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What's Missing?

Here's how the science of human needs can help you turn things around.

Source: Francesco/Flickr

Imagine a sad plant, yellow and wilting. You water it, and it perks up a bit. But it's still yellow. Someone suggests that you add nitrogen. So you do. And the plant greens up over the next few days.

Now, with the "before" and "after" images in your mind, how does your life feel to you at the moment? Is it more like the droopy yellow plant? Or more like the perky green plant? It’s drooping a little, isn’t it? What if I told you that all you need is a nutrient or two, and you'll perk right up?  

Sounds good right?

But let’s slow down a moment, because, unfortunately, it could get a little tricky. It won’t be as easy as simply adding nitrogen. We’re not talking about metabolic nutrients. I won’t be recommending drugs or dietary supplements. Instead we’ll be talking about fundamental human needs.

The idea is this: if we can get our hands on a definitive list of things human beings need in order to thrive, we can figure out what you’re missing, provide it, and you should get that pick-me-up you’re looking for.

But there are a couple catches here.  First, how easy it will be to meet your needs will very likely depend on what you need. Some “nutrients” are easier to secure than others.

Second, we have an even bigger problem. You see, several people have been running around over the last hundred years or so telling people what they need. And they all seem to have different lists.

Who can tell us what we need?

Early in the last century William James tried to tell us what we need. So did a guy named Henry Murray.[1] And there were others. But we’ll start our journey in more familiar territory.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

About 60 years ago Abraham Maslow came up with a list of fundamental human needs, and his list includes: physiological needs (such as food and shelter), safety needs, love/belonging needs, esteem needs, and a need for something called “self-actualization”.

More recently, Doug Kenrick, after studying Maslow’s list, was left wondering “where’s the sex?” (He also wondered whether self-actualization deserved to be considered “fundamental,” but that’s not really the headline here). He figured that, if evolution has anything to say about what human beings need, it’s going to make sure we have, feel, and meet, a prominent set of reproductive needs.

Douglas Kenrick, Arizona State University
Source: Douglas Kenrick, Arizona State University

So Kenrick re-worked Maslow’s list, and replaced “self-actualization” with some reproductively-relevant needs. His final list was: immediate physiological needs, personal security, affiliation, status/esteem, mate acquisition, mate retention, and parenting. [2][3]

It’s not a bad list. Most people can identify all those motives at various points in their lives.

But, if we turn our heads just a bit and look over yonder, we can see a couple guys named Deci and Ryan who have been selling a much shorter list of basic human needs for some time now: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. They don’t mention physical needs, safety or sex at all. And the thing is, people are taking these guys pretty seriously. [4] 

And there’s another guy, Daniel Pink, offering a variation on Deci and Ryan’s theme. He claims that for people to be happy and productive workers, they need to feel  “mastery” (sounds a lot like “competence”), “autonomy” (sounds a lot like “autonomy”), and purpose” (replacing “relatedness”). [5]

Well at this point I wouldn’t blame you if you’re scratching your head a bit. Why are these lists so different?

One reason might be because these guys are all asking slightly different questions. At a crude level, Maslow is asking, “what makes us tick?”. Kenrick, is asking, “what made our ancestors on the savanna tick (and might also make us tick)?” Deci and Ryan are asking: “what are the conditions that produce healthy, intrinsically-motivated growth?  And Pink is asking, “what will make workers happier and more productive?”

Let’s take the whole lot.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind having answers to all those questions, so let’s combine their lists and see what that looks like:

  1. Food and Shelter (Maslow and Kenrick)
  2. Safety (Maslow and Kenrick)
  3. Affiliation (Maslow, Kenrick, Deci and Ryan)
  4. Esteem (Maslow, Kenrick, Deci and Ryan)
  5. Status (Kenrick)
  6. Mate Acquisition Needs (Kenrick)
  7. Mate Retention Needs (Kenrick)
  8. Parenting Needs (Kenrick)
  9. Autonomy (Deci, Ryan, and Pink)
  10. Competence (Deci, Ryan and Pink)
  11. Purpose (Pink)

This looks like a pretty good list. Most of the items on the list seem like things that make people tick, and make them happy. But, as long as we’re expanding our lists, what about money, power, fame, and knowledge? Those things seem to make people tick, too.

Deci and Ryan don’t want to include wealth, power, or fame. They call them “external” motivators, and cite a study where monetary incentive actually reduced motivation in the workplace. [5] They also claim that when people chase wealth, power, or fame, they are prone to pathology. And, in their favor, confirming examples abound. (If you’re at a loss, just head over to TMZ).

