion (if all other factors are equal). Hence, a very strong event, which may be quite relevant to our well-being, may not provoke excitement if we succeed in considering it as a fantasy: The emotional intensity decreases accordingly. Thus, despite the horrifying impact of a potential nuclear holocaust, many people do not allow this to upset them since they do not consider the event to be a real possibility.

Two major arguments that support the claim that the imaginary and the unattainable arouse our desire more are based upon the more exciting nature of imaginary and incomplete experiences.

As imagination seems to have no limits, its content can be more exciting. Anyone who so wishes can imagine his beloved was Miss World, but most people would not consider their spouse to be quite so beautiful.

The romantic unattainable has the characteristic of "unfinished business"; it is an experience that has not yet arrived at the desired state—in this sense, it is incomplete. In contrast to how we feel about what we already have, we are typically excited by anything that is incomplete, unsettled, unexplained, or uncertain. When the situation becomes stable and normal, there is no reason for the mental system to be on the alert and to invest further resources (see the book, The Subtlety of Emotions).

All the aforementioned arguments are indeed valid, and we need to see how their elements can be combined into a desirable emotional experience.

In examining the notion of "emotional reality," two major senses should be discerned: (a) ontological and (b) epistemological. The first sense refers to whether the event actually exists or is merely imaginary. The second sense is concerned with relationships of the event to other events (see "What Happens When Your Lover Is Real?").

Referring to the ontological sense of reality, we may say that emotions aroused by imaginary objects are less intense than those elicited by actually existing objects. When we know that the danger actually exists, we are more frightened than when we suspect that the danger is illusory. Likewise, we are less envious of a successful person in a movie than of an actually existing successful person.

The epistemological sense of emotional reality relies on the vividness of the object. We receive information from various sources and with varying degrees of vividness. Pictures are most vivid due to the vast amount of information supplied by the vision—hence, their importance in our everyday life. A picture or, better still, a film-clip of one wounded child usually has a more emotional impact than reports about thousands killed. A picture is worth a thousand words.

The most desirable emotional experience will combine real features that actually exist with imaginary ones that enhance the desire. Thus, a movie that is based upon a true story is more exciting (if all other factors are equal) than a purely fictional movie.

Although imagination describes events that do not obey all normal regularities and are not constrained by the laws of nature, this does not mean that it knows no regularity or constraints at all. On the contrary, unlike free-form fantasy, emotional imagination is often strongly constrained by various factors. In order for such imagination to generate greater desire, it is important that it be perceived as real: that is, as resembling reality in some sense.

Consider the following description of a prostitute who used to work for the Hollywood Madam, Heidi Fleiss: "Heidi gave me an outline on the client. Some were turned on by sexy lingerie, others by dirty talk; some wanted hard-to-get, others, bad girls; some preferred a natural look; others requested lots of makeup and big hair. It was my job to flesh out the small details, make the fantasy real." No doubt, fantasies were most important in generating the male sexual desire in the above cases, but the prostitute's job was to guarantee that these fantasies would look very real.

Accordingly, Olivia St. Clair offers her readers, who are ready to unleash their sex goddess, to make their fantasies as real as possible by adding a dash of tactile reality: for example, a filmy scarf for their harem sojourn or juicy fruits for their fantasy love with Tom Jones. Similarly, works of art provide us with imaginary situations, but their authors make us believe in their reality by referring to real, everyday events.

In generating emotions, what role does the factor of "being attainable" play? This factor is one of the features of reality. Something that is attainable is real in the ontological sense—it is not merely a fantasy, but rather is something that exists and that could be experienced immediately.

However, something that is attainable needs no attention since it is likely to be perceived as being granted already. On the other hand, incomplete experiences, which are a kind of unfinished business, are more desirable because, among other aspects, they require more effort to be invested in them, which can cause them to be perceived as more worthy. Hence, those who play hard to get often make themselves more desirable.

However, here, too, there is a need to combine the elements of being attainable and unattainable in order to increase desire. Thus, although "playing hard to get" is a most effective strategy for attracting a partner, when the required effort is too immense, and the probability of its success is low, people may give up the idea of pursuing someone who is playing hard to get and may not invest the extra effort necessary to "win" the player. At a certain point, an increase in the required effort decreases emotional intensity, since people begin to believe that the outcome for which effort is being invested is actually unattainable and hence unreal.

Without a doubt, life is complex, and there is no simple answer to the question of whether attainability and reality increase or decrease romantic desire because there are a variety of different aspects at play that are sensitive to various personality traits and changing circumstances. Nevertheless, we can perceive a model that suggests the manner in which our desire develops in this regard. It seems certain that various types of attainability and reality do play—to varying degrees and in different manners—a significant role in the intensity of romantic desire.