Core human needs in psychology
- Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1943). Maslow postulated that humans have a range of hierarchically-ordered needs (physiological, safety, belongingness/love, self-esteem, self-actualization), the lower of which (according to the hierarchy/order) must be met if the individual is to be motivated towards satisfaction of higher-order needs.
- William Glasser’s Choice Theory (Glasser, 1998) posits that we choose our behaviours in order to satisfy five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom and fun.
- In Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), Richard Ryan & Edward Deci suggest that intrinsic motivation arises in an environment in which our core psychological needs (autonomy, relatedness, competence) are satisfied.
Each of these approaches has something to say about the concept of needs and how central they are to an understanding of human behaviour. However, the needs-based approach that I have found most helpful and which has had the most impact on my practice is that of Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication (Rosenberg, 2003).
- All human behaviour – our own and other people’s - can be understood as attempts to meet certain core needs. NVC provides us with a rich language of needs (e.g. autonomy, celebration, integrity, creativity, play, security, trust, meaning) that can help us to understand the core needs that might be important to ourselves or others. An inventory of common needs can be found here.
- We are more likely to experience certain feelings (e.g. happy, hopeful, calm, animated, thankful) when our needs are met, and are conversely more likely to experience other feelings (e.g. afraid, anxious, depressed, unhappy, angry) when our needs are not met. NVC provides us with a rich vocabulary of feelings that can help us to attune to our own or others’ emotional states (Rosenberg, 2003). An inventory of common feelings can be found here.
- If we can hear the needs and feelings underlying our own or others’ behaviour, we are a step closer to helping ourselves or others to get their needs met. This could be, for example, through the specific requests we/they can make of ourselves or others, or in ways we can change our environment so as to enrich our lives to a greater degree.
- However, we all have a tendency to think and communicate in certain ways which can alienate us from our natural state of compassion and prevent us from hearing our own/others’ needs. These can include moralistic judgements (implying wrongness or badness about those who don’t act in harmony with our goals or values), labelling/evaluating (“She’s lazy”, “He’s unreasonable”), and denial of responsibility, which “clouds our awareness that we are each responsible for our own thoughts, feelings and actions” (“You make me feel guilty”, “You made me angry”, “You made me do that”). Such forms of communication are, in NVC parlance, considered a tragic expression of unmet needs, since they are ways of thinking and communicating that are less likely to help us to get our needs met in the long run.
NVC goes on to describe a framework for communication that can help us to compassionately understand ourselves and/or others by tuning into: (i) the observable events that have taken place that have given rise to our feelings; (ii) the feelings we or others are experiencing; (iii) the core needs that this suggests are either satisfied or not satisfied; and (iv) specific requests that we or others could make in order to better fulfil our/their needs.
A detailed illustration of this framework for communication is beyond the scope of this article (see Rosenberg, 2003, or www.cnvc.org for details). Instead, I would like to take a simple approach to illustrate how a language of core human needs can be of practical help when navigating life situations.
Are your needs met?
- Contribution and Engagement. Using my strengths to make a positive difference to others, doing more of what I do that seems to make the most difference and that feels most professionally satisfying.
- Freedom. The freedom to pursue my vision and related opportunities.
- Autonomy/Choice/Control. The ability to make my own choices about what I do/do not do, the services I offer, how I do it, etc.
- Balance. Having a better balance in terms of the composition of my working diary and its variety. Being able to strike a better work-life balance so that I can be more around for my family at key times/moments.
- Creativity/Self-Expression. Having a working life that enables me to exercise my need to create, either in terms of service development or writing projects, for example.
- Learning. A working life which helps me to keep learning and growing as a professional.
At the same time, I was conscious that leaving my job would have a potentially negative impact on other needs – decreased security, and less opportunity for connection/collaboration, for example. Nonetheless, this process helped me to tune into my needs, understand what was most important to me and, alongside other significant factors (most notably my wife’s support), strengthened my resolve to eventually take the plunge into independent practice.
What needs are most important to you? Do any of the needs on the above list resonate with you? When you read the needs inventory, are there other needs that are important to you? Are there people you know whose behaviour suggests their needs are met or otherwise?
I am conscious that I have only been able to scratch the surface of NVC in this article; however, I hope that the language of needs is of help to you, either for understanding your own needs/behaviours or the needs/behaviours of others.
With thanks to my much-valued erstwhile comrade Jack Humphreys for introducing me to Non-Violent Communication (and, indeed, lots of other stuff too).
- Which needs are most important to you? To what extent are your needs satisfied at present?
- Can you think of a time when your needs were satisfied? How did you feel? Conversely, can you think of a time when some of your needs were not satisfied? How did you feel?
- What requests might you make of others in order to better fulfil your needs?
- What changes might you make in order to better fulfil your needs?
- If you work in an organization: Which needs are satisfied for those who work in your organization? Which needs might be better-satisfied in order to support people’s performance and wellbeing?
- If you work with children: Can you attempt to understand their behaviour in terms of the core needs that might be important to them?
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.
Glasser, W. (1998). Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. HarperCollins: New York.
Ryan, R. & Deci, E. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55 (1), pp. 68-78.