b. Contra-needs and Existentialism

Contra-needs and Existentialism

For every human need there is a contra-need. I have coined this word because the English language has no suitable opposite to “need”. Contra-needs are physical and psychological states that we wish to avoid, such as injuries or illnesses. In the same way that we are motivated to satisfy our needs, we avoid anything that causes a contra-need.

Maslow incorporated our physiological or existence contra-needs into his hierarchy by referring to the need for safety and security. This list, however, is incomplete. To describe all of our contra-needs, I will use the modified ERG model from the previous article.

  1. Existence and procreation contra-needs. These provide the strongest behavioural predispositions. They include the opposites of Maslow’s safety needs. For example, diseases, illnesses, addictions, physical harm, assault, torture, pain, and death. They are caused by various threats in our environment. These contra-needs also include the opposites of Maslow’s security needs. For example, fear for one’s material wellbeing, which can be caused by crime, unemployment, war, or social instability.
  2. Kin relatedness contra-needs. These provide the second strongest predispositions. They include the opposites of Maslow’s love and belonging needs, but only insofar as they refer to our kin or lack of kin. For example, a feeling of isolation, which can be caused by rejection, conflict, or enmity. They also include the opposite of Maslow’s self-esteem needs. For example, despising oneself as a result of failed endeavours or the contempt of others.
  3. Non-kin relatedness contra-needs. These provide the third strongest predispositions. They are the same as the kin-relatedness contra-needs but apply to non-kin-relationships.
  4. Growth contra-needs. These are the opposites of Maslow’s self-actualisation needs. For example, a feeling of not being in control of one’s life; that one’s personality is suppressed; one’s existence purposeless, or feeling just “one of the crowd”, rather than an individual. They can be caused by a lack of freedom of choice regarding how to live one’s life, which, in turn, can be caused by the effort required to satisfy lower needs, by overly oppressive social norms, or by an authoritarian society.

If a contra-need is sufficiently pressing, we may plan to avoid it. However, like needs, contra-needs often result in behavioural predispositions which are only acted upon when a threat arises. Some behavioural predispositions, such as the “fight or flight” reflex, are strong enough to be inherited. Others are learned.

It is not usually the case that a single need or contra-need motivates a single action. Normally, several needs or contra-needs acting together result in an action.

A longstanding predisposition to avoid a contra-need can have an adverse effect on our sense of wellbeing and mental health. It is not good for us to live in fear. In recognition of this, existential philosophy focuses on how to cope with contra-needs, such as death, that, ultimately, are unavoidable. It recognises that life is not fully satisfying and is a journey in search of meaning. This philosophy was developed in the mid 20th Century from the writings of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus. Their writings followed the Great Depression and the two world wars when the world turned from a sense of optimism to one of despair. In the late 20th Century, it was developed into a psychotherapy by the American psychotherapist, Irvin D. Yalom, and others.

In Yalom’s view, we must learn to accept and manage four which cannot be avoided. These are:

  1. Death. Yalom regards death as being the most pressing of our concerns. One’s death is inevitable and the knowledge of it pervades the conscious and unconscious mind. This leads, at times, to great anxiety. He suggests that the recognition and acceptance of death leads to a better appreciation of life and encourages us to make the most of it. Grief at the death of a loved one is another inevitable fact of life. It is a consequence of our connections to others and is often managed through the same connections. Death, however, is the ultimate expression of entropy in our lives. There are other inevitable effects that we also need to come to terms with, such as illness and aging.
  2. Freedom (lack of guidance). In the existential sense, freedom does not mean social and political liberty. Rather it means fear arising from a lack of guidance in our lives. Awareness of this and accepting responsibility for our own guiding principles is important for an emotionally healthy life.
  3. Isolation (separateness). Existential isolation is not the same as loneliness. The latter arises from the physical absence of other human beings with whom to interact. Existential isolation refers to the unbridgeable gap between oneself as an individual, others, and the world that we inhabit. It means that, inevitably, we are apart from others and cannot merge ourselves with them. There is no solution to this form of isolation. It is a part of our existence that we must face up to and come to terms with.
  4. Meaninglessness. Yalom argues that we need meaning in our lives and its absence can lead to distress and even suicide. Ultimately, however, meaning is a human concept which does not exist in the external world. We inhabit a universe that has no inherent meaning and so must create it for ourselves.

Duality pervades human understanding. There are two sides to every coin, but we often focus on one side, whilst neglecting the other. The theory of human needs appears to have neglected those things that we are motivated to avoid. The “existential givens” are the unavoidable contra-needs that we must come to terms with. Needs, contra-needs and “existential givens” all form part of the human psyche. There are no apparent inconsistencies between them, which implies that they are each part of a complex structure seen from a different perspective, as shown in the table below.

Modified ERG NeedsExistential Given or Unavoidable Contra-Need
Existence and procreationDeath (personal)
Kin Relatedness
Non-kin Relatedness
Death (grief)
Freedom (lack of guidance)
Isolation (separateness)

Needs and contra-needs motivate our physical behaviour and interactions. Reconciling “existential givens” is about personal, mental, and emotional wellbeing.

In the next post, some of the implications of these needs and contra-needs will be discussed.

a. The Hierarchy of Needs Reviewed

The Hierarchy of Needs Reviewed

Human needs are internal physiological or psychological states which can be satisfied by interaction with our environment. They form the basis of our behaviour. For example, if we are hungry, then we try to find food. In his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”, the humanist psychologist, Abraham H. Maslow was the first to formally identify our needs and his suggestions are listed below.

