My colleagues and I have gained new insight into what makes us tick by administering scientifically valid questionnaires of motives and values to about 100,000 people from North America, Europe, and Asia. We have surveyed people of all ages from many cultures. We have published 18 peer-reviewed studies and three books. And the results of all that research and those studies reveal 16 basic desires (psychological needs) common to everyone and deeply rooted in human nature. The 16 basic desires and their relevance for religious experiences come down to the following:
• Acceptance, the need for approval motivates people to find meaning in God-as-savior.
• Curiosity, the need for understanding motivates interest in omniscient gods, theology, and creation myths.
• Eating, the need for food imbues dietary laws with divine significance
• Family, the parenting instincts motivates people to find meaning in God presented as son.
• Honor, the need for character motivates interest in God as moral lawgiver.
• Idealism, the need for justice motivates helping people you do not know personally.
• Independence, the need for self-reliance motivates keeping people at a distance; a weak desire motivates a need for emotional closeness (consistent with mysticism)
• Order, the need for structure motivates interest in religious rituals.
• Physical activity, the need for exercise motivates people to take care of their bodies.
• Power, the need for influence motivates interest in omnipotent gods; a weak need motivates submission.
• Romance, the need for sex motivates interest in beauty; a weak need motivates ascetic drabness.
• Saving, the need to collect motivates interest in religious relics.
• Social contact, the need for friends motivates interest in belonging to a congregation or church.
• Status, the need for social standing motivates the need for significance; a weak need motivates humility
• Tranquility, the need for safety motivates the fear of dying; a strong need motivates interest in safety, protection, and afterlife.
• Vengeance, the desire to retaliate motivates interest in the wrath of God and in gods of battle.
I maintain that all psychologically important human motives and values are combinations of the 16 basic desires. Nothing is left out from our scientifically valid list of what makes us tick.
As explained in my new book The 16 Strivings for God: The New Psychology of Religious Experiences, the 16 basic desires make us individuals. Although everybody embraces all 16 basic desires, individuals prioritize them differently. How a person prioritizes the 16 basic desires expresses his/her core values and determines what I call our "spiritual personalities."
The Reiss Motivation Profile (RMP) is a scientifically validated questionnaire which assesses which basic desires are strong, average, or weak for the individual who completes the questionnaire. The results of the RMP questionnaire reveal the individual's spiritual personality and correspond to what the person likes or dislikes about his or her religion.
Ben completed the RMP and then was interviewed about his participation in religious activities. He is a 50-year old father of two who is an active member in his Presbyterian Church. His family attends weekly mass for the most part, and he also attends meetings where they pray for the missionaries their church sends out into the world. When his children were young they used to have weekly devotionals in the house where they would read from the Bible, watch an inspiring movie, and play games. But that's harder to do now because their children are older and have many activities. He and his wife tithe ten percent or more to the church every year.
The results of Ben's RMP are shown below. He has three strong basic desires, seven average desires. and six weak desires. On the RMP strong and weak desires are regarded as equally important in motivating what one likes and dislikes about religion.
Ben's STRONG DESIRES: honor, idealism, family
Ben's AVERAGE DESIRES: curiosity, eating, order, physical activity, romance, saving, tranquility
Ben's WEAK DESIRES: acceptance, independence, power, social contact, status, vengeance
Ben was not raised religious. His father, who was a chemistry professor, did not attend church, and his mother, an occupational therapist in an elementary school, attended the Unitarian church, but she did not really attend with her son all that often. Explains Ben: "I rarely talked about religion with my parents."
Raised in a non-religious home and free to form his own view, Ben was not religious when he set out on his own as a young man. He had had friends who participated weekly in their church but he felt they were insincere in their religious beliefs. As shown by the results of his RMP, Ben has a strong need for honor (honesty, sincerity). He is unimpressed with people who say they are religious but really aren't.
Ben took a serious look at religion after he met his wife who is devoted to Christianity. His love and support of her inspired him to agree to learn about Christianity and to allow their children to be raised in the religion. Little by little her fervor opened his head and his heart to religion. "I agreed to get married in an Episcopalian church," explains Ben. "Then I agreed to go to the pre-marriage counseling, and we agreed to bring up our kids in Christianity. I said I would go along to support her beliefs, but I wouldn't necessarily become Christian in my heart."
