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Notes on the Causes of Wanting

In Section 1, under The Wanterfall Model, I took the state of wanting something as my starting point. I did not consider the causes of that wanting, because you can understand the model – and later use it as the basis for EEEEs work or Wanterfall work if you choose – without either knowing or caring why we want things in the first place.

However, for any readers who may be interested, I am appending a few comments on the causes of wanting. As mentioned earlier in the book, it is a significant degree of wanting that concerns us here, rather than an idle wondering about what might be nice, or a slight preference for a garment of this colour rather than that.

As far as causes are concerned, one thing seems clear at the outset. As with anything else, we could either start our lives with wants, or we could pick them up along the way – or we could do a bit of both. In other words, some wanting could be instinctive, and the rest would have to be acquired. If it were acquired, it would usually have to be learned – though the common meaning of learning would allow some exceptions to this rule.[102] I will talk about learned wanting first.

Learned Wanting

If I have ever enjoyed eating an ice cream, sailing a boat, making love, commanding a regiment – or absolutely anything else that I found pleasant – then I will want to have that pleasure again. I will want as much of it as possible, and as often as possible. Preferably, an unlimited supply.

If I have ever suffered as a result of having a toothache, being bullied at school, breaking up with a lover, having no money – or absolutely anything else that I found painful – then I will want to avoid that pain in future. I will want as little of it as possible, and as seldom as possible. Preferably, none at all.

In other words, if I have had pleasure of any sort, I want more pleasure. And if I have been hurt in any way, I don't want to be hurt again. This is learned wanting. Its roots are fixed in experience, its trunk carries the memories, and its branches spread out far and wide.

However, after some experience of life, it is not always necessary to have had prior experience of something, to be able to make a pretty good guess at whether we want it – or want to avoid it. This is an extension of learned wanting, based on a combination of experience and reasoning.

That last type, incidentally, can also be influenced by anything that affects our conditioning, as discussed in Section 3. Anything from the past behaviour of our parents, to the recent effects of advertising, might contribute to the direction and intensity of our wanting.

Instinctive Wanting

In addition to learned wanting, we also have – whether we like it or not – some instinctive desires. There are various definitions for instinct, but they are all along the lines of an innate urge, tendency, behaviour or response which is typical of the species under consideration. From the point of view of the Wanterfall model, instinctive wanting is neither more nor less important than any other sort of wanting. But there are some differences in the way in which it presents.

A learned desire is usually no surprise to us, though it may sink into the mind to the extent that we become less aware of it over time. However, instinctive desires seem to have permeated all levels of the mind before we become aware of them. They can, therefore, easily take us by surprise – and sometimes seem quite overwhelming.

Considering the many variables that influence human behaviour, the vagueness of the existing definitions and the complexity of biological systems in general, it is not surprising that there is no universally agreed list of human instincts. However, there is widespread agreement that they exist.

For the purposes of these notes, I am going to suggest that the main human instincts are self-preservation, sex, family and society. You can deduce from the previous paragraph that I am not expecting everyone to agree with this list. However, they are certainly all rich potential sources of wanting. I will discuss each one briefly, fairly soon.

Of the various other things that are sometimes put forward as instincts, the urges to satisfy basic needs for air, water, food, shelter, temperature regulation and security might well be considered as separate instincts. However, I prefer to include all these urges as part of the instinct for self-preservation.

Aggression is often called an instinct. It is, however, a behaviour with a variety of possible causes, many of which are not instinctive. Aggression in response to a threat can be instinctive – in which case it belongs under self-preservation.

Aggression in response to a rude gesture, however, is multifactorial in origin. The factors include wanting to avoid the pain remembered from previous instances of disrespect, triggering of unfinished business relating to those instances, individual and societal conditioning about various rights and duties relating to respect, and probably quite a few other factors which would depend on the particular case.

The urge to acquire language might be instinctive, but it could also be motivated by rewards. Alternatively, it could simply result from the exposure of a young brain to repeated learning opportunities.

