Five Driving Needs (Part 2): Why are Psychological Needs so Biologically Urgent?

Learn why need-meeting is now central to the healthy function of your organization.

Fifty years ago, Drs. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan began exploring what produces vitality in humans. Their work evolved into one of the most prominent theories of human motivation, Self-Determination Theory. According to this theory, when our core psychological needs are fulfilled, vitality and optimal performance naturally occur. Likewise, when they are thwarted, depletion and poor performance naturally ensue.

“Stated simply, basic psychological need satisfaction and frustration can substantially account for both the ‘dark’ and ‘bright’ side of people’s functioning.

Whereas the satisfaction of the psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness contributes to proactivity, integration, and well-being, the frustration of these same psychological needs, especially from significant caregivers, leaves one prone to passivity, fragmentation, and ill-being.” - Vansteenkiste & Ryan, 2013. P. 263

This points to a simple fact: need-meeting is now central to the healthy function of our organizations. There was a day when meeting needs was relegated to the front line – something salespeople and customer service reps did for customers. It is now impossible to sustain innovation, maintain employee engagement or create great customer experiences without knowing and meeting needs at every node and nexus of the organization.

But why are our psychological needs so biologically urgent?

If everyone goes out for drinks after work and intentionally excludes you, how would that impact you? It might produce pain. Here’s why. According to the work of Dr. Matthew Lieberman, our brains evolved to experience social losses like exclusion, ridicule or entrapment in much the same way they experience a slap to the face. To the brain, physical pain and emotional pain feel the same.

It’s no mystery then, that we get a splash of stress juices when our needs are thwarted. But what happens when our needs are fulfilled? The brain-friendly juices flow, triggering a sense of intense pleasure.

For example, after a mother and her infant experience a period of separation, the moment of reunion releases a surge of oxytocin in both their brains. You can witness this at any airport by going to the arrivals level and watching sublime moments of reunion. The tears, smiles and laughter are simply external manifestations of juicy, opiate-like chemicals flowing in peoples’ brains.

The fact that they have such a strong biological effect on us is evidence that belonging, security, freedom, significance and meaning are not preferences – they are driving needs. This is not to denigrate preferences – they are important, and if you’ve been in the workplace for 5 years, you’ve probably had as many personality assessments providing you epiphanies about your preferences. Perhaps you are more energized working by yourself than you are working with others. These preferences are instructive and helpful. For example, “too much group-work drains my energy.”

But the driving needs we’re discussing in this article are of a different stripe altogether than preferences. Unfulfilled, they cause biological panic and ill-being. Fulfilled, they flood us with the sublime. In that way, they shape our reality in ways that preferences never could.

The Science of Need Fulfillment: Evidence & Research

Juice Inc. has spent sixteen years researching the Five Driving Needs. The following is a sampling of examples illustrating just how profoundly impacted we are by the pursuit and fulfillment of these needs.

Belonging

Belonging includes relatedness, affiliation, social connection, friendship, acceptance, inclusion, feeling part of the tribe, close relationships, attachment and kinship.

What’s the worst form of punishment that can be inflicted on a prisoner? Isolation. Why? Because human connection is so vital to our survival that when it is removed, we experience torment. In fact, the research of Dr. Dean Ornish, spanning four decades, reveals that belonging in close social relationships is a greater predictor of our physical health than the quality of our diet, how much we exercise or whether or not we smoke.

In short, you’re better to eat poutine with your pals than broccoli solo.

In the late 1970’s researchers at Simon Fraser University placed rats in a community – a space they dubbed “Rat Park”. Inhabitants of Rat Park had toys to play with, fellow rats to relate to and mates to have sex with. They were also offered two water bottles – one with water only - the other laced with either heroin, cocaine or alcohol. Predict which bottle they repeatedly returned to. If you chose the drugs – you’d be wrong. Rat Park rats chose water over drugs.

But when they isolated a rat - deprived it of social interaction - and offered it the same two water bottles, the socially deprived rat repeatedly chose the drugs – to the point of overdosing.

In fact, close to 100% of the lonely rats overdosed, and close to 0% of the social rats did so.

