Hugh Mackay on the Ten Desires That Make Us Tick

hugh mackay

Since introducing Hugh Mackay’s Ten Desires that Drive Us into my copywriting course in 2011, hundreds of students have been declaring it a revelation. These ten desires revealed to them a target audience beyond postcodes, wants and “pain points”. So much so that you could profile a target audience to the point of visualising him or her sitting across the table.

As is his way, Hugh Mackay takes us deep into the human psyche. Then he organises and crystalises the many dimensions of “desire” into ten moods. We all share them and they all drive us.

The following are extracts from Hugh Mackay’s talk at Charles Sturt University shortly after the release of What Makes Us Tick: The Ten Desires That Drive Us in 2010.

Based on my course participants’ experience, I’m sure you too will have a revelation or ten.

1. Target audience desire to be taken seriously

Although I have already said several desires will usually be interacting to produce a particular piece of behaviour, there is one desire that is almost always present in the mix. In fact, offhand, I can’t think of any behaviour where you would not find this particular desire struggling for expression. This is the desire to be taken seriously. That doesn’t mean we desire to be regarded as serious people. It is all about the desire to be acknowledged as the unique individual each of us knows ourselves to be – the desire to be noticed, appreciated, valued, accepted … perhaps even remembered.

All of us need that reassurance. We all need to know that that someone is taking us seriously; that we aren’t being ignored or forgotten.

Young people applying for work often say they send off dozens of applications and don’t even receive an acknowledgement of their application. As one of them said to me, “It’s as if you don’t exist”. The same occurs if you are kept waiting for too long in a doctor’s surgery, without explanation or apology.

It is this desire that explains why all of us hate being the victims of racism or sexism or any other prejudice that simply lumps us in with a category, as if we ourselves have no unique identity. “Oh, she’s a single mother … gay … Presbyterian … a Baby Boomer …” we hate being labelled like that, because we feel we ourselves are not being taken seriously.

Of course, some people who feel they aren’t being taken seriously enough decide they are going to do the job themselves and end up taking themselves far too seriously. (Perhaps that’s one reason why we should take each other seriously – to avoid the pain of having to put up with the arrogance or hubris of those who are still trying to deal with the feeling that they have been overlooked or, at least, insufficiently recognised and acknowledged.)

It’s the desire to be taken seriously that explains why good listeners are so highly prized. When someone gives you their undivided attention, the clear message is: “I am taking you seriously as a person”. It’s also why counselling is generally so effective … because the counselling relationship – the counselling model – says to the client: “This is all about you. I am here to listen. I am taking you seriously.”

So the way we listen to each other, the way we respect each other’s passions (even if we don’t share them), the way we respond to each other’s needs, the way we make – or don’t make – time for each other, even the way we make love to each other … all these things send clear signals about the extent to which we are taking each other seriously.

So that’s the most persistent of the ten desires that drive us. Let me run more quickly through the other nine.

2. Target audience desire to find their place in the world

There’s the desire for ‘my place’. We all have a powerful sense of place. We all need places in our life that say things about us we’re pleased to have said; places that symbolise, perhaps, our rites of passage or other magical moments or phases of our lives. Some people, even well into middle age, never quite forgive their elderly parents for selling the family home! For churchgoers, “my place” could be a favourite pew. For some people, it might be the shed or the bed or a favourite armchair.

We all have places that define us; places where we feel comfortable and in control. Migrants speak of the sense of rootlessness that can arise from losing the places that were special to them in their birth country and never being quite able to replace them in their adopted country.

You may not be able to remember the person with whom you shared your first romantic kiss (though I hope you can) but you are very likely to remember where it happened. We know, because “place” is an integral part of emotionally powerful experiences: we are, quite literally, “rooted to the spot”.

3. Target audience desire to have something to believe in

Humans are born believers – in terms of cognitive effort, neuroscience tells us, it is easier for us to believe than to remain sceptical. Bertrand Russell wrote that “man is a credulous animal and must believe something. In the absence of good grounds for belief he will be satisfied with bad ones”. It is not surprising that we need something to believe in because our beliefs are how we make sense of life’s mysteries: Why we are here, what is the purpose of living, what is going to happen next, what is our place in the world … the answers to all these questions seem locked up in mystery. So we need some way of making sense of our lives; attaching meaning to our lives; finding a template, a code, that gives us a framework of “meaning”.