Altruism, disgust, and the automatic responses to some non-verbal signals have sometimes been defined as instincts, too; but I think it is very difficult to separate these reactions from learned behaviours. Perhaps some of them could be included under the family and social instincts.

Reflex responses, such as those that occur when you tap a tendon or stroke the sole of the foot, have been described as instincts by some authors. However, I think that if reflexes are classified as instincts, you might as well include every innate, species-wide phenomenon which is the result of something else – including digestion, immune responses and perspiration.

I expect there are other things that are sometimes referred to as instincts, but I will just comment briefly on the four main ones that I referred to above. In any case, whether something is an instinct or not is of very little significance in Wanterfall work. It is the intensity of wanting that makes a Wanterfall powerful.


Any threat to personal safety almost invariably elicits a powerful attempt to control the dangerous factors or to escape from them. Some of this is learned, but the innate part – which is considerable – is the self-preservation instinct.

All species exhibit strong responses to any threat. In many species, including humans, the initial response is the "fight or flight response".[103] Importantly, very little Wanterfalling occurs at the time of a serious threat – danger tends to demand undivided attention. And even if, as sometimes happens, fear paralyses the mind rather than being suppressed by the immediate practical needs, that paralysed state will not result in significant emotional resolution.

If there were ever any humans who used to waste time Wanterfalling when their lives were at immediate risk, perhaps they died out long ago – taking their genes with them.[104] At any rate, the urge to escape danger is an example of a strong desire which usually proceeds directly to action, rather than splitting into hope and fear and continuing on down the Wanterfall.


Sexual attraction also has a strong innate component, though many other factors influence it. The innate component is often referred to as the sex instinct. This small word sex – which I will use in its broadest sense, including attraction, romance, courtship and both short and long relationships – stands for a very, very large subject. (Sexual orientation, sexuality and gender identification add their own contributions, but do not alter the role of the sex instinct as one cause of wanting.)

Within the broad field of sex can be found poorly understood unconscious and invisible attractive forces; emotional effects and reactions so strong that they can swamp all other aspects of life; and opportunities for a variable, but almost universally popular, degree of physical pleasure. The latter may also have significant deferred effects, whether desired or not.[105]

The physical aspects of sex alone are the subject of countless publications, endless thought, and not a little action. But they really only represent the tip of the iceberg. Yes, I think I will rephrase that. They represent incandescent but evanescent sparks from a perpetual furnace. Hmm. Still needs more work.

Among the many non-physical aspects of sex is the development of a bond between the protagonists, which might at least partly result from multiple occasions of sexual intercourse; or might at least partly explain them; or neither; or perhaps a bit of both. Whatever the cause, this bond can vary from "love" conditional enough to satisfy the most hard bitten cynic, to "love" sufficiently lacking in conditions to be quite bewildering to almost anyone.

Because sex is such a huge subject, I was going to devote a section of the book to it. But this book is about emotions, and the emotions associated with sex are no different from the emotions associated with anything else. They may roll in with the power of a tsunami, but they are still neither more nor less than the inevitable results of wanting something.

That "something" may be so subtle that words cannot approach it – or so unsubtle, that they rarely try to do so. But whatever it is, if you want it – or any aspect of it – the resulting Wanterfall will give birth to all of the emotions discussed in this book.

In other words, although it is far too simplistic, it is nevertheless true, to say that from the perspective of this book, sex is simply one of the reasons we are likely to want something. Or wish, or hope, or think it would be nice, if only – or, of course, the negative of any of those. All of which, as we have seen, drops you straight onto the Wanterfall. Splash.

So I did not subject you to a whole section about something which is relevant to this book simply as one cause of wanting. However, I have stretched this part of my notes on instinctive wanting a little, and perhaps made a few detours, in deference to the magnitude of that iceberg – er, furnace – and its effects.

