Basic Psychological Needs


Many theories attempt to define the core psychological needs that underlie all human behavior. These theories risk oversimplifying a complex topic, and are often contested and debated, but are nevertheless interesting to use as a frame of reference for understanding human behavior. This is my attempt to survey some of the popular theories and draw parallels between them.

Common needs across leading theories include:

  • connecting with others and feeling accepted in a group
  • learning and growing from one’s experiences
  • having choice in one’s actions
  • seeking meaning through something larger than oneself

In Search of Human Nature

Mary E. Clark proposes there are three basic propensities that specifically constitute human nature, as distinct from the nature of animals in general. Most animals seek out food, water and mates, and so do humans, but for us these are subsumed by even more powerful needs that arise by virtue of our being wholly and imperatively social. The three propensities are for bonding, for autonomy, and for meaning.

Bonding: remaining attached to (and being accepted by) a group

  • One may shift from one group to another, but acceptance within some group is essential; evolutionarily, total exclusion is tantamount to a death sentence for human beings
  • Our utter dependence on others in infancy creates this lifelong need to belong, to be accepted and appreciated
  • Bonding by adults in stable communities is essential for the successful rearing of each new generation of helpless infants
  • Though it is common in many societies for males, in particular, to play down this need for attachment to others, such suppression leads to a whole host of potential pathologies
  • Rejection, or rupture of a bond, whether actual or threatened, is a profound cause of psychic distress
  • Cultural narratives differ greatly in how they meet this need for belonging; some provide for lifelong acceptance, others promote feelings of rejection or oppression, whose violent consequences within the society are suppressed by various forms of psychic and physical coercion

Autonomy: ability to behave independently and generate one’s own actions

  • The [evolutionary] increase in cognitive capacity of the primate brain that makes highly adaptive, intelligent group life possible also demands autonomy of individual behavior. Big, relatively unprogrammed, adaptive brains must learn through experience how to survive. And learning demands spontaneous engagement by the developing infant and juvenile with its world.
  • Every social relationship constrains individual action to some degree. One cannot be a member of a social community and not experience some restrictions on one’s behavior. The magic of “successful” cultural narratives is the balancing of social constraints with a sense of spontaneity of personal action. They possess two qualities: childrearing practices that generate secure self-identity and reciprocal trust in and respect for others; and a cultural meaning system that attracts spontaneous support from all its members.
  • Just as respect creates equality, so trust generates spontaneous prosocial activity, without need for threat or coercion. … the natural propensities to belong and to be independent, if carefully nurtured, create in the developing person a strong urge to help the whole group by whom one feels accepted; to contribute to the good of the whole.
  • How a culture perceives human nature determines the way its people behave! In general, the narratives of [egalitarian] societies promote equal respect for all contributions, and a balancing of the satisfaction of belonging with the needs for autonomy and independence. This seemingly paradoxical result occurs when a cultural story possesses those two qualities mentioned above: (1) an appreciation that the purpose of attentive nurturing is to develop not obedience, but self-reliance and autonomy (the “trust concept”); and (2) a sacred aspect to the shared social purpose that is embedded in the narrative and lends identity to each individual life and a desire to contribute to the success of the whole. These two together ensure that the uncoerced, autonomous behavior of the individual is naturally directed to the benefit of the whole society.

Meaning: internal perceptions of the significance of experience (which can be communicated with others and valued by a group); a set of beliefs about the purpose of existence; tells how bonding and autonomy (and hence, a secure sense of “self”) are to be met

  • Most important of the three, as cultural narratives have generated institutions for prescribing bonding patterns and for limiting autonomy
  • Bonding and autonomy are propensities humans share with other primates; it is our further propensity or need for meaning that makes us unique
  • [After developing the ability to communicate] It is but a short step to valuing choices about what to do, to providing reasons for those choices, and to justifying them with causal explanations. For the first time, internal perceptions of the significance of experience can be communicated with others and valued by a group. Conceptual meanings come into existence, are shared, and ultimately become the structural basis of culture. The resulting cultural meaning or cultural narrative becomes what connects the individual with the group she or he depends on for survival.
  • An “interpreter” region in the human brain’s left hemisphere automatically creates meaning out of experience. A satisfying meaning system both explains our function in the universe and tells us how to fulfill that function: what things an individual and a whole society ought to do. It justifies a society’s social institutions. Hence, an entire group shares the same (or very similar) beliefs. Shared meanings inspire loyalty; they coordinate social activity.
  • The evolutionarily adaptive function of such a shared meaning system is obvious. It ensures effective group behavior vis-à-vis the common environment. Not surprisingly, most cultural narratives incorporate an authoritative source for their explanations: an originating spirit, ancient ancestors, one or more powerful deities. They also include rituals of sacrifice to the unseen powers to make sure the sun comes up and the plants and animals flourish, and the universe continues as it should. (These, of course, have the important effect of synchronizing human activities with the local environment …).
  • All these critical functions are embedded somewhere within the shared cultural stories of every coherent society. And since time immemorial, because successful social life depended on loyalty to the group narrative, it has been defended vigorously. This extreme defense of belief systems … has often proved problematic throughout history. It may inhibit the changes needed to meet altered contexts, leading to “cultural traps”; and it has been the cause of enormously bloody conflicts between disparate systems. Both of these can be avoided by consciously incorporating into the narrative story processes for modifying the belief system over time, and for recognizing that different beliefs held by others are not necessarily threatening to one’s own.