In Dr. Peter Cohen’s book Drugs as a Social Construct, he explores the idea that it may not be inherent pathological characteristics that lead to drug addiction, but rather the social rejection and stigmatization experienced by drug users that leads to deeper and deeper addiction. In other words, we don’t have a drug problem, we have a bonding problem.

The risk associated with loneliness is of a degree that researchers argue it can be considered a public health concern, comparable to risks such as obesity, poor mental health, and lack of access to healthcare. Various studies have found links between loneliness and the progression ofAlzheimer's disease, obesity, elevated blood pressure, diminished immunity, alcoholism, and poor sleep.

Belonging is paramount when it comes to modulating stress. One Australian study reports that belonging in close social relationships is vital for women facing cancer threats. “Women experiencing a stressor objectively rated as highly threatening and who were without intimate emotional support had a nine-fold increase in risk of developing breast carcinoma.” - Price et al, 2001. P. 686.

Security
Security includes clarity, order, consistency, predictability, organization, dependable structure, effective systems, fair play, equality and clear expectations.

The understanding of emotional intelligence is prevalent today, so most managers and leaders have a base-level awareness of how threat can shut down the human brain. So the need to substantiate security as a driving need can feel somewhat redundant. But here are a couple of interesting aspects of security.

When our emotional security is threatened, our stress response (HPA axis) lights up and shifts our thinking from curiosity to judgment, growth to protectionism and partnering to defensiveness. In his book, When the Body Says No, Dr Gabor Maté explains that:

“Psychological factors such as uncertainty, conflict, lack of control, and lack of information are considered the most stressful stimuli and strongly activate the HPA axis.

We recall that stress-inducing stimuli are not always objective external threats like predators or potential physical disasters but also include internal perceptions that something we consider essential is lacking. This is why lack of control, lack of information – and as we will see, unsatisfied emotional needs (e.g. lack of love), trigger the HPA axis. Consummation of such needs abolishes the stress response.” -P. 20

This shift to rigid, extreme, binary thinking makes vitality, well-being and optimal performance virtually impossible.

When our relational security is threatened, we don’t fare well either. A 2013 meta-analysis on the topic of destructive leadership found that toxic relational dynamics, especially from leaders who abuse their power (e.g. engage in hostile behaviors such as public ridicule, stealing credit, blaming subordinates, giving the silent treatment, etc.) are highly correlated with a variety of negative outcomes --stress, lowered job satisfaction, and decreased performance-- for those whom they lead. When this toxic behavior is ingrained in the organization’s culture, employees struggle with negative attitudes not just toward the offending leader, but the whole organization.

Freedom
Freedom includes decision-making latitude, autonomy, agency, adventure, opportunity to take risks, the leeway to prove oneself, and the right to choose for oneself.

The French Revolution. The Berlin Wall. Arab Spring. Very different uprisings – but each declaring one universal story: people will pay almost any price to gain (or regain) their freedom. It can only be taken away for so long – then people will risk their very lives to get it back. It’s clear that freedom is not a preference - it is a biologically urgent need.

It’s hard for some of us to relate to the dangers faced by the freedom-fighters above, but we have one small thing in common with them: the loss of freedom in any sphere of life feels intense.

“The costs associated with long-term micromanagement can be exorbitant. Symptoms such as low employee morale, high staff turnover, reduction of productivity and patient dissatisfaction can be associated with micromanagement. The negative impacts are so intense that it is labeled among the top three reasons employees resign.” - Collins & Collins, 2002

Autonomy (acting according to one’s own choices and desires) facilitates intrinsic motivation, which is linked to better performance, learning, and well-being. For instance, a 2012 meta-analysis of 184 studies in a health care context concluded that supporting an individuals’ autonomy was linked to positive behaviours, good mental health, and improved quality of life.

Significance
Includes achievement, competence, mastery, progress, performance, capability, self-esteem, excellence, quality, status, differentiation from the status quo, being valued and respected, reputation and legacy.

