A brief summary on What Makes Us Tick by Hugh Mackay

Have you ever wondered why on earth you did (or are still doing) something self-sabotaging? Do you sometimes get bothered by a certain emotion even though (or precisely because) there’s no reason for you to feel that way? Have you ever struggled with internal conflict, wondering why your usual decisive self is suddenly struck with such ambivalence?

Answer these questions honestly. Go on, no one’s judging you. 🙂

I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes struggle with self-sabotage, emotional turmoil and indecisiveness. That’s why I really appreciate Hugh Mackay’s What Makes Us Tick. It’s a comprehensive book with lots of relatable examples on our top ten social desires and how they drive our behaviours.

I feel like I’m just scratching the surface as I read this book; it’s introduced me to a lot of concepts, but the more important step is being mindful and seeing how they relate to my behaviour. In fact, I felt such a strong urge to translate what I read into my everyday life that I made a little book summary to consolidate my thoughts 🤓 (Note: the ideas introduced in this summary belong to the author, I’ve just distilled out the main points and shuffled things around to present it in a more visual and hopefully interesting format.)

If you’re equally keen, or if you’d care to indulge me in my desire to be taken seriously 😉, here’s my takeaways from the book. Let’s begin! 👇🏼


1 sentence summary: This book aims to explain our behaviours – including those that we cannot comprehend ourselves – based on our top ten social desires.

Key takeaway: We are not rational creatures.
In writing this book, the author aims to shed light on the way our desires drive us all, in hopes of helping us become a little more realistic and compassionate in our demands and expectations of each other (as well as ourselves!). As humans, we are ruled more by the heart than the head, so instead of trying to explain our actions rationally, perhaps we should be asking: “What desires are driving this behaviour?”

When reading, keep in mind that these desires:

The Desire To Be Taken Seriously

All of us want to be noticed and understood as individuals with a unique identity and contribution to make. But it’s not just our achievements we want recognised; we want them to stand as expressions of our worth.

It’s why we protest against racism, sexism and any prejudiced attitudes that lump us into a category.

It’s why we love our dogs – because they make us feel like the most important thing in the world.

It’s why we rise to defend our beliefs in the face of opposition – because it’s better than being faced with indifference.

If left unfulfilled… the desire to be taken seriously can manifest as:

1. Resentment – for being taken for granted.

2. Arrogance – as if to say “if you won’t take me seriously, I’ll do the job myself.”

3. Confusion – in people who were never taken seriously enough to cultivate a sense of self.

4. Ruthlessness – an unhealthy amounts of competitiveness and ambition, as if to seek revenge for being ignored.

The solution? Acknowledgement and recognition. Do not confuse this with praise, which shifts the motivation of performing an act from intrinsic (where the focus is on the act itself) to extrinsic (where the focus is on the reward). Furthermore, rewards create unbalanced relationships as it gives power to the rewarder. Thus, in a sense, reward becomes the same as punishment – because both are about controlling.

“It is not less controlling to offer goodies for a desired behaviour than to threaten sanctions for its absence (or for the presence of undesired behaviour).”

Alfie Kohn, Punished By Rewards 

The Desire For ‘My Place’

Places can offer their own symbolic meaning, e.g.:

An anchor / refuge

An ideal

A sense of control


Often, our emotional responses to these places are almost as powerful as our response to the things they represent. 

If left unfulfilled… the desire to for my place can lead to territorialism, conflict and war. In such instances, it’s important to remind myself that “my place” will only ever feel emotionally and physically comfortable if we haven’t trampled over other people’s sensitivities to create it. 

The Desire For Something To Believe In

Whether it’s a supernatural being, science, money, wisdom, love… we want to believe in something grander than we are, something beyond time and space, immortal and invisible. It serves as…

If over-indulged… the desire for something to believe in can blind us to other possibilities. No matter how strong a conviction may be, it’s still a belief rather than knowledge; and beliefs of any kind need reinforcement to survive. Often, this need for reinforcement is so strong that it distorts our perception of the world. We see the world from our own point of view, which further reinforces it – thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“The less a thing is known, the more fervently it is believed.”

Montaigne, Essays I 

The Desire To Connect

Connection comes in many forms; it can be…

We need to strike a balance between all three:

  • If we are so devoted to nature, we may neglect our creative lives and relationships.
  • If we are so focused on our inward journey, we may lose touch with nature and our loved ones.
  • If we’re incessant communicators, we may lose sight of who we are becoming, and find it difficult to spend time alone.

If left unfulfilled… the desire to connect can lead to over-indulgence of two other desires:

1. The desire for control, e.g.: a person may seek to control predictable circumstances (goals, power, money…) and lose touch with the natural world, or refuse to interact with others in unpredictable social settings

2. The desire to be taken seriously, e.g.: pomposity and the need for attention generally goes with a lack of self-awareness

Ultimately, to be connected is to be free from:
• the delusions that limit our vision of what we could become
• the prejudice that blocks our contact with others
• the preoccupations that blind us from the possibilities in this world
• the burden of pretending we are here for more than a brief appearance (Ooft!)

The Desire To Be Useful

Sometimes we find it easier to respond to someone else’s need rather than our own. There are several ways of interpreting altruism: 

It is an inherent human nature, but often masked by other competing desires.

It serves as a bliss-burst for those who believe that people only do things for themselves.

It is a form of “mate attraction”. Altruism signals positive qualities. In other words, altruism is sexy.

