What Is a Need?

A need is a necessity or requirement for survival, well-being or achieving a goal. It is the opposite of a want, which refers to desires, wishes or aspirations that are not necessary for survival or well-being. Needs and wants are important topics in philosophy, biology, psychology, sociology, economics, social policy and marketing.

The term need is most often used in English to describe something that a person or animal has an urgent desire for and cannot live without. It is also used to refer to a general state of lacking or deficiency, such as hunger or poverty. The word is sometimes spelled needy, but the meaning of this variation is not entirely clear. It may be an alternative spelling of the adverb need, or it could be related to the noun needy.

When a need is used to describe an imperative or an impending necessity, the form of the verb must is often added: ‘you must go now’, ‘you have no choice but to do it’, or ‘you will be punished for not doing it’. It can also be a modal verb, expressing the idea that someone must do or have something: ‘I need you to help me with this project.’ Need is an informal or colloquial word, while necessity is more formal and impersonal. In some languages, such as German and Dutch, the distinction between need and necessity is not so strict as in English.

Whether the concept of need is an objective and impersonal one is a matter of debate in philosophy and psychology. For example, many scholars believe that people have a basic need for self-esteem, while others believe that this is largely a cultural construct. Nevertheless, many individuals and organizations emphasize the importance of satisfying needs as part of the self-development process.

In many cases, the concept of need can be distinguished from the idea of a want by considering how much time or energy is needed to obtain the item in question. For example, a person can have a need for drinking water, even in an environment where water is abundant, but they may not necessarily have a need for clothing or shelter. Generally, people will spend more of their resources trying to satisfy their lower order needs (food, shelter and safety) than on their higher order needs such as belonging, self-esteem or self-actualization.

The difference between need and want can be especially challenging when establishing budgets. It is important to separate wants from needs before assigning dollar amounts to any category, as this can prevent people from spending money on items that they could live without.

It is important to remember that if the word need is followed by a singular countable noun, it requires the article: ‘a need for food’, ‘the need for health care’. This rule is not always observed, though; for instance, many English learners say ‘a historic need’ rather than ‘a historic need’. The best way to ensure that you use the correct article is to consult an English learner’s dictionary.