The Two Things We All Want and Need Most

What are our deepest psychological needs?

Posted Jun 11, 2018

CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson / Alpha Stock Images
Source: CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson / Alpha Stock Images

What are the fundamental motivations that animate our lives, our deepest needs, the ultimate goals compelling our pursuits and desires? This is an old question in psychology, occasioning much debate.

In thinking about this question, it is useful to borrow a notion from evolutionary science, which distinguishes between proximal and ultimate causes. Proximal causes motivate behavior in the here and now. Ultimate causes are the underlying foundational forces that shape and direct our here-and-now attentions. So the proximal reason you find a woman attractive is her lush hair and smooth skin. But why are lush hair and smooth skin attractive? That’s an ultimate cause question. Proximally, you are excited by the newness of your purchase. But why is "new" exciting, ultimately?

Proximal causes are usually means to ultimate cause ends. In the examples above, lush hair and soft skin are a proxy for youth, which is a proxy for fertility, a winner in the evolutionary gene-spreading game. Novelty excites because new is change, and change requires adaptation if one wishes to survive and thrive; both danger (a predator looking to eat us up) and promise (prey we can catch and eat) lie in that which is new in the environment. Therefore tending to novelty is a winning strategy in the evolutionary game.

As you might have noticed, life is complicated. Thus, any outcome may have multiple, layered proximal and ultimate causes. The proximal causes of the sailboat gliding over the water include the fact that the wind catches the sail, and also that the sailor is proficient, and also that the boom is sturdy, etc. The ultimate causes may include the survival advantage conferred by our ability to get places fast over water, the benefits of territorial control and access to resources, our desire for an increased sense of security achieved through making something unknown known, etc.

Clearly, some ultimate motives are biological. We are biological systems and everything that is possible to us has to be biologically possible. Evolutionary psychology posits the survival and reproductive functions as the ultimate biological motivations. Reverse-engineer anything we do and you’ll find these motives at play underneath. There is truth and elegance to this claim. It’s quite easy to see how underneath all our varied efforts to distinguish ourselves, achieve, accrue fame or amass fortune, lie an effort to improve our access to resources, including protective ones (i.e. survive) and attract the attentions of quality mates (i.e. reproduce).

But human beings are not just the sum of their biological processes and structures. At least not in any way that’s interesting. We also have a characteristic human psychology, which is neither synonymous with nor reducible to biology. Reducing human behavior and experience to their biological functions provides an impoverished, not to say distorted, picture of humanity. It turns out that psychological motivations—perhaps in part because they are born of (and map onto) biological imperatives—are as enduring and fundamental (ultimate) as biological ones, at least insofar as one wants to understand people’s behavior and lived experience.

To wit, a thought experiment: Let’s say we brought a biblical figure—say, Moses—back to life right now. Despite easily passing for a Brooklyn hipster—sandals, beard and all, Moses would nevertheless be utterly perplexed at the sight of your iPhone. Yet he’d be quite familiar with your emotional and relational (that is, psychological) issues—family petulance, greed and lust, your conflict with your boss and rage at social injustice, etc. In other words, while our technology has changed dramatically from biblical times, our psychology has remained more or less the same. The proximal means by which we communicate have changed much; the ultimate need to communicate, not at all.

In psychology’s early days, human motivation was often attributed to inborn ‘instincts’—innate, fixed patterns of behavior that emerge fully formed in response to certain stimuli. Early theorists such as William James posited lists of human instincts including shyness, love, play, shame, anger, fear, etc. “Instinct leads,” said William James, “intelligence does but follow.” One problem with instinct theories is that they describe rather than explain motivation, and are tautological by nature (Q: Why am I doing x? A: because you have x instinct. Q: How do you know I have x instinct? A: Because you are doing x).

Given their limitations in advancing understanding and prediction, it’s no wonder that instinct theories soon gave way to drive theories. A drive can be defined as an excitatory state produced by an inner disturbance. In other words, when certain biological conditions are unmet (say, I haven’t eaten in a while), the body produces discomfort, which we are then motivated to eliminate (in this case, by eating).

Drive theories owed a debt to the work of Claude Bernard, a 19th century French physiologist who is considered the father of modern experimental physiology. Bernard discovered one of the fundamental principles of organic life, the concept of "homeostasis"—controlled stability of the internal milieu in the face of changing external conditions (think for example: body temperature), which he reasoned was, “the condition for free life.”

Freud, who developed the first influential drive theory in psychology, saw drives as internal forces that compel a movement toward restoring homeostasis. Freud believed that human behavior was motivated by two fundamental biologically-based drives, sex and aggression. These drives, appearing to us as “the psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism” constitute, "the whole flux of our mental life and everything that finds expression in our thoughts.”

