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Need fulfillment

Author: Dr Simon Moss


According to self determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1991, 1995, 2000, 2008), individuals experience the fundamental need to experience autonomy, feel competent, and development relationships. Autonomy refers to the motivation of individuals to pursue their personal values and interests. Competence refers to the development of key skills and abilities. Relatedness refers to a sense of belonging in groups or close relationships with friends and family.

When all of these needs are fulfilled, individuals experience improvements in wellbeing and satisfaction. They also become more resilient rather than sensitive to problems. However, many common trends, such as the inclination to conceal personal problems or work extensive hours, can impede the likelihood that such needs are fulfilled.

Consequences of need fulfillment


Several studies show that need fulfillment is indeed related to subjective wellbeing. Deci