Basic psychological needs: overview and developments

Basic Psychological Need Theory (BPNT) is one of the six mini-theories that make up Self-Determination Theory (SDT). In a new paper Maarten Vansteenkiste, Richard Ryan and Bart Soenens give an overview of the developments within the BPNT. Here I briefly summarize the article.

ARC: Autonomy, relatedness, competence

Within SDT, basic psychological needs are not understood to mean preferences or desires, but necessities for adapted and authentic functioning and growth. Deci & Ryan (2000) proposed the three basic needs for which there is now a lot of evidence: the needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence (ARC for Autonomy, Relatedness, Competence for short). Here is a brief explanation of those three basic needs.
  1. Autonomy: the experience of volition and willingness. When this need is met, you experience a sense of integrity and you endorse your behavior, thoughts, and feelings. When this need is frustrated, you experience pressure and conflict and feel like you are being pushed in an unwanted direction.
  2. Relatedness: the experience of warmth, connection and care. When this need is met, you feel connected and important to others. When this need is frustrated, you experience a sense of alienation, exclusion and loneliness.
  3. Competence: the experience of effectiveness and competence. When this need is met, you feel able to engage in an activity and see opportunities to apply and develop your skills and knowledge. When this need is frustrated, you experience ineffectiveness, a sense of failure and helplessness.
From the outset, Deci and Ryan have taken into account that research could one day lead to sharpen, refine or supplement these three needs.

What the choice for ARC was based on

Deci & Ryan had reason to choose these three basic needs from both research and theory. Research showed that autonomy and competence were important for developing and maintaining intrinsic motivation (the motivation to do what you enjoy). For internalized motivation (the motivation to do what is important to you) not only autonomy and competence were found to be essential, but also relatedness. In addition, there was a lot of research showing that different aspects of well-being (happiness, vitality, etc.) depended on the fulfillment of the ARC needs.

In addition to these arguments from research, Deci and Ryan also had theoretical arguments for their ARC choice. These were mainly related to the organismic vision within SDT. It says that the experience of ARC leads to integration, coherence and adaptation in the individual and thus to full functioning.

9 Criteria for basic psychological needs

In recent decades, new candidates have often been proposed for the status of basic psychological need. Vansteenkiste et al. provide an overview of 9 criteria that these candidates must meet in order to be eligible.

They mention the following basic criteria:
  1. Psychological: A basic need relates to the psychological and not the physiological functioning of people.
  2. Essential: The satisfaction of a basic need contributes to growth, well-being and adaptation while at the same time the frustration of the basic need predicts problem behavior, ill-being and psychopathology.
  3. Inherent: A basic need represents an evolved aspect of our psychological nature through adaptive benefits associated with the satisfaction of this need.
  4. Distinctive: A basic need refers to a distinct bundle of experiences, and its emergence is not dependent on or derived from the frustration of other needs.
  5. Universal: The perceived satisfaction and frustration of need must predict the flourishing and ill-being of all individuals, regardless of differences in socio-demographic factors, personality, cultural background, or strength of need.
And the following associated criteria:
  1. Pervasive: The effects associated with need-based experiences must be reflected in diverse cognitive, affective, and behavioral effects, while also manifesting at different levels from the psychological to the neurological / biological.
  2. Content-specific: Satisfaction and frustration of a basic need manifests itself through specific behaviors, experiences and can be well expressed in natural language.
  3. Guiding: A basic need directs and shapes the thinking, acting and feeling of individuals, spurring the proactive search for needs-supporting circumstances, partners and activities in which needs are supported, and inducing corrective behavior under need-subversive circumstances.
  4. Explanatory: A basic need helps to explain the relationship between variations in social contexts, both growth-stimulating and toxic, and welfare effects.

Some candidates to complement ARC

Examples of concepts proposed and explored as candidates for basic needs are: safety, popularity, pleasure, stimulation, self-actualization, self-esteem, physical flourishing, money, luxury, novelty, variety, beneficence, and morality. There is not enough evidence of any of these concepts to be seen as basic needs. However, many promising candidates are novelty, variety and morality. It has been established that beneficence is not a basic need but a basic wellness enhancer.

Consequences of need frustration

An important new development in research into and thinking about basic needs is that there is now a focus on examining the effects of satisfaction and frustration of basic needs separately. Separate psychometric scales for need frustration have been developed, which are now usually also included in research. This has shown that need frustration is more than simply the absence of needs satisfaction. The frustration of the ARC basic needs predicts several negative effects, such as:
  1. ill-being: feeling bad, having little energy, etc.
  2. being poorly motivated: not endorsing what you are doing, but instead experiencing pressure and reluctance
  3. compensatory behavior: non-participation, rigid behavioral patterns, contingent self-esteem, ego involvement, obsessive passions, oppositional behavior.
  4. need substitutes: develop alternative needs to try to offset at least some of the drawbacks of needs frustration. Examples: seeking status, fame, money. The pursuit and achievement of these alternative needs does not lead to well-being, possibly partly because it obstructs the focus on ARC.

The interplay between physiological and psychological basic needs

More and more is now known about the interplay between basic physiological and psychological needs. Contrary to what Abraham Maslow assumed, it is not the case that these basic needs can be arranged hierarchically, in other words that psychological basic needs only become important when physiological basic needs are met. Basic psychological needs also are vital when physiological needs are not met. For example, they also apply in extreme poverty and dangerous situations.

It is also the case that ARC needs are related to physiological needs, such as those for sex, nutrition, sleep and safety. For example, frustration of ARC needs can generate a tendency to binge-eat. It's an attempt to feel good despite ARC's frustration. In addition to this, an explanation for binge eating may be that the frustration of ARC consumes a lot of energy, which the individual can try to compensate through binge eating. ARC also plays a role in the physiological need for sleep. For example, a relationship between ARC frustration and reduced sleep quality has been shown.

There is some evidence that perceptions of physical safety are also related to the degree to which ARC needs are satisfied or frustrated. The effects of safety or lack thereof can probably partly be explained via ARC. The same could be true of psychological safety.

How do you create a motivational context?

An important question within SDT is how you can create a motivational context. Initially, research mainly focused on the effects of autonomy support. This was a central concept within SDT and also controversial. Research showed the importance of autonomy support and also showed that autonomy support simultaneously contributed to improving the satisfaction of relatedness and competence needs.

More recent research has broadened the focus. Firstly, there is now more attention for the so-called dual process model. It has been found that autonomy support is not sufficient for a motivating teaching or work climate. Avoiding controlling (controlling) behavior is also important. Thus creating motivational conditions is a matter of do's and don'ts. A lot of attention is now also being paid to combining autonomy support with providing structure. Contrary to what is sometimes thought, providing structure is not at odds with the experience of autonomy. Instead, it is a precondition for it.

Other topics

Initially, research into basic needs mainly relied on observations and self-reports. There is now a lot of longitudinal research and research in which reporting and observation is also done by other assessors and in which analysis is carried out at several levels. There is also more breakdown by ages and contexts. Finally, there are also theoretical innovations such as the development of circumplexes of motivation styles.

Universality without uniformity

Vansteenkiste et al. conclude their illuminating article with a note on universality. SDT's universality claim has been much criticized. The idea behind this criticism is that people from different cultural backgrounds are probably not all having the same basic psychological needs. Howeverm, that does turn out to be the case. 
But this universality is mainly concerned with the effects of the satisfaction or frustration of basic needs. It is not that all people, in all contexts and at all ages, should be approached in the same way to meet their basic needs. On the contrary, satisfying people's basic needs always requires a good and continuous attunement to the person and situation in question. That applies within a culture and certainly across cultures.