If You Know What People Want, You Know What People Will Do
The philosopher Bertrand Russell had plenty to say about human behavior and what its ultimate drivers were. In his notable Nobel Prize speech in 1950, he famously claimed, “All human activity is prompted by desire.” Russell was fascinated by ideas of innate selfish human nature versus what he called morality and virtue. He believed that if you wanted to understand people and predict how they would act, all you needed to do was understand what they wanted. People could act virtuously, but only if they first wanted to do so for their own selfish reasons.
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01:20 Russell outlined what he saw as four main “political desires,” which are, in ascending order of influence:
• Acquisitiveness (the desire to own material wealth)
• Rivalry (the desire to see others do worse than you)
• Vanity (equivalent to pride and ego)
• Love of power (the desire to control and rule over) Not very flattering, huh.
03:30 First, acquisitiveness, or plain old greed.
05:50 Rivalry is claimed to be a stronger motive.
06:58 The desire for vanity is even stronger, however.
07:46 Finally, the desire that Russell felt ruled them all is, fittingly, the desire to power.
09:45 As for the ultimate drivers of human behavior, the above seem pretty bleak. Russell did point out, however, that there was some good in these drives. The desire to dominate and control has led many people to master their fears and challenges, becoming better people.
11:00 In addition to these four motives, Russell also outlined some secondary motives—for example, the love of excitement over boredom. Perhaps we could understand many people’s actions and beliefs by looking into this motivation.
12:40 First, look at people’s physical surroundings, including the way they dress. To spot a foundational desire for rivalry in someone, look at how they conduct themselves in games, sports, or at work. Pay attention to the flow of attention. Finally, the big one: power. Put someone in charge of something small and see what happens. It’s not about how well they perform the task, but rather where their sense of joy, meaning, and self comes from. If they’re really enjoying being the proverbial king of the castle, well, you’re dealing with someone driven by power.
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