The Three Most Basic Psychological Needs, and Why We Need to Satisfy Them

basic psychological needs

Are you aware that psychological need satisfaction is crucial to your well-being, and that it should be one of your biggest priorities? This post will show you why.

According to Self-determination theory, human beings have three basic psychological needs: a need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Cross-cultural research has shown that need satisfaction is necessary for all people’s healthy development, engagement, motivation, and well-being (Gagné et al., 2014).

Need satisfaction is even related to greater work performance, less perceived stress, and fewer turnover intentions. Also, when the needs are not satisfied (thwarted), there will be negative psychological consequences (Gagné et al., 2014).

Since these findings have been documented across many cultures and contexts, the theory specifies that people have evolved rather learned the needs. The needs are universal.

Self-determination theory defines autonomy as behaving with a sense of volition, endorsement, willingness, and choice; competence as mastering one’s environment; and relatedness as feeling related to others in one way or another (Gagné & Deci, 2014).

The three basic psychological needs are present and need to be satisfied at all levels of human functioning: at the specific-task level (a given job task), at the domain level (work or family), and at the global level (personality) (Deci & Ryan, 2014).

Now we know a little more about the nature of psychological needs, it should be easier to find ways to satisfy them. Need satisfaction should be one of our primary priorities due to the impact it has on our well-being.

You might have experienced how it is to have your needs thwarted, or satisfied for that matter. For example, some relationships are controlling, while others are  autonomy-supportive. Some experiences decrease our feelings of competence, while others build up our confidence. Some situations increase our feelings of loneliness, while others increase our feelings of relatedness.

All these examples illustrate the importance of our social environment with respect to need satisfaction, well-being and personal development. This lovely metaphor by Deci & Flaste (1995) also illustrates it:

“If you put an avocado pit in a pot of earth it will probably grow into a tree, because it is in the nature of avocados to do that . . . [But for that to occur] they need sun; they need water; and they need the right temperatures. Those elements do not make trees grow, but they are the nutriments that the developing avocados need, that are necessary in order for the avocados to do what they do naturally.” (p. 98)

I hope this post has made it clear why we have to satisfy our basic psychological needs – and if you found any joy in this post, don’t hesitate to share it. Thank you.

Image: Carlo Scherer
  • Phew glad you didn’t mention Maslow Simon!

  • Guillermo

    Good deep and practical article!

  • So true. The needs mentioned are what makes us feel grounded, secure, strong and ready to blossom. Thanks for sharing.

    • Indeed. The tendency to learn, grow and develop into a sense of self is a trait that is unique to humans. It is so natural, but still so difficult if the environment, in which one is situated, does not allow growth. The avocado metaphor illustrates this. The tendency, however, will always be there. /S

      • Yes. Thanks to the avocado metaphor I saved the pit of one last night for my son to plant as a reminder to what I need to provide for my kids.