This paper presents an account of the nature of desire, informed by psychology and neuroscience, which entails that hunger is not a desire. The account is contrasted with Schroeder’s well-known empirically-informed theory of desire. It is argued that one significant virtue of the present account, in comparison with Schroeder’s theory, is that it draws a sharp distinction between desires and basic drives, such as the drive for food. One reason to draw this distinction is that experiments on incentive learning show that desires and basic drives influence action in different ways.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
In this paper I take reward value to be a property of outcomes (i.e. states of affairs), which comes in degrees, and which in some sense makes those outcomes worth working for. Actions also have reward values derivatively, in virtue of their tendencies to produce outcomes. I also use the term ‘reward’ as a noun for rewarding outcomes. There is much more to be said about the nature of reward value, and how this property relates to the two systems for action selection, but here I leave these issues aside.
It may be helpful to clarify my use of the term ‘state’, since in the empirical disciplines to which this article relates this term is typically used to refer either to states of the environment or physiological states of the organism such as the state of food-deprivation. I use ‘state’ in the standard philosophical way, which is to refer to individual representations in psychological systems, at either the personal or subpersonal level.
i.e. the sum of the reward values of features of the environment.
An apparent exception to these general claims about the role of basic drives is salt appetite. Rats that have experienced actions leading to the delivery of salt into their mouths will perform these actions when deprived of salt, even though salt delivery has previously always been an aversive experience for them (Tindell et al. 2009). There is no need for incentive learning. This suggests the existence of a special-purpose mechanism for tracking the presence of salt and responding to salt appetites, which would make some sense given that in contrast to other foods, salt appetite is a rare condition and overconsumption of salt is dangerous even in the short term. So it is doubtful whether this particular result should be taken to significantly threaten my arguments concerning hunger.
Schroeder’s talk of events as ‘being rewards’ is roughly equivalent, in the terminology that I have favoured, to saying that those events have positive reward values. However, one difference between us is that Schroeder gives a theory of reward, whereas I have not taken a position on this issue.
Schroeder’s stated view is that we have intrinsic desires to maintain homeostasis, and instrumental desires for food when blood sugar is low, for warmth when cold, etc. (2004, pp. 151–2). He therefore accepts that standing basic drives are desires. One awkward feature of this view is that it seems necessary for us to be able to learn about the reward values of nourishing foods even when we are not hungry, suggesting that we have a drive for food rather than for homeostasis.
Samuels’ account also faces a further potential objection, which is that the notion of innateness is used both in cognitive science and elsewhere (e.g. we can usefully distinguish innate and acquired components of the immune system; Mameli and Bateson 2011), yet his account is only relevant to cognitive science. This point does not diminish the usefulness of the notion of a psychological primitive for understanding the relationship between basic drives and desires.
Adams, C.D. 1981. Variations in the sensitivity of instrumental responding to reinforcer devaluation. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 34B: 77–98.
Adams, C.D., and A. Dickinson. 1981. Instrumental responding following reinforcer devaluation. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 33B: 109–122.
Arpaly, N., and T. Schroeder. 2014. In praise of desire. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Balleine, B.W. 1992. Instrumental performance following a shift in primary motivation depends on incentive learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behaviour Processes 18: 236–250.
Balleine, B.W., and A. Dickinson. 1998. Goal-directed instrumental action: contingency and incentive learning and their cortical substrates. Neuropharmacology 37: 407–419.
Balleine, B.W., and J.P. O’Doherty. 2010. Human and rodent homologies in action control: corticostriatal determinants of goal-directed and habitual action. Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews 35: 48–69.
Balleine, B., N. Daw & J. P. O’Doherty. 2008. Multiple forms of value learning and the function of dopamine. In Glimcher (ed.), Neuroeconomics.
Berridge, K.C. 2007. The debate over dopamine’s role in reward: the case for incentive salience. Psychopharmacology 191: 391–431.
Bratman, M. 1987. Intention, plans and practical reason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bray, S., S. Shimojo, and J.P. O’Doherty. 2010. Human medial orbitofrontal cortex is recruited during experience of real and imagined rewards. Journal of Neurophysiology 103: 2506–2512.
