Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences

Living Edition
| Editors: Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Todd K. Shackelford


  • Amir GhoniemEmail author
  • Wilhelm Hofmann
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_501-1


Internal Factor Ecological Momentary Assessment Implicit Motive Drug Craving Drug Relapse 
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Desires are motivations that “propel us to approach certain stimuli in our environment and engage in activities with them that provide us with a relative gain in immediate pleasure (including relief from discomfort)” (Hofmann et al. 2015, p. 62).


In our everyday lives, people frequently experience desires that spur human behaviors (Hofmann et al. 2012c). Desires can be broadly conceptualized as all wishes, wants, or aspirations one holds. A reasonably narrow definition of desire conceptualizes desire as appetitive desires which refer to motivations that drive us to approach certain stimuli in the environment or to engage in certain activities which promise pleasure or relief from displeasure or discomfort (Hofmann et al. 2015). Hence, in contrast to general motives (such as self-actualization motives or implicit motives), desires are more specific and refer to certain objects, people, or activities (Hofmann et al. 2015). Desires can be rooted in multiple sources (Hofmann et al. 2015). First, humans are genetically predetermined to experience desires that are rooted in physiological need states (e.g., food, drinking, and sexual desires), ensuring the survival of human beings. However, desires can also be acquired throughout one’s life story by reinforcement learning (e.g., addictive drugs) or social learning (e.g., social media desires), leading to a large variety of stimuli and objects that can become the object of desire to a person (Sayette and Wilson 2015). Appetitive desires play an essential role in addiction (e.g., nicotine addiction) and the use of drugs (Sayette and Wilson 2015). Not only is drug craving a diagnostic criterion for substance use disorders in many classificatory manuals of clinical and mental disorders (e.g., in the DSM-5), but considerable research has also shown that drug craving is a motivator for drug use and consequently predicts drug relapses (Sayette and Wilson 2015), albeit it is not seen as an inevitable prerequisite for drug relapses (Sayette and Wilson 2015).

The Emergence of Desire

Desires emerge from a complex interplay between external stimuli in the environment and internal factors (need states and learning history). Reward processing areas in the brain, involving subcortical mesolimbic dopamine pathways (Lopez et al. 2014), automatically evaluate encountered stimuli, potentially resulting in a desire state. However, internal factors (need states and learning history) can modulate the motivational relevance of encountered stimuli and thereby modulate their effects on cravings, as proposed by the dynamical model of desire (Hofmann and Van Dillen 2012). Therefore, internal factors, such as positive learning experiences toward certain stimuli and need states (e.g., hunger or drug deprivation), predispose the individual to react with stronger cravings once these stimuli are encountered. In line with this model, recent findings show that craving for a particular object is strongest when the confrontation with these stimuli is coupled with a current need state (in this case hunger) and more overall positive learning experiences toward the object (Ghoniem and Hofmann 2016a).

The Components of Desire

Desires are multifaceted phenomenon combining affective, motivational, and cognitive components that can interplay together and hence influence each other (Hofmann et al. 2015; Hofmann and Van Dillen 2012). The affective component refers to an individuals’ subjective feeling of wanting due to an anticipation of a gain in momentary happiness and pleasure (positive reinforcement) or a relief from discomfort (negative reinforcement) when the desire is enacted (Hofmann et al. 2015). This feeling of wanting is accompanied by a motivational component which is the underlying driving force that impels an individual to approach or consume a desired object (Hofmann et al. 2015). The feeling and motivation components are often accompanied by a cognitive component. Specifically, desires often produce intrusive thoughts (Hofmann et al. 2015; Hofmann and Van Dillen 2012; Kavanagh et al. 2005), with stronger desires often eliciting more biased cognitions and motivations that support the enactment of currently experienced desire states (Hofmann and Van Dillen 2012; Kavanagh et al. 2005).

