Article: What Motivates You?

Finally, the complete list of sixteen!

What Motivates You?

What Motivates You?

Reiss Motivation Profile (RMP)
Published on May 30, 2012 by Steven Reiss, Ph.D. in Who We Are


In 1908 William McDougall (1871-1938), a social psychologist at Harvard University, suggested the idea of a universal goal, meaning a goal that moves each of us.

Every man is so constituted to seek, to strive for, and to desire certain goals which are common to the species, and the attainment of which goals satisfies and allays the urge or craving or desire that moves us. These goals … are not only common to all men, but also … [to] their nearer relatives in the animal world; such goals as food; shelter from danger, the company of our fellows; intimacy with the opposite sex, triumph over our opponents, and leadership among our companions.” [create footnote, 406-407]

In the decades following McDougall’s work, psychologists put forth numerous “lists” of what are the universal goals of humankind. None of these lists, however, were empirically derived and scientifically validated.

My colleagues and I surveyed many thousands of people from diverse backgrounds in life to learn what their goals are. From these data we constructed a list of 16 basic desires, or 16 human needs, that reveal 16 universal goals. The 16 desires are:

Acceptance, the desire for positive self-regard.

Curiosity, the desire for understanding.

Eating, the desire for food.

Family, the desire to raise children and spend time with siblings.

Honor, the desire for upright character.

Idealism the desire for social justice.

Independence, the desire for self-reliance,

Order, the desire for to be organized and clean.

Physical activity, the desire for muscle exercise

Power, the desire for influence or leadership.

Romance, the desire for beauty and sex.

Saving, the desire to collect.

Social contact, the desire for peer companionship.

Status, the desire for respect based on social standing.

Tranquility, the desire to be free of anxiety and pain.

Vengeance, the desire to confront those who offend.

Virtually all human motives are expressions or combinations of these 16.


Everybody embraces all 16 basic desires, but individuals prioritize them differently. One person may concentrate on satisfying the basic desire for curiosity, for example, another may concentrate on romance, and still another may be focused on social life. It all depends on who you are. Individuality is much greater than many previous psychologists have suggested.

Scientific Evidence

The RMP is a 128-item questionnaire of what motivates a person. It shows which of the 16 basic desires are more important to an individual, which are less important, compared to a cultural norm. It shows the connections between a person’s motives, values, and personality traits. To a degree that is uncommon for a psychological tool, it predicts behavior in real-world, natural environments. The scientific evidence for reliability and validity may be briefly summarized.

Construct validity refers to the extent to which the motivational categories of a tool are valid. Peer reviewed scientific data from confirmatory factor studies have validated the 16 basic desires.  Further, culture and institutional religions appear to address these 16 basic desires, which appear to be the elements of meaningful experience.

Reliability refers to the extent to which people tend to get similar results when they take the RMP at different times. It also refers to the extent to which the various items on the same motive scale all measure the same desire. The RMP has reliabilities approximately equivalent to slightly better than those of major and widely used personality tests.

Social desirability is the extent to which people taking the RMP fake answers to make themselves look good. The social desirability of the RMP is very low, partially because the people taking the test have little idea what a “desirable” result would be.

Concurrent validity is the extent to which the RMP scales correlate with other psychological tests measuring similar traits. The RMP has demonstrated, peer reviewed concurrent validity with the “Big 5” personality measures, the Myers Briggs, the Anxiety Sensitivity Index, and various measures of personality, values, and relationships.

Criterion Validity is the extent to which the RMP scales predict important psychological outcomes. The RMP has exceptional criterion validity. It was used in a seminal study on reality television; a study of what motivates people to embrace religion; a study of athletes, a study profiling choice of college major; and so on. The attributes of the Judeo-Christian image of God are the greatest imaginable expression of 13 of the 16 basic desires, even though there are no questions about religion or God on the RMP.


Your priorities among the 16 basic desires reveals what motivates you. Both self and others agree with about 80 percent to 85 percent of the results of the RMP.

The RMP has been applied for business consultation with hundreds of small businesses and with some large, multinationals, mostly for leadership training and coaching, but also for advertising and product development.

The RMP has been applied to schools to identify six motivational reasons for underachievement. More than 100 schools use the tool, which is growing annually.

The RMP has been applied to train wellness coordinators to motivate their clients. One HMO is pioneering this new application.

The RMP has been applied to world class athletics and to high school and college sports. Clients include one Olympic gold medalist and two world champion teams.

The RMP has been applied to religion (as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education and in the Washington Post). It provides a new theory of religion and may strengthen faith-based counseling.


Life coaches, athletic coaches, and masters level psychologists and counselors should seek training before using this tool. Training is provided worldwide by a number of institutes. More than 1,000 professionals have been completed two to four day training programs.


The RMP is increasingly used in North America, Europe, and Asia.

Extension of Prior Idea:

I wrote the Anxiety Sensitivity Index (ASI) in 1982 to measure individual differences in a universal motive (anxiety). Alhough initially rejected as superfluous by numerous world research experts on anxiety, now the ASI has been validated in more than 1,600 peer reviewed studies. The experts changed their mind about a decade ago, in some cases based on the results of their own studies. The ASI has outperformed every anxiety measure it has been compared to and excels in the prediction of real-world behavior. It has created new research opportunities on the prevention of anxiety disorders affecting five million Americans. The RMP is the ASI times 16, meaning the RMP measures individual differences in the strength of 16 universal motives. whereas the ASI does this for only one universal motive.


Reiss, S.  (2002).  Who am I: The 16 Basic Desires.  New York: Tarcher/Putnam

Reiss, S.  (2008).  Normal Personality: New Way of Thinking about People. New York.  Cambridge University Press.



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Steven Reiss

Steven Reiss is Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at The Ohio State University.


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