Fulfilling Our Psychological Needs

Fulfilling Our Psychological Needs

8 April 2020 0 By Rhi Willmot

What is it? Motivation directs and energises everything we do. It helps choose what we commit to, and how well we maintain this1. Utilising our understanding in this domain can ensure society is motivated to adhere to government advice and stays mentally and physically well during Covid-19. 

Motivation stems from the desire to satisfy some form of deficit, or ‘need’. Needs can be physical (e.g. hunger, thirst) or psychological. Self-determination theory states all humans have three inborn, psychological needs2. These are: 

  1. Autonomy – the desire to exercise freedom, and have control to act according to core values
  2. Affiliation – the capacity to interact and be connected with others 
  3. Achievement – the ability to master skills and increase competence 

Psychological needs are similar to physical requirements. For example, if a person is lacking a sense of affiliation, they will be motivated to socialise with others, and feel satisfied once this need has been met3. It is likely that part of the lack of compliance to #StayHome is driven by the powerful need to see friends and loved ones. This will be particularly strong over Easter when we habitually ‘affiliate’ with family. Behaviour change is hardest when overcoming established routines. 

The desire to satisfy psychological needs is universal and incredibly strong. It is the foundation of why we act, and how we feel emotionally. When needs are not met, we become frustrated which leads to negative mental and behavioural responses4. Therefore, it is essential the population can access some form of autonomy, affiliation and achievement whilst under the greater constraints during lockdown. 

How to use it: 

1. Stimulation Signposting: Whilst lockdown makes it much harder to access typical sources of autonomy, affiliation and achievement, it is still entirely possible. Providing creative routes and resources for people to remotely socialise, develop skills and feel in control will help stave off boredom and reduce compliance fatigue. For example, in factory production-line jobs, ‘job crafting’ is used to identify ways in which workers can be creative and express autonomy in what is essentially a low-autonomy role. Likewise, signposting on how people staying at home can still exercise their core needs should focus on identifying what they can do, as well as regulating what they can’t

2. Motivational Messaging: framing messages in terms of how desirable behaviours can support psychological needs will make them more successful. For example, whilst ‘staying home’ can make us feel socially isolated, it can also be seen as a way of supporting others by protecting them. A sense of achievement can also be implied by communicating the power of “succeeding together by keeping apart”. 

3. Collaborative Context: need satisfaction is a product of what happens to someone and how they interpret it. Managers, leaders and parents may benefit from advice on how tasks and feedback can be allocated, to provide a satisfying environment for those they are responsible for. This helps support functioning and wellbeing across society, and an opportunity to enhance current leadership capacities.   


1.        Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life’s domains. Can. Psychol. Can. 49, 14–23 (2008).

2.        Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. Self-Determination Theory : A Macrotheory of Human Motivation , Development , and Health. 49, 182–185 (2008).

3.        Vansteenkiste, M. & Ryan, R. M. On Psychological Growth and Vulnerability: Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction and Need Frustration as a Unifying Principle. doi:10.1037/a0032359

4.        Chen, B. et al. Basic psychological need satisfaction, need frustration, and need strength across four cultures. Motiv. Emot. 39, 216–236 (2015).