Why Do People Want What They Can’t Have? 10 Reasons

 

Written by Peter Keszegh

Have you ever caught yourself longing for something just beyond your reach? This desire, interestingly shared between all humans, leaves you wondering why you want what you can’t have. It's not just about material things and love but also about dreams and goals.

Join me as I explain ten reasons that could be behind all this desire. Additionally, I’ll offer valuable insights to help you dive deeper into your psyche.

1. The thrill of the forbidden

All the things we're told to stay away from always look so appealing. It's just the way it is: want what you can't have, but know that it should never be yours.

This isn't just about breaking rules for the sake of it; it's about a deep drive to explore and push limits that seem baked into us from the get-go.

Curiosity from birth

From the time humans are born, they’re bound to be curious. This urge leads humans to poke and explore everything around them. It's how they learn.

But when something is marked as "off-limits," a person’s curiosity doesn't just vanish, it grows. This curiosity goes beyond childhood years. It affects your desires and decisions in ways you might not even realize.

Forbidding makes things seem more valuable

a psychologist explains why people want what they can't have

There's a strange value placed on things people can't, or shouldn't, have. A simple "no" can transform simple things into something you need to have. This isn't about the object itself but what it represents: a challenge, a boundary to test, a rule to break.

The reasons behind this are fascinating. The forbidden becomes a representation of both what you know you shouldn’t have and your potential to get them.

By understanding this pull towards the forbidden, you can begin to see your desires in a new light. It's not just about wanting what you can't have; it's about understanding why we're drawn to it in the first place. This insight can help us navigate our desires more wisely, choosing paths that lead to genuine fulfillment rather than endless chasing.

Examples

  • Many teenagers experience the thrill of sneaking out of their homes at night. The forbidden nature of leaving without permission adds excitement. It's the risk of getting caught that makes it thrilling.
  • When someone is on a strict diet, eating forbidden junk food becomes more tempting. Knowing these foods are "off-limits" increases their appeal. The act of eating them feels like a rebellious treat.
  • Children often sneak to watch movies past their bedtime. The forbidden aspect of staying up late, against parents' orders, makes the experience more exciting. It's not just the movie, it's the act of breaking the rules that adds to the thrill.

2. Rarity makes things special

Have you ever noticed how something becomes way more charming the moment you find out it's rare or hard to find? This phenomenon, where you want what you can't have, is deeply rooted in human psychology. It's like a hidden rule that says, "If it's rare, it must be good."

The scarcity principle is a psychological concept that suggests you place higher value on things that are rare or limited. When you hear that something is in short supply, you suddenly feel an urge to get it.

This is why phrases like "Limited time offer!" or "Only a few left in stock!" are so compelling. They tap into our fear of missing out and make us want the item even more.

The proof makes it powerful

girl in bed reads article about why people want what they can't have

The effectiveness of scarcity isn't just about being told something is rare. It's when you see proof of this scarcity that our desire kicks into high gear.

Think about the last time you wanted a product and found it was sold out everywhere. That probably made you want it even more, right? It's a psychological trigger that marketers use to their advantage, creating a sense of urgency that drives us to act fast.

The desire for the things you want isn't just about the things themselves but what they represent: 

  1. 1
    Uniqueness
  2. 2
    Status
  3. 3
    The thrill of the chase

Understanding this can help us make more informed decisions about what you chase and why. This could potentially save you from impulse buys you might later regret.

Examples

  • People wait in long lines for the release of limited-edition sneakers. The rarity of these shoes makes them more desirable. 
  • Coin collectors spend years looking for rare coins. The harder a coin is to find, the more they want it.
  • Some travel enthusiasts aim for unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. These experiences are often rare and hard to book. 

3. Loving the challenge

Humans seem to place a higher value on things they’ve worked hard to get or achieve. This isn't just about the result but the journey it takes to get there. When you invest time, energy, and effort into something, it naturally becomes more precious to us.

Research reveals that our brains process value and effort in a unique way, which significantly influences our behavior and decision-making. This relationship between effort and perceived value is critical in understanding human behavior.

The more effort you put into something, the more you tend to value it.

Effort as a marker of value

The concept of "earned success" resonates deeply within humans. People respect and value achievements that come through hard work.

This is evident in how some people view others' success. People often question whether it was truly deserved if it seemed too easily attainable.

Examples

  • Many adventurers dream of reaching the summit of Mount Everest. The extreme challenge and danger involved make it a coveted achievement. The harder the climb, the more prestigious the accomplishment feels.
  • Completing a marathon is a common goal for many runners. The intense physical and mental challenge of running 26.2 miles makes crossing the finish line extremely rewarding. It's the difficulty of the marathon that makes the achievement so desirable.
  • People often set out to learn new languages, knowing it's a complex challenge. The process is difficult and requires significant time and effort. 
  • Enthusiasts spend hours or even days solving complex puzzles like Rubik's cubes or intricate jigsaw puzzles. The more difficult the puzzle, the more determined they become to solve it. It's the challenge itself that makes the puzzle appealing.