Clark Hull, an influential early 20th century American drive theorist, said it thus: "When survival is in jeopardy, the organism is in a state of need (when the biological requirements for survival are not being met) so the organism behaves in a fashion to reduce that need." Hull believed that humans possessed four primary drives: hunger, thirst, sex and pain avoidance. 

But how does one find the behaviors that serve to effectively reduce the drive? Well, mostly we do so by trial and error, reward and punishment. In other words, we learn from experience how to respond effectively to disruptions in homeostasis.

This idea had by the 1950s worked its way into the behaviorist theory of BF Skinner, according to which we select from a repertoire of behaviors those that produce reinforcements. Skinner, however, had little patience for the notion of internal motivation. While recognizing the existence of inner drives, Skinner nevertheless argued that they did not explain behavior. Rather, the causes of behaviors earlier theorists had attributed to internal drives were actually environmental events, like deprivation and aversive stimulation, not internal states such as thirst or anger.

Drives, as de facto effects of deprivation and aversive conditions, are linked to the probability of certain behaviors, but in a corollary, not causal, manner. For Skinner, internal states like emotion and intention do exist within the brain, but as contingencies, not behavioral causes. 

Either way, both classic ‘push’ drive theories and the newer ‘pull’ behaviorist ideas, while useful in their focus on the interplay between our biological make up and the environment, proved wanting as explanations of complex human behavior. For example, why do some behaviors continue long after the biological needs from which they ostensibly emerged are satisfied? People, after all, eat when they are not hungry, and well past the point of satiation. Second, what’s reinforcing, or tension reducing, about a prisoner refusing to divulge secrets under conditions of continued torture?

It turns out that in terms of the human experience, internal psychological processes matter greatly. If you run over me with your car, I’d be interested to know whether you did so intentionally. The court would want to know, as would your friends, and mine, and God at the pearly gates.

The 1960s, the emergence of the civil rights and human potential movements—and with them the humanist school in psychology—saw psychology’s attentions shift from a focus on drives to a consideration of psychological needs, defined as psychological conditions in which something is required or wanted. 

“Lists of drives will get us nowhere” wrote the prominent humanist theorist Abraham Maslow, opting instead to create his famous hierarchy of needs, in which biological needs must be adequately satisfied before we may pursue the higher, more delicate self-actualization needs. In Maslow’s words: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.”

The humanistic emphasis on identifying those parts of human experience that made us unique has also provided fertile grounds for the contemplation of the idea of meaning. The psychologist Victor Frankl famously wrote that searching for meaning is ‘‘the primary motivational force in man.” Existentialist psychologists such as Rollo May in particular spoke of the motivation to find meaning, to make sense of one’s existence, as a defining feature of humanity, separating it from all other living creatures. We are aware that we will die, and we are also aware that we are not dead now. So there is a space for us to be—but how? And what? “He who has a why to live for,” said Nietzsche, “can bear almost any how.” Indeed, research has shown that a sense of meaning predicts health and wellbeing. 

The interest in needs and goals has thus replaced the interest in instincts and drives, and, with psychology’s more recent turn toward the study of cognition, the discussion of what needs could be considered fundamental, or ‘ultimate,’ has expanded.

For example, the late Harvard psychologist David McClelland has proposed three such fundamental motivators: the need for achievement (N-Ach) is the extent to which an individual desires to perform difficult and challenging tasks successfully; the need for affiliation, (N-Affil) is the desire for harmonious relationships with other people; the need for power (N-Pow) is a desire for authority, to be in charge. 

Looking to integrate research findings on the dual roles of both extrinsic (pull) and intrinsic (push) motivations in shaping behavior, the psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan proposed the influential self-determination theory, according to which human beings are motivated by three basic, innate goals: competence, affiliation, and autonomy. Competence refers to a desire to control outcome, gain mastery, and become skilled. Affiliation refers to the desire to “interact with, be connected to, and experience caring for other people.” Autonomy concerns the urge to be causal agents and to act in harmony with our integrated self. 

The diverse work on motivation is not easy to summarize. Yet two threads appear (to me) to weave vividly through all or most of the theorizing in this area.

One is the affiliation need, the need to belong. Human beings can survive and thrive only in well-organized groups, and so our search for belonging is foundational, and urgent. Many psychological theories (beyond those mentioned above) allude to this notion in varying forms.

For example, Freud’s brilliant contemporary Alfred Adler argued that our “social interest”—an orientation to live cooperatively with others, value the common good, show interest in the welfare of humankind, and empathically identify with others—was an innate and foundational component of our psychic architecture. A failure on the part of parents and schools to protect and nurture children’s innate social interest was, according to Adler, the source of much individual suffering and social turmoil.