At the least, recommending that everyone pursue wealth, power, and fame can be problematic, because, they are, for the most part, relative and rival. If everyone pursues them, not everyone is going to get them. Those, goods pit humans against humans. Those goods can make us anti-social, envious, and jealous. Not everyone can have power, not everyone can have higher status than everyone else, and not everyone can be in the top 1% of earners. If we dignified those things with the title “fundamental human needs”, we might thereby condemn most of humanity to misery, and the rest to anti-social pathology.

Still, given the opportunity, how many of us would pass up a chance for money, power, or fame? If the question is “what makes us tick?” it seems strange to leave them out. If the question is “what makes us (all) happy (together)?”, that might be a different story.

As for knowledge, I’m going to take a wild guess and say that most of the scholars we’ve been talking about have felt the need to pursue knowledge at one time or another. So why isn’t that on any of their lists? Perhaps they see knowledge not as a primary need, but as an instrumental need. In other words, maybe we don’t seek knowledge for its own sake, but in order to help us meet one of our other, more basic, needs.

That makes some sense. Maybe these guys study psychology to earn their paycheck which can be used to buy food. Or maybe they do it to impress present or future mates. Or maybe it’s for the status.  But that doesn’t mean the quest for knowledge doesn’t also take on a life of its own at times.

And this suggestion raises another concern. If we’re going to say that a need isn’t “basic” because it can be used to serve other needs, then almost every need on all these lists could be called into question. Can’t we use food to help us acquire a mate? And can’t we also use a mate to help us acquire food?

Crowd-sourcing Our Theory of Needs.

Let’s not give in to confusion just yet. Let’s give Steven Reiss a chance to use some fancy mathematical techniques and surveys to try to clear things up a bit.[6]

Reiss’s method is interesting.  

First, he took a lot of the needs proposed in the past, including most of those mentioned above, broke them down into even finer sub-needs, brainstormed with others to see if there were any desires or needs the venerable thinkers of the past had missed, and, after some minor culling, wound up with a list of about 320 interesting and more-or-less universal micro-desires that drive human behavior.  

Then Reiss and his graduate assistant, Susan Havercamp, gave carefully-designed surveys to about 6000 people to see what makes them tick.

Finally, they did something called “factor analysis” (using a generalized least-squares discrepancy function) to determine how closely each micro-desire was related to other micro-desires, and to see how they might cluster together into a manageable number of macro “needs”.

When he set the computer to work, he found that the micro-desires clustered rather nicely into the following 16 categories:

  1. Power
  2. Independence
  3. Curiosity
  4. Acceptance
  5. Order
  6. Saving
  7. Honor
  8. Idealism
  9. Social Contact
  10. Family
  11. Status
  12. Vengeance
  13. Romance
  14. Eating
  15. Physical Exercise
  16. Tranquility

If you compare our conglomerate list (from Maslow, Kenrick, Deci & Ryan, and Pink) to this list, you’ll recognize some elements. “Status” is there. “Eating” stands in nicely for “physiological needs”.

But we also find that some categories cut across each other. We don’t see “security” on Reiss’s list, but we do see things like “saving”, “order”, and “tranquility”.  These seem very much related, with substantial overlap, but also with some overhang. We don’t see "esteem", but we do see “honor”. We don’t see “self-actualization” but we do see “idealism”.  We don’t see “affiliation”, but we do see “social contact” and “acceptance”.

We also see some things that we wondered about above, but which weren’t on the conglomerate list, namely “curiosity” (a thirst for knowledge) and “power”.  

And then there’s “vengeance”, which we hadn’t considered to this point, maybe for good reason. It seems a little strange and undesirable. But, if we re-frame it as “the need to make sure people aren’t cheating the system”, it seems like something we might want to include.

The only thing from the conglomerate list that seems to be left out of Reiss’s list is “competence/mastery”. Competence seems to be a very important human need, and it’s difficult to see even minor traces of it in any of Reiss’s 16 categories, so we’ll bracket that observation for now and note simply that its omission is strange.

We won’t bog down in the details at this point. The takeaway is that both the conglomerate list, and Reiss’s list cover much the same territory, with some notable exceptions.

But how does this help us know what you or I need right this minute? To get at that question, and to clear up some of the confusion, let’s consider another question.

