The psychology behind Room at the Top is that a person, living only once, cannot know what it is that they want. A person may guess at what they want and feel as though they know exactly what they want, but only upon attainment can a person confirm if the thing they have acquired is actually what they desired. Living only once, every decision one makes is a new decision leading to an unknown outcome. There is no chance to start over, to confront the same decision with the foresight of knowing the outcome. In John Braine’s Room at the Top, the character of Joe Lampton has decided that he wants Susan Brown, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. He is attracted to the social status which a relationship with Susan would confer, and he doggedly pursues her despite her father’s attempts to prevent their relationship. However, not knowing what it is he truly wants, Joe then falls in love with Alice Aisgill, an older and unhappily married woman with whom he has an affair. As an unhappily married woman, Alice is another example of someone who makes a wrong decision because of the inability to know if marriage to Mr. Aisgill is something that she truly wants. Alice, like all people, must make important decisions based on nothing more than a feeling. Living only once and with no prior experience of marriage, Alice cannot know what she wants.
Joe’s relative youth and therefore limited experience with life and with women lead him to make decisions without truly knowing what he wants in a partner. Initially he believes that he wants Susan, yet after additional experiences Joe realizes that he loves Alice. The book demonstrates how humanity’s lack of perspective and necessarily faulty decision-making can lead to disastrous consequences. When Joe agrees to marry Susan because of her pregnancy, Alice is devastated and promptly drinks herself drunk; she crashes her car and dies a slow and painful death. The story concludes with Joe marrying Susan and accepting an executive position at her father’s company. Just as he had initially desired, Joe has increased his social and professional status, an outcome he first deemed the very measure of success. Upon attainment of this success, though, Joe is despondent and depressed. Life, like death, can also be long and painful, given humanity’s inability to actually know what it wants.