Appetites Theory
A Personality Theory

By Shulamit Widawsky, ©2003


Appetite Theory is an eclectic personality theory. Its main tenet is that humans, in all that they are, function according to their various capacities, abilities, and cravings, specifically: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, interpersonal, communal, and stimulational. Just as a person is driven to breathe, eat, or sleep, so are human beings uniquely driven to satisfy their less obvious appetites for things such as love, fame, quiet, or excitement. Appetite Theory states that properly satiated appetites will result in a healthy personality. Appetites, however, are often subtle or obscure, and can be misread or overlooked. When that happens, there are a variety of negative repercussions. Counseling clients, using the principles of Appetite Theory, is done by helping the client understand their appetites and learn to satisfy them in effective and appropriate ways that match their capacities and abilities.



 A personality theory is a general theory of human behavior. Some examples of well-known personality theories are Freud’s Classical Psychoanalytical Theory, Existential Psychology, and Skinner’s Operant-Reinforcement Theory.

  Personality” is a hard word to define, and ends up being defined by the theory describing it. Nonetheless, an unsatisfactory, but general definition might include such ideas as

  • The complex of characteristics that distinguishes an individual
  • The totality of an individual’s behavioral and emotional tendencies
  • The organization of the individual’s distinguishing character traits, attitudes, or habits

 “Theory” is sometimes defined as an unsubstantiated hypothesis that is waiting for confirming data to turn it from theory to fact. However, in the case of “Personality Theory” the term “theory” is better defined as a set of conventions created by the theorist. A personality theory, therefore, is a particular set of conventions used to help describe the existence of, and effect adjustments to the personality of human beings.

 As a counselor, I’d be flying by the seat of my pants if I didn’t consider which theory or theories I subscribe to, and how I apply them in my practice. There are, however, many different personality theories and eclectic approaches available to the counseling professional, with new ones surfacing regularly. As an ornery and independent educational therapist in private practice, who has studied personality theories for more than 20 years, my conclusion is thus: I have learned from every theory I have studied, I use various aspects of many of them, but none has satisfied me enough to keep me from working out my own theories.

 If you are familiar with psychology, occupational therapy, or philosophy you will undoubtedly find pieces here from each of these disciplines. I may be ornery and eclectic, but I’m not so egotistical as to think my personality theory need not stand on the shoulders of the psychological geniuses who paved the way.


Why a New Theory

What makes people tick? What drives a person to those choices, to that attitude, to that emotional state? For any given personality issue the student of psychology will surely be able to apply one, if not several, personality theories to explain the situation. By their nature, theories are limited and arbitrarily coordinated, but their intention is just that: to limit and coordinate the understanding of personality in such a way as to be usable by those who would study or counsel humanity.

 Appetite Theory is my attempt at such a limited and arbitrary endeavor. I do believe, however, that the theory is useful in that it helps my clients and me to better find, understand, and respond to the issues that are disturbing them, interrupting their daily functioning, and blocking them from accomplishing their goals.


Why Appetite

 One definition of “appetite” found in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary reads: “an inherent craving.” Generally thought of as referring to food, this craving can refer to anything one craves. People crave all kinds of things. In this article, I will somewhat arbitrarily break those cravings into seven general classifications. They are: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, interpersonal, communal, and stimulational. (Examples below.)

 What about using “homeostasis” instead of appetite? While homeostasis is certainly a major human goal, the specific understanding of the term is variable across different theories. Homeostasis has been defined variously as a need as well as an outcome of maintaining equilibrium or balance. Often, implied or directly stated, the definition includes a sense that homeostasis is always the goal of any organism or group. But equilibrium or balance, is not always the goal. An appetite, therefore, is not defined as a need or desire for homeostasis. It is more simple: it is a need or desire. There are clearly homeostatic appetites, for example, a need to eat, along with a desire to be neither too hungry, nor too full. But there are also appetites which yearn for the specific avoidance of homeostasis. Consider the desire to go on a white-water river raft ride. The joy for many may very well be the turmoil and lack of balance that makes the ride worthwhile. Intimate relationships have been known to be based on the ability of the one to keep the other emotionally off-balance.

