Social Needs: Achievement, Power, and Association

January 26, 2020
Many times, you might ask yourself what motivates a certain person's behavior. With this question in mind, Murray and McClelland discovered that humans have to meet a certain series of needs.

What rules regulate behavior? Many theorists have spoken about human motivations regarding social needs. Scholars have also tried to determine why people act in certain ways even when they have many alternatives.

You’ll find motivational factors at the root of every behavior. Certain elements make a behavior take a certain form and not another. In this regard, you’ll find social needs among these motivational factors.

Motivational factors aren’t just goals people want to reach. In fact, in the study of motivation, there are two different elements of focus:

  • The motivation you can understand as goals and values.
  • The motivation you can understand as instincts, needs, or urges.

Regarding the latter, many authors have studied which instincts or needs humans tend to “hide”. They argue that people might hide them by engaging in certain behaviors.

A man watching the sunset by himself.

Needs are primary motivational factors

You can classify needs within a group of primary motivational factors. This means that meeting your needs (social needs included) is a condition for survival.

Murray (1938) understood needs as a propensity to act in a certain way. For him, needs were internal (biological as well as psychological). In his framework, he didn’t include the pressures of the environment regarding behaving in a certain way at a certain point in time.

Additionally, needs also include cognitive, emotional, and behavioral processes. These integrate true lines of action for the subject. As such, needs determine what course of action a person will take.

Murray dedicated a large portion of his theoretical work to the study of needs. His work brought us the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). With this instrument, experts can evaluate the personal needs of each individual. Likewise, he also created the Personality Research Form (PRF). With this form, Murray tried to evaluate personality from the standpoint of his needs model.

McClelland’s social needs (1987)

David McClelland was a psychologist from the United States who undertook his professional activities at Harvard and Boston Universities. He proposed three primary needs that were at the root of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. He called them “social needs”.

McClelland defined the three most important needs, social needs. These needs surge from the nature of humanity. Humans, he argues, are social animals and need a process of socialization to develop their abilities.

The needs that McClelland identified are:

  • A need for achievement.
  • The need for power.
  • The need for motivation.

These needs aren’t universal because they arise from the historic nature of the human being but also from their sociocultural context. That’s why, while the list of needs can be consistent, it can also change.

The need for achievement

McClelland identifies the need for achievement as the root of human behavior. Due to a person’s need for achievement, they tend to want to optimize their production. They don’t necessarily do this for the material benefits this can bring. Instead, they do it for the satisfaction of having done something well.

Through a task, a person can increase their feelings of self-efficacy. This happens when they consider themselves to be better and more competent.

As such, the need for achievement is related to the completion of something done well. People do this simply for the satisfaction of the result they obtain as well as the improvement and development of personal abilities.

The need for power

The second need that McClelland identified as the source of behaviors for some people is the need for power. This need for power or prestige influences certain people who want to control situations and others. They may also want to feel their own capacity for action.

This need includes the search for status and positions of institutional, social, and group control. As such, the characteristics of these people are associated with power, control, and dominion.

Likewise, people with a very strong need for power are also individuals who don’t know how to handle failure. They also have trouble with frustration and defeat. The need for power, taken to the extreme, might be related to arterial problems, stress, and other sicknesses. As such, when a person’s need for power is high, it’s important for them to use their sense of responsibility.

The need for association: feeling that you’re loved

The last of the social needs McClelland studied is the need for association. This seems to be the clearest need. It’s probably also the one that most people actually share.

On the basis of the need for association, people seek to maintain emotional and social relationships with an individual or group.

Even though this seems obvious, it’s not a bad idea to explain how socialization is the motivation for all sorts of things. It motivates the development of important skills or abilities, as well as everything from language to empathy.

As such, people try to make themselves attractive to others because of this need. They want others to accept them and include them in their groups. The need for association illustrates how people prefer warm relationships with a broad range of people. Thus, they feel like they’re part of a group that values them.

The need for intimacy can arise from the need for association. Specifically, it might be the source of the need for romantic emotional relationships. McAdams defines the need for intimacy as the search for close and affectionate interactions with others. Researchers observed that this need is stronger in women than men.

Women interacting with each other motivated by their social needs.

Social needs: are they the sole motivational factors?

The social needs we’ve been talking about aren’t the only ones that motivate human behavior. In fact, there are many other elements, such as the need for control.

From the perspective of R.W. White (1959), experts studied how people seek to control their environment at all costs. They also argued that humans try to balance the existing transactions between organism and context.

Deci (2008), on the other hand, believes that a human’s most intrinsic motivation is to exercise their own abilities. Thus, they need to reach mastery in different contexts (without deriving external rewards from this).

Finally, people who subscribe to the self-determination theory believe that human needs arise in learning and acquiring resources. These resources should be enough to become independent. That means that human beings seek challenges and difficulties in order to practice their skills. Through this, they become more skillful and feel competent when facing the tasks they set for themselves.

Whatever the case may be, it seems clear that many important needs motivate human behavior. Among them, the need to feel competent. There’s also the need to feel that you’re a member of a group and have some control within that group.

Also, getting to know what motivates a person can be useful. It can help to understand, treat, and explain difficult behaviors.

  • Doyal, L; Gough, I. (1994). Teoría de las necesidades humanas. Barcelona-Madrid, Icaria- Fuhem.
  • Maslow, A. (1954). Motivación y personalidad. Barcelona, Sagitario.
  • Schütz, A. (1965). ‘The social Word and the theory of social action’, en D.Braybrooke (ed.) Philosophical Problems of the social Sciencies. New York, Macmillan.