Wants vs. Needs in Psychology

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

Many people have difficulty at times distinguishing between wants and needs. In this lesson wants vs. needs in psychology will be defined, and relevant examples will be provided to further clarify the topic.

Jane and Eric

Jane and Eric have been in a committed relationship for the past three years. Recently, Jane noticed that Eric seems to be pulling away from her. He's not around as frequently as he was, and when he is, they don't really have much to say to each other. Last Friday Eric asked Jane if they could talk. He explained to her that he needed a break from their relationship. Jane was devastated. She called her best friend, Amy, and told her she didn't quite know what to do without Eric because she needs him in her life.

Needs

Human needs and wants are terms that people often confuse. Take Jane for example. She is extremely upset that Eric wants a break from their relationship and expresses that she needs Eric in her life. But does Jane really need Eric? A need is described as something we must have to survive. Needs include things such as:

  • a place to shelter you from the elements and keep you safe -- a home for example.
  • access to food and water -- without both we would eventually die.
  • oxygen -- without it we would suffocate.

Clearly Eric is not on this list of needs. However, it can be argued that we also have certain emotional needs, but, once again, Eric doesn't make the list. Emotional needs might include:

  • the freedom to choose and pursue our goals and dreams.
  • the ability to be successful at something.
  • a sense of social connection and belonging.

Wants

So if the only human needs we have are listed above, what do we call the other things we believe we must have to live happily? These are called wants. Wants can be any number of things including wanting to be in a relationship, like Jane, to wanting the latest high-definition 50-inch flat-screen television. What distinguishes wants from needs is that they are not necessary for our survival. Just as Jane can go on to live a life without Eric, we can similarly live a life without a 50-inch flat-screen television.

Here are some additional examples of wants:

  • taking a yearly vacation
  • getting a new car
  • having the latest cell phone
  • getting concert tickets to see your favorite band
  • going out to a movie

As you can imagine, the list of wants is endless, and varies from individual to individual. Psychologists say that having wants is good as these wants can motivate us to perform better in order to make them a reality. Psychologists also caution, however, to view wants for what they are, rather than focusing on them so much that we view them as needs.

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