According to another popular motivational theory, Terror Management Theory, when an individual masters skills, progresses toward goals, and receives positive messaging from those around them, these factors combine to create a positive self-evaluation. This positive self-evaluation protects them from a fundamental human fear: that one’s life is insignificant, that they are a failure, and that their efforts are in vain (for a review see Pyszczynski et al., 2004).

Self-Determination Theory, on the other hand, built upon the work of Robert W. White, who, in the 1950’s explored the idea that people have an innate drive to make progress toward goals and master skills that enable them to thrive in their environment. Deci and Ryan believe that this intrinsic motivation to do things “simply to experience efficacy or competence” is a natural state but that it is either enhanced or undermined by social conditions.

Achievement, goal attainment and progress are vital at bolstering our sense of significance. But according to Dr. Teresa Amabile, 95% of leaders misunderstand what motivates people most. Research discussed in Amabile and Steven Kramer’s book, The Progress Principle , revealed that,

“The best way to motivate people day in and day out, is by facilitating progress – even small wins. But the managers in our survey ranked “supporting progress” dead last as a work motivator.” -p. 3

Individuals have a strong need to feel worthy as a person. This positive self-evaluation, known as self-esteem, is partly dependent on being seen by others as valuable (Pyszczynski et al., 2004). People gain a sense that they are valuable to others through recognition, acknowledgement, and achievement.

Meaning
Purpose, contributing to a cause, pursuing the greater good, seeking justice, making a difference, and altruism.

While nihilists are arguing about life having no meaning, billions of people are acting to prove the opposite is true.

In fact, broad-scale social passion has always been ignited by meaning. A quick historical scan brings this into focus: Women’s rights to vote, civil rights, gay rights, apartheid, environmentalism and the Me Too Movement all hold one element in common: a meaningful cause.

The recent literature explosion on meaning and discovering your why is helping to answer what Viktor Frankl called Man’s Search for Meaning. For a deep dive into meaning, check out credible books like The Infinite Game and Start with Why by Simon Sinek, The Why of Work by Dave & Wendy Ulrich and Meaning at Work by Danny Gutknecht.

The message in these books is clear: engaging in meaningful work deeply energizes people. And even when meaningful work is not possible, people can still find meaning at work and be energized by that. Making weed spray may not feel like meaningful work, but an employee can still find meaning at work by working with a team to blow away their United Way targets.

Example: Lifeguards and Call Centres. A 2008 study by researcher Adam Grant looked at two types of typical, somewhat mundane work: employees at a university fundraising call centre, and lifeguards at a community pool (who, in reality, don’t often get to save any lives). In this experiment, each group was divided into two and half of them carried on as normal, while the other half spent some time reading stories: the call centre folks read stories about how the money they raised actually helped real people, and the lifeguards read stories about lifeguards rescuing drowning victims.

These stories – cues that connected the workers with the purpose and meaning of their tasks – had a powerful effect. Within a month, the call centre workers more than doubled both pledges and funds raised. The lifeguards were inspired too – in the following weeks they significantly increased the number of hours they signed up to work, and their supervisors reported that they were increasingly helpful to guests, going above and beyond in their work.

This sense of meaning impacts our health. Research shows that when people reported feeling a sense of purpose in their life they were more likely to give a positive self-report of health and recover more quickly from certain kinds of diseases.

Studies have also found that people who reported a sense of meaning were less likely to suffer from stress, anxiety, and depression, reported greater life satisfaction, and even experienced increased endurance during mental and physical challenges. Conversely, there is evidence that purposelessness (lack of meaning) is associated with depression, addiction, and destructive behaviours.

In Conclusion

Imagine there’s a reason our needs are so biologically urgent. Imagine them as a special kind of human vulnerability – a vulnerability that makes us approachable and inter-reliant on others.

  • What if our need for belonging spurred us to create powerful human connections?
  • What if our need for security urged us to build and implement structures and systems?
  • What if our need for freedom inspired us to build cultures of autonomy?
  • What if our need for significance drove us to achieve positive progress in our world?
  • What if our need for meaning caused us to pursue vital human causes?

Read the next article in our Five Driving Needs series: Creating an Energized State of Being

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