The need-vs-want dilemma

An explanation model for bad decision making

Uwe Friedrichsen

12 minute read

Female donkey with a colt on a meadow

The need-vs-want dilemma

In the The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, author Bill Watterson commented on some selected comic strips. Especially one comment made a lasting impression on me:

[…] I don’t know that there’s any connection between what we need and what we like.

Watterson made this comment in the context of a strip where Calvin, the 6 year old precocious and sometimes annoying main character presented a “poll of six-year-olds in this household” to his dad, trying to influence his father’s policies. Of course, the strip and Watterson’s comment on it were a skit on politicians who align their messages and their acting with the results of polls – which reflect what people want and not what they need.

While we could use the observation that want rarely corresponds to need to explain a lot of things that seem to go wrong in politics, economy and many other areas of our lives, I will limit the discussion (mostly) to IT here. 1

Understanding want and need

To understand the quote from Bill Watterson and the observation related to it better, let us first take a bit closer look at want and need:

Want is driven by habits and cravings. We want things that make our lives more convenient, more enjoyable – now! It is also important that want is almost always connected to short term goals, ideally to immediate gratification. Note that those things we want are not necessarily consumer goods. The general pattern behind want is satisfying some emotional desire.

Need on the other side is a lot more tricky. It typically does not affect our current but our future well-being. We need to do something now to be better off later – usually in a sustainable way. This typically requires some degree of change (otherwise it would not be a need but an is) which often leads to a temporarily reduced convenience level. To make things even harder, gratification only comes in the long run, not immediately.

In short:

  • Want is about the present and convenience.
  • Need is about the future and sustainability.

Humans prefer want over need

If we look at those properties, we immediately realize that want stands in the way of need. No matter how urgently we need something, our immediate habits, desires and cravings almost always try to push us in a different direction. This raises a problem if we need to establish a change regarding our future well-being:

  • Satisfying the want does not change anything and will harm our future well-being.
  • Going for the need will cause resistance.

A simple, not too far-fetched example:

A person has some health issues, say some overweight, is quickly out of breath and exhibits some other symptoms that point to a not too healthy diet and a lack of exercise. The person goes to a doctor. The doctor does a thorough examination and makes the advice to switch to a healthier diet and start exercising regularly.

While the advice is perfectly right, many patients will reject or at least ignore the advice: What a quack! Let’s find a real doctor! There must be a better (i.e., an easier) way to make the symptoms go away. Can’t the doctor just prescribe some pills and I am done?

So, instead of following the advice they will visit another doctor, hoping that doctor will simply prescribe them some pills that make the symptoms go away.

Preferring want is a survival bias

Feel caught? If yes, you do not need to feel too bad about it. We are all that way – if not regarding diet and exercise, most likely in another place. It is a human bias inherited from our ancestors to prefer our currently perceived well-being over our expected future well-being. In the earlier years of mankind, it was much more important too have something to eat now and thus survive the day than worrying about a declining amount of food available in two or five years because of a non-sustainable exploitation pattern.

It was a bit like:

  • A: “Hey, if we continue hunting mammoths this way, they will soon go extinct.”
  • B: “Nonsense!” (The typical first response)
  • A: “Don’t you realize that we spot fewer and fewer mammoths over the years and have to go farther and farther to find one?”
  • B: “Well, if they should really go extinct, we will find something else to eat. But for now, it is more important to keep the tribe fed and alive than to worry about a potential problem in the future.”

This was the human survival pattern for hundreds and thousands of generations. It still is for the majority of humans. Wherever scarcity rules and survival means a daily struggle, this is a vital survival pattern. It is only for a handful of decades and only for a part of humanity that survival is not our primary problem anymore, that we do not need to follow that pattern anymore.

However, the pattern is still omnipresent. We still prefer our wants over our needs. Rewiring brains of a species takes many generations. And as it is such a vital pattern, it does not only trigger when it comes to food but in all areas of our lives.

Need requires change

Additionally, when it comes to sustainable future well-being, it almost always means change, changing our current habits.

And change is hard:

  • It costs a lot of energy because our brains must switch to the slow mode.
  • We need to switch off our internal autopilot and consciously learn new behaviors.
  • It deprives us from immediate gratification.
  • We always have to overcome our weaker self without getting an immediate reward for it.
  • And so on …

In short: Change is no fun.

Maintaining our current habits and optimizing for short-term convenience is so much more enjoyable. That is why we tend to change only if the pain level is high enough (which is another human survival pattern that sometimes backfires these days).

Ask about needs and get wants

To complete the mess: If you ask a person what they need they will usually tell you what they want.

As Henry Ford once said in the early days of cars:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

People usually only can imagine what exists right now and extrapolate a bit from that 2. Combine that with our bias to prefer want over need and here we are. To stick with Henry Ford and cars:

  • Someone who loves to drive wants more horsepower and convenience for long tours.
  • Someone who considers driving an annoying chore wants self-driving cars.
  • Someone who considers cars a status symbol wants more ostentatious cars.

And so on. Even flying cars are basically a weak extrapolation of the status quo, probably conceived by people who struggled with crowded streets.

But very few people come up asking for actually sustainable transportation alternatives. They are stuck with a car as the primary transportation means because it is what we have now.