Brembs, B., F.D. Lorenzetti, F.D. Reyes, D.A. Baxter, and J.H. Byrne. 2002. Operant reward learning in Aplysia: neuronal correlates and mechanisms. Science 296 (5573): 1706–1709.
Butlin, P. 2016. The direction of fit of desire. Ph.D thesis, King’s College, London.
Butlin, P., and D. Papineau. 2016. Normal and addictive desires. In Addiction & Choice, eds. Heather & Segal. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cisek, P. 2007. Cortical mechanisms of action selection: the affordance competition hypothesis. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 362: 1585–1599.
Clark, A. 2013. Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science. Behavioural and Brain Sciences 36 (3): 181–204.
Corbit, L.H., J.L. Muir, and B.W. Balleine. 2001. The role of the nucleus accumbens in instrumental conditioning: evidence for a functional dissociation between accumbens core and shell. The Journal of Neuroscience 21: 3251–3260.
Damasio, A. 1994. Descartes’ error: emotion, reason and the human brain. New York, NY: Avon Books.
Davis, W. A. 1986. The two senses of desire. In The ways of desire, ed. Marks. Chicago, IL: Precedent Publishing.
Dickinson, A., and G. Dawson. 1988. Motivational control of instrumental performance: the role of prior experience of the reinforcer. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 40B: 113–134.
Foddy, B., and J. Savulescu. 2010. A liberal account of addiction. Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology 17 (1): 1.
Glimcher, P.W. 2011. Understanding dopamine and reinforcement learning: the dopamine reward prediction error hypothesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (3): 15647–15654.
Griffiths, P. 2002. What is innateness? The Monist 85 (1): 70–85.
Haber, S.N., and B. Knutson. 2010. The reward circuit: linking primate anatomy and human imaging. Neuropsychopharmacology 35 (1): 4–26.
Hall, R.J. 2008. If it itches, scratch! Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86 (4): 525–535.
Hare, T.A., J. Malmaud, and A. Rangel. 2011. Focusing attention on the health aspects of food changes value signals in the vmPFC and improves dietary choice. Journal of Neuroscience 31: 11077–11087.
Heyes, C., and A. Dickinson. 1990. The intentionality of animal action. Mind & Language 5 (1): 87–103.
Holton, R. 2009. Willing, wanting, waiting. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Holton, R., and K. Berridge. 2014. Addiction between compulsion and choice. In Addiction and self-control: Perspectives from philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, ed. Levy.
Hull, C. L. 1943. Principles of behavior. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Hursthouse, R. 1991. Arational actions. The Journal of Philosophy 88 (2): 57–68.
Jing, J., F.S. Vilim, C.C. Horn, et al. 2007. From hunger to satiety: reconfiguration of a feeding network by Aplysia neuropeptide Y. Journal of Neuroscience 27 (13): 3490–3502.
Kennerley, S., and M.E. Walton. 2011. Decision-making and reward in frontal cortex: complementary evidence from neurophysiological and neuropsychological studies. Behavioural Neuroscience 125 (3): 297–317.
Kirk, U., M. Skov, O. Hulme, M.S. Christensen, and S. Zeki. 2009. Modulation of aesthetic value by semantic context: an fMRI study. NeuroImage 44: 1125–1132.
Mameli, M., and P. Bateson. 2011. An evaluation of the concept of innateness. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 336: 436–443.
Neal, D., W. Wood, M. Wu, and D. Kurlander. 2011. The pull of the past: when do habits persist despite conflicts with motives? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 37: 1428–1437.
Niv, Y., P. Dayan, D. Joel 2006. The effects of motivation on extensively trained behaviour. Leibniz Technical Report, Hebrew University 2006–6.
Niv, Y., N.D. Daw, D. Joel, and P. Dayan. 2007. Tonic dopamine: opportunity costs and the control of response vigor. Psychopharmacology 191 (3): 507–520.
O’Doherty, J.P., J. Winston, H. Critchley, D. Perrett, D.M. Burt, and R.J. Dolan. 2003. Beauty in a smile: the role of medial orbitofrontal cortex in facial attractiveness. Neuropsychologia 41 (2): 147–155.