  1. Physiological Needs. These are health and physical wellbeing and are satisfied by air, food, water, shelter, clothing, sleep, sex, etc.
  2. Safety and Security. A feeling of safety and security includes freedom from fear and can be satisfied by employment, social support networks, insurance, property ownership, financial security, family, and social stability.
  3. Love and Belonging. A sense of connection with others which can be satisfied by being accepted as a group or family member, by friendship, and by intimacy.
  4. Self-Esteem, i.e., possessing a sense of personal value, confidence, self-regard, mastery and the feeling of being unique. It can be satisfied by achievement, recognition by others and the respect of others.
  5. Self-Actualisation. This means being fully oneself and possessing morality, creativity, spontaneity, acceptance, experience, purpose, meaning, and inner potential. Self-actualisers can appear in any field, for example Einstein in the field of science, Roger Federer in sport, Michelangelo in art and, if the myths are true, the Buddha in spirituality.

Maslow explained that human behaviour is motivated by a requirement to satisfy these needs. Without them behaviour would not exist, and we would be unable to function.

According to Maslow, these needs form a hierarchy with physiological needs at the bottom and self-actualisation at the top. People must satisfy needs lower in the hierarchy and ensure that this satisfaction is sustained before effort is expended on higher needs. He does, however, qualify this by referring to degrees of relative satisfaction. It is not the case, he argues, that a need only emerges when those lower in the hierarchy have all been fully satisfied. Rather people are usually in a state where all their needs are, to a greater or lesser degree, only partially satisfied. Furthermore, the level of satisfaction of their needs tends to decrease as we ascend the hierarchy. A higher need may not be apparent at all if lower needs are not adequately satisfied. However, it will emerge by degrees as their level of satisfaction increases. The diagram below represents an analogy in the form of a drinking glass. Our needs are represented by the bands around it. Water, which represents the effort put into satisfying our needs, steadily fills the glass. At first, all the effort goes into satisfying physiological needs. However, as these are close to being fully satisfied, some of the effort goes into safety and security needs. As these begin to be fully satisfied, some goes into love and belonging, and so on. Once a need is satisfied, however, we do not ignore it but continually return to it to ensure that it remains so.

Maslow’s paper was instrumental in changing the focus of psychologists from aberrant to normal behaviour. Unfortunately, it was largely speculative and based on personal observation. Furthermore, subsequent research does not support the position of each need in a hierarchy. Not all psychologists agree with his theory, therefore. It is probably too detailed and fails to recognise inherited and learned individual differences and those arising from culture.

Several alternative models have been suggested, for example, the ERG (existence, relatedness, and growth) model proposed in 1972 by Clayton Alderfer. Alderfer’s existence needs correspond to Maslow’s physiological and safety needs, his relatedness needs to social belonging and self-esteem, and his growth needs to self-actualisation. He proposed that individuals can be motivated by several levels of need at any one time, but that their relative priority can change according to circumstances and the individual’s way of thinking.

Based on the evolutionary theory discussed in my previous articles, I would, however, suggest that the following modified version of the ERG model more accurately reflects reality. In this model I refer to “behavioural predispositions”. These are states of mind which do not necessarily lead to immediate action, but which prepare us to act when the opportunity to satisfy a need arises. They are like bowstrings; drawn by a need and released by an opportunity. However, if a need is sufficiently pressing, we will attempt to create those opportunities.

  1. Existence and procreation needs, i.e., Unsatisfied physiological and safety needs, provide the strongest behavioural pre-dispositions. All living things, since they first appeared, have physiological needs. These needs have the longest history, the most firmly established presence and are responsible for our strongest behavioural predispositions. This means that there is a hierarchical relationship between existence needs and all other needs and that they must be adequately satisfied before we attend to other needs.
  2. Kin relatedness needs, if unsatisfied, provide the second strongest predispositions. Kin level selection is shared only by animals with the cognitive ability to recognise their kin and apply to the family part of our relatedness needs. They emerged more recently in evolutionary history, and the predispositions they endow are, therefore, somewhat weaker, than those for individual level selection. Family members capable of procreation, i.e., the younger members, tend to be favoured, but elders are also valued for the support they give. The predispositions provided by relatedness needs vary in strength among humans. In extreme cases, individuals, such as those with anti-social personality disorder (ASPD), may have no predisposition to family relationships at all.
  3. Non-kin relatedness needs, if unsatisfied, provide the third strongest predispositions. Group level selection is limited to just a few eusocial species, including humans, and is very recent in evolutionary terms. The predispositions arising from group relatedness needs are, therefore, weaker than those from kin relatedness and existence needs. Again, their strength varies from individual to individual.
  4. Growth needs, or self-actualisation needs, if unsatisfied, provide behavioural predispositions of different strengths. The evolution of our large brains in parallel with our emerging eusociality has given us cognitive and physical skills together with the need to employ them. In satisfying our relatedness and growth needs, we face the dilemma of whether our chances of survival and procreation and those of our kin are best served by attending to growth needs or relatedness needs. Our choice does, of course, depend on our circumstances and way of thinking. Depending on these, the priority given to growth needs can, therefore, be greater than or less than those of kin or non-kin relatedness.

These priorities are supported by evidence from four decades of extensive international research carried out by the World Values Survey. A summary is given in Ronald Inglehart’s book “Cultural Evolution”. When people are unable to take basic survival needs for granted, the focus is on those needs plus social connections. That is, we focus on our existence, procreation, and relatedness needs. However, when people do take basic survival needs for granted, as is the case for most of us in the West, the focus moves on to social connections and self-expression. In other words, we focus on our relatedness and growth needs.

In summary, therefore, the pyramid traditionally used to describe the hierarchy of needs is probably better represented as follows.