 Appetite Theory posits that human beings each have their own personally idiosyncratic set of appetites that defines their personality. Unfortunately, the details of these appetites aren’t always obvious. You would think we would know when and what we yearn for, but we often don’t. Movie script writers know this well…how many plot twists are based on a character believing they want this guy, or this house, or this vacation, only to find out that they really wanted that guy, that house, and to stay home. It’s not that human beings are so fickle. It’s just that we are easily confused by some combination of our appetites and our circumstances.

 So we see there are three stages from appetite to satiation: 1. Recognizing the existence of an appetite. 2. Discerning the subtleties of that appetite. 3. Satisfying the appetite with the right thing, in the right way.


Types of Appetites

 Appetite is an intensely personal thing, nonetheless highly susceptible to cultural influence. 16-year-old Marge* has a large appetite for physical stimulation and contact. She would be best served by playing football or wrestling. But maybe sports don’t suit her in some way, or maybe she just never tried football or wrestling. (You have certainly already thought of your own reasons why Marge didn’t think of playing these particular sports.) Looking to satisfy an appetite for physical stimulation and contact, Marge attempts satiation through sex. As her appetite for sexual intimacy hasn’t yet matured, she feels stuck: she needs to feed her appetite for high levels of physical contact, but she is overwhelmed with over-consumption of sexual intimacy. Understanding her appetite better might help Marge consider healthier options for fulfilling it.

 To understand our appetites, it is useful if we can categorize them.

 Appetites can be broken down into somewhat arbitrary categories. In trying to place finer and finer examples of appetites, it quickly becomes clear that many appetites, if not all, will fall into multiple categories. The examples that follow are often placeable in more than one general category, and these general categories are not written in stone. With that caveat, here are the general categories of appetites with a few examples of each: 

  1. Physical: food, activity, pressure, movement, temperature
  2. Mental: learning, puzzles, games, research
  3. Emotional: anger, happiness, comfort, sadness
  4. Spiritual: prayer, meditation, religion, deity thoughts
  5. Interpersonal: closeness, distance, loud, quiet, intimate, surface
  6. Communal: large, small, involved, separate
  7. Stimulational: volume, uniqueness/consistency, internal/external

 Some appetites are inextricably linked to several of the general categories. Some examples of these crossovers are appetites for money, success, love, narcotics, achievement and fame. In most cases, these appetites are easily divided into sub-categories. For example, an appetite for money might be broken down into appetites for mental stimulation of how to get the money, emotional needs of the comfort of having the money, communal needs of being able to support the community, etc. One person’s appetite for money might be comprised quite differently than another. Recognizing one’s idiosyncratic sub-categories for an appetite helps a person find appropriate satisfaction of that appetite. If a person has an appetite for making money for the mental stimulation it brings, but also has a spiritual appetite for asceticism, they might make a great fundraiser for their church, but be deeply unhappy if they try to either avoid money, or “put up with” being wealthy.

 Appetites have various etiologies. They come from unique combinations of genetic and environmental influences. Examples of genetic appetites might be an appetite for parenting, eating, or warmth. Of course, each of these may be altered by personal history. Learned appetites may be highly particular. Consider a pair of identical twins who traipse around the world with their military father for the first 18 years of their lives. One learns to have an appetite for stimulation and change. The other comes to have a reverse appetite for quiet and consistency. Appetite Theory does not suggest an explanation for these opposite responses. Rather, it accepts each individual as they are, and acts as an approach to awareness, organization, integration, and satiation of their appetites.

 Each individual has particular capacities and abilities that are both stable and variable. They are generally stable over time (barring catastrophe), but variable from moment to moment. These capacities and abilities influence appetite, but are beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice to say, the greater a person’s capacities and abilities, the more likely their appetites will be extreme and diverse.

 Human beings are complex, mystical creatures. No “personality theory” can ever fully do justice to our humanity. But such descriptive theories can provide a useful strategy for navigating life’s vagaries. The constellation of appetites a person has, combined with their experiences and abilities are significant markers we can use to understand the human experience of life.


Constructive vs. Destructive Discomfort

 When a person has an appetite that is not appropriately satisfied (either by too much or too little), they will feel some kind of discomfort.