If over-indulged… the desire to be useful can turn into bossiness. We want to change the way other people behave so they’ll conform with our expectations. However, while it’s frustrating to see someone do something you disagree with, it’s even more frustrating to find that your attempts to ‘help’ have not only failed, but probably made them defensive and angry. Thus, it’s a good idea to remember that no one has the right to control or judge another person’s behaviour or way of being. People must be left free to make and learn from their own mistakes. 

The Desire To Belong

We’re driven to align ourselves with groups that offer us the comfort of emotional affinity, and consolidate our understanding of who we are and where we fit. It drives the formation of communities, encourages sociability and a harmonious way of life. But it can also have negative impacts such as:

Sports rivalries

Religious disagreements

Consumer tribalism

Political disputes

If over-indulged… the desire to belong can lead to mindless conformity. It can drive us to invent rivalries with those who do not identify with our “tribe”, and impair our judgement due to peer pressure. An example of such pathological tribalism can be seen in suicide bombers. Thus, it is important to realise that even this most civilising of desires must sometimes be restrained. 

The Desire For More

As humans, our desire for more isn’t limited to pleasurable things…

… Sometimes, we stay within our comfort zone; content with the status quo, we want more of it.

Of course, our desire for more can also make us competitive and hard workers. 

When other desires are frustrated, we compensate by indulging this one. For example, people who feel that they are not being taken seriously will react with excessive attention-seeking behaviour. 

If over-indulged… the desire for more can turn into greed, addiction, even mania; and encourage feelings of entitlement (“Why can’t I have more?”). But what’s worse is the desire for another person to be diminished in some way, and to be less successful than we are. This results in a lack of compassion and a tendency to withhold charity.

In such instances, it’s worth noting that our mindset determines which road we travel on. Scarcity or abundance – the decision is up to us.

The Desire For Control

The desire for control is fundamentally the desire to have things our way. Thus, maturation is mainly about learning to accept that we have much less control than we might think.

And so we learn, we adapt… but the desire for control doesn’t leave us. In fact, of all the desires that drive us, the desire for control is the one most likely to disappoint and frustrate us. It’s the one we seem to understand least and the one we most frequently try to satisfy in inappropriate ways.

The author raised some very interesting points in this chapter:

If over-indulged… the desire for control can lead to power corrupts precisely because it gives free rein to the dark and dangerous aspects of our desire for control. This also relates to our desire to be taken seriously: if you take me too seriously, the normal restraints on my desire for control may be loosened.

Revenge also represents the unleashing of our desire for control: he hit me (loss of control), so I must hit him back (regaining control). And because I am now in control, I will hit him harder than he hit me. It reduces us to the level of those who have wronged us. After all, we can’t criticise the way someone behaves and then behave in the same way without corrupting our own values. 

The Desire For Something To Happen

For most of us, anticipated pleasure is often part of the pleasure of the event itself. It keeps us energised, motivated, even excited. It can range from our belief of an afterlife (because it promises a better life) to our experience of a midlife crisis (because we realise our lives no longer provide that stimulation we yearn for). And we use various ways to fulfil our desire for something to happen, whether it’s through competitive sports, dating, or even purchasing the latest technological invention.

If over-indulged… the desire for something to happen might distract us from the present and increase the risk of disappointment when the anticipated event occurs. And this begs the question: ultimately, will we demand that everything be entertaining

That’s not to say that stimulation is entirely bad. Stimulation is the key to maintaining cognitive function into old age. Think about it: we remember rare events for far longer than ordinary, routine events. Thus, to stay sharp, we need things to happen. 

Yet there exists a tension between our intellectual need for surprise and uncertainty and our emotional need for security and stability…

Striking a balance between these two contradictions is hard when we use change as a distraction from rethinking the way we live.

Having said that, too much introspection is not a good thing either. We need some restlessness to avoid sinking into contentment and complacency.

Thus, a “stillpoint” can be a place of refreshment where we nurture our sanity. Time regularly set aside for meditation can help maintain our emotional stability. But for most of us, “peace of mind” is a resource for living, not a way of life. It’s the bracing sense of uncertainty that keeps us going.

The Desire For Love

Most of us learn about love from the experience of being loved as babies. Ideally, we learn about unconditional love, intimacy, healthy expressions of love, how it involves sacrifices, faith and belief, and that self-respect is essential if we are ever to feel worthy of love.

Of course, there are other lessons as well, like rejection, biased love, conditional love, and that love can be given or withheld. Even the very closeness and devotion of parents can cause problems as we learn that we cannot have all our needs met by someone else – we need to make sacrifices too.

These lessons stick with us and shape our desire for love. Often, we seek relationships that will compensate for the wounds we suffered in childhood, though no adult relationship should be expected to do that, because there’ll be too much taking and not enough giving.

That’s not to say that we are doomed by our upbringing. There are many ways to compensate for the loss of early nurture. In fact, being loved at any age is an education in love. But it’s undeniable that the lessons we learn in childhood will inevitably shape our attitude to and our capacity for love. 

So, What Now?

Consciously or unconsciously, we are constantly trying to settle the conflicts between our ten social desires. Thus, we are all going to be frustrated sometimes – especially if we are expecting to satisfy too many desires at once. But once we learn to recognise these frustrations for what they are, we’re less likely to let any one desire dominate us. We’re more likely to remember that there are always other satisfactions available to keep us afloat – so why worry about the few desires that are frustrated if there are others that aren’t?

And there you have it. Overall, this summary is a very brief version of the book – so lemme know what you think! And if any of the topics piqued your interest, I highly recommend giving it a read – it just might help you journey from “Why did I do that?” to “What can I do now?”.

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