The Characteristics of Desire

Desires do not only vary in their strength or intensity and hence in their potential impact to gain control over one’s behavior (e.g., impulsive consumption of candies) but also in the frequency with which they are experienced in everyday life (Hofmann et al. 2012a, c). Moreover, desires also vary in the degree they conflict with an individual’s self-regulatory goals, values, or moral standards and therefore in the degree to which they are experienced as problematic (Hofmann et al. 2012a, c). People often attempt to inhibit or override such problematic desires, or temptations, in the service of their long-term goals or standards, with varying success (Hofmann et al. 2012a; Hofmann and Van Dillen 2012). Taking into account that individuals hold manifold long-term goals and (moral) standards (e.g., various health-related goals), it is reasonable that research has found a nontrivial amount of problematic desires pervading everyday life (Hofmann et al. 2012c), placing frequent self-control challenges on individuals (Hofmann et al. 2012c). Some temptations are more difficult to resist than others, and hence people more frequently fail to resist these (Hofmann et al. 2012c). Also, situational factors such as the presence of enactment models of desire and dispositional factors such as chronic differences in executive functioning moderate self-control success (Hofmann et al. 2012a, b). Furthermore, how individuals value and perceive temptations can modulate whether impulsive behaviors are actually construed as self-control failures and trigger corresponding feelings of shame and guilt (Ghoniem and Hofmann 2016b).

The Assessment of Desire

Desire is often measured on continuous scales since it can vary in its strength from more mildly experienced desire states to more intensely experienced desire states, often referred to as “craving” (Sayette and Wilson 2015). Several methods have been developed to assess a person’s desire toward a given object (see Sayette and Wilson 2015 for an overview), such as self-report measures that directly assess a subjectively experienced level of desire. Some of these self-report measures assess the frequency and stability to which an individual usually experience craving by asking them to rate their craving in reference to a specific time range (e.g., a specific day or week) and therefore aim at assessing an individuals’ trait craving (Sayette and Wilson 2015). However, trait measures of craving often rely on recalling past craving episodes which can be prone to memory biases (Sayette and Wilson 2015). Other measures take moment-to-moment variations and dynamic changes in experienced desires into account and thereby assess an individuals’ state craving (Sayette and Wilson 2015). An increasing number of researchers have started using one such method, ecological momentary assessment (EMA), to assess cravings in the natural environment and to study how contextual and personality factors interplay together in triggering the emergence and control of desires (Hofmann et al. 2012a). Moreover, recent and innovative approaches have combined EMA with functional neuroimaging methods to study more closely desires in everyday life (Lopez et al. 2014). Albeit self-report measures are a viable, reliable, and face valid method to assess desire, an increasing number of nonverbal methods have been developed to assess desires (see Sayette and Wilson 2015 for an overview), such as physiological responses (e.g., skin conductance), reinforcement proxies that assess the extent an individual anticipates the stimulus to be reinforcing, cognitive processing (e.g., attentional biases), expressive behavior (e.g., startle reflex), or neurobiological processes (e.g., fMRI activity in the brain regions after cue exposure). However, there is an ongoing debate on whether some of these nonverbal measures represent the desire response itself, a response which is associated with craving or a consequence of experiencing a desire state (Sayette and Wilson 2015).


Desire is a motivation to approach certain stimuli in the environment or to engage in certain activities due to an anticipation of pleasure or relief from displeasure or discomfort (Hofmann and Van Dillen 2012). It originates from a complex interplay between external stimuli in the environment and internal factors (need states and learning history) which predispose the individual to react with stronger cravings once certain stimuli in the environment are encountered (Ghoniem and Hofmann 2016a; Hofmann and Van Dillen 2012). Desires are multifaceted phenomena combining feelings, motivations, and cognitions that support the enactment of desire-related behaviors (Hofmann et al. 2015; Hofmann and Van Dillen 2012; Kavanagh et al. 2005). However, several situational and dispositional variables moderate the effectiveness of self-control in controlling problematic desires which are labeled as temptations. The scientific study of desire, desire regulation, and its long-term consequences in everyday life is constantly progressing due to innovative approaches and methods to assess the experience and control of desires (see Sayette and Wilson 2015 for a discussion).



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Social Cognition Center CologneUniversity of CologneCologneGermany

Section editors and affiliations

  • Monika Wróbel
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of PsychologyUniversity of LodzLodzPoland