  It is important to understand that not all psychological discomfort is bad for you. When discomfort—psychological or otherwise—leads to a useful response, then the discomfort is appropriate, healthy, and creative. In other words, it is a constructive discomfort. The more intelligent, creative, and energetic a person is, the more likely they are to experience constructive discomfort. This is similar to Dabrowski’spositive disintegration.” It is not actually possible to raise oneself to higher levels of functioning without experiencing constructive discomfort. If we were perpetually comfortable, there would be no motivation to change; without change, we don’t grow. It is possible, however, for constructive discomfort to be severe and long lasting. The knowledge that the discomfort is both useful and necessary can be reassuring when struggling with it.

 However, when discomfort is useless, or actively and unremittingly destructive without benefit, then it falls into the category of pathology. We call this destructive discomfort.

 According to Appetite Theory, discomfort is created through four dysfunctional appetite states:

  1. When appetites are left unfulfilled or neglected.
  2. When appetites are overwhelmed.
  3. When appetites are misunderstood, and inappropriate means are attempted to fulfill them.
  4. When appetites are in direct conflict with each other.

 Does this mean that according to Appetite Theory all discomfort—emotional, physical, etc.—is caused by some combination of those four problems? It does. If you’re sick, perhaps your immune system has become overwhelmed. If you’re sweating, your appetite for heat has been overwhelmed, or your appetite for cold has been left unfulfilled. If you’re depressed or anxious, it could be any or all of them. If you feel uncomfortable, and you don’t know why, you’re probably dealing with number three. If you have an appetite for aerobic exercise, but are recuperating in bed after spinal surgery, you’re faced with number four.

 This is not to say there aren’t lots of great descriptions in other personality theories to explain why someone would react unsatisfactorily to an appetite. For example, Freud listed in great detail various human responses to discomfort, which he called “defense mechanisms.” Personality theories are like languages: each language has its own ways to describe a thing. This doesn’t make one necessarily better than another, but it may well make one more useful than another in certain circumstances. “Defense mechanisms” are in the language of Psychotherapy. “Dysfunctional responses” are in the language of Appetite Theory.


Dysfunctional Responses

 As explained above, appetites and their appropriate responses aren’t always obvious. In fact, discomfort isn’t always obvious, but that issue will have to wait for another paper. It is, however, recognized discomfort that generally brings people to therapy. By the definition of Appetite Theory, if a person suffers discomfort, they are experiencing some dysfunctional appetite state. How can that happen?

 Sometimes it is just a matter of being in an active state of adjustment. The person is in the process of responding appropriately to an appetite, but presently the appetite is not yet in a satiated state. There is constructive discomfort going on. However, when an appetite is inappropriately addressed, or not addressed at all, this results in a destructive discomfort, and this is called a dysfunctional appetite response. Their appetites are either unfulfilled, or overwhelmed.

 Appetites are left unfulfilled because they are unknown, avoided, misunderstood, or in conflict.

 The unknown appetite: A person with a high spiritual appetite growing up in an atheistic home, or a homosexual person who denies their sexual orientation, may attempt to live their entire lives unaware of these appetites. (Under such situations, they will feel some kind of “emptiness” which they may try to fulfill by overwhelming other appetites.)

 Another reason an appetite might be left unfulfilled may be an active avoidance. This can be positive, as when a person avoids having an affair, or avoids consuming an addictive substance. (Though often, these appetites suggest some other unsatisfied appetites.) Or they can be negative, as when an anorexic stops eating, or when an athlete stops reading because it “isn’t cool.”

 An appetite may simply be misunderstood. Due to lack of experience or insight, we may find a particular appetite beyond our capability to fulfill. In this case, the appetite confuses us. We recognize its existence, but not its specific needs, or how to best provide satiation. The example above, of Marge, is a problem of misunderstood appetite.

 Conflict can create unfulfilled appetites, some more difficult to fix than others. When a person has a significant communal appetite and craves large group experience, but lives in their birthplace on an isolated farm due to an appetite towards keeping family tradition, appetite fulfillment is in conflict. Compromise is probably available in such a situation. However, when a person’s drug addiction prevents them from eating or sleeping enough to keep them sane or alive, compromise may not be a realistic option.

 A different kind of conflict occurs when an appetite exceeds a person’s ability to satiate it. The result is frustration. This frustration can take various forms: looking for alternative ways to feed the appetite, self-distraction, taking on a personality of self-denial, anxiety attacks, mental illness, etc. Obvious examples in this category may be ineffectively fulfilled love or fame appetites, as well as physical appetites running contrary to the environment, like lack of food or warmth.

