Why we need to understand needs....

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This month, friend of Platypus, Dr Adam Galpin provides insight into "Why we need to understand needs."

Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ is a theory that truly has broken through the confines of academic Psychology and is applied widely in numerous fields including User Experience and Marketing. And for good reason: the basic principles of the theory are easy to understand, intuitively appealing and simple to represent visually. When first proposed in the 1940’s, it broke ground not just for suggesting our needs were arranged in a hierarchy, but for emphasising that we were motivated by reaching for future goals, rather than simply being shaped by our experiences (likebehaviourism) or by our unconscious (like psychoanalysis).  It has been particularly useful for describing how we can be motivated by different needs, and also how not all needs will simultaneously influence us.

But whilst the hierarchy might hold in many situations, it isn’t hard to find examples which don’t fit so well. There’s the example of the starving artist who seeks to self-actualise through creative expression at the expense of physiological needs, or the hermit who eschews love and belonging. Also, the hierarchy doesn’t explain cross-cultural differences: Western cultures place more importance on individual growth than collectivist cultures. And finally, the hierarchy can’t explain developmental changes. In fact, research from Goebl and Brown (1981) found that the different needs were differentially important at different stages of life, with children valuing physical needs, esteem needs highest in adolescence and self-actualisation most important in young adulthood.


As a media psychologist I’ve noticed a recent increase in interest on human needs from the media industries, which I think is largely down to the challenge of understanding why people follow particular activities amongst an increasingly diverse media landscape. Research on media-related needs suggests that other needs-related theories might be useful. One in particular that holds promise is ‘Self-Determination Theory’ (SDT; Deci and Ryan, 2000). SDT describes three conditions that people need to fulfil in order to feel motivated. Humans need to feel autonomy through having control over their own behaviour and choices. They need to feel competent, feeling confident in their own abilities. And they need a sense of relatedness, in that they need to feel connected to and trusted by others. These three broad needs can be found in a number of studies of media related behaviours in audiences across the lifespan, although they might be called different things. For instance, research on children’s media choices finds they like a small degree of challenge, but not too much, termed the ‘moderate discrepancy hypothesis’(Valkenburg, 2007). This finding maps neatly on to the child’s need to feel competent. Many studies have discussed how much adolescent behaviour is driven by identity exploration, and the establishment of a unique identity is part of what makes someone an autonomous individual. And a great number of behaviours are explained through the need for social connection (relatedness), from child-parent co-viewing, to adolescent social media use, to family time in front of the TV.
Understanding this, and other related theories, is a powerful tool for anyone seeking insight into human behaviour. Because, whilst the products and tools available in society change at an accelerated pace, these human needs essentially stay the same.      

  • Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268
  • Goebel, B.L. & Brown, D.R. (1981). Age differences in motivation related to Maslow’s need hierarchy. Developmental Psychology, 17(6), 809-815
  • Valkenburg, P.M. (2007). Children’s Responses to the Screen: A Media Psychological Approach. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. New Jersey.


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Guest Sunday, 18 February 2018