4. Wanting to stand out

a man eyeing what he can't have

Everybody wants to feel special in their own way, whether in personal life, at work, or within a community. This desire makes us crave uniqueness. But why do you want it so much, and how does achieving something rare or unique feed into this desire?

Being different isn’t so bad, in fact, it can actually work in your favor. It makes you memorable and a positive example, and it can bring you lots of opportunities.

Authenticity as a key

Expressing your true self, instead of mimicking others, helps you stand out. Authenticity draws people to you, making people value you more as a person.

A genuine expression of your individuality can make a real difference in both your professional and personal life.

Examples

  • Many car enthusiasts customize their vehicles with unique paint jobs, rims, and modifications. This customization makes their car stand out from the rest. They want their car to be one-of-a-kind, even if it means spending more than they can afford.
  • People often desire clothes from high-end designer brands. These brands are seen as exclusive and wearing them sets someone apart in social settings. The desire to stand out drives them to want these expensive items, even if they're out of budget.
  • The rush to buy the newest smartphone or gadget is driven by the desire to be seen as tech-savvy or ahead of the curve. Having the latest tech makes people feel special and different. This desire can lead to spending on new gadgets even before the old ones are obsolete.
  • Collectors hunt for rare items, like vintage wines, rare stamps, or limited-edition art. Owning something rare or unique gives them a sense of pride and distinction. The rarity of these items makes them highly sought after, often driving prices beyond what many can realistically afford.

5. Craving new things

Humans love new things. This pull towards the fresh and unknown is built into our brains. When something is new, it grabs our attention and sparks our curiosity.

Why newness attracts us

people line up for a new tech product

Our brains have a special part that responds to new things. This area lights up when you see or experience something for the first time. It's linked to learning and memory, making new things not just exciting but also helpful for our brains.

Because our brains love new stuff, mixing new information with what we already know can help us learn better. When we encounter something new, our brain's learning center becomes more flexible, making it easier to absorb and remember information.

Examples

  • Every year, when a new smartphone model is released, people rush to upgrade. They crave the latest features and technology, even if their current phone works fine. This craving for the newest tech makes them want these expensive upgrades, often beyond what they need or can comfortably afford.
  • Fashion enthusiasts eagerly await the latest seasonal collections. They want to wear the newest styles and be seen as trendsetters. This desire for newness in fashion drives them to seek items that might be hard to obtain or beyond their budget.
  • Gamers are always on the lookout for the next big game release or console launch. They desire the improved graphics, gameplay, and experience that come with new technology. This anticipation makes them covet the latest gaming gear, even when it's expensive or hard to find.

6. Dreaming of perfection

We all chase the idea of being perfect or having the perfect things. It's like we're wired to aim for the stars, thinking that's where happiness lives. This chase, though, can sometimes feel like running on a treadmill—always moving but never getting there.

We fall into three traps of perfection:

  1. 1
    Setting impossible goals for ourselves
  2. 2
    Expecting everyone else to be flawless
  3. 3
    Thinking the world demands our best at all times

While dreaming big isn't bad, obsessing over perfection can make us miss out on good things right in front of us. It's because deep down, we might be scared to fail, making the unattainable seem like the only option worth pursuing.

The roots and effects of perfectionism

a team of creatives striving for perfection

How you were raised plays a big part in this. If you grew up in a supportive environment, you learn to aim high but stay realistic and appreciate our worth.

However, if you didn't get much support, you might think you need to be perfect to be valued. This can make you forever long for things you think are perfect, thinking they'll fill the gap.

Examples

  • Many people dream of owning a perfect home, one that matches every detail of their ideal living space. This dream includes the best location, architecture, and interior design, creating an image of a flawless residence. The gap between this dream and their situation can make them want something that could be out of their reach.
  • People often fantasize about finding the perfect partner, someone who meets all their expectations and desires. They imagine a relationship free from conflict, filled with happiness and mutual understanding. This longing can make them overlook potential relationships that don't match their ideal situation, something that may not exist.
  • Individuals dream of achieving the peak of career success, dreaming of a job that offers not only financial rewards but also personal fulfillment. This dream drives them to want high positions that might be highly competitive or beyond their current skill set. The pursuit of this perfect career can lead to dissatisfaction with their current roles, always chasing something more.

7. Powered by fantasy

Our dreams and fantasies have this unique power to make things we can't get seem even more desirable. It's like our minds paint these perfect pictures, making the unattainable glitter even more. Why do we want what we can't have?

Well, it turns out, our fantasies add a layer of allure and mystery to these desires.

Fantasies allow us to create a world where everything is perfect. When we fantasize about something we can't have, we're thinking about the shiny, flawless version our minds make up. 

This makes the unattainable seem even more attractive because, in our heads, it's perfect. This phenomenon is partly why we can become obsessed with obtaining what seems out of reach. 

The unattainable not only becomes valuable due to its rarity but also because it represents potential affirmation. Getting what no one else can would make us feel special.