In other words, we need a belief system to help us explain to ourselves why we are here and how we should live.

If you’re looking for evidence of our desire to believe – and of the therapeutic power of belief – look no further than the famous “placebo effect” in medical research. Many of you will be familiar with this. When medical researchers are trying to determine the efficacy of a drug, half the people in their test sample receive the drug and the other half receive an inert substance – like a sugar-coated piece of chalk. They all know that they may not be taking the drug at all and yet, in hundreds of published papers reporting clinical trials of this kind, a persistent 30 percent of people who are only swallowing the chalk report the same therapeutic effect as those taking the drug.

Belief itself seems potentially therapeutic for many of us, so it wouldn’t pay to be too sceptical about faith-healing, would it?

4. Target audience desire to connect with each other, ourselves and nature

This is really a threefold desire. We all know that we are social creatures – we need to connect with each other; communication is our lifeblood. But we also need to connect with ourselves; to know ourselves; to feel “in touch” with ourselves.

Know thyself is an injunction we’d all like to respond to though, for most of us, it seems to be a lifelong project. My personal guru in the field of psychology, the US psychotherapist Carl Rogers, reflecting on 40 years of clinical practice said: “There is only one problem”. What he meant was that it always came down in the end to this: What kind of person am I that is now in such a situation?

And we also need to connect with the natural world. This can be a problem for people who live in highly urbanised areas, cut off from “nature”, living in a concrete jungle, a high-rise apartment block or an area so developed it’s links with the natural world are perhaps hidden. Most of us in that kind of situation need to compensate for it: we go swimming in a river or in the sea; we go rock-climbing, or bush-walking; or we maintain a small garden, or have a pet.

Some of you are old enough to recall the pet rock craze of the 1970s. That was a tremendous marketing success. Most people found rocks to be deeply unresponsive pets, and the whole thing was a kind of joke – but it was also a sign of just how badly we need to feel some connection with the natural world, and how restless and anxious we can feel when we are cut off from nature.

5. Target audience desire to be useful

I don’t think I need to say much about the desire to be useful except to invite you to consider how you would feel if the judgment on your life was this: “Oh, he’s been a pretty useless father; she’s a useless person around the office; they’re useless neighbours.”

We all need to know we’re useful; that we serve some purpose; that we are contributing.

It is the desire to be useful that propels us to do jobs that we don’t like, but know need to be done. It’s the desire to be useful that makes us helpful; that fuels our altruism. It sounds like a modest desire but it’s the very thing that helps create a civil society.

 6. Target audience desire to belong

We are social creatures; tribal creatures; herd animals. We need those little groups –herds – that provide an intimate connection with others and we need those larger tribes as well – religious, political, sporting, professional. We need both kinds of belonging to give us a satisfying sense of identity and to build up our emotional security. It seems as if we can’t easily get on without each other: there are true hermits and isolates, but they are few and far between.

Traditionally, the herd was the immediate, nuclear family; the tribe was the extended family. In modern, more fragmented societies, both herds and tribes tend to be less familial: the herd might be a book club or a workgroup or a small knot of friends and neighbours; the tribe might be a political party or a religion. For many people, religion is as much about belonging as believing. I recently heard an American quote her Jewish grandfather: “A Jew goes to the synagogue to sit next to another Jew,” he said, and there’s plenty of truth in that – and not only for Jews.

7. Target audience desire for more

All of our desires have the power to bring out the best or the worst in us, but there are a couple that often seem darker than the rest. The desire for more, for instance. We are an insatiable bunch, aren’t we? We seem to want more of whatever we have; whatever we enjoy; whatever makes us feel good – even if only fleetingly. It’s our desire for more food and drink that is driving the Western epidemic of obesity. Our desire for more possessions – more stuff – has got us deeper and deeper into debt. Our desire for more stimulation drives our voracious media consumption habit, and our appetite for more and more IT gizmos.

