Understanding Freud’s Theory of Need

A need is something which is needed for an organism to survive. Needs are often distinguished from desires. In the case of desires, a lack of the thing needed causes an obvious undesirable result: a loss or malfunction. On the other hand, needs have a more intricate definition. Desire is an attitude toward some object, and need is a dependence upon it.

Freud first noted the distinction between a desire and a need in his Theory of the Oedipal Complex. Basically, a desire relates to an internal, powerful desire, whereas a need relates to a dependence upon external factors. An example of the former is a sexual appetite, while an example of the latter would be a dependence on food or shelter. The key insight Freud offers is that there are two fundamental kinds of human needs. These are “repressed and actual” human needs.

Freud suggests that we should be concerned with two kinds of “needs”, namely “actual” or “sub-personal” needs and “healthy” or “non-sub-personal” needs. Our healthy needs can be satisfied through the right kind of relationship with our partner, children, parents, relatives, and other people. The needs for safety and security are often satisfied by the kind of association that comes to the aid of the individual in danger or in need of rescuing. This could take the form of family support or community care. A need for belongingness, however, cannot be satisfied through mere family association, because in order to belong, one must know one’s place and have adequate feelings of connection with the group or community in question.

The need for belongingness may be satisfied through the attainment of certain objectives, for instance, the achievement of higher education, advanced studies, a position in the arts, etc. Here, the self can play an important role by making known his or her desires and expectations. In order to satisfy the need for belongingness, therefore, one must make available to the others his or her real qualities – i.e., qualities that the others will recognize as valuable in him or her. If this is not done, it may be possible that the others will reject the individual or become alienated. In order to satisfy the need for belongingness, the person in danger must be made aware of his or her real value and the worth of the others.

The other, more abstract, need that Freud suggests is the need for order. In order to meet the basic needs of human development, Freud says, man must be able to identify and reproduce in his life patterns the basic elements that constitute that order. For example, a child needs food, clothes, shelter, and so on. A worker needs money and working equipment.

In order to understand Freud’s theory of need, it is necessary to compare it with the traditional concept of need. Traditional models of need, according to Gough (1947), are based on the human need for food, clothing, water and shelter. The need for money may appear especially pressing to an adult human, as money facilitates smooth living. However, for children, a need for clothing may not appear especially urgent – it is usually the need for clothing that induces their need for food. Freud suggests that the traditional models of need are inadequate because they fail to take into account the need for personal significance – the need to belong. To meet their basic needs, humans need to feel that they are significant.