The Concept of Need

A need is a basic requirement in a particular situation. A need differs from a want in that a lack of meeting a need has a clear adverse outcome, such as illness or death. Need is an important concept in philosophy, biology, psychology, sociology, economics, political science and marketing. The concept of need is central to many fields, including those listed above as well as anthropology, business and computer science.

The term need is also used to refer to the desire for certain things, such as a new car or a good job. It can also be used to describe a state of mind. For example, a person may feel the need for self-esteem or to become richer. The distinction between need and want is a central issue in the philosophy of Kant, who believed that desires must be distinguished from needs so as to avoid confusion.

In his 1943 book, Motivation and Personality, Abraham Maslow argued that there is a universal set of independent motives, starting with physiological (homeostatic) needs such as hunger, thirst, and sleep. These are followed by safety needs and then by affiliation (belonging) and esteem (status) needs. He based the later two on the work of his graduate advisor, Harry Harlow, who had demonstrated that rhesus monkeys raised in isolation would eventually seek contact with a wire surrogate mother, even if they continued to be fed exclusively from a bottle.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is widely accepted, although a functional analysis suggests some revisions to his ideas. For instance, mating drives are clearly distinct from survival drives and ought to be placed in a different category of motivation. And although Maslow included status needs as a subset of esteem needs, it is possible that a need for mastery could have adaptive consequences that are not specific to the pursuit of prestige.

To satisfy a need, one may purchase or create items. For example, if you have a need for food and water, you might eat a cheese burst pizza or buy some canned soup at the store. If you have a need for housing, you might look for an apartment or house that meets your budget and other requirements. Tertiary needs are the last group of essential needs, and they include features such as a balcony or private gym that would be considered desirable, but not necessarily vital. Finally, a need for luxury items might include sports cars or designer clothing. Unlike needs, wants are not related to survival and can be satisfied without any financial sacrifice. A need for food is a basic need; a desire to own a Ferrari is a want.