Okay, everybody…I need your help with this one.

Normally when I post an entry, it’s because I’ve reached a conclusion. This one is different. It’s unfinished. I’ve thought about this entry for a long time, and I’ve taken it a certain distance, but I need some help and feedback to finish it. In this entry, I talk about a new way of thinking about our core psychological needs. I’ve got a good start, but there are some inconsistencies I discuss at the end, and I’m not sure what to do with them yet. So, when you get to the end, please let me know your thoughts. Here we go:

There’s a good reason that Maslow’s Hierarchy has survived as long at it has: it covers every rational need you could think of. When you look at the model, it just strikes you as sensible and exhaustive. The first level of needs is Physiological, and you think, well that’s obvious. Without food, water, air, and the like, we don’t make it very long…so I can see that. What’s next? Safety needs, like health, property, security, etc. That also makes a lot of sense. When our immediate security is threatened, we feel a ton of anxiety. So that one is also easy to buy. What’s next?

English: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Resized,...

English: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Resized, renamed, and cropped version of File:Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs.svg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Next is Love and Belonging. Possible to survive without it, be we know that people have gone seriously nuts in isolation. So yeah, that makes total sense. From here on, we get a little more abstract. Fourth level is Esteem. These are qualities like self-confidence, respect, and achievement. Who among us doesn’t know someone who’s seriously off-kilter because of how they perceive their own value? What the hell: who among us hasn’t struggled at some point – even a little bit – with issues of how we perceive our own value? So that level seems to belong. The fifth level is Self-actualization, which sounds nice, but few of us really have an internal notion of what that is. It sounds like something that would really make us happy, if we ever got there.

These categories are broad, and seem to capture everything, but actually, they don’t quite. If I could pick one bone with this otherwise excellent model, it’s that it emphasizes rationality. We’ve since come to learn about man that not only is he far from rational, but that his most interesting tendencies seem on the surface completely irrational. The man with the gambling addiction, which of Maslow‘s needs is he fulfilling? How about the woman who drives a wedge between her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend? How about the friend of yours who has to top everyone’s experience story, like that Kristen Wiig character from Saturday Night Live?

Kristen Wiig as Penelope, the Attention Seeker

Kristen Wiig as Penelope, the Attention Seeker

One could argue all three of those examples into a Maslow category, but it feels like a stretch. I wanted to understand our core psychological needs and drives in a way that spoke more directly to our everyday lives. So I’ve been keeping my eyes open for a new model.

I stumbled upon a talk that performance coach Tony Robbins gave to the 2007 TED Conference (I geek out and watch those talks whenever I can). He espouses his own model of six core psychological needs. While I am not a drinker of the TR Kool-Aid, I thought his model was interesting for a couple of reasons. His six needs are 1) Certainty, 2) Uncertainty, 3) Significance, 4) Comfort and Love, 5) Growth, and 6) Contribution.

His model is interesting for a number of good reasons. First, he is the first person I’ve known to list “uncertainty” as a need. It’s irrational to need uncertainty; if we were all acting in our own rational self-interest, we would want life to be as predictable as possible so that we could reap the most advantage. We typically try to eliminate unpredictability, but Robbins acknowledges that we also crave it. He also posits that we need to contribute to causes greater than our individual selves as a prerequisite to fulfillment. One could argue this is implicit in Maslow’s self-actualization, but this model gives contribution the individual emphasis it really deserves.

Tony Robbins at the 2007 TED Conference

Tony Robbins at the 2007 TED Conference

I played with a couple other different needs models as well. I took a look at Max-Neef’s “Human Scale Development,” Cialdini’s Influence Triggers, Jonathan Haidt‘s Moral Matrix, David McClelland‘s Achievement Motive, and some other ideas from Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, and other contributors. But something keeps bringing me back to Robbins’ contribution, because I see insights in that model that I don’t really see in some of the others. True, there are examples that I can’t make fit into Robbins’ model, but I don’t think that’s as much a problem with the model as it is with its phrasing. I think that using Robbins’ model as a starting point, we can come up with a truly psychologically insightful model of rational and irrational needs.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. These are the six categories of psychological need as best I can articulate them (physiological needs are omitted). They are not mutually exclusive, meaning that one event can satisfy multiple needs at once. It’s not perfect, and I’ll go through some inconsistencies at the end. Please leave comments with your ideas for how to refine this idea.

