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Explanations > Motivation > Urges

Urges are... | Experiencing urge | Urge control | So what?


We all feel urges and often want to control them. The first step is to understand what urges are. then we can take more effective action to manage them.

Urges are...

Urges are natural and powerful motivational forces that act on us, causing us to behave in various ways.

Reactions are responses to immediate events, such as when we leap out of the way when something falls on us.

Impulses are short-term urges, often driven by emotions, that lead to impulsive action, such as when we feel an impulse lash out at someone who is threatening us.

Compulsions are more durable pressures to act, such as when we feel a need to complete a ritual, for example where we 'touch wood' to avoid bad luck.

Desires, such as wanting to be promoted, may lead to compulsion or impulsive action and are generally felt as durable urges that may escalate if not acted upon.

It is not uncommon to consciously wish to avoid the actions that the urges provoke, yet feel unable to control the urge, leading to unwanted and possibly embarrassing results.

Primary urges

We are evolved beings, having much of our DNA in common with all other creatures, especially mammals and apes. Our brains reflect this, with three levels: the upper thinking cortex, the emotional 'mammal' midbrain and the primitive lower 'reptilian' brain.

We have a number of urges that are driven from the mid and lower brains. These still have a remarkably powerful effect on us and we often have to fight back basic desires to punch others who annoy us or steal what we desire.

Primary urges include:

  • To breathe (even when we are under water, which is how we drown)
  • To eat when we are hungry (including swallowing -- chewing is not enough)
  • To be sick when unwell (which helps expel poisons)
  • To expel waste products ('going to the toilet')
  • To attract a mate and procreate (hence spreading our genes)
  • To fight when angered or threatened (when we think we can win or when we are cornered)
  • To flee from threats we cannot handle (it is better to live to fight another day)

Beyond the basic physiological urges, we sometimes talk about the 'three Fs', being Fight, Flight and Fornication.

Secondary urges

We also experience secondary urges, for example where the social pressures to conform and stand out leads us to want to buy things we do not need. Advertisers know about this and keep pressing our acquisitive buttons.

We create other urges ourselves. One way is by becoming addicted to alcohol, tobacco or other drugs. Non-neural urges act in a similar way, such as kleptomania (compulsive stealing) and 'shopaholics' (compulsive buying).

When conscious behavioral patterns, including everyday habits, embed themselves in our brains they effectively become unconscious urges that drive us to actions that we often wish we could control. This is also the force behind the dysfunctional social games we play.

Mental conditions and disorders, such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), are often characterized by strong urges to act in certain ways. OCD typically manifests as repeated cleaning, checking, hoarding and completing rituals.

Experiencing urge

Urges are felt as a tension, often as a kind of emptiness (such as when we feel hungry or lonely) or a pressure (such as to fight or run away). When we satisfy an urge, we feel the closure of fulfilment or contentment.

Degrees of urge

Urges can be low, with a weak pressure on us, for example when we feel a bit peckish, such that we can easily resist. They can also be high, for example when we feel ravenous after a long period of exercise and when we have not eaten for a long time.


Some urges are experienced as overwhelmingly powerful, forcing us to act. When we are starving, we will eat things that would normally make us sick. When goaded into extreme anger, we will fight even when we know we will lose.

Also, some people are easily tipped into action, such that even a light urge cannot be resisted. We say such people lack self-control and may criticize them as weak and selfish. In practice, they are often just more susceptible than us. There are mental conditions where this vulnerability is particularly marked.

Good and bad urges

Some urges are socially acceptable, such as eating and being with loved ones. If not taken to excess, these are considered good and normal.

However, our evolutionary past has also programmed urges into us to help us survive as individuals but which can be damaging to society. Many urges are hence considered bad, for example when you have the urge to punch your boss or have non-consensual sex with an attractive other person.

Urge control

We have an inner urge control system, where our brains nag us into particular actions then stop us when we have had enough. For example eating, where hunger drives us to find and eat food, whilst 'feeling full' stops us when we have had enough. This urge system can become faulty, for example where the 'stop' signal is ineffective and we eat too much. In such cases, conscious willpower has to take over from the unconscious control system.

Beyond the subconscious control systems, we use conscious self-control. Animals can be conditioned to exercise self-control, such as when a dog learns not to lick a plate left on the floor, but we as humans have far more complex thought processes that we use in order to manage how we behave.

So what?

As well as controlling your own urges you can persuade by stimulate the urges of others, for example by putting temptation in their path. This happens, for example, where a person offers a chocolate to a friend who is dieting, saying 'Go on, just one'.

See also

The Brain's Urge system, Self-Control


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