Padoa-Schioppa, C. 2011. Neurobiology of economic choice: a good-based model. Annual Review of Neuroscience 34: 333–359.
Plassmann, H., J. O’Doherty, and A. Rangel. 2007. Orbitofrontal cortex encodes willingness to pay in everyday economic transactions. Journal of Neuroscience 27 (37): 9984–9988.
Rangel, A., and T.A. Hare. 2010. Neural computations associated with goal-directed choice. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 20: 1–9.
Redgrave, P. 2007. Basal ganglia. Scholarpedia 2 (6): 1825.
Redgrave, P., T.J. Prescott, and K. Gurney. 1999. The basal ganglia: a vertebrate solution to the selection problem? Neuroscience 89: 1009–1023.
Rolls, E.T., and F. Grabenhorst. 2008. The orbitofrontal cortex and beyond: from affect to decision-making. Progress in Neurobiology 86: 216–244.
Samuels, R. 2002. Nativism in cognitive science. Mind and Language 17 (3): 233–265.
Schroeder, T. 2004. Three faces of desire. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Schueler, G. F. 1995. Desire: Its role in practical reasoning and the explanation of action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Schultz, W. 1998. Predictive reward signal of dopamine neurons. Journal of Neurophysiology 80 (1): 1–27.
Schultz, W. 2007. Multiple dopamine functions at different time courses. Annual Review of Neuroscience 30: 259–288.
Sescousse, G., J. Redouté, and J.-C. Dreher. 2010. The architecture of reward value coding in the human orbitofrontal cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience 30 (39): 13095–13104.
Sharot, T., T. Shiner, A.C. Brown, J. Fan, and R.J. Dolan. 2009. Dopamine enhances expectation of pleasure in humans. Current Biology 19 (24): 2077–2080.
Skinner, B. F. 1938. The behavior of organisms. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Smith, M. 1987. The Humean theory of motivation. Mind 96: 36–61.
Smith, M. 1994. The moral problem. Oxford: Blackwell.
Sulzer, J., R. Sitaram, M.L. Blefari, et al. 2013. Neurofeedback-mediated self-regulation of the dopaminergic midbrain. NeuroImage 175C: 176–184.
Sutton, R., and A. Barto. 1998. Reinforcement learning: An introduction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Tindell, A.J., K.S. Smith, K. Berridge, and J.W. Aldridge. 2009. Dynamic computation of incentive salience: ‘wanting’ what was never ‘liked’. Journal of Neuroscience 29 (39): 12220–12228.
Tricomi, E., B.W. Balleine, and J.P. O’Doherty. 2009. A specific role for posterior dorsolateral striatum in human habit learning. European Journal of Neuroscience 29: 2225–2232.
Wise, R. 2004. Dopamine, learning and motivation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5: 483–494.
Yin, H.H., B.J. Knowlton, and B.W. Balleine. 2004. Lesions of dorsolateral striatum preserve outcome expectancy but disrupt habit formation in instrumental learning. European Journal of Neuroscience 19: 181–189.
Yin, H.H., S.B. Ostlund, B.J. Knowlton, and B.W. Balleine. 2005. The role of dorsomedial striatum in instrumental conditioning. European Journal of Neuroscience 22: 513–523.
Yin, H.H., B.J. Knowlton, and B.W. Balleine. 2006. Reversible inactivation of dorsolateral striatum enhances sensitivity to changes in action-outcome contingency in instrumental conditioning. Behavioural Brain Research 66 (2): 189–196.
This research was supported by FWO research grant G0C7416N: ‘The Diversity of Unconscious Mental Processes’. I would like to thank David Papineau, Nick Shea and Richard Holton for their help with my research in this area. I am also grateful to four reviewers for this journal, Alec Hinshelwood, David Spurrett, and audiences in London and Durban for their comments on drafts of this paper.
About this article
Cite this article
Butlin, P. Why Hunger is not a Desire. Rev.Phil.Psych. 8, 617–635 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-017-0332-9
- Natural Kind
- Incentive Learning
- Reward Prediction Error
- Basic Drive
- Intrinsic Desire