1) The Need for Control

Robbins calls this “certainty,” but “control” is the real impulse behind certainty. When lives are orderly, they give off the illusion that we are fundamentally in control of them, and that security makes us happy. We also love to see our will enacted upon the world; that through our actions it becomes more like it “ought” to be. If you’ve ever taken a Meyers Briggs test and your letter combination ends with a strong “J,” you should relate to this idea.

There are people who live a lot of their lives in this category. Ever met anyone you’d call a “control freak”? Can you think of one right now? How about someone who gets irrationally involved in security-related news stories? Ever known someone who lost their job, and then got suddenly very orderly with their lives? Cleaned out their entire house, and so forth? I can remember lots of times I’ve tried to exert control over small and irrelevant aspects of my life, because I was stressing about bigger matters that were out of my direct control.

2) The Need for Thrill or Drama

This is the category that Robbins would have called “uncertainty” or “variety,” and those words aren’t bad. The payoff of uncertainty is thrill and drama. We need to have certain elements of life that are not within our control, so that we feel catharsis when those elements are resolved. This is why we take risks. This is how we have fun. This is why we love movies and plays and stories.

Ever met someone who was always caught up in their own drama, and their life was constantly overly complicated? I was very involved in theatre when I was growing up, so this describes basically everyone I ever met. Some people live their entire lives in a state of too much drama. Just like when we exercise control, we get a brain chemical drug-hit from the tension-and-release of uncertainty.

3) The Need for Validation of One’s Identity

I’m diverting quite a bit from Robbins here. He would call this “Significance.” Significance is important, but not broad enough. Humans have a whole array of needs having to do with our relative identity, and how that fits into the tribe. Our brains produce a certain chemical response when we receive feedback from the world that affects how we evaluate our own identity (either up or down). The smartest work I’ve seen on this topic is Leary’s Sociometer Theory.

We all have a need to play out those traits we believe differentiate us. Cialdini talks about Commitment and Consistency, the principal by which we are influenced to act congruently with how we’ve acted previously. I think that comes from a deep-seated need to act as, and be recognized as the person that we think we are. Ever felt that certain things were expected of you, without those expectations having a definite source? That sensation lives right here.

We constantly check in with this mental self-evaluation and refine it, and also become insecure about it if we don’t get the validation we need. For example, I’ve never personally used Match.com, but I’ve known people who’ve looked at the responses they get (or lack of responses) as an overly-significant measure of their own worth.

This need gives us all sorts of funny emotions and behaviors. Self-righteousness comes from here, as does self-pity. The need for attention, competition, desirability, rationalization, self-martyrdom, and a host of other fascinating traits all come from our sense of identity and validation. Psychologists and advertisers spend a lot of time here. It is the most interesting, and least understood need.

4) The Need for Empathy

If validation has to do with your perceived relationship with the pack, empathy has to do with your one-on-one and small group relationships – your “real” relationships. All people have a need to be understood, and a need for others (who we deem worthy) to invest emotional energy in us.

In good, functional relationships, this is reciprocal: you support me, and I’ll support you. As friends or siblings, we might have a rivalry going on at the same time, but that also should be reciprocal, and lighthearted enough to work on the no-harm-no-foul principal. But it’s not always reciprocal. Think of someone right now that you would describe as “draining.” Think of someone you would describe as “high maintenance.” Some people, especially those who were at one point deprived of empathy, form dysfunctional relationships and drain all the emotional energy out of the room.

As I read more about the concept of emotional energy, I’m starting to believe more and more that it is a real and finite resource. We have a certain amount of emotional fuel to get through each day, and when we allow certain influences to drain us disproportionally, we quite literally have less ability to produce and achieve.

