Understanding Basic Psychological Needs


Ervin Staub and Laurie Pearlman


Copyright 2002 by Trauma, Research, Education and Training Institute, Inc.


What are basic human needs?


Human beings possess fundamental, shared, universal needs. We are talking here not about physical needs, like the need for food, but psychological needs. These needs must be fulfilled to some degree for us to be able to function reasonably well in the world, for our well being and continued growth.


Why should we discuss basic needs in this workshop?


It is important to examine basic needs in our workshop because


(a) Understanding basic needs and their frustration (what happens when these needs are not met) helps us understand how genocide comes about. Often, a starting point for genocide is the frustration of the basic needs of a whole group of people.


(b) Understanding basic needs, and their frustration, helps us understand the impact of traumatic experiences and victimization, including the impact of genocide.


(c) Understanding basic needs, their frustration and fulfillment (or how groups and individuals can meet their basic needs constructively), help us understand healing from trauma and victimization.


A number of psychologists have discussed basic needs. Our views are based on our thinking and research. Ervin Staub's thinking about basic needs is based in (1) his study of the origins of genocide and how the frustration of basic needs contributes to it; (2) his study of the origins of aggression by individuals and the role of the frustration of basic needs in that; and (3) his study of the origins of helping and altruism, and the role of both the fulfillment and frustration of basic need in that. Laurie Pearlman's work on the impact of traumatic life experiences on needs and on the role of needs in healing from traumatic experiences is the other major contribution to the needs we discuss below.


What basic psychological needs do humans have? Defining basic needs.


Human being have basic needs for:


(1) security or safety

(2) effectiveness and control

(3) positive identity and self-esteem

(4) positive connection and esteem for and trust in others

(5) autonomy and self-trust

(6) comprehension of reality or world view

People also have an "advanced" basic need for (7) spirituality, including transcendence of the self .


(1) The first one is the need for security. We need physical safety to survive and security becomes a psychological need. We define it as the need to know or believe that we will be free from physical and psychological harm (physical attacks on our body, and attacks on our self-respect and dignity) and that we will be able to satisfy our essential biological needs (for food, etc) and our need for shelter. We also need to feel that those we love are safe. Safety or security is the most basic of psychological needs.


(2) The need for effectiveness and control is another basic human need. Its fulfillment leads to the belief that we have the capacity to protect ourselves from harm (danger, attack, etc) and to fulfill our important goals. We also need to know that we can control our behavior toward others. As adults, self-control gives us confidence that we can lead purposeful lives and have the potential to impact our community and the world.


(3) Another basic need is for a positive identity and self-esteem. The fulfillment of this need requires us to develop and maintain a positive view or image of ourselves. A positive identity requires self-awareness and an acceptance of ourselves, including our limitations. It requires experience and learning about the world and ourselves in the world. This provides us with faith in our ability to become who we want to be.


(4) We also have a basic need for positive connection and esteem for others. This is a need to have close relationships to individuals and groups: intimate friendships, family ties, and relationships to communities.


(5) Independence or autonomy and self-trust is another basic need. It refers to the ability to make one's own decisions, one's own choices, to be not only connected but also separate. It means trusting one's own judgment and perceptions.


(6) Another basic need is for comprehension of reality or a world view. This is a need to understand people and the world (what they are like, how they operate, why people do what they do, why things happen as they do). It is the basis for understanding our place in the scheme of things. Our view of people helps us make sense of the world and of our relationships to people, places, institutions and life as a whole. Our comprehension of reality can help us create meaning in our lives. It can help us fit into the world and to have a vision of how we want to live life, our values and morals.


(7) Finally, we also have a need for spirituality, including transcendence of the self. This is a need to connect with something beyond the self. This need becomes especially important in later life, but the groundwork for its satisfaction is laid all through life. We can fulfill it through spiritual experiences or connection to God or other spiritual entities. We can fulfill our need for spirituality through the experience of connection with nature. We can fulfill it by creating higher, more universal meaning in our lives. We can also fulfill it by devoting ourselves to the welfare of people, either by directly helping people or by working for social change.



Cultural differences in basic needs.


While we believe that basic needs are universal, different societies and cultures emphasize different needs. They differ in how easy or difficult it is to fulfill particular needs—for people in general or for certain groups of people (women, or men, or children, or minority groups). The way needs are fulfilled is also shaped by a society and its culture.

For example, in Western countries, and especially the U.S., the need for independence or autonomy is very important. The need for connection can be difficult to fulfill. For example, young people who go to a university often prefer to go to a university in a different city. Even if they go to a university in a city where they grew up, they often prefer not to live at home. Even if in their hearts they might like to live at home, they don't think it looks right and usually won't do it. In contrast, in many countries in the world, the need for connection is stressed. In those places, the need for independence or autonomy may be more difficult to fulfill.


