Psychology Behind Ambition

Psychology Behind Ambition


Ambition is a passionate determination to achieve a goal (power, distinction, honour), a core human trait that is often the maker of history. Nelson Mandela, Ash (Pokemon), Blair Waldorf (Gossip Girl), etc. all show amazing ambition, all of the different shades. Ambition helps you achieve your goal, grow as a person, and seek out new challenges.

The good and the bad of ambition

From warning against it to proclaiming it as a necessity for success, extremely different views are present across literature, cultures, etc. It is the persistent and generalized striving for success, attainment, and accomplishment that does not pick and choose specific domains, it generalizes across contexts. While the word stems from the Latin ‘ambitio’ / ‘ambire’ which meant ‘to go around’. But it helps a person push another mile and overcome difficult things that they might not have done otherwise. It is less about socio-economic acceptance and more about generality, sticking to an aim, and trying hard to get that seat. Some research shows that extra ambition can build greed which makes them closely related aspects.

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The Psychology of Ambition

Psychology takes an overall neutral approach to ambition and believes that the consequences of it are about the way one utilizes ambition and not ambition itself. There are various ways in which psychology approaches it. Like other human traits, having a unanimous idea of the trait can lead to biases and misunderstanding. Let’s read about a few views next.

Maslow’s hierarchy

As briefly touched upon above, ambition could be a motivation-related trait. Abraham Maslow, an influential American psychologist of the 20th century expands on this from not a strictly achievement angle but as a (non-physiological) need. In 1943, he gave the world a ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ which made a classification based on bare minimum needs.

Read More: Psychology Behind Motivation

Broad classes were safety needs like home, physiological/bodily needs like hunger, esteem-related needs like achievements, social standing-related needs like friendship, and the highest placed needs of knowledge. Under this classification, one can place ambition under esteem needs which would thus be explained by a need for more self-esteem.

Psychoanalytic views of Kohut and Freud

In 1977, Heinz Kohut an Austrain-born American psychoanalyst started Self-Psychology (part of psychoanalysis methods). This sub-field showed that there are some explanations of the trait in personality development. Not unlike the Force in Star Wars, ambition could be based on what drives someone’s life or their libido.

In this line of questioning, ambition can thus be termed as a kind of desire. Freud talks about desires being rooted in the unconscious and fuelled by sexual/life drives. As a result, psychoanalysis can show that someone with a high libido/life drive can have a bigger desire to live and have a strong survival instinct. All of which point to being more ambitious. As a side note, this higher need for ambition has also been explored as something that stems from a kind of psychological Darwinism.

Psychological factors behind ambition

In understanding the psychological factors behind ambition, it is crucial to acknowledge the grey areas between positive and negative influences that shape someone’s ambitions, below are some negative and positive factors –

  • Personal Motivation: Ambition stemming from individual goals, values, and aspirations.
  • Jealousy/Envy: The desire for success fueled by coveting others’ achievements.
  • Emotional and Intellectual Needs: Seeking accomplishment to satisfy emotional and intellectual desires.
  • Fear of Rejection: Anxiety stemming from the potential for rejection in personal relationships.

Read More: How to Overcome Jealousy: Tips and Strategies for Letting Go of Envy”

  • Creative Urges: Ambition arising from a desire to express creativity and innovation.
  • Feelings of Superiority: A drive fueled by the need to assert dominance or superiority over others.
  • Sexual and Life Drive: Ambition that is linked to fundamental aspects of human nature, including sexual and life drives.
  • Fear of Failure: The apprehension of not meeting expectations in professional or social spheres.
  • Survival Instinct: Aiming for success as a response to the instinctive drive for survival.
  • Narcissism or Self-Love: Ambition driven by an excessive focus on oneself.
  • Competitiveness: The drive for success fueled by a competitive spirit.
  • Lack of Confidence: Aiming for success to compensate for a perceived lack of self-assurance.
  • Social and Financial Needs: Striving for success to meet societal and economic expectations.
  • Mental Illness (e.g., Bipolar Disorder): Ambition influenced by the challenges associated with mental health conditions.
  • Increased Confidence: Ambition as a result of growing self-assurance and belief in one’s abilities.
  • Feelings of Inferiority: A sense of inadequacy or lower worth, driving the desire for achievement.

Examples of the Ambition Dichotomy in Psychological Analysis

In the section above we saw how ambition could be both good and bad, this section shows two examples of how psychology uses this dichotomy to explain and uncover some traits:

The Superior Person Paradox:

A person projecting feelings of superiority may, paradoxically, harbour simultaneous feelings of inferiority. This duality arises from an unconscious fear that their perceived superiority could be challenged, revealing an inherent vulnerability. Competitiveness, jealousy, attracting partners, flaunting power, etc. are all results of this paradox resulting from ambition. Further, it can be raised to delusional levels and affect others, as often seen in the case of dictatorships. Understanding this paradox sheds light on the complexity of ambition, emphasizing the need for a balanced approach.

The Bipolar Dynamic:

In the realm of mental health, conditions like bipolar disorder introduce tricky studies of ambition. Individuals experiencing manic episodes, characterized by heightened energy and emotions, may exhibit intense ambition stemming from negative factors. However, this heightened state, if not managed properly, can lead to challenges in functioning. On the other hand, it is possible to have parallel ambition stemming from some of the positive factors listed above. It’s crucial to acknowledge that harnessing such conditions positively requires thoughtful consideration and helping the person find ways to wield the negative ambition sources in more creative & constructive ways.

Read More: Bipolar Disorder: Types, Symptoms and Treatment

In the realm of human ambition, our journey has uncovered its complex duality. From the resolute drive witnessed in historical icons to the nuanced portrayals in popular culture, ambition manifests in diverse ways. Exploring the psychological landscape, Maslow’s hierarchy positioned ambition as an esteem-driven force, while psychoanalytic views linked it to fundamental desires and survival instincts. The spectrum of psychological factors surrounding ambition, from personal motivation to the intricate dynamics of bipolar conditions, revealed a delicate balance between positive and negative influences and how psychology analyses ambition.

Thus a nuanced psychological understanding of ambition is crucial. It calls for a balanced approach that acknowledges both the empowering and potentially detrimental aspects. Ambition, as a driving force, requires a discerning perspective—one that appreciates its potential for greatness while remaining vigilant against the shadows that may cast their influence.

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