Of course, not everything related to sex is instinctive. The instinct is mainly an attractive force, and is active long before any potential for pleasure is discovered consciously. However, when attraction leads to proximity, the experience of physical and emotional rewards becomes a more immediate possibility. And any pleasure which is experienced – or even simply imagined – provides a learned desire for more of the same.

Not everything related to sex gives pleasure, though. Many people suffer as a result of various situations in which sex does not live up to expectations. Sometimes, the expectations themselves are a source of confusion and distress. Orientation and gender issues can be slow and difficult to resolve, and society's acceptance of minority groups is usually qualified. These are all likely causes for Wanterfalls, and can all potentially benefit from EEEEs work.

When a couple encounters difficulties developing or maintaining the sexual relationship they desire, working through painful emotions weakens underlying barriers, reduces anxiety, shyness and shame, facilitates co-operation and allows the discovery – or rediscovery – of a kind and co-operative approach to sex.

As a result, many sexual problems may solve themselves. Those that do not may still be more likely to respond to types of counselling specifically designed for the purpose, or to medical interventions. And both of these may previously have been declined due to the presence of unresolved emotions.

This two way interaction between sexual issues and EEEEs work is, of course, no different from the usual two way interaction between any other problem and EEEEs work. And whether the problem is founded on an instinctive desire or a learned desire, the emotions involved are still as described in Section 2 – and their cure is still as described in Section 4.


The desire to start, protect and be part of a family probably also has a major instinctive component. These urges facilitate the care of children until they are independent, and sometimes also the care of parents after they are no longer independent. They also allow children to learn many social skills in a protected environment. However, the existence of a family instinct does not guarantee a perfect family.

A patient once told me with great confidence that the love of a mother for her child is truly unconditional. If that is the case, I wish more mothers would put it into practice. Too often, the message that children understand is that they are loved best when they behave well, get good marks at school, are successful at sports and generally please their parents.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross[106] used to refer to this situation as "bringing up our children to be prostitutes" – in other words, teaching them that they receive rewards when they give us pleasure. I think the best way to avoid that type of parenting, is for parents to pay attention to their own feelings – and perhaps even do a little Wanterfall work.


Finally, the social urge, the urge to spend at least some time in company rather than alone, is likely to be at least partly instinctive. The tendency for family units to settle in fairly close proximity, forming a village or a town, has been with us as far back as history can reach. It is generally thought of as an instinct, but there are also learned reasons for congregating.

Settling together allows resources to be pooled, knowledge shared, defences strengthened and so on. The ensuing benefits can easily be noticed – and remembered. The enjoyment of companionship, and the enhanced possibility of finding a suitable mate in a larger group, could also be partly learned. But whether instinctive or not, all these things can engender instances of wanting, and can therefore start Wanterfalls.

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[102] The physiological element of dependence on a drug is acquired as a result of repeated administration of the drug. This is not learning in the usual sense of the word, but it does give rise to a state of wanting the drug. Other exceptions might be suggested, such as the state of wanting pain relief, as a result of the development of a painful condition. However, I think a high proportion of acquired wanting is the result of learning.

[103] When a threat is perceived, neuronal signals travel from the cerebral cortex to the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (a specialised part of the peripheral nervous system which automatically controls all those bodily functions that go on constantly without our conscious awareness). The autonomic nervous system then responds by stimulating the release of adrenaline (as well as various other substances) from nerve endings in many parts of the body, and also from the adrenal glands. This enhances the body's ability to make the extreme efforts necessary either during combat or when escaping from danger, hence the name "fight or flight response". However, it also causes various other effects (some of which can sometimes precipitate or prolong an anxiety state).

[104] This would only apply if they died young enough to significantly reduce the number of offspring carrying their genes.

[105] The main examples of possible deferred physical effects, of course, are pregnancy (in heterosexual cases) and sexually transmitted infections (in all cases). The late onset of some cancers is a less common, but still significant, deferred result of some sexually transmitted infections.

[106] For more information about the work of the late Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, see

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