And even less people go beyond the question of transportation. E.g., sticking to cars: If I would say I need a car to go shopping, my need is not to drive to the store. My actual need is to have food and other supplies available at home. Or if I would say I need a car to visit my friends, my need is not to drive to my friends. My actual need is to see my friends and spend some quality time with them. However, we tend to be limited to think about the solutions for our needs in the lines of what we have now.

Companies act much like humans

All this may help us to understand the often irrational behavior of people better, when they obviously do the opposite of what they need to do time and again. But companies are a completely different thing, aren’t they. Companies behave completely rational; thus, we cannot apply that reasoning to them. Or?

It would be great if it were that way.

Unfortunately, it is not.

Most companies behave a lot like humans and it is even harder for them to adapt their behavior. There are several reasons for that. First of all, companies are basically made from humans. Hence, it is only natural that companies mirror human traits and biases. If humans prefer wants over needs, companies also do. And over time, it becomes ingrained in their DNA, their culture.

Also, many companies have been conditioned to short-term ROI (return on investment) for many years: If doing anything, its value must unfold in the very near future. There is little space and acceptance for activities that take a long(er) time for their value to unfold.

A reinforcing factor is that the average manager only has a very limited period of time to “prove” him- or herself. There is a high chance that the manager will not be in the same position anymore when the value of a need-based activity starts to unfold. Thus, why bother? Better go for a want, order a short-term pill and boost the personal career instead of risking the career by trying to change the company habits towards the actual need – nothing but trouble and resistance to expect on that road.

I do not want to hit on managers in particular. It is always easier to go for the common wants instead of the needs. In career terms, going for needs is often risky, tedious and the reward is uncertain. Therefore, it is not surprising that most people – including managers – tend to go for the wants.

Companies are higher-level systems

What makes things even harder is the fact that it is not only about the humans involved. Companies develop a behavior on their own. Companies are humans who organize in a specific way, i.e., they form higher-level systems. Such systems develop emergent behavior, i.e., there is more to a company than just the humans they consist of. This behavior lies in the interaction of the parts, i.e., in the collaboration of the humans, not in the parts themselves (the humans).

I experienced such (initially confusing) company behavior several times in my career: I went to some company and everyone was unsatisfied. If you asked the persons what went wrong in their opinion, they could exactly name it. And basically everyone said the same. You talked to a lot of persons. Everyone complained and could name what went wrong. Then you went into a meeting with them. And … you saw them acting exactly in the ways they just complained about. They reinforced what they disliked. And if you asked them afterwards, it was “because of the others”.

It was not “because of the others”. It was because they acted as parts of the bigger system that had its own rules which are mostly independent of the humans involved. I mean, you can exchange basically any human in a company but the behavioral patterns of the company stay the same. This is what we often call “company culture”. It is all that stuff that lives between the humans. It is all the learnt response patterns of the organization to all kinds of stimuli.

These response patterns tend to reward people who foster the trained company habits and to punish people who question the habits and try to change them.

Welcome to the need-vs-want dilemma!

Company culture itself makes it hard to go for what the company needs, to foster its long-term viability. It feels a bit ironic but this is what we can observe in most companies.

And these higher-level systems are not easy to change. It is not enough to convince a few people. Typically, most people already know what is needed and agree on the required measures. Still, they do not know how to change the system. Changing the system requires different means. It is not enough to convince or change humans. You also need to think in systems and understand how to influence them. 3

Stuck with the dilemma

To wrap things up: It is complicated.

While fostering what we need supports our long-term well-being, we as humans tend to prefer the satisfaction of short-term desires over long-term sustainability, even if we know that it will harm our future well-being.

Additionally, going for the long-term well-being often compromises our present convenience. As we highly dislike giving up any of our present convenience, we look for a “pill” (a quick and convenient solution) that promises to fight the symptoms if we encounter a problem instead of looking for a sustainable solution that resolves the cause.

Companies, consisting of humans, basically act in the same ways of (non-)reasoning. They also prefer their wants over their needs. As companies form higher-level systems, they cannot be changed by changing individuals. Instead, the system needs to be changed which is a different and oftentimes harder challenge.

This leaves us with a dilemma whenever things do not work as they should and a solution is needed. Actual solutions that would solve the problems in a sustainable way often are not welcomed.

It is pills what humans (and companies) want, not a change of lifestyle.

Therefore, I am afraid it is our challenge to design changes of lifestyle disguised as pills if we want to change things in a sustainable way. Additionally, we need to learn how to influence the higher-level system called “company culture”.

Feels like a complicated task? Yes, it is. I also struggle with that task quite often and I do not have a simple solution at hand. Surprise! 4

However, I hope I gave you some food for thought. After all, realizing and understanding a problem is the first step to solve it …

  1. It is not that I would not have anything to say to topics outside of IT. However, I deliberately decided to keep this blog focused on IT-related topics. If I should come to the conclusion I want to discuss topics outside of IT more publicly, I will start a second blog, vlog, or whatever. This blog is reserved for IT-related topics. ↩︎

  2. This is probably the main reason why we see such nonsensical requirements like “The new system should implement the following new features: <…>. Everything else must remain unchanged.” a lot. ↩︎

  3. For an understandable introduction in systems thinking, you may want to read the highly recommendable book “Thinking in Systems” by Donella Meadows↩︎

  4. If you should ask yourselves what the “Surprise!” means: A simple solution would be a pill … ;) ↩︎