Basic Psychological Needs

Klaus Grawe (2004, 2007) developed a view of mental functioning from conceptualizations formed in mainstream contemporary psychology, yet with a particular ‘driver’ that may not be altogether ‘mainstream’. That is, “the goals a person forms during his or her life ultimately serve the satisfaction of distinct basic needs.” (Grawe, 2007, p. 169). Grawe defined key psychological ‘basic needs’ as the core of his consistency theory, whereby our behaviour is driven to satisfy these needs, either in a healthy way or in a pathological way. Behaviour is dictated by motivational schemas (ways and means we develop to satisfy a need) and is generally either approach driven (from cortical processes) or avoidance driven (from limbic processes). My intention is not to detail consistency theory in this article, but simply to consider what these basic needs are according to Grawe.

There are four basic needs: The need for Attachment; the need for Control/Orientation; the need for Pleasure/Avoidance of Pain; and the need for Self-Enhancement. Of these needs, attachment and control are developed first and thus are the strongest drivers of behaviour, with self-enhancement, or self-esteem likely to be the last of the needs to develop in an individual.

Attachment: The human reliance on others, our attachment to people, is one of the most basic and powerful neurobiological/psychological needs. Drawing on the extensive work of John Bowlby (1988, 2008) and the primary attachment figure, Grawe places attachment as a centerpiece of our neurobiological needs. According to Mary Ainsworth et al (1978), the development of an attachment style (or pattern of behaviour developed from our early attachment experiences) can be defined as either: Secure attachment; insecure attachment and avoidant; insecure attachment and ambivalent; and insecure attachment and disorganized/disorientated. The experiences of relationships from the very first months of life shape the way we approach or avoid people (motivational schemas) in an attempt to satisfy the need to be attached to others. These patterns, or schemas, carry on into adult life, causing us to react/respond to social situations in particular ways. An unfavorable attachment experience early in life, such as a traumatic event, or neglect, can have serious mental health repercussions later in life, long after the infant experience. An individual may be completely bemused as to why they respond to a social encounter in a pathological manner, not realizing neural networks (the motivational schemas) were established in their infancy, beyond their memory recall. Just how the need for attachment can be violated and the consequences for mental health, is a subject for another article, and we will do this in the future. Suffice it to say, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest attachment is a basic human need.

Attachment in 60 seconds from The Neuropsychotherapist on Vimeo.

Control/Orientation: Grawe cites Seymour Epstein (1990) as one who believes that the need for orientation and control is the fundamental human need. Epstein believes we create our own conception of reality, a model of reality, into which we try and make sense of our experiences. We aim to attain perceptions of our world that satisfy/align with our goals. We do the ‘aiming’ through motivational schemas, to satisfy the goals, which are our basic needs. In other words, our aim to attain perceptions that line up with our goals, means striving for control. We want to be able to regulate our environment so our basic needs are satisfied, this is true for our physical needs as it is for our psychological needs. There is a high sense of control when we have a large number of options open to us. The more restricted our options, the less sense of control we have. The need for orientation, or to understand what is going on, is tightly interwoven with a sense of control. To have clarity about a situation is to have a sense of control and options become more apparent. When we don’t know what is going on in our environment, there can be high levels of stress and anxiety. This need for control, when we are infants, is closely linked with our need for attachment (because the infant is totally relying on an attachment figure for all his or her needs), and any violation of our attachment need is also a violation of our need for control. At a very basic level, a cry from an infant to get attention because she is hungry is both control and attachment behaviour. If the cry is ignored, there is a loss of control (to be fed) and attachment (to have the proximity of mother).

Orientation and Control in 60 seconds from The Neuropsychotherapist on Vimeo.

Pleasure/Avoidance of Pain: We are motivated to attain pleasant experiences or states and to avoid unpleasant or painful ones. There is a basic process of evaluating what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’, and a motivation to maximize our experience of the ‘good’ and limit the ‘bad’. Even in the case of suffering for ‘the greater good’, the denial of some pleasures to attain something of greater worth further down the track, is founded on this basic need. What constitutes ‘good’, pleasurable, beautiful, etc., is very dependent upon the individual and how the experience of things is consistent with the satisfaction of their other basic needs. From the point of view of Grawe’s consistency theory, we are in a maximal state when our “current perceptions and goals are completely congruent with one another, and the transpiring mental activity is not disturbed by any competing intentions.” (2007, p. 244). Grawe further points us to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s best selling book ‘Flow’ (1991), that describes our intrinsic motivation toward aligning our perception of experience with our intentions. There is much to say about the mental process of good/bad evaluation and the basic need to maximize one and avoid the other, and we will delve into this further in the future.

Pain Minimisation & Pleasure Maximisation in 60 seconds from The Neuropsychotherapist on Vimeo.

Self-Esteem Enhancement: The need to enhance our self-esteem (and to protect it), is a need that develops along with a sense of self—sometime after the other needs in an individuals developmental timeline. This need is also a specifically human need, as it requires an ability to have a developed self-awareness and to think reflectively. Alfred Adler (1920), along with many others, recognized that the need for self-esteem enhancement is an important need and motivator. From a neurobiological point of view, self-esteem regulation is likely the most complex network of all the basic needs mentioned. The assumption is that humans generally strive to maximize their self-esteem, but the way we go about achieving this can seem contrary to the goal—and sometimes we encounter low self-esteem maintenance. But what is really happening with someone maintaining a low self-esteem? According to consistency theory the maintenance of a low self-esteem is a means to service other, more critical needs. For example, avoiding a promotion at work, something that would likely bolster self-esteem, may be driven by a fear of leaving the current situation and relationships (need for attachment), or lack of clarity about the new job and ability to perform (need for control and orientation), or fears of failure, criticism, or too high expectation (need to avoid pain). Fear driven ways of handling situations (avoidant motivational schemas), that are mostly operating out of the deeper limbic system rather than cortical control, are likely to initiate behaviors that maintain a low self-esteem for the sake of other needs. This does not mean, however, that self-esteem enhancement is not a basic need, but it does demonstrate how a basic need can be thwarted by strongly developed avoidant motivational schemas and weakly developed approach schemas.

The diagram below is adapted from Grawe (2007, p. 171) and shows the central place of these basic needs within the framework of consistency theory—a theory we will be writing about in much more depth in the future.

Consistency Theory


  • Alder, A. (1920). Praxis und Theorie der Individualtherapie [Praxis and theory of individual therapy]. Munich, Germany: Bergmann.
  • Ainsworth, M. D., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  • Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.
  • Bowlby, J. (2008). Attachment: Volume One of the Attachment and Loss Trilogy: Attachment Vol 1 (Attachment & Loss) (Revised edition edition.). Vintage Digital.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York, N.Y.: HarperPerennial.
  • Epstein, S. (1990). Cognitive-experiential self-theory. In L. A. Pervin (Ed.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research. (pp. 165-192). New York: Guilford.
  • Grawe, K. (2004). Psychological therapy. Toronto: Hogrefe & Huber.
  • Grawe, K. (2007). Neuropsychotherapy: How the Neurosciences Inform Effective Psychotherapy (1st ed.). Routledge.
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