There was a time in human psychology when the study of human needs was a central focus (e.g., Maslow's work was iconic in this area). However, with the shift toward a more cognitive and social behavioral perspectives in the 80s, the language shifted in psychology more towards terms like goals and motives. Although I certainly use terms like goals regularly, I believe it is crucial that we keep a strong eye on the concept of need for a host of reasons.

The scholars who have probably done more than any others in the modern age to return the focus on psychological needs are Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, who proposed Self Determination Theory (SDT). SDT is a neo-humanistic theory of psychological motivation, which argues that humans have three basic or core innate psychological needs, which they describe as 1) competence; 2) relatedness, and 3) autonomy.

I am generally a fan of Deci and Ryan, and believe these three needs do provide a useful lens to think about what kinds of ingredients are necessary to foster key aspects of character functioning and well-being. However, as my students in my personality theories class know, I do have a few criticisms of their work. For example, I think their conception of autonomy (which is their primary focus) conflates several fundamentally different elements (I will spare readers the details of this argument).

More to the point of the current blog, I think that we can go farther than Deci and Ryan and identify a central “core” of human psycho-social need, which I call the Relational Value /Social Influence (RV/SI) need. The RV/SI need is the need an individual has to be known and valued by him/herself and important others.

There are several ingredients here that need to be broken down. First, being valued means that one is prized, admired, and/or loved, and that one’s interests are respected and honored. Second, being “known” means that the individual is able to share their full experiences, private thoughts, and public image with important others. Finally, ‘self’ refers to the individual’s own self-conscious reflection and autobiographical narrative of one’s life and experience and ‘important others’ refers to those people the individual cares about and usually includes: 1) family of origin; 2) present family; 3) romantic partners/interests; 4) close friends; 5) peers, and 6) social identities/group affiliations. My contention is that this is the single most important variable in human development in terms of outcomes regarding character structure and well-being.

How might we apply this claim? Well, the next time you are examining an issue related to character functioning and well-being, make sure to consider the RV-SI need dimension and ask, “To what extent is this individual known and valued by self and important others?”

In addition to getting a general sense of the extent to which an individual feels known and valued in their current context, we can follow this analysis with many more related questions. Here are 10 additional questions that can be used to frame and understand someone’s RV-SI need dimension:

1. RV-SI is experienced relative to past, comparable others, and expectations. Because of this, we can ask how is the individual doing now relative to in the past? How are they doing relative to comparable others? What is their expected or ideal vision for being known and valued and how do these compare with reality?

2. Is their focus more on self-value or being valued by others, or is it balanced between self and other?

3. What is the individual’s early attachment history and were early relationships secure or insecure? If they were insecure, did the individual tend to cope via distancing and counter-dependency or where they more hyper-dependent and needy? Or disorganized?

4. How well and in what way do others really know this individual? How much is filtered from their true/private self from their social/public self?

5. How well does the individual know themselves? Do they have deep insight into their emotional world? What kind of defense mechanisms tend to be operating? How do they function under stress and are the defense mechanisms suggestive of subconscious motives, and conflicts?

6. Is there harmony between how the individual sees themselves and how others see them?

7. What is the individual’s adaptive potential (skills, talents, external resources) and how does that relate to how they are (or are not) valued?

8. Are there instances of deep betrayal or relational trauma in which the individual was devalued, rejected, or abused by others?

9. Does the individual have a balanced way of achieving RV-SI or do they tend to have more rigid, inflexible or extreme ways? For example, do they have many people who value them for many things, or do they rely solely on one or two individuals in one or two domains?

10.  Do they have a primary relational process dimension that they rely on? That is, are they excessively focused on Power or Achievement? Love and approval? Freedom from control and self-reliance?

In my work as a clinician, this is the first place I go when I am encountering individuals who are suffering for socio-emotional reasons. And I generally find the concept has much explanatory power.


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