All of us desire more life. Early in life and into our middle years most of us say: “I’m only interested in the quality of my life; quantity doesn’t count. When bits start falling off, or I start doing and saying stupid things, hit me on the head will you?” And then bits do start falling off and we do start doing and saying stupid things, and then we say: “Is there a pill?” For some people, the greatest appeal of religion is that it offers the promise of yet more life beyond this mortal span — perhaps through eternal life, or a process of constant reincarnation.

8.Target audience desire for control

But by far our most troublesome desire is the desire for control.

Most of us stumble through life hoping to be able to control the uncontrollable, such as the weather and the traffic, and, most especially, each other! It takes us a long time to realise – and then accept – that the only life we can control is our own and, when it comes to weather or traffic or the myriad other external events and circumstances that affect our lives, the only thing we can control is our reaction to those external forces.

Most of our phobias, our neuroses, are about this desire for control being frustrated. Fear of flying, fear of crowds, fear of travelling in lifts, fear of open spaces .. all such fears are expressions of our desire for control.

One of the ways we try to gain a sense of control is through our beliefs, and our interpretation of events. If you feel you can explain something, you often feel more in control of its effect on you. So the desire for control overlaps with the desire for something to believe in.

9. Target audience desire for something to happen

Here’s another powerful desire that drives us: the desire for something to look forward to. Of course, we say we crave stability, predictability and certainty, and when we have those things we complain that nothing ever happens. The truth about us is that we thrive on unpredictability and uncertainty and we have since we were children. We are stimulated by having to deal with the unexpected.

Of course, we have a deep and justified craving for stability in our emotional lives. We yearn for emotional stability, most of us. We need the security of knowing we are accepted and valued in the groups we belong to. But beyond that, it’s unpredictability that keeps us alive, alert and interested. Predictability is precisely what we don’t need. Rituals are important for our sense of well-being, but they need to be balanced by uncertainty.

If you want to keep your brain active, a crossword won’t achieve much once you’ve learned to master it; it’s the uncertainty and unpredictability of personal encounters that really keeps us going.

10. Target audience desire for love and to be loved

This desire expresses our yearning for the deepest and most emotionally rich and satisfying of all our human experiences. We all need people to love us and we need to love. This is the desire that brings out the very best in us; that encourages us to perform acts of extraordinary kindness; that reassures us and develops our capacity for empathy. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to experience the unconditional love of a parent, the thrill of romantic love, or the deep satisfaction and joy of enduring friendship know that love is our greatest contribution to making the world a better place.

Of course there are other kinds of desires that drive us. There are ethereal desires – ideals – that drive our passion for justice, truth and beauty. And there are basic “survival” needs (I’d hardly call them desires) for food, drink, sleep and shelter, and, on behalf of the survival of the species, the desire for sex.

But the desires I’m discussing tonight relate to our sense of who we are and our place in society.

None of the desires I’ve described is inherently good or bad. Each of them has the potential to bring out the best and the worst in us; each of them has the potential to cast a dark shadow. Refusing to acknowledge another person, for instance, is usually the shadow cast by our own desire to be taken seriously. Mocking someone else’s beliefs is often a shadow cast by our own desire for something to believe in. Wanting less for someone else is the shadow cast by our own desire for more.

The art of living is, at least partly, about our ability to recognise that we are all swept along by these desires; torn by them; sometimes riven by the contest between them … and then working out how to bringing them into a harmonious relationship.

These desires are not about survival, but about the choices we make every day – choices that determine the kind of people we will become and the kind of society we will create.


Meanwhile, my online copywriting course’s latest timetable is up and running and ready to take your booking now. It’s designed and delivered to meet your desire for control over the means of communication.

* What Makes Us Tick: The Ten Desires That Drive Us

** What Makes Us Tick, How to Write a Hi Fi Brief, and Hopes Fears Desires

*** This was a talk first given at Charles Sturt University’s Wagga Wagga campus On the 15 November 2010, shortly after the release of What Makes Us Tick: The Ten Desires That Drive Us

Originally posted 2019-02-27 00:56:50.

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