Fundamental Needs

Fundamental Needs 

There are lots of ways that people lose sight of the dignity of others. As fundamentally similar as we are as a species, we are a diverse bunch in terms of language and culture, and it’s tragically easy for people to see difference as distance. 

People don’t generally share the same experiences, the same obstacles, or the same  opportunities, but we do share a universal desire to survive and flourish. Despite our cultural differences and our diversity as individuals, we all have a similar compass guiding us as we react and adapt to an ever-changing landscape. We all want our lives to be secure. We want to be valued members of our communities and have the power to make our own decisions. And we all strive to ensure that our lives feel meaningful. 

We can understand a lot about human behavior and politics by analyzing the underlying needs. 

Four fundamental human needs:

  1. Safety – This includes both physical and psychological safety. We work hard to diminish the likelihood that we’ll be injured, killed, humiliated, excluded, or otherwise diminished. We sacrifice a lot of other needs and desires to achieve safety.
  2. Autonomy – We need to feel that we have some power over our environment. Without autonomy we feel trapped and stifled. We need to feel free to make our own choices, enjoy our successes, and learn from our mistakes. Feeling powerless is dispiriting and grinds us down psychologically. People generally find a way to feel some sense of power even when people or institutions limit their freedoms.
  3. Connection to Others – Humans are social animals, and we all have the need for close personal relationships. We depend on one another, share joy with one another, and grow with one another. It’s common in modern societies for people to feel cut off or alienated from other people, and strategies to reconnect are vast. Most of these strategies are healthy and pro-social (e.g. being friendly), though it’s common for people to sacrifice other needs and values in the attempt to connect.
  4. A Sense of Purpose – We need underlying narratives or goals to give our lives meaning. People working with a clear purpose often have a high degree of satisfaction with their lives. Without a deeper sense of meaning, we often feel adrift and unhappy.

Fulfilling Our Needs as Individuals

Each of us seeks to fulfill our own needs. These personal strategies vary widely given the differences in environments, communities, and individual personalities.  Some strategies are successful. Others might fulfill one need while sacrificing another. And still others might work in the short term but lead to bad things in the long term. 

Using the table below, I ask students to brainstorm different ways people fulfill their needs to help students understand the complex motivations behind various behaviors. 

Healthy/Sustainable/Pro-Social Ways to Fulfill Fundamental Needs

Unhealthy/Unsustainable/Anti-Social Ways to Fulfill Fundamental Needs
Safety [Vaccinations, regular exercise, look both ways before crossing streets, etc.) Safety

[Refusal to go to the doctor, refusal to cross any streets ever, forever staying silent in class to avoid humiliation]

Autonomy [Self-advocated for the things you want, learn how to navigate complex environments, find things you love and find time to spend with them] Autonomy [Rebel destructively against people with authority, shout at the top of your lungs whenever you want to prove that you love freedom]
Connection to Others [Be kind and generous, develop lots of interests, ask people questions, etc.] Connection to Others [Jump off of the roof of Josh Rose’s house to impress your fellow 5th grade friends, entertain people with vicious gossip, etc.]
Sense of Purpose  

[Find ways to help others that you enjoy, dedicate yourself to excellence, etc.]

Sense of Purpose [Nurture revenge fantasies about all who have wronged you, pursue megalomaniacal dreams of world domination, etc.]


From Personal to Political 

Through political action, communities can help or hinder individuals’ ability to fulfill their needs. Governments constantly debate how to spend communal funds and share resources. We develop policies and plans to help keep people safe, empowered, connected, and able to pursue meaningful opportunities. Some of our strategies work and others fail. Unfortunately, politics is also full of policies and plans to fulfill the needs of some at the expense of others. One way to understand oppression is that empowered groups or individuals create and perpetuate policies and systems that limit the ability of others to fulfill their fundamental needs in order to maintain power. 


Looking Out For Each Other’s Fundamental Human Needs
Effective ways to help others fulfill their needs or strategies to empower others:  Ineffective ways to help others fulfill their needs, or strategies to oppress others:
Safety [Build roads and hospitals, offer bank loans with low interest rates, have an effective and fair police force and justice system, Safety [Deny people access to health care, bank loans, Tax people who live in poverty and spend the money on programs for wealthy people, etc.]
Autonomy [Empower people with education and training to get good jobs, offer people strategies to navigate tricky situations, Jesse Jackson’s “I Am Somebody,” etc.] Autonomy [Constrict freedoms such as free speech, freedom of movement, and freedom of conscience, micro-manage people, etc.]
Connection to Others [Organize and attend community events, fund youth sports leagues, scouting groups, and other organizations that bring people together, etc.] Connection to Others [Segregate groups into different areas, criminalize inter-group associations and marriages, etc.]
Sense of Purpose  

[Provide multifaceted education that helps cultivate multiple talents, develop a complex economy that allows for a diversity of lifestyles and pursuits, etc.]

Sense of Purpose [Limit education and job training, promote illiteracy, keep peoples’ worlds small and isolated, etc.]

Key Takeaways: 

  1. As humans we share the same basic needs. We all attempt to flourish. As individuals we respond to our environments differently as we attempt to fulfill our needs. 
  2. Many of our habits and behaviors are adaptations to our past environments. We are sometimes too quick to make judgements about a person’s character without factoring in a multitude of environmental and contextual issues that can help explain certain behaviors as adaptive strategies. 
  3. Some communities make it relatively easy for people to fulfill their basic needs. Others unfairly create obstacles for certain groups and individuals, usually allow privileged groups to maintain their power.