Not Just Pure: Applied Desire
Not Just Pure: Applied Desire
The study of desire, like maths and chemistry, can be both ‘pure’ and ‘applied’. My interest is particularly in the applied aspects of desire – how desire can be generated, channelled, satisfied and controlled. As a clinical psychologist, I’m especially interested in clinical aspects, but I’m also interested in the stimulation of desire through advertising and the social policing of desire through legal and religious channels. Desire is quintessentially a subject for biopsychosocial analysis, which makes it particularly interesting, and it also relates to an issue that I see as one of the central issues in psychology, that of personal agency (to what extent am ‘I’ in control of my thoughts, feelings and actions?). The agency question also relates to the issue of responsibility – to what extent, for example, can I be blamed for having certain desires?
Many issues that people raise with me in my clinical practice focus on desire. In fact, anyone who puts themselves
forward for therapy is essentially declaring a desire for change. They may be saying, for example, ‘I want to be less depressed’, ‘I want to be able to control my anger’ or ‘I want to be able to sleep at night’. Problems may focus on fundamental desires such as the desire to eat (more or less) and sexual desire. Some people are concerned about a total loss of libido, others by an intense level of sexual desire that they find highly disturbing and very difficult to satisfy. Often, a sexual issue will concern the focus rather than the intensity of desire. The variety of objects and sexual practices that stimulate people’s sexual desire is particularly fascinating. Some like watching, and some like being watched, some like inflicting pain and some like to be made to suffer. Uniforms and role-play, leather and chains, and a countless assortment of objects organic and inorganic – people are turned on sexually by a huge array of stimuli. Some are happy with their particular sexual predilection, whereas others are highly concerned for practical, legal, moral or health reasons. Some people understand precisely the history and ‘meaning’ of their particular sexual turn-on, whereas others have no idea why their desire takes the form that it does.
People often confuse desire with action, just as they often confuse thoughts with actions (such ‘thought-action fusion’ is a frequent focus of CBT) and making the distinction clear can be helpful therapeutically. A useful psychoeducational message goes like this: “A desire will often ‘just happen to us’ – we have done nothing to stimulate the desire and we are not responsible for it. We do not need to feel guilty about having such a desire, however extreme it may be.” But the situation is completely different when we deliberately do something in order to stimulate a desire. Thus although we are not responsible for a spontaneous desire for cake, if we go out of our way to pass a baker’s shop, and then spend ages gazing at the cakes in the shop window, we do bear the responsibility for the resultant deep desire and craving for cake. And, regardless of whether a desire is spontaneous or deliberately self-generated, we are of course responsible for any overt action that follows the desire. Buying and eating cake are two such actions – we are the agents of these actions and we are responsible for them. We may on occasion blame advertisers, bakers or cake-shop window dressers for triggering a desire for cake, but the responsibility for eating the cake is ours alone.
Of course, desires often stimulate actions, moving us to behave in ways that will satisfy the desire. But the link between desire and action is a loose one. For a desire-related action to occur, desire is neither necessary nor sufficient. Thus we sometimes eat when we are not hungry (in order to be polite to a dinner host, for example, or to ‘keep up our strength’ when we are feeling unwell and have no appetite) and we sometimes hold back from eating when we are hungry (because we are on a diet, for example, or when we are observing a religious fast). Similarly, people often have consenting sex when they have no sexual desire (in order to satisfy a partner who does have a sexual desire, for example) and they may hold back from having sex when they are experiencing considerable sexual desire (for example, if they have made a commitment to remain celibate).
Although we often do just what we feel like doing, on many occasions we will make a deliberate decision not to do what we feel like doing. Animals invariably do ‘what comes naturally’ and ‘what feels good’. They opt for instant gratification. People are different. They might say, in effect: “I feel like doing X, but I’m going to do Y”. Familiar examples include: “I feel like staying in bed, but I’m going to get up and go to work”; “I feel like staying up and having another drink at the OUPS event bar, but I’m off to bed now in order to be fit for the 9.00 a.m. lecture tomorrow”; “I feel like choosing the cheesecake, but I’ll go for the healthier fruit salad option”. When animals have an itch, they scratch it. We may not – we may work out that our skin condition would be made much worse if we were to ‘give in’ and give our arm ‘a good scratch’. We can be wise, we can be sensible, and in this way we can make our life better.
The possibility of choosing to act in a way that contrasts sharply with our immediate desire is captured nicely in Susan Jeffers’ succinct phrase: “Feel the fear and do it anyway”. While fully recognizing our own desire to avoid or escape from a dreaded situation (such as a supermarket or a non-poisonous snake) we can take executive action and choose to act in a way that is contrary to our current feelings. Thus we can deliberately take ourselves into the dreaded supermarket or take hold of a terrifying snake. Similar disjunctions between desires and actions are identified in the following statements: “Feel the craving but don’t do it anyway” and “Feel the lack of motivation but do it anyway”.
All of these disjunctions can be depicted in terms of a competition between two systems. At a neurological level, the contrast may be seen in terms of the cortex (especially the executive function of the frontal brain) versus the subcortical brain. In cognitive terms, we may think of “System 1 versus System 2”. In the context of mindfulness the contrast would be between ’reaction’ and ‘response’. Phenomenologically, the contrast would be experienced as making a conscious decision about what to do ‘for the best’ rather than simply ‘going with the flow’ (i.e. just going along with what we fancy and giving in to our impulses). Thus we may choose not to leave the broccoli on the plate but to eat it because we have heard that it’s good for us. Often, holding back from a desired action will be wise, sensible and rational (although, some might say, ‘boring’). You may decide that, on this occasion, and despite your intense anger and what you ‘feel like doing’, it would be better not to tell your stupid boss where to get off.
Holding back on desired actions – whether this leads to ‘non-gratification’ or merely ‘delayed gratification’ – is clearly a skill, and as such it is something that can be learned. Related skills can be used to change the level (to increase or decrease) or to change the focus of a desire. Recognition of one’s own desires and the ability to manage these desires and the actions related to them are key elements of ‘emotional intelligence’ (sometimes labelled ‘EQ’). Unlike cognitive intelligence (IQ) it is relatively easy to increase EQ, and it can be argued that several contemporary approaches to psychotherapy are essentially attempting to raise clients’ EQ. Children can be taught the skills of self-managing their desire and the actions related to desire (for example, so that they postpone gratification) and acquiring such skills can bring major mental health benefits. The relevance of the skilled self-control of impulsive actions for young offenders (and older offenders, too) is also very clear.
So what is the take home message from this brief discussion of ‘applied desire’? It is this – recognize your desires – be aware of them, feel them, appreciate them. Recognize their power to move you, but don’t be driven by them, and don’t let them dictate your actions. Assert your agency, your executive power, and make a decision about whether to act in line with your desires or not. Feel that itch – and then – being human – take control and make that vital decision – open to you, possibly uniquely, as a human being … To scratch or not to scratch (truly, you do have that power to choose what you do).
Professor Neil Frude is one of the speakers at the forthcoming OUPS Conference – “Desire” – at Warwick on 5th-7th May, 2017. His talk “Desire: Delights, Dangers and Denial” will be a humorous look at some further aspects of “applied desire” including a look back at attempts to police “self-pleasuring” and a consideration of possible applications of robotics and artificial intelligence to sexual desire (a 1982 review of one of Neil’s books in the Sun newspaper produced the classic headline: “Boffin says we will bonk with robots”).
Neil will also be presenting his comedy/psychology show “The Future of Desire” at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival (August 4th – 12th at the Olive Studio, Resource Centre, Infirmary Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1LT).
This article originally appeared in News & Views Spring 2017.