How do we know our own desires?

Sometimes I find myself longing for something, with little idea what it is.

This suggests that perceiving desire and perceiving which thing it is that is desired by the desire are separable mental actions.

In this state, I make guesses as to what I want. Am I thirsty? (I consider drinking some water and see if that feels appealing.) Do I want to have sex? (A brief fantasy informs me that sex would be good, but is not what I crave.) Do I want social comfort? (I open Facebook, maybe that has social comfort I could test with…)

If I do infer the desire in this way, I am still not directly reading it from my own mind. I am making educated guesses and testing them using my mind’s behavior.

Other times, it seems like I immediately know my own desires. When that happens, am I really receiving them introspectively, or am I merely playing the same inference game more insightfully?

We usually suppose that people are correct about their own immediate desires. They may be wrong about whether they want cookie A or cookie B, because they are misinformed about which one is delicious. But if they think they want to eat something delicious, we trust them on that.

On the model where we are mostly  inferring our desires from more general feelings of wanting, we might expect people are wrong about their desires fairly often.

6 responses to “How do we know our own desires?

  1. >Other times, it seems like I immediately know my own desires. When that happens, am I really receiving them introspectively, or am I merely playing the same inference game more insightfully?

    I don’t think these are mutually exclusive. You have preconscious cognitive processes that recognize various patterns in desires and promote to consciousness an idea of the thing wanted. This is introspection in the sense that you are looking at your subconscious beliefs about what would be good for you, and it’s a learned inference on the part of the relevant subconscious process.

    There is a difference conceptually between improving the quality of these cognitive processes and improving their salience, but they’re linked via a positive feedback loop; the more attention you pay to a type of desire, the better your tacit model of it gets, and the better your tacit model of it gets, the more appealing it is to pay attention to it.

  2. Chana Messinger

    Sometimes I think I’m clear on how I want to feel, but not what will get me there. Like, I want to feel validated or reassured or at ease, but I don’t know what I or someone else can say or do to get me there.

  3. I think it works like this:

    (1) sometimes you notice a feeling that ends up getting called a desire
    (2) sometimes you notice yourself tending to do a particular thing

    If the feeling and the action frequently come together, you say that the feeling is the desire for the action. If the feeling comes together with two different actions at different times, you might say that the feeling is a desire, but that you cannot tell which action it is a desire for.

    But basically you are right: we know our desires from what we end up doing, and since the one comes before the other, it is easy enough to be wrong about them.

  4. Mogens Van Leeuwen

    Here’s a sketch of my concepts in this domain:

    We have cravings, which are particular biological conditions for consumption. The clearest cravings are in regard to consumption of nutriments and recreational substances. When not concerning consumption, homologous neural machinery to craving will be classed with names like tics, urges, drives, itches, compulsions, and perhaps obligations. Unlike truly involuntary reflexes, which anatomically bypass regular decision making brain regions, the behaviors associated with cravings and homologous conditions are called semi-involuntary. All of these urge conditions are characterized by pain or irritation (or pangs of conscience in the case of obligations, which again maybe don’t belong in the category), and a corresponding difficulty concentrating.

    We have experiences of pleasure. I’ve heard that in Ainslie’s research program, pain is conceived of as a particular brief experience of intense pleasure which draws one’s attention away from normal task considerations or from a baseline utility level. I find this a very interesting, though I don’t know if it’s neuro-biologically accurate. Regardless of whether it underpins pain, pleasure is a thing, and one’s current degree of pleasure is fairly accessible introspectively. Imagined and remembered situations can also produce feelings of pleasure.

    I propose that wanting is distinct from urges, and from pleasure, and even from a prediction that some situation will be pleasant. When someone says, “I want X”, we take this as a sign they have made a decision to pursue obtaining X. This could be because they have a craving, or because they anticipate liking, but the want itself I think should be conceived of as a consciously maintained goal. We might translate “Do you want X?” as “Do you host a process which is solving for how to get X?”.

    Wanting is real, but also super complicated, because decision making is complicated. There are lots of things to consider, and many things that can fail to be considered due to limits of time and memory.

    Preferences are the next term to tackle. Preferences are mathematically conceived as total order over some…thing, such as consumption experiences or lotteries resulting in acquisitions of resources. At first, people don’t seem to have this: normatively equivalent methods of preference elicitation give rise to different responses. Some of this inconsistency might be a result of preference falsification for social appearance management, or maybe instrumental performance of a different kind. If we do have preferences, it’s probably in some limit of long contemplation.

    While it’s not clear that people have preferences at a single time, it’s abundantly clear that some contingencies producing pleasure in people can change over time.

    You may notice I haven’t used the word desire at all. Desires seem to me very much like cravings, which I think you are calling a feeling of wanting, and I don’t intuit what it means to infer a desire from a craving. Can you explain?

  5. Perhaps being “wrong” means you want something that doesn’t exist, like a would-be raver in the 1830s:

  6. Pingback: Desire and The Good | Entirely Useless


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