There are many examples of people wanting what they don't have. For example, a single man may want to have a girlfriend, but after some time of having a girlfriend, he may want to be single again. Or for example, people in the city may want to live in the village and villagers may want to live in the city.

What causes individuals to desire something they don't have and once they have it we desire to have something else -- or something which we left behind a while ago -- again?

  • 11
    $\begingroup$ Because it does not make sense to “want” something you already have? $\endgroup$
    – Gala
    Commented Jun 30, 2013 at 1:39
  • $\begingroup$ The grass is always greener on the other side... $\endgroup$
    – Josh
    Commented Jun 30, 2013 at 14:16
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Your examples are all about choices between alternatives that have different advantages and disadvantages. If you live in the city, there are a lot of things to do, better infrastructure, but no quiet and clean air. In the village, things are reversed. Obviously people want both: quiet, when they feel like quiet, action, when they want action, clean air all the time, and good infrastructure. The underlying cause is that people want both alternatives at the same time. Your question needs examples where alternatives are not the reverse of each other and not balanced regarding (dis)advantages. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Commented Jul 3, 2013 at 10:33
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for input... actually, it was meant to discuss exactly these alternatives. Why you incline to "go back" once you left something because you wanted to have something else. $\endgroup$
    – tsykora
    Commented Jul 3, 2013 at 10:39
  • $\begingroup$ If had time I'd provide a more referenced answer, but once seeking behavior is procedural, dopamine responses become linked with the procedure of seeking itself (and then there's a let down if the object is not found). $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 3, 2013 at 15:31

6 Answers 6


The reason for desire or want or liking is Pleasure. Various people have various things to get pleasure: from Money, from Power, from Love etc. etc.

But this pleasure is always based on comparison. For ex: I may have money, power, wealth and love. I am satisfied with all these. When I encounter another person who has all these things but with another proportion, then I tend to "HAVE/POSSESS" that. The reason could be, "THAT" appears more pleasurable to me than what I have.

There is no absolute answer to this question 'Why man seeks pleasure? or Where it comes from?'. We may need to understand the nature of pleasure, how it occurs etc etc. Read this link and you may understand scientifically what is want/desire/liking/pleasure.

There is also a philosophical answer to your question which is related to mind. As put by Hindu philosophy, Mind always seeks pleasure. This pleasure, found in external things, is always in the form of self satisfaction. It feels happy with possession of things outside.

But once it turns inward and looks at itself, it understands its nature. This comes out of intelligence. Then it gradually seeks inner calmness rather external cravings. Resting in inner peace and calm is more happier and blissful to Mind. But it is under illusion that it finds pleasure in things in the external world. The reason being mind, as put by Hindu/Buddhist philosophers, identifies itself with the body and it thinks it has a separate individuality - "I", "ME","MINE". When there is a separation like this, automatically there is a comparison. When comparison exists, desire sprouts. You better read about mind in Google. Lot of notes and articles are there.

  • $\begingroup$ Your statement "There is no absolute answer to this question 'Why man seeks pleasure? or Where it comes from?' " is factually incorrect. Please read the answer of Greg McNulty. $\endgroup$ Commented May 25, 2016 at 9:20

This is more along the lines of novelty.

As you mentioned, once you have it, you want something else you don't have and on and on and on it goes.

Reason being, once a subject acquires the object longed and desired for, the novelty level within the subject is diminished and must be refilled.

To be more specific, what needs to be refilled is dopamine. Novelty produces dopamine and dopamine is well know as the brain's fuel driving satisfaction. So remove that and guess what your going to try to reproduce?

Check out:

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Does hedonic adaptation play into this? $\endgroup$
    – Pieter
    Commented May 26, 2014 at 13:20
  • $\begingroup$ @pieter: not sure...but from reading the description seems like a different concept with some similar experiences. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 4:45
  • $\begingroup$ Novelty produces dopamine I bet this is linked to evolution and better chances of survival etc. Animals that are always in the same state will easier be hunt down than animals that always try new things and adapt. $\endgroup$
    – Avatar
    Commented May 26, 2020 at 6:57

Why do we want what we don't have? There are many different answers stemming from diverse theoretical approaches. I will list a couple, drawing heavily on a older review by Lynn (1992) who has collected different ideas about why desirability can sometimes be increased when something is unavailable to us.

  1. We perceive things that few people have as important resources that signal social status. This can be seen in people's tendency for conspicuous consumption (Veblen, 1899), in other words the tendency to buy positional goods, which promise being superior to others (e.g. Solnick & Hemenway, 1998)

  2. Researchers such as Snyder and Fromkin (1977) posit that people can perceive similarity to others as a threatening. Therefore, scarce and unavailable things are desirable because they promise to fulfill a need for uniqueness.

