Intrinsic Motivation and the 16 Basic Desires Theory

The 16 basic desires theory of intrinsic motivation was developed in the 1990s by Steven Reiss, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ohio State University. The theory claims that nearly all human and animal behavior is guided by 16 basic desires. It is one of several theories of motivation, that aim to explain human and animal behavior.

The 16 basic desires are: power, independence, curiosity, acceptance, order, saving, honor, idealism, social contact, family, status, vengeance, romance, eating, physical exercise, and tranquility. Reiss and colleague Susan Havercamp developed the theory through studies carried out with more than 3,500 participants of all ages and backgrounds. The participants were presented with a list of 328 statements, each of which encapsulated a potential basic desire. They were asked how much they agreed or disagreed with each one.

Analysis of the findings revealed the identities of the 16 basic desires. Reiss believes that at least 14 of the 16 desires have a genetic basis and are shared by humans and animals. Only idealism and acceptance may not have a biological basis. Reiss noted that all the desires are quite different, which may account for the complexity of human behavior.


Intrinsic motivation—
Intrinsic motivation drives behavior which is personally rewarding to the individual.
Motivation is the process that initiates, directs, and maintains a goal-directed behavior.

The 16 basic desires theory helps explain differences in individual behavior. The study showed that people place different importance upon each of the desires. Thus, someone who rates vengeance highly will be sensitive to insult, while someone who rates it less highly may not take offense so easily. Someone who rates order highly will always notice dirty dishes, while someone for whom order is not a priority will be comfortable living with disorder. The researchers have developed a test called the Reiss profile, which can measure these individual differences.

Reiss claims that there can be as many as two trillion different Reiss profiles, given the possible combinations and levels of the 16 basic desires. The 16 basic desires theory differs from other theories of motivation in this multifaceted approach. Other theories have a simpler view of human motivation, stating that behavior is driven by basic motives such as pleasure, mastery, or biological drives for food, power, or sex.

See also Conscious and unconscious motivations ; Educational psychology ; Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation ; Learning ; Motivational theories; Motivation ; Rational motivations; School psychology .



Reiss, Steven. Who Am I? The 16 Basic Desires that Motivate Our Actions and Define Our Personalities. New York: Berkeley Publishing, 2002.


Reiss, Steven. “Multifaceted nature of intrinsic motivation: The Theory of 16 Basic Desires.” Review of General Psychology Vol. 8, no. 3 (2004): 179–193.


Ohio State University. “Steven Reiss.” (accessed March 5, 2015).

Reiss Profile. “A new perspective on personality.” (accessed March 5, 2015).