Psychology Sociology

A Theory of Social Needs

A Theory of Social Needs

What gives us a sense of well-being? On the other hand, what is the root cause of human conflict and suffering? There are many ways to approach these questions, including biological, psychological, and sociological levels of analysis. Here I lay the foundation for a theory of social needs that can help us understand what contributes to human flourishing.

Human beings have social needs that are just as important as our biological need for food. In the same way we may risk death by starvation if we stop eating, those whose social needs are not met may find themselves at risk of a form of extreme emotional pain that leads to thoughts of suicide.

Our fundamental need is a perceived sense of personal significance, achieved through a perceived sense of both social belonging and social contribution.

When either of these social needs are not met and our sense of personal significance is threatened, we compensate through fight or flight responses in an attempt to restore or escape our lost sense of significance. Fight responses include displays of superiority and displays of power. Displays of superiority include harnessing status symbols or sabotaging others, and displays of power include aggressive attempts to control or manipulate others. Flight responses include social withdrawal.

When our sense of significance is fulfilled, we experience a high degree of subjective well-being, feel a strong sense of identity, belonging, interpersonal connection, social support, and maintain the sense that our efforts are contributing to a cause beyond ourselves.

A more in-depth elaboration on the variables will be explored in a potential future article. The empirical and conceptual foundations of this theory are derived from the sociological and psychological literature listed below:

Two comprehensive models of human needs:
Max-Neefs Matrix and Hugh Mackay’s list
Two models of suicidal risk:
Durkheim’s typology and Joiner’s Interpersonal Theory
Two models of identity:
Charles Taylor’s Moral horizons and Herminia Ibarra’s concept of Working Identity
Two recent studies on subjective well-being: A study inquiring into
Needs and Subjective Well-Being and a study on Quality of Life


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20 comments

  1. Yes Steve a lot of this makes good sense. Although Maslow`s theory is not scientific in terms of how representative his sample was and there are other issues with his research it is still one of the best models of motivation we have. In my experience in coaching and mental health work it is helpful to use. The part of the theory I like the best is his less well known theory of self actualization which I quote Maslow “The desire for self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially.” In my psychology degree days I didn`t understand the meaning of it. I do now. I always wrote in different ways but I always liked to write. I chose what I thought was more meaningful work and became involved in mental health and learning disability, sometimes very stressful work.
    In the past year I have written a novel and it has been one of the best things I`ve ever done and has brought me so much satisfaction and it`s been very rewarding. My point is my potential is to write. I went down many paths of employment but none has satisfied me like producing a novel and I have included so much experiences and learning from my work in my book. I am fulfilling my potential to write, what I feel was always my purpose in life and it has made me happy. So I think everyone is born with a purpose to fulfil, whatever that purpose is. It can be anything at all it doesn`t have to be a job. Then the person will feel satisfied with their life. A person`s life then becomes a little easier and less of a struggle because they enjoy what they are doing with most of their time. They look forward to the next day ahead of them and enjoy the day they are experiencing. I wish that everyone finds their true purpose.

  2. I think this is a great post, Steve. You have a really interesting take and definitely a hugely thought provoking piece.

  3. I enjoyed the “collaboration” in this thread. It highlights Validation as a prism for understandIng our unique Identity. Self Is a complex concept , and seeing Self comprised of three vectors: Seld-in-Solitude,Self-in-Others, and Self-in -Spirit, helps me understand my Identity better. I feel, then, Validation coming from each of these three sources: Internally , my Self- in- Solitude, Socially, my Self- in- Others, and Larger than Life, Self-in-Spirit. The first two were nicely discussed in the thread; I would just highlight Spirit as being an important Validator for many of us. What defines our unique “Net Vector” identity is how we prioritize these three vectors in our Validation quest.

    1. Nice observations! I think I’ve collapsed self-in-spirit into self-in-solitude and self-in-others because, aside from dogmas that as far as I can tell were either epiphanic products of self-in-solitude or self-in-others — or just plain made up out of thin air — my only real access to self-in-spirit is via self-in-solitude and self-in-others. So Occam would be proud of me for paring down one more entity beyond necessity! 🙂

  4. You’re very welcome! I agree, it’s both-and. They work together. Ultimately we can’t live exclusively by either one. Extreme social dependence occludes our identities and selves. Extreme self-dependence is almost like a form of cynical protest and certainly doesn’t lead to either individual or collective well-being. I also agree that aligning oneself to our social group doesn’t necessarily result in a sense of significance. After all, cult members are nothing if not aligned to their groups, but they get to that uber-reliant state through abnegation of self, not recognition of it. I think that people who self-validate in constructive ways have the sense that they are aligning with the authentic selves, the true desires and aspirations, of their fellows who for various reasons have lost grip on their dignity and significance as individuals. So, rather than standing against others they feel that they are standing for them.

    It’s been a long time since I read Kierkegaard, probably my all-time favorite philosopher given what I’ve read. What was his view on it? I remember him writing about Abraham, so I must have read it, but can’t recall.

  5. Hey Steve, I like where you’re going with this, but I rarely find thinkers who want to go far enough.

    I agree that our fundamental need is a perceived sense of personal significance. However, although significance is predominately achieved through social belonging and social contribution, those are not the only means. They’re just the only means most people are familiar with, because the alternative freaks them out and few try it.