John Bowlby’s influential attachment theory emphasizes the importance of healthy caregiver-child bonds—the so-called ‘secure attachment’—for later emotional health and adaptation. The seminal Russian developmental theorist Lev Vygotsky has written about how development entails a process of “apprenticeship in culture,” where more expert and competent individuals teach children through assisted (‘scaffolded’) interactions how to achieve social competence. More recently, psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, in arguing for the existence of a universal ‘need to belong,’ summarized their case thusly:

“People form social attachments readily under most conditions and resist the dissolution of existing bonds. Belongingness appears to have multiple and strong effects on emotional patterns and on cognitive processes. Lack of attachments is linked to a variety of ill effects on health, adjustment, and well-being…Existing evidence supports the hypothesis that the need to belong is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation.”

A second dominant thread weaving through psychological theorizing and research on motivation is that individual human beings move invariably to develop a unique and coherent identity, a psychological sense of self to match the embodied physical self. In fact, the need to belong implicitly presupposes the existence of someone to do the belonging. When the Beatles sang, “all you need is love” they were correct insofar as implying that all love also needs a ‘you.’ 

The American psychologist Gordon Allport argued that it is this innate sense of individual coherence, agency, and continuity that allows us to wake up every morning with the deep certainty that we are the same person who went to sleep last night.

Deci and Ryan put it thusly: "all individuals have natural, innate, and constructive tendencies to develop an ever more elaborated and unified sense of self. That is, we assume people have a primary propensity to forge interconnections among aspects of their own psyches as well as with other individuals and groups in their social worlds." 

It is true that the concept of self emerges in a social context. We define ourselves vis-a-vis other selves. Cultural norms and traditions heavily influence the kind of selves we construct. Yet it is also incontrovertibly true that there is a universal quality to the notion of self. Selfhood is recognized everywhere—everybody has a name—and many of its characteristics are common across cultures.

The individual body provides a universal framework. We are all embodied, and conscious of that fact. People everywhere develop an awareness of themselves as physically distinct and separable from others. We also share an awareness of our internal activity. “A purely disembodied human emotion,” wrote William James, “is a nonentity.”

We are aware of our stream of consciousness as manifested in thoughts and feelings and its common disruptions, as experienced in sleep and intoxication, for example. We are aware of the existence of a private realm of self, unknown to others. 

My (invariably) astute readers will note readily that these two motivations, while entwined, are also in some fundamental way at odds with each other. For one, group functioning requires cohesion and conformity, which in turn involve a reduction in personal individual autonomy. Likewise, the need to define and express a coherent and unique self in part entails differentiating from the crowd in some meaningful way. Individual caprice is often at odds with communal goals and standards. As Rollo May has written: “Every human being must have a point at which he stands against the culture, where he says, this is me and the damned world can go to hell.”

The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson has alluded to this inherent tension in his developmental theory. According to Erikson, we develop in a sequence of stages, each involving a distinctive psychosocial ‘crisis,’ the resolution of which may have a positive or negative outcome for personality development. Erikson saw these crises as “psycho-social” in that they pit the individual psychological needs against the needs of society. 

Yet I would argue that it is quite heuristically useful, and justified by much evidence, to think about human motivation on the psychological plain as the interplay of these two fundamental motivations: the ‘need to belong,’ to feel embraced and connected with other humans, loved, protected, accepted and understood, a member of a tribe; and the ‘need to be’—to define and assert a coherent, unique self. There is, it seems to me, a strong case to be made that all our consequential psychological machinations can be traced back to these two motives, our deepest needs: to belong somewhere and to be someone.

If we wish to go further with this model, we may imagine these two motives as dynamic continua: separation-connectedness, marking the ‘need to belong,’ and dependence-autonomy, representing the ‘need to be.’ Placed in a 2x2 table of the kind psychologists love, these categories yield four possible combinations:

Dependence + Connectedness, a state of affairs we may label ‘Infancy’

Dependence + Separation, a state of affairs we may label ‘Anxiety

Autonomy + Separation, which we may label ‘Identity’

Autonomy + Connectedness—let’s call this state ‘Intimacy

                                    Dependence                       Autonomy

Connectedness             Infancy                              Intimacy                             

Separation                     Anxiety                              Identity

These combinations describe, I think, with some elegance, the developmental path toward personality maturity, the journey of becoming.

The infant in the first years of life is both dependent entirely on others for survival and connected, as she posses no clear awareness of a separate self. As the child matures, she acquires an awareness of self that is distinct from others, yet remains thoroughly dependent on them, unfit for autonomous existence. Through adolescence and into young adulthood, one may reach autonomy (psychological, legal, geographical, financial, etc.). Yet, having left childhood and its ways of affiliating behind, must engage the search for adult connectivity—the partner(s), friends, and communal life that are chosen rather than assigned by birth. Later in adulthood, if all works well, one may get to be both genuinely connected (belonging somewhere) and confidently autonomous (being someone).

This, I'd argue, is what our psychology is ultimately after.