What’s the Best Way to Organize a Child’s Room?

Suppose we walk into a random child’s room, and every single thing the child owns is on the floor all mixed up. Now, if the child feels like playing with a toy, or feels like getting dressed, it’s going to take some work to find a good toy or some clothes to wear.

So we get some bins and start sorting. For the most part we will try not to have too many or too few bins, because an organizing scheme with only one bin provides no advantage over the original chaos. And an organizing scheme with too many bins will be difficult to maintain. So we might wind up with somewhere between 3 and 20 organizing bins.  Bins for clothes, bins for toys, bins for books, etc.  

We will likely have very specific bins for the things we think the child will use very often, and might even break these bins into sub-bins to make things even easier to manage. And all the stuff that we think will get used infrequently, and all the stuff that doesn’t fit neatly into the other bins, will go in a junk or miscellaneous bin or two. And we might even decide to take some things out of the child’s room because we think those things aren’t important or won’t be good for the child.

Beyond that, unless there’s some strong external reason to organize the stuff in one way rather than another, the final organizing scheme will depend to some extent on who is doing the organizing.

Our psyches are much like this messy room. When we look very closely at our desires and needs, we find hundreds of micro-motivations all mixed up together in an amorphous blob, pushing and pulling us every which way. As with the room, so here, our impulse is to organize the mess so we can manage things better.

Maslow, Kenrick, Deci, Ryan, Pink and Reiss (among others) are trying to help us organize our micro-motivations into bins. And they do so for various reasons. A good taxonomy of needs should help us notice important connections between our needs and the quality of our experience. It should help us figure out what’s missing when we’re feeling frustrated, anxious or depressed. And it should help us take proactive steps to ensure that the important bins are well-stocked.

And, as with the child’s room, unless there’s a compelling external reason to organize our needs one way rather than another, the final organizing scheme will depend, to some extent, on who is doing the organizing.

Trust but Modify

All these theorists should be taken seriously. They are drawing from the experience of millions of people. They’ve spent a lot of time studying psychology, sociology, human evolution, and brain science. They have good reason to think that their categories will resonate reasonably well for most people, and the presence or absence of the needs they list will correlate with things like well-being, and personal growth, on the one hand, and anxiety and depression, on the other. And, in many cases, they have convincing studies backing up their claims.

But there’s also some reason to take things into your own hands a bit here.

If you were organizing a child’s room, you might start with an “off the shelf” organizing guide. It will have many good ideas based on the author’s experience getting many people organized. But you should also customize the suggestions a bit to fit the particular child whose room it is.

If the guide says you should have three different kinds of toy bins, and one book bin, but your child rarely plays with toys and frequently reads books, you might want to have just one toy bin, and multiple book shelves.

Likewise, when you’re trying to figure out what’s missing from your life, you might want to start with the categories these experts suggest, but you might also benefit from modifying their lists to fit your particular circumstances and personality better. For instance, you might not be worrying at all about reproductive needs at this point in your life, but you’re worried as heck about the fact that the skill you spent a lifetime learning is becoming obsolete in the new economy. You can safely leave mate acquisition off your list, and might benefit from breaking the “competence” category into several sub-categories as you figure out what you’re going to do going forward.

If you’re a teen, you’ll probably feel the typical “mate acquisition” drives quite strongly, but will also have to be very careful about the possibility of severely altering the course of your life by acting on them. And you’ll likely feel an intense need to answer certain questions, such as “Who am I?” “Who do others think I am?” “What do I want to become?” “What do others expect of me?”. And you might frequently grow anxious about how to manage the gaps between and among those four portraits of yourself. In this case, you might even re-factor the affiliation, status, and competence categories around these self-conscious questions.

Most people will feel all of Reiss’s 16 needs, or all the needs on our conglomerate list, to some degree or another, at one point in their lives or another. But how relevant each need will be will depend on the person, their chosen career, their family situation, their stage of life, their religion, and maybe even their own idiosyncratic take on life.

So it makes sense to start with the needs the experts have suggested, but then modify them to fit your own circumstances.

How to figure out what you need right now.

