The Unattainable Urge To Always Want What We Can't Have


When you were told you couldn’t have a toy as a kid, the tantrum was inevitable; you wanted it even more than before. When you were a teenager and your parents said you couldn’t have alcohol, it only fueled your defiant desire to drink.

As a 20-something, it's likely that when you’re drawn to someone and discover he or she is in a relationship, you find yourself falling even harder.

What is this fixation on the forbidden fruit, and why does it control so many aspects of our lives?

There are pros to this phenomenon, especially in the professional spectrum. Someone outright telling you that you’re incapable of getting that promotion -- well, it drives your determination to achieve it.

I once knew a girl whose math skills were less than stellar, and her family would joke too often that she could never be an accountant. Something about their poking fun must have struck a chord with her because she spent the next 12 years trying to prove otherwise. By 25, she was holding a steady job in accounting, one that her family never expected her to have.

Sometimes, though, there is a downside to this inexplicable instinct. Sometimes we go too far for what we’re told we can’t have, even overstepping moral code or hurting others in the process.

During a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, women were presented with a photograph of their potential dream man. Half of the women were told their Mr. Right was single; while the other half were told he was in a relationship. The photographs were the same across all participants.

Though 59 percent were interested in pursuing the single guy, that figure jumped to 90 percent when they were under the impression he was already in a committed relationship.

It's certainly not uncommon for women to pursue men who are already happily married. However, this brings up a whole host of questions: Is it simply that something illicit feels more exciting? Is it our competitive human nature that fuels our desire to “win” someone if he or she is taken?

Apparently, our urge to go after the unattainable is in our DNA.

George Loewenstein, an American educator who studies the link between economics and psychology, is known for his “Information-Gap Theory,” which could help to explain some of this strange behavior.

According to Loewenstein, something significant happens when we feel a gap between what we know and what we want to know: curiosity hatches. As a result, we often feel the need to take action, to do whatever it takes to bridge that gap.

This might explain celebrity crushes. There is no denying that these people are the pinnacle of attractiveness, but why are they really so lust-worthy? Does it have something to do with the fact that we know it’s very unlikely we’ll ever even meet them?

Other researchers have suggested that there is a scientific explanation for this drive, as well.

According to anthropologist Helen Fisher, levels of dopamine -- the pleasure chemical in the brain -- continue to rise the longer you must wait to fulfill your desire. So, in other words, your experience with someone is ultimately more pleasurable if you have to hold out.

Every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen follows the protagonist trying get the guy or the girl, and ends with that protagonist finally succeeding.

That fight, that struggle, pays off in a big way when the main character ends up with the unattainable object of his or her desire -- talk about dopamine overload -- thus why those movies make you feel so good.

No wonder women are trained to play hard-to-get. After all, if we’re too easy to win over, will anyone want us?

Wanting what you can't have, whether it's a luxury lifestyle or a relationship with someone, can be a no-win game. The primary problem, of course, being that you’ll likely never be satisfied.

What happens when you finally strike it rich? There's a good chance your fortune still won't be enough. What happens when that person is suddenly attainable? Unless your passion came from a genuine place, you lose interest and move on to the next.

The truth is, constantly yearning for someone or something is an endless cycle of agony with no fulfillment, no payoff and definitely no grand romantic ending.

Photo via We Heart It