 Appetites are overwhelmed generally because of environment, or because they are being used as a substitute, knowingly or unknowingly.

 Environmental ways that appetites get overwhelmed are sometimes avoidable or solvable, but not always. Too much heat, noise, work, etc. are external experiences which can take a person far beyond their satiation points. We can also become overwhelmed from our internal environment. Disease and body chemistry problems are examples of this. As with all the other appetites and their responses, we can only respond appropriately to environmentally overwhelmed appetites if we recognize them for what they are. If depression is being caused by heart disease and the doctor prescribes an antidepressant, the heart’s appetite for health might be overlooked.

 Substitution is when someone has an appetite for one thing, but tries to satisfy it by focusing on something else. If a child really needs attention from their mother, but mom is unavailable, the child may be able to substitute attention from the teacher, even if the teacher-attention-appetite has already been satiated. The child may be fully aware of this substitution. Depending on the relationships involved, this substitution may or may not continue to be effective.

 Often, substitution is employed unintentionally. It still may work, but when it stops working, the person who had been using it may be less able to understand why their discomfort level is rising.

 Substitution can result in overwhelming an appetite because the appetite chosen for the substitution is generally not chosen because it has been neglected. Rather, the likely choice is the appetite that has proven most similar or most easily satisfied in the past. No matter how much you enjoy excitement, if it is the excitement of skiing you crave, taking on too many projects at work to create excitement will likely result in overwhelming the one appetite, without satisfying the other.

 The most well-known ways to overwhelm an appetite by substitution, is to eat or sleep too much in exchange for some emotional appetite that isn’t getting successfully satisfied.


Healthy Response and Growth

 A healthy response to one’s appetites is one in which a person successfully navigates the three stages from appetite to satiation:

  1. Recognizing the existence of an appetite.

  2. Discerning the subtleties of that appetite.

  3. Satisfying the appetite with the right thing, in the right way.

 To accomplish these tasks might be simple. Many appetites are cyclical, requiring the repetition of known processes to achieve satiation. Exercise, sex, eating, and adjusting the thermostat are examples of simple, cyclical satiation processes.

 The more complex or uncommon an appetite is, the more work it may be to respond appropriately. Often we have everything we need to satisfy an appetite readily available, even if it takes some concerted effort to pull it all together. But sometimes we don’t have it all.

 When an appetite arises that requires us to learn something new, expand our awareness, or shift our personality in a healthy way, the appetite creates the potential for growth. New or changed appetites come from the general maturation process, and from exposure to new experiences. Satisfying immature appetites can trigger the formation of progressively more mature appetites, which can trigger progressively more mature responses. Exposing oneself to new experiences can trigger new and unique appetites. As a person’s appetite set grows and refines, so does the person’s personality.



 Appetite Theory is an eclectic personality theory, encompassing biological, emotional, and environmental aspects of personality. Its main tenet is that humans, in all that they are, function according to the combination of their capacities, abilities, and cravings, which are called “appetites.” The general categories of appetites have been somewhat arbitrarily delineated as: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, interpersonal, communal, and stimulational.

 Just as a person is driven to breathe, eat, or sleep, so are human beings uniquely driven to satisfy their less obvious appetites for things such as love, fame, quiet, or excitement. Improperly satiated appetites results in discomfort. That discomfort can be constructive or destructive. Constructive discomfort is necessary for personal growth. Destructive discomfort reflects dysfunctional appetite response.

 Appetite Theory states that properly satiated appetites will result in a healthy personality. Appetites, however, are often subtle or obscure, and can be misread or overlooked. When that happens, there are a variety of negative repercussions. Counseling, using the principles of Appetite Theory, is done by helping the people understand their appetites and learn to satisfy them in effective and appropriate ways that match their capacities and abilities.

 Maturity and experience promote healthy growth of appetites; successfully navigating the three stages from appetite to satiation clears discomfort and leads to the healthy growth of the personality.



*Not an actual person

Shulamit Widawsky
Educational Therapist
Serving the Gifted

Annandale, VA


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This page was last updated on 05/15/13.


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