Beyond money: primary social goods, basic needs and well-being

A recent study links John Rawls's vision of a just society to the basic psychological needs of self-determination theory.

Context is important for our functioning and well-being

Literature on the fundamental attribution error shows that situations affect us more than we usually realize. The context in which we function has a a great deal of influence on how we behave, how we think about ourselves and how well we are doing. So it is important what kind of contexts we seek out and also what kind of contexts we create for ourselves and each other.

As parents and in schools we try to create a context for our children in which they can function and develop well. In organizations we try to create a context in which employees can work well, develop well and feel good. And in societies we try to create a context that citizens regard as fair and in which they can participate well and feel good.

Rawls: which society would we choose if we didn't know ourselves?

An important thinker about the organization of societies was the American philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002; see photo). He developed an idea about a good society based on a thought experiment. He wondered what kind of society we would choose if we were behind a veil of ignorance about ourselves. In other words, which society would we choose to live in if we did not know our own ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, gender, religiosity, wealth and political orientation?

Primary Social Goods

Rawls called this ignorance the original position and assumed that from this original position we could think more objectively and more justly about what a just society should look like. On this basis, Rawls thought that a just society provides certain primary social goods to all citizens. These primary social goods are: 1) basic rights and freedoms, 2) freedom of movement and occupation, 3) equal access to power and positions of responsibility, 4) income and wealth, and 5) a social basis for self-esteem. 

Do primary social goods lead to well-being through basic needs?

A new study (Bradshaw et al., 2019) links Rawls's theory to self-determination theory. Two questions were central to the research. The first question was whether people's perception that primary social goods were available was indeed related to different aspects of well-being. The second question was whether this relationship between primary social goods and well-being was mediated by the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness.

They examined these two questions in two samples. The first sample (N = 762) included respondents from 5 countries (US, Australia, South Africa, India and the Philippines). The second sample (N = 1,479) included respondents from minority groups (sexual, ethnic, political or religious). They measured three types of variables for all these respondents: 1) perception of the availability of primary social goods, 2) degree of satisfaction / frustration of basic psychological needs and 3) various aspects of well-being / ill-being.


They found that there was indeed a correlation between primary social goods and well-being in both samples and that this relationship was mediated in both samples by the fulfillment of basic needs. A simplified representation of these relationships is shown below.


This study offers a new reason to think that a good society cannot only be defined on the basis of economic factors such as GDP and income (read more). Basic psychological needs are necessary for proper functioning and satisfaction. Making primary social goods available appears to be a good way to fulfill these basic psychological needs.