Human needs

Simon writes about the universal need to understand universal human needs.

The better we understand our fundamental needs, the better we are equipped to live well and positively influence the lives of others. My own understanding of human needs forms the basis of pretty much all my actions as a philosopher, writer, teacher, husband, father, friend, and so on.

In addition to the brief introduction below, I encourage you to read and reflect on my 75-word Theory of Universal Human Needs, and to explore the reading list following the introduction. You may also enjoy two related articles: The Ninth Need and Cinema Unanimity.

An introduction to my human needs theory

I have always been interested in why humans do the things they do. I am fascinated by our wisdom and our stupidity, by our need for society and individuality, and by our innate cohesion and our seemingly intractable conflicts.

Nautilus diagram of Simon Hertnon's Theory of Universal Human Needs

Simon Hertnon’s Theory of Universal Human Needs – the nautilus diagram. Copyright: S Hertnon, J ten Berge.

Without knowing what a human needs theory was, I spent year after year travelling, observing, and thinking about universal needs — about what connects us all. Then, in March 2004, one of my brothers-in-law was reviewing an early draft of my writing guidebook, Clear, Concise, Compelling, and he pointed out that I had in fact written a human needs theory (without the thesis).

A ‘theory of universal human needs‘ sounds a bit pompous, but it’s an accurate title and the content (at just 75 words) is anything but pompous. And although I drew on the advice of academics (such as Dr Niki Harre from The University of Auckland) and read academic texts, my theory is not a formal academic one. Does that make it less helpful? I don’t think so (and based on countless citations of the theory, it seems many others agree), but you can decide for yourself. And that’s the key to my theory: accessibility — anyone can read it and critique it, which seems to me to be a helpful quality for a theory that attempts to identify and understand universal human needs. It is intended to be everyone’s list of needs.

So my approach relies on brevity and natural philosophy (observation, contemplation, logic), and my simple hope is that the theory proves useful. I have, in any case, put a peg in the ground.

Introduction | Article | Nautilus diagram | Translations

Further reading on human needs

Surprisingly, it seems very few humans have attempted to define our common needs. We seem to know much more about what it takes to run a car smoothly, for example, than what it takes for the driver of that car to live his or her life smoothly. Only a handful of theories relating to human needs have ever been published. Here is a list of four I recommend you explore.

  • 1940s: Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs
    Maslow is the author of the well-known human needs pyramid. Perhaps the most striking difference between our theories, highlighted visually in his pyramid and my nautilus diagram, is the contrast between Maslow’s self-actualization need and my eighth need (to help others). Whilst these needs are both our pinnacle needs (which can only be achieved when the other needs are satisfied), I see helping others as our primary motivator whereas Maslow saw (originally, at least) self-actualization as a need that only the few (the elite) attempt to satisfy.
  • 1960s: David McClelland’s Acquired Needs Theory
    McClelland proposes three types of innate motivation that significantly influence our behaviour.
  • 1960s: Clayton Alderfer’s ERG Theory
    Maslow’s theory well reworked into three interrelated needs: existence, relatedness, and growth.
  • 1980s: Manfred Max-Neef’s Fundamental Needs Matrix
    Max-Neef distinguishes 9 needs from a multitude of satisfiers which he grouped into 4 categories (qualities, things, actions, and settings).

If, like me, you are also interested in conflict resolution, I also recommend you read John W. Burton’s article on human needs and conflict resolution. Burton argues that if it is unsatisfied needs that cause conflict, rather than innate aggression, then to resolve conflict we must direct our efforts at helping all the parties in conflict meet their human needs. A key reason I published my human needs theory is to provide a simple checklist for those immersed in conflict — or in trying to resolve conflict — to help identify the conditions for resolution.