Why We Want What We Can’t Have, and Can’t Have What We Want

I was walking a friend of mine home the other day, and she was telling me about the kinds of men she had been meeting recently. We started talking about whether you could be into somebody just because they were “off-limits” to you in some way: already attached, emotionally unavailable, constantly busy, runs in high social circles, borderline-inappropriate age difference, etc.

She was pretty sure that she wasn’t affected by any of these considerations, or at least, not consciously. My gut, on the other hand, was telling me that the “off-limits” factor might be pretty significant. I once staged a live adaptation of the book, “He’s Just Not That Into You,” and I remember a lot the reprinted letters in the book were sent by women in some of these very situations.

One was sent by a woman who talked with a lot of enthusiasm about how busy her “boyfriend” was in the filmmaking business, and how “important” that made him…so important in fact, that she hadn’t heard from him in forever. Another talked about how secretive her boyfriend was, and how his unwillingness to tell her anything substantive made him “intriguing.”

While researching, I found the blog Miss Adventures in L.A., in which the author goes into great detail about her obsession with a man who makes himself very unavailable.

Many of these writers openly admit that their obsessions make them sound perhaps a little pathetic, but I don’t think they are pathetic. I think there’s something inescapably attractive about that which is inaccessible. Askmen.com agrees. Their dating advice columns say flat out that “Women don’t feel attraction for men that are pushover wuss bags. Women feel attraction for men who are a challenge.”

 

"NO SOUP FOR YOU!!!!!"

 

Dr. Pauline Willan is a psychologist and author of Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-defeating Behavior. In her article on selfgrowth.com, she gives us three specific reasons why we want what we can’t have:

1. Heightened attention: When something is hard to get (or forbidden) you immediately pay more attention to it. Notice that when you are on a restricted diet, you sometimes get too focused on what you “can’t” eat. This heightened attention — which can escalate into obsession — makes the forbidden food seem very important. Your inner brat takes advantage of this, and tries to convince you that you MUST have that chocolate or pizza.

2. Perceived scarcity [ed. note, click here for more on The Scarcity Principle]: When something is scarce or in short supply, its perceived value increases. You want it more because you think other people also want it. If you’ve ever bid at auctions or on eBay, you know the experience of that last-minute excitement as you watch the bids spiral upward. The more people who bid, the more you’re willing to pay for the item. Your inner brat wants it at any price.

3. “Psychological Reactance”: People don’t like to be told they can’t have or can’t do something. It’s related to not wanting to be controlled by others, especially if the situation feels unfair or arbitrary. The “reactance” is both emotional and behavioral.

The emotional part is your inner brat saying, “Oh yeah? I can’t have what I want? Just try and stop me!”

The behavioral component is what you do about it, which usually involves some type of rebellious reaction. You see this with teenagers whose parents have forbidden them to date certain people. Reactance also explains why a “Wet Paint” sign always invites unwanted fingerprints on the newly painted surface.

The marketing and advertising implications of this principle are obvious. As we discussed in our previous article on Cialdini’s Scarcity Principle, people tend to react against anything that limits their freedoms. So if they perceive something to be limited by some means (a short supply, a prohibition, exclusivity), it will tend to increase their desire for that thing.

 

"Oh, who among us hasn't known the taste of forbidden love? Why, spring break alone..."

 

It’s also an important principle to understand in acting scene work. The action going on between characters in plays such as Romeo and Juliet seems borderline implausible until you factor in that the prohibition itself is probably the root cause.

As actors, we can justify a heightened level of importance and mission simply because there’s some antagonist force working against us. Javert does not obsess over catching Valjean because he’s inflexible. He obsesses because Valjean is the threat to the perfect record. He’s the one who got away. And he ends the play the way he does because he realizes that the moral situation has changed and now he can never realize his obsession.

The interesting part of this idea is that the converse is also true: We want what we can’t have, and we can’t have what we want.

I’m fascinated by a subject called the “wanting-it tax.” It’s a principle that states very basically that the more you want something, the harder it is to acquire. Herb Cohen, author of You Can Negotiate Anything, used to talk about the importance of a negotiator’s willingness to walk away from the table.

He told a story about a couple who wanted to buy a clock from an antique store, but first wanted to haggle on the price. But the store owner had previously overheard the wife telling her husband how much she loved the clock and had to have it. As you may suspect, they didn’t work the price down very far. They wanted the item, and as a result, the universe made them pay a tax (in this case, a literal monetary tax).

I can’t remember where the proverb came from, but I heard someone say once that “the bird of paradise alights itself upon the hand that does not grasp.”

HIPSTERISM: TRYING TO HARD

Have you ever met someone who tries too hard with people? You can feel him or her trying to make a certain impression, and feel how much they care about it. How do you tend to react to such people? Maybe they’re too loud, or talk to much, or fish for compliments. I think it’s fair to say that we are internally wired to keep neediness at a distance, if for no other reason than resource management. We are instinctively protective of our time and emotional energy.

I’m in an MBA class right now where presentations get videoed for review, and I recently took a look at the results of my first class presentation. And much to my chagrin, I could see myself working too hard. I could see myself being over-expressive, and getting ahead of myself. I wanted to do well, and it was obvious. The result of that is a less-appealing product. If I were to steady my delivery, and relax into it, the result would be more attractive.

As Don Draper would observe in Rule #7, “He who is least attached to the outcome keeps the power.” In my experience, you get more by gently pushing things away than you do by clinging to them for dear life.

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