Here's a super-conglomerate list, constructed out of all the other lists (including needs from Reiss's list when not adequately represented elsewhere, and leaving vengeance out for now):

  1. Food and Shelter (Maslow and Kenrick)
  2. Safety (Maslow and Kenrick)
  3. Affiliation (Maslow, Kenrick, Deci and Ryan)
  4. Esteem (Maslow, Kenrick, Deci and Ryan)
  5. Status (Kenrick)
  6. Mate Acquisition Needs (Kenrick)
  7. Mate Retention Needs (Kenrick)
  8. Parenting Needs (Kenrick)
  9. Autonomy (Deci, Ryan, and Pink)
  10. Competence (Deci, Ryan and Pink)
  11. Purpose (Pink)
  12. Tranquility (Reiss)
  13. Power (Reiss)
  14. Independence (Reiss)
  15. Knowledge (Reiss)

For now just go with your rough idea of each listed need. If you think one of these needs is a big deal for you, you can follow up with the references and learn more exactly how the various theorists are defining their terms.

Do you feel any of those things are missing from your life? To answer that question it helps to turn things around, and ask how you might feel when these things are missing:

  1. If you lack food, you might feel hungry.
  2. If you lack safety, you might feel fear.
  3. If you lack affiliation or social contact, you might feel loneliness or vulnerability.
  4. If you lack the esteem of yourself or others, you might feel shame, guilt, inadequacy, or embarrassment.
  5. A lack of status looks like envy or shame
  6. A lack of a mate might feel like longing or yearning.
  7. A lack of security about one’s current mate might feel like jealousy, fear, or anxiety.
  8. When one’s children aren’t doing well, that can feel like anxiety, anger, self-loathing, sadness, and many other things.
  9. A lack of autonomy might feel like coercion or like being saddled with unfair expectations.
  10. A lack of competence might feel like inadequacy, despair, shame, anxiety, self-loathing. Or, if you're optimistic about your ability to learn, you might relish the opportunity to learn a new skill.
  11. A lack of purpose might feel like angst, confusion, uncertainty, or depression.
  12. A lack of tranquility feels like stress or irritability.
  13. A lack of power feels like vulnerability.
  14. A lack of independence might feel like restlessness or coercion.
  15. A lack of knowledge might feel like inadequacy (or curiosity).

This gives us the ability to work the problem forward or backwards. We can look at the list of needs and see if anything jumps out at us as missing. And we can look at the negative symptoms and work back to the needs to see what might be missing. 

That's about as far as we're going to get today. It would take a book or three to create a detailed troubleshooting guide. But we can at least get started with some of the following questions:

Some Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. Working either direction from the big list, can you identify the single biggest need that is going unmet (or partly unmet) in your life right now?  Pay special attention to autonomy, competence, affiliation, esteem, and purpose. Much research links these needs to an overall sense of well-being. And there's reason to think that these needs can be especially difficult to meet in the modern world.
  2. If the need you selected is a competitive need (such as for status, wealth or power), is it possible that your real need is something else? If so, consider meeting the non-competitive need first.
  3. Once you've identified a need that's not being adequately met in your life, what are some ways to meet this need? Get creative and list as many ways of you can think of in ten minutes or so.
  4. More specifically, which conversations could you have with others that would help you get your needs met better?
  5. Do some of these potential solutions have unwanted side-effects? (E.g., If you secure autonomy by quitting your job, that might make it difficult to meet your needs for food and shelter.) If so, you should probably try to find a less-costly solution.
  6. Or do some of these potential solutions present other obstacles (e.g., you're not sure you can pull them off, or they take too long)?
  7. Which obstacles can you plan around without too much effort?
  8. When and where could you carry out these plans?

Start with one need and one potential solution, and see how it goes. 

Also, feel free to create your own system of needs, and refine it over time. Are there things you think you need that aren't on these lists? Do you have a need for adventure? Do you have a need for a clear conscience? Are you an adrenaline junkie who needs danger from time to time? Those things weren't mentioned directly in any of the other lists. You might be able to squeeze these things into other categories. Or you might be able to find a more basic need underlying these perceived needs. But there's no need to do those things. If you're used to thinking about a need for adventure, and meeting that need makes you happy, and you can meet it without causing other problems, then you have a need for adventure.

And with that, I wish you health, growth, and happiness.


[1] Here is Murray's System of Needs

[2] Kenrick, et al., Renovating the Pyramid of Needs

[3] It’s worth noting that Kenrick’s mating “needs” are really constellations of mating “strategies”, but with a little work we can see needs for things such as sex, loyalty, fidelity and thriving children.

[4] Deci and Ryan, The What and Why of Goal Pursuits.

[5] Pink, Daniel, Drive.

[6] Reiss, Steven, Who Am I?