5) The Need for Advancement and Mastery

Robbins refers to this as “Growth,” and I’m just flushing it out a bit. When we talk about achievement and mastery in this context, we’re talking about the motive to do these things for their own sake, rather than for validation. The great tech success stories of our day – Gates, Jobs and Wozniak, Brin and Page, all started working on projects because they were fascinated by the subject itself and wanted to build it up for intellectual and creative fulfillment.

A few posts back, I talked about Daniel Pink, and his discoveries on workplace motivation. He discovered that people produced at their creative peak in part when they were mastering that which was intriguing to them. They were fulfilling a deep-seated need to grow and to expand their personal sphere of influence.

This category also includes character growth, for the sake of self-mastery. People can feel the urge to pursue virtue for personal rather than social reasons. The need to cultivate traits like integrity, responsibility, purity and so forth are usually questions of identity, but they also can be questions of personal growth.

6) The Need to Contribute to a Cause Greater Than Ourselves

This is Robbins’ signature contribution to the discussion. Maslow’s idea of self-actualization might almost be used interchangeably with our idea of Advancement and Mastery. But this idea goes beyond Maslow significantly. I’ve never known any model to suggest that we have an innate need to give to the greater good. It’s not like our need to control or to experience thrill, where we’re certain of the need because we feel it viscerally.

I would argue that when we meet any of the first four needs in this discussion, we experience some form of instant gratification. Our brains send us instant, pleasing signals that will ensure that we continue doing whatever we’re doing. But with the fifth and sixth needs, it would seem that the gratification is often less instant. That means that if these needs aren’t getting met, we may feel a long-term, unrecognizable, indeterminate feeling of dissatisfaction without really knowing the cause.

Now, as I mentioned before, this model is incomplete. I like where it is going, but there are some lingering inconsistencies that I need some help to place. I’d like to specifically invite your thoughts, and I appreciate your comments, and your spread of the discussion.

There are a couple of tendencies that I believe reflect core needs, but that don’t fit well into this framework. Maybe they deserve another bullet point, or maybe they’re already represented I just need to rephrase the category for a better fit.

Bad Fit #1: Reciprocity

After looking at Cialdini and Jonathan Haidt, it seems that people have a deep need to promote the rules of reciprocity. Not only will they tend to treat people as they’ve been treated, but they want to make sure other people are playing by the same rules and no one’s getting a free pass. We can also call this fairness, and Haidt shows us through his research that fairness is valued cross-culturally.

This goes well with neither empathy nor validation. It affects both types or relationships: one-on-one and self-to-tribe. It doesn’t speak to the concept of identity, and it doesn’t really speak to empathy or emotional energy. There are elements of control in it, but “control” does not encapsulate it. It might end up as its own bullet, or I might have to rephrase “empathy” and make it broader than I really want to.

Bad Fit #2: The Pursuit of Value

I went back to Cialdini’s “Scarcity” principal and discovered that it doesn’t fit the paradigm particularly well. The “Scarcity” principal says that people will tend to value, and consequently demand, that which is in short or decreasing supply. But even if we are right to ascribe value to something simply because it is scarce, why chase it? Why not just say, oh I’m sure those Superbowl tickets are valuable, but I don’t need them…

What need are those tickets fulfilling? Thrill, maybe, but most of that is about actually seeing the Superbowl. What if it was a beach house? Maybe that one’s about identity. And also thrill. What if it was toilet paper? Many readers might not have been alive for this, but Johnny Carson once announced a toilet paper shortage as a joke, and it led to an actual shortage. That one was probably about control.

People tend to chase things not only for the need that the object satisfies, but also (and perhaps more so) for the incremental value we place on those things for circumstantial reasons like scarcity or social proof. That may have to do with identity and it may have to do with control, but there’s something more to it. Something that exists for its own sake.

That’s where I’m at right now. I have some tweaking to do, and there might be more inconsistencies that I haven’t thought of yet. Please let me know your thoughts, and help spread the discussion using the links below.

[Editor’s note, 2/1/2011: I’m honored to learn that this has become the second People-triggers blog post to earn a spot on the “Freshly Pressed” front page section of WordPress.com. Thank you to WordPress, and to everybody stopping by to read. I appreciate your visit very much!]

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