  3. Unavailable resources often imply that having them means to have power over others (Emerson, 1962)

  4. Social comparisons can give rise to specific emotions that motivate us to seek things that are unavailable. People deliberately engage in downward comparisons (Wills, 1981) to enhance their self-esteem. Having something that not everybody has may thus give rise to pride. Upward comparisons with others (who have something we want) may cause envy, which can increase desire (Crusius & Mussweiler, 2012, Van de Ven et al. 2011)

  5. Scarcity has been portrayed as a heuristic cue that signals desirability (Cialdini, 1993), for example, because rare things are perceived to have a higher quality (Ditto & Jemmott, 1989)

  6. Sometimes, we don't have things because we are denied to have them. Such threats to our freedom cause reactance which increases our desire to have what we can't have (e.g., Brehm, Stires, Sensenig, & Shaban, 1966)

  7. Trying to attain something which is difficult to get increases arousal which fuels desirability (Brehm et al, 1983)

It stands to reason, however, that we are often quite good in rationalizing why we don't want the things that we don't have (e.g., Kay, Jimenez, & Jost, 2002).


Brehm, J. W., Stires, L. K., Sensenig, J., & Shaban, J. (1966). The attractiveness of an eliminated choice alternative. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2, 301–313. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(66)90086-2

Brehm, J. W., Wright, R. A., Solomon, S., Silka, L., & Greenberg, J. (1983). Perceived difficulty, energization, and the magnitude of goal valence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 21–48. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(83)90003-3

Brock, T. C. (1968). Implications of commodity theory for value change. In A. G. Greenwald, T. C. Brock, & T. M. Ostrom (Eds.), Psychological foundations of attitudes (pp. 243–275). New York: Academic Press.

Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: Science and practice (3rd ed.). New York: HarperCollins.

Crusius, J., & Mussweiler, T. (2012). When people want what others have: The impulsive side of envious desire. Emotion, 12, 142–153. doi:10.1037/a0023523

Ditto, P. H., & Jemmott, J. B. (1989). From rarity to evaluative extremity: Effects of prevalence information on evaluations of positive and negative characteristics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 16–26. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.57.1.16

Emerson, R. M. (1962). Power-dependence relations. American Sociological Review, 27, 31-41.

Kay, A. C., Jimenez, M. C., & Jost, J. T. (2002). Sour grapes, sweet lemons, and the anticipatory rationalization of the status quo. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1300–1312. doi:10.1177/01461672022812014

Lynn, M. (1992). The psychology of unavailability: Explaining scarcity and cost effects on value. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 13, 3–7. doi:Article

Snyder R., C., & Fromkin, H. L. (1977). Abnormality as a positive characteristic: The development and validation of a scale measuring need for uniqueness. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 86, 518–527. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.86.5.518

Solnick, S. J., & Hemenway, D. (1998). Is more always better? A survey on positional concerns. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 37, 373–383. doi:10.1016/S0167-2681(98)00089-4

Van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2011). The envy premium in product evaluation. The Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 984–998. doi:10.1086/657239

Veblen, T. (1899). The theory of the leisure class. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Wills, T. A. (1981). Downward comparison principles in social psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 90, 245–271. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.90.2.245

  • $\begingroup$ Fantastic academic answer, especially by giving all the references. 👍 $\endgroup$
    – Avatar
    Commented May 26, 2020 at 7:01

Why we want things is a very broad question. As to why we specifically want things we don't have, I commented in jest that it does not make sense to want something you already have. Basically if you attach value to something you have, you would say that you “like” it, not that you “want” it but the distinction might not necessarily reflect a difference in some fundamental psychological process.

The immediate reason could be that these things provide us with “reward” or “pleasure” – which is certainly often true at a phenomenological level and can possibly be associated with specific brain structures – but that's not explaining much. As Greg mentioned, there are also many empirical results and theories suggesting that, to a point, we seek novelty and stimulation for their own sake. That could be a reason to want things specifically because we don't have them already or at least in part because we don't have them already. (The idea is very old and has been expressed in various ways, e.g. the Yerkes-Dodson law.)

On the specific point of regret and wanting to go back, one thing is that we are not always good at gauging how we will feel about something we have not experienced yet. Research on this goes under the name “affective forecasting”. Once you have it/did it/experienced it, you might realize that it is not as good as you expected and reverse your decision (or not, incidentally). Also, the notion that we seek novelty implies that the novel stimulus will become less pleasurable with repetition (but the opposite process has also been observed, e.g. in “mere exposure” research). At some point, we might become “bored” and find any change attractive, even if it is to come back to something we tried before.


Most frequently people want a different version of what they already have or have liked in the past. That's why there are countless "clones" of video games, movies and books.

Coolidge Effect explains why people devalue past sexual partners over time (as in your girlfriend example) and seek novel partners instead.

Another explanation is that people want whatever spikes their serotonin and dopamine reward systems the most.

enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ "Most frequently people want a different version of what they already have or have liked in the past. That's why there are countless "clones" of video games, movies and books." → Interesting. Can you provide more insights? $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 17:49

In economic terms this can also be defined in terms of marginal utility of a thing, experience etc (von Neumann and Morgenstern, 1944). As soon as you have (enough of) something and/or got used to having it, something novel and/or relativelively scarce that might be useful will seem attractive. Maybe because it's evolutionary fit to strive for the optimal combination to increase pleasure.

von Neumann J, Morgenstern O. Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Princeton University Press; 1944.

  • $\begingroup$ "... optimal combination to increase pleasure". Not pleasure but survival, I assume. $\endgroup$
    – Avatar
    Commented May 26, 2020 at 7:03

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.