After the family moved to California, his wife overheard a conversation between her son on the playground with other boys in which his son was asked if he knew Jesus, and he responded, "Yes I know Chuck E Cheese." This prompted his concerned wife to demand they all go to church.
Ben took a serious look at religion.
Through many hours of study, questioning and learning from others in the church, he realized that he always had a desire to know more about Jesus and what he stood for, and he discovered what he now realizes he was searching for his whole life. "I realized that I really always did believe in Jesus and what he stood for- loving God and others as yourself," explains Ben. "I think that's why I became a teacher - that sense of serving the greater good. I was always being called by God, but I had to wait for his plan to unfold for me."
In 1996, Ben was officially baptized, and then a few years ago he was made a deacon in the church. He now says religion has given him his purpose in life, which is loving and helping others.
So what drove Ben to religion? Was it a spiritual force distinct and separate from his everyday life? No! He was driven to religion by the forces already driving his life, namely, his love for his wife and children (which fall under the basic desire for family) and his need to help others (which falls under the basic desire for idealism).
Ben's love for his wife and family motivated his decision to live a religious life. On the RMP a weak desire for independence motivates people to seek out close, loving, interdependent relationships. "The biggest reason [for becoming religious] was bringing my wife into my life and her accepting me and loving me when I wasn't a Christian," says Ben. "Basically God brought my wife to me, then he gave me clarity in my mind and heart, and finally God brought others to teach me about religion."
If Ben were an independent-minded person, he would have stubbornly fought and resented his wife's request that he embrace religion. Independent people like to do things their way. But Ben's desire for independence is weak, meaning he wants to minimize his independence and embrace interdependence, its psychological opposite. The results of the RMP tell us that his need for emotionally close, supportive relationship is significantly stronger than that experienced by most people.
A strong basic desire for family motivates adults to have children and devote themselves to family life. Ben turned to God to imbue his natural love for family life with divine significance. He and his wife are relative homebodies who revel in spending time with each other and their children. The whole family went on a multi state cycling tour a few years back. He is also a big hobbyist who loves model trains and also loves to share that with his children. His life revolves around having the time to spend with his wife and family. In fact, he gave up some summer teaching obligations a few years back so he could have the summers off to spend with his boys, who are now 19 and 15, which he repeatedly says are a focal point of his life. "I really value having that time," says Ben, "and want to do whatever it takes to spend it with them."
What if Ben had a weak need for family? Most likely he would never be home and would have little time to spend with his children. His participation in his religion would not be as a family but based on some other mode of connection to his church.
Ben is a humble and gentle person. Though he describes himself and his wife of almost 20 years as upper middle class, most of his interests don't have much to do with living a cushy lifestyle. On the RMP a weak desire for status motivates humility because that is the behavior that satisfies a weak desire. Ben is unimpressed with wealth and fame and attracted to the high value his religion places on humility.
Ben's weak desire for vengeance motives his gentleness and avoidance of conflict. Christianity's teaching to "turn the other cheek" corresponds to who he is. Since he was born with an inclination to avoid confrontation, he was inspired when he learned about Jesus' teachings on this subject. "Being a Christian and knowing God and that my life has a purpose is the biggest thing that religion gives me. I was searching for what the meaning of life was before. Now I know what that is. On a daily basis Jesus calls us to the two most important things: to love God and love your neighbor. So I try to live out a life of helping others to honor him with the deeds I do and how I live my life, and to love others as myself." If Ben had been born with a strong need for vengeance, he might worship gods of battle and find meaning in the wrath of God.
The results of Ben's RMP correspond to how he expresses his spirituality,
Weak need for status: "I am not motivated by money, and neither is Jesus,"
High need for honor "Honor and truth are important to me, and so it is to Jesus."
Weak need for independence "I seek close personal relationships," and Jesus teaches that we all have a personal relationship with him."
Weak need for power "God will provide. It's better if God is in control."
Ultimately Ben feels that Christianity has validated what he always felt was the right way to live giving him a reason to love his family, to love others, and lead a simple, honest life not overly concerned with money or material gain. His life is centered on his family and being a kind and giving person, and so is his religion.
This new blog is devoted to studying the psychology behind religious faith, especially the spiritual personality and how religion addresses the varieties of religious experience. It is based on my psychology of motivation, which reinterprets motivation as the assertion of core values, not self-determination. Chris Benguhe, a professional writer, assisted me with the story of Ben.