General notes:

All three [propensities] persist throughout life and are defended by powerful emotions. We seek bonds and resist their rupture. Broken bonds may lead to anger or to grief. We strive for independence and resist constraint, especially physical coercion. And we seek meaning, not only as individuals within a group, but especially collectively, as whole groups. Threats either to our individual identity within the group or to the integrity and the identity of the entire group are powerfully resisted. And all of these emotional responses are the result of the importance, during our evolutionary history, of each of these propensities for our successful survival.

Societies promote prosocial and antisocial behaviors in very different ratios, often having to correct coercively the consequences of their own unsuspected misreadings of human nature. I dismiss the notion that violence and aggression are behaviors forced on us by “selfish genes.” Rather, they are the extreme forms of communication that humans use when social conditions necessary for their individual or collective survival are not being fulfilled. When violent and senseless behaviors happen it is because there are virtually always either personal or cultural causes in the life experiences of those who commit them. Not all cultures are equally adaptive; not all meaning systems accommodate equally well the needs human nature demands. None is “ideal,” but some really do succeed in satisfying all our human inner propensities better than others. It behooves all peoples to try to learn from each other what “works” and why.

Self-Determination Theory

The Basic Psychological Needs Theory (within the broader Self-Determination Theory) defines three basic needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which are similar but slightly different than Clark’s three propensities:

  • Autonomy: experience of volition and willingness; one’s actions, thoughts, and feelings are self-endorsed and authentic
  • Competence: the experience of effectiveness and mastery; becomes satisfied as one capably engages in activities and experiences opportunities for using and extending skills and expertise
  • Relatedness: experience of warmth, bonding, and care; satisfied by connecting to and feeling significant to others

The identification of these needs allows scholars to grapple with the fundamental question of what our human nature looks like. The introduction of these psychological needs is congruent with the meta-theoretical assumption of a growth-oriented nature, while also recognizing that we have a vulnerable nature. While need satisfaction energizes pro-active, prosocial and growth-oriented inclinations, need frustration awakens our vulnerabilities for passivity, self-centeredness, and defensiveness.

A review by Van den Broeck et al. notes how SDT differs from other theories of psychological needs:

SDT characterizes basic psychological needs in two ways that render it unique in comparison to other need theories: needs are viewed as innate, and needs must promote psychological growth, internalization, and well-being. … each need is thought to be present in everyone, and none of the needs are thought to be relatively more important than the others. SDT thus regards each of the three needs as essential, with thwarting of any one need causing disruptions to psychological growth, internalization, and well-being. This contrasts with other need theories that argue for a hierarchy of needs—the most famous being that of Maslow (1943), who argued that needs higher in his hierarchy become more activated when needs at the bottom of the hierarchy are satisfied.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s model differs in that needs are hierarchical, and individuals’ most basic needs must be met before they’re motivated to achieve needs at the next level (though research suggests that levels continuously overlap each other). It defines eight levels of needs (ordered below from bottom to top within the hierarchy):

  • Physiological: biological component for human survival
  • Safety: physical, economic, and emotional security, health
  • Belonging and love: being comfortable with and connection to others that results from receiving acceptance, respect, and love
    • This need for belonging may overcome the physiological and security needs, depending on the strength of the peer pressure
    • In contrast, for some individuals, the need for self-esteem is more important than the need for belonging; and for others, the need for creative fulfillment may supersede even the most basic needs
  • Esteem: the respect and admiration of a person, but also “… self-respect and respect from others”
  • Cognitive: creativity, foresight, curiosity, and meaning
  • Aesthetic: ability to appreciate the beauty within the world
  • Self-actualization: the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be
  • Transcendence: giving oneself to something beyond oneself

Criticisms of the theory include its lack of supporting evidence, diverse study participants, or differentiation between individualistic and collectivist societies.

Other theories