Additionally, distance allows for idealization; we can only see the positives without any of the flaws.

The role of fantasy in desire

a girl scrolling through social media

Fantasies serve multiple roles. They can be an escape, providing a mental break from reality or dissatisfaction. This escape mechanism can make the unattainable more attractive because it offers a respite from our current situation.

Moreover, fantasies enable creative expression, allowing us to explore new scenarios and ideas beyond reality. They also play a part in shaping our identity, helping us understand our values and fears.

Understanding the power that our fantasies have in creating desires can help us think about our wants better.

Examples

  • Think about the worlds created in books and films. They transport us to realms beyond our reach, from magical kingdoms to futuristic societies. This fantasy makes our everyday reality seem ordinary, triggering a longing for experiences and adventures we can't actually have.
  • Immersive game worlds offer us the chance to live out fantasies of heroism, adventure, and accomplishment. The deep engagement in these virtual experiences can make the real world seem less fulfilling, driving a longing for the excitement and fulfillment found within the game.

8. Mistaken excitement

a person holding multiple shopping bags

Sometimes, your excitement for something tricks you into wanting something else more. It's like your brain mixes up your desires, making you think you want what you can't have.

This confusion happens because as humans, we’re always looking ahead, chasing the next big thing. This makes us miss out on what's happening in the present.

Our minds are always running, wanting more or something different.

The impact on us

Chasing after what you can't have means you’re never really satisfied with what you do have. There's a gap between what your life is like and what you think it should be.

Such a gap is equal to how disappointed or frustrated you feel when things don't go your way. Accepting life as it is helps close this gap, leading to more happiness and less frustration.

Understanding why you excitement can make you want what you can't have will help you appreciate what you do have. It teaches us to live more in the present, enjoying our current experiences rather than anything else.

Examples

  • People often chase after the perfect relationship, thinking it will make them completely happy. Yet, when they reach their goal, they find themselves wanting something else, like a new job or a bigger house.
  • A student might dream of getting into a top university. Once they're in, the excitement shifts to landing the perfect job. The cycle of wanting continues, never truly satisfying them.

9. Fear of missing out (FOMO)

The fear of missing out (FOMO) is a modern term for the age-old desire to keep up with others, driven by the fear that others might be experiencing something better than us. This feeling is amplified by social media, where everyone's life seems more exciting than our own.

FOMO can affect anyone. However, it's especially common among those with low self-esteem or mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Social media, while not inherently negative, can lead to the growth of these feelings.

FOMO stems from our basic need to belong and connect with others. When this need is unmet, and we turn to social media to fill the gap, the feeling of missing out can intensify. 

This is particularly true for teenagers and young adults, who are in the process of figuring out their social identities.

The impact of social media

people line up for a product

Social media platforms are designed to highlight the best parts of our lives, often leading to exaggerated or false representations. This can make others feel left out or envious.

FOMO is the anxiety of potentially missing out on a connection that could be better than our current reality. This continuous comparison and the pursuit of what you might be missing out on can negatively affect your mental health. This can lead to increased feelings of anxiety, depression, and lower self-esteem.

To combat FOMO, experts suggest:

  • Taking breaks from social media
  • Setting limits on usage
  • Focusing on real-life connections

Recognizing and appreciating what you have, rather than what you're missing out on, can also help ease these feelings.

Examples

  • Scrolling through social media and seeing friends at a party you weren't invited to can give feelings of social exclusion and envy.
  • Witnessing others' accomplishments online, like landing a dream job or going on exotic vacations, can make your own achievements feel inadequate by comparison.

10. The contrast effect

When you compare our current situation to something you think is better, it can make us feel left out or not good enough. This feeling is called the contrast effect. This is a big reason why you tend to want what you can't have.

The contrast effect happens because our brain uses comparisons to make sense of the world. For instance, if you see a more expensive product, a cheaper one might suddenly seem like a great deal. This is because our brain automatically compares the two, making the cheaper option seem more attractive than it did before.

How comparisons fuel desire

a girl wondering why you want what you can't have

Desires can be influenced by who or what you compare yourself to. If you see someone doing better than you, or if you come across a product that seems better than what you have, you might start feeling like you’re missing out.

This can make you want things you didn't care about before, just because they seem better compared to your current situation.

Examples

  1. 1
    Stores often place very expensive items next to cheaper ones. The expensive item makes the cheaper ones seem like a bargain, even if they're not the cheapest option out there.
  2. 2
    Scrolling through social media, we see highlights of others' lives and compare them to our own. This can make our own lives feel boring or unsatisfactory in comparison, sparking a desire for more exciting or glamorous experiences.

The contrast effect shows just how powerful our brains are at making comparisons and how these comparisons can shape our feelings and decisions.

Embracing what you have beyond the want

From the thrill of the forbidden to the excitement of new things, you’re programmed to want what you can’t have. Social media worsens this desire, making everyone else's grass seem greener. 

Next time you feel that tug of want, remember: sometimes, the real treasure is in not having everything, but in valuing what you already do.

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