Three basic needs: always operative even when we don't realize it

We use the word 'need' broadly in daily life. It can refer to anything we desire for or think we need or prefer, at any time. In psychology, in particular within self-determination theory (SDT), it has a much more specific meaning. SDT speaks of universal basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness (read more). The word 'need' in SDT refers to something that is a requirement for good and healthy functioning.

SDT’s strong posits about the three psychological basic needs

Satisfaction of these needs leads to good and well-adapted functioning; frustration of these needs leads to a diminished psychological and physical health. Moreover, the frustration of these needs can lead to the emergence of other types of needs which serve as a substitute (such as a need need for admiration, fame, wealth, etc.) and can lead to compensatory behaviors such as loss of self-control, rigid behaviors, and oppositional defiance.

Within SDT, the assumption about these basic needs are strong. They are thought to be universally operative. This means that they are working regardless of the cultural background of the individual and throughout the life span. Furthermore, according to SDT, they are operative, regardless of whether we say or think they are important. These assumptions are nog only basic on theoretical considerations but they are also empirically supported. One example of a paper which provides such support is a recent study by Chen et al. (2015).

Studies by Chen et al. (2015) confirm the universality of SDT's basic needs

They did two studies in which they tested whether the degree to which the three psychological basic needs are fulfilled indeed predicted healthy functioning regardless of what people reported about their importance. In study 1 they studied adolescents from Belgium and China (N=685). In this study the satisfaction of the the needs for autonomy and competence predicted well-being. How important these respondents said these needs were to them did not have any influence on the relationship between these needs and well-being.

In study 2 they studied young people from countries with strongly varying cultures (Belgium, China, USA, and Peru; N = 1,051). The satisfaction of each of the basic needs predicted life and vitality, and the frustration of these needs predicted depressive symptoms. Also in study 2, these relations were not influenced by what people said about how important they found these needs.