    However, neither is it esoteric nor unknown. In fact, we’re all more or less acquainted with it, unless we’ve never held our ground when misunderstood or believed in a dream or idea when no one else saw or supported it: Self-validation. The problem is that when social censure or ridicule rises to sufficient levels, we usually capitulate and let go of what we at one point were sure was true, even our sense of self-worth.

    It is possible, though, to self-validate despite severe opposition, censure, or ridicule. We have plenty of examples of it. Unfortunately we hold these people as exceptional, as if almost super-human — saints and heroes. Sadly, that’s just a cop-out. We all have that capacity. As more of us exercise it, the presumption that we’re ultimately dependent on social support will become less of a foregone conclusion-cum-compulsion, and more of a welcome if I can get it, but I can handle it if I don’t kind of option. That will mark the beginning of all kinds of lights going on and, ultimately, break the death grips that hold so many in various captive and abusive situations.

    Self-validation should be something that all parents teach their children how to transition to. Few parents even know what it is, thinking that throwing them into the deep end of adulthood and encouraging, “I know you’ll swim just fine!” is what teaching “independence” is all about. Self-validation is the antidote to entrapment, the way of escape from cycles of abuse, and the inoculation against undue influence and cultic/fundamentalistic mindsets.

    We need to stop assuming that we are little more than social validation junkies.

    1. Thank you for this! It is something I’ve struggled to reconcile. Particularly Kierkegaard’s perspective on it, and his example of Abraham from the old testament. The way I can reconcile it now would be stating that it’s not one or the other, but both. In the case of these rare individuals who radically act against the social grain, I would say that their sense of contribution is in the fact that they are contributing to potential better future society by going against a perceived injustice. In terms of external validation, I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to feel a sense of significance, even if ones actions happen to be in accordance with a social group.

    2. I love this phrase. Self validation is so important to children as well as adults. Many adults as children never felt like they were validated whether it was from others or what they perceived about themselves. For kids it just sends a message that they are not worth anything and they grab onto whatever they can that gives them a sense of worth and fitting in. How many kids feel this, have felt this or just learned to live with it to get through? Every kid I see that way I /my heart reaches out to. It can lead into their adult life and most of the time it does. In adulthood in may mean they grab for anything they can get to prove themselves or be admired. It is just an endless cycle. I can relate to this story so well in my life and what I have seen and felt. So if you get a chance love a kid, adolescent or make a friend of an adult that just needs to know that they count!

      1. Yes, a lot of dysfunctional “adult” behavior (which is just childish behavior dressed up to appear otherwise) seems to be little more than attempts to suck validation from others that we didn’t get as kids. It’s a kind of addiction, which is why we never seem to come to an end of it.

        I sometimes ask people when the last time they spent a 24-hour or longer stretch without interacting with another human being. I get all kinds of reactions, everything from “that does not compute” looks to “Why the hell would I want to do that?”

        Not only are we addicted to others for things we ought to give ourselves, we’re plumb scared to death of our own company. Many/most of us really don’t like ourselves much; otherwise we’d enjoy hanging out with ourselves more. Instead we vilify it as “antisocial”, lol. Yeah, right — if we’re not addicted like most people, there’s something wrong with us? Nah. 🙂

        1. I agree. The majority is not me at all. I do enjoy quiet time. I do enjoy doing things on my own. I don’t mind being alone. However, this sometimes brings me to the awareness that I am. Good and not can evolve from this but I rely on me. It is not a matter of trust for most I come in contact with. It’s a matter of not being true to myself in many occasions that I can just choose to not be in the company of.
          I am sure I am OCD but that’s not all bad. I like quiet time and always have b/c these times also give me moments of inspiration. Great inspiration. I make sure that I do take time to be with myself , like a friend it is my choice whom I wish to be with and at those times it is me. I have learned I came into this world naked and w/o anything and that is how I will leave so the part of living in between is filler that I should fill with wonderful people. The rest is fun enterprising and self indulgent which is good filler too, but it’s just part of the sandwich. Thank you for your thoughts. I love thinking!

  6. “When our sense of significance is fulfilled, we experience a high degree of subjective well-being, feel a strong sense of identity, belonging, interpersonal connection, social support, and maintain the sense that our efforts are contributing to a cause beyond ourselves. ”
    ~ This has been my experience in life.

  7. A good article! I would disagree however that the “fight” aspect you describe would always result in competitive type behaviors. I think at such times becoming more proactive socially in positive ways, contributing to efforts in social milieus and settings working with others can fulfil the same needs.

    1. I agree with your disagreement that the “fight” aspect is necessary not pro-social. Although I think one has the capacity to regain a sense of pro-social contribution without necessarily resorting individualistic aggression, contribution may also occur in the form of aggressive group reaction if the group one is contributing to has the goal of aggressive domination after a perceived injustice.

      1. Possibly we are using the wrong word when we apply it to an individual. The classic cliche fight or flight. The fight maybe a survival attempt which manifests itself in different ways. The fight may be silent and carried internally. That is the case for many people. The fight as we know it might be verbal but really it can be frustration and lack of being accepted that causes a “fight” within themselves. Outsiders observations may be of various concerns. Especially the flight aspect of the end result of a painful experience. I do agree with the flight part of the cliche. From childhood on they may have relied on this to survive and we need to show them that they are special in someone’s eyes and worth spending time with. This may not be the whole answer but in my humble opinion it may be the best you can give and the best they can give. Let us help them love themselves and they will love us for showing them that they are special. We are all special in someone’s eyes…what is the difference in everyone’s needs? We are all much the same….no categorizations, no labels.

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