Constructive and destructive fulfillment of needs


Needs can be fulfilled constructively or destructively. The constructive fulfillment of a need means that when something happens that fulfills one need, usually other needs are also fulfilled, or at least, other needs are not frustrated. Destructive need fulfillment means that actions that satisfy one need lead to the frustration of other needs. Or actions to fulfill one's own need harm other people and frustrate the satisfaction of other people's basic needs.


For example, when a child or an adult engages in some kind of action, and this person is well-treated by other people in turn, this satisfies the need for positive connection, but also other needs: for positive identity, for a feeling of effectiveness and control, for security. When a child or adult is badly treated by malicious and unpredictable people, the person so treated may think, "what is happening is my fault" (which may or may not be true), or "if I do something different, I will be treated well." This thought makes the person feel more secure ("I can protect myself'), but can frustrate the need for a positive identity if the person thinks, " I always mess up."


The constructive fulfillment of basic needs leads to continued growth of a person and to an inclination to care about other people and help others. When needs are persistently frustrated, people are likely to turn to destructive need fulfillment. That happens because frustrated needs make people desperate to do whatever they can to meet their needs. They then lose their ability to weigh consequences and make good judgments.





The effects of traumatic experiences and victimization on basic needs


Trauma and victimization usually frustrate basic needs. Traumatic experiences affect individuals differently. Some will be deeply affected in one need area, while other people will be deeply affected in another need area. Most traumatic experiences frustrate the needs for security. They lead people to feel that the world is dangerous, that people are dangerous. Traumatic experiences make people feel vulnerable, that they cannot protect themselves.


Traumatic experiences frustrate the need for positive identity. People often feel diminished, worthless. People feel that something must be wrong with them, otherwise such a terrible thing would not have been done to them.


Traumatic experiences frustrate the need for effectiveness and control. When people are unable to protect themselves, their family, or their group, they feel less effective and less in control.

They may also become aggressive and feel unable to control their behavior toward others.      


Traumatic experiences frustrate the need for positive connection to other people. They may lead to mistrust and disconnection from people. Interpersonal betrayal can lead people to see all others as "them," as separate from and hostile to oneself.


Traumatic experiences frustrate the need for comprehension of reality. They destroy one's prior understanding of the world and of one's own place in the world. The world seems not normal, not a reasonable, moral, or predictable place. One can become obsessed with asking, "Why?"


Unhealed trauma makes it difficult to transcend or go beyond the self, to feel deep connection with nature, to serve other people. However, people who have experienced traumatic experiences often need to escape. They may not want to feel their pain, to know the terrible reality of what they have lost. They can feel better by giving themselves over to something. This can seem like transcendence, going beyond the self. But it may actually be "pseudotranscendence," an escape from the self. It can be highly destructive, as when people give themselves over to a destructive ideology or a destructive movement (nationalism, power).  It can also be constructive for traumatized people to give themselves over to something benevolent, something that helps them renew trust in people, regain connection, develop a positive identity. Spirituality and religion have the potential to help people do this.


Trauma often leads to "destructive" satisfaction of one's needs. People may use aggression to make themselves feel secure, even when there is no real danger. Power over other people and aggression are used to gain a feeling of effectiveness and control. Control is so important that some traumatized people feel that they have to be alert all the time and exercise control even when no control is needed.


Part of healing from trauma and victimization involves moving toward the constructive satisfaction of basic needs.


Writing or drawing exercises

If you are drawing, don't' worry about your drawing being attractive or communicating to other people. If you are writing, write to express yourself, not to be artistic or to communicate to others. You are communicating to yourself, putting your own experience down on paper.


Topics to write (or draw) about

Think about a time when you needed to feel safer, in greater control, more connected, better about yourself, etc. Try to recall a time when you met this need in a positive or constructive way. Now, through writing or drawing for about 5 minutes, describe or depict an experience in which you satisfied a basic need constructively (elaborate). What happened, what did you think or feel, what did it mean to you?


Describe an interaction you had with someone. Then consider what you thought of or "assumed about" that person at the start (that this person would be friendly or unfriendly, helpful or aggressive, and so on). Are these assumptions similar to what you believe or assume about human beings in general? Have your assumptions about human beings changed, or have you always had the same assumptions?


Think about a time you needed to feel in greater control, to feel better about yourself, to understand the world, etc. Now, through writing or drawing for about 5 minutes, describe or depict an experience in which you satisfied a basic need destructively (elaborate). What happened, what did you think or feel, what did it mean to you?


Write or draw about a painful experience you had during the genocide. The experience that you describe should be one that is not extremely upsetting to you now, an experience you think you can handle. Think, then write or draw, about the experience and how this experience affected your basic needs.


Personal experiments in satisfying needs constructively

Think of a need that you could satisfy destructively. Design a way that you could satisfy it constructively. (You might first want to write or draw or think about it and then perhaps to work in triads or to role play it.)






June 13.1999