A topic “I want” to discuss

Having wants and expressing them to others is a very natural thing to do. Discussions with friends about plans, objectives, or ambitions typically involve use of the phrase “I want” and summaries of a position in terms of “wanting” X or Y. In discussions that involve conflict between two parties, the conflicting wants are left unstated, and each side will instead argue in favor of the consequences of their wants. Given how central “wants” are to dictating our behavior (consider how a typical Economics 101 textbook will begin with basic explanations of “wants” and “needs” as the motivators for decision-making), it is worth thinking about how we can think about our own wants, and how we can communicate them effectively to others.

The term “want” is vague. It conveys a primitive emotion rooted somewhere unknown in our cognitive processes. In cognitive science, the notion of “want” relates to a concept named motivational salience (from Wikipedia):

Motivational salience is a cognitive process and a form of attention that motivates, or propels, an individual’s behavior towards or away from a particular object, perceived event, or outcome.

Motivational salience regulates the intensity of behaviors that facilitate the attainment of a particular goal, the amount of time and energy that an individual is willing to expend to attain a particular goal, and the amount of risk that an individual is willing to accept while working to attain a particular goal.

In particular, “want” relates to incentive salience, which is an attractive form of motivational salience that causes approach behavior toward an objective:

Incentive salience is a cognitive process which confers a “desire” or “want” attribute, which includes a motivational component, to a rewarding stimulus. Reward is the attractive and motivational property of a stimulus that induces appetitive behavior — also known as approach behavior — and consummatory behavior.

The “wanting” of incentive salience differs from “liking” in the sense that liking is the pleasure that is immediately gained from the acquisition or consumption of a rewarding stimulus; the “wanting” of incentive salience serves a “motivational magnet” quality of a rewarding stimulus that makes it a desirable and attractive goal, transforming it from a mere sensory experience into something that commands attention, induces approach, and causes it to be sought out.

The above description of wants in terms of stimuli, goals, sensory experiences, risk, time, energy, attention, and rewards shows why summarizing an idea simply as “I want X” carries low information content. It leaves the main aspects that characterize the “want” almost entirely unaddressed. And while many of these aspects may be implicit — surely some wants are just obvious — the question then becomes, why are they obvious?

Proposition: when expressing an idea (usually some combination of a request, objective, and plan) which can be loosely phrased as “I want X”, we can avoid the term “I want” and draw out an explanation as follows:

  • the suggestion is X;
  • the objective is Y;
  • the investment effort is W;
  • the reason is Z.

This form of thinking may appear rather mechanical, and perhaps even frustrating, to express a simple statement such as “I want X”. More so, the terminal “reason Z” can itself be a “want”, which then necessitates a recursive evaluation of the rule, up to some point of satisfaction or satiation.

The exercise of investigating a “want”, which may resemble a form of Socratic dialogue with onesself, will often bottom out at the qualities at the core of our human characteristics, most of which are poorly understood — on the positive side: benevolence, empathy, security, rationality, or harmony; on the negative side: fear, insecurity, greed, jealousy, irrationality, or selfishness; on the neutral side: progression, efficiency, aesthetic, ambition, or curiosity.

A methodological unpacking of the bases of our “wants” is therefore fundamental for arriving at carefully examined intentions and motivations. It is not uncommon to fixate on a given desire, yet struggle to express why the fixation exists in the first place. Does the “want” arise from a need, from external pressures, from a projection, from an illusion? How much resources are to be allocated in pursuit of a want, and which resources need to be traded-off? What principles will need to be reinforced, and which will have to be relaxed? What is the fall-back for the event that the “want” turns out to be not as desired as originally anticipated?

One might say that the propositions above are uninterestingly obvious, or a mere list of truisms. However, there is a strong distinction between knowing these ideas in the safety of the abstract, and deploying these techniques with full force and discipline in the danger of practice: personal disputes, workplace rivalries, corporate warfare, partisan politics, international conflict.

We should be ready to accept that the examination of a “want” may lead to uncomfortable resolutions. At the same time, this discomfort is necessary. It is necessary to be maximally honest with ourselves; necessary to build emotional and intellectual stability; and necessary to foster cooperation with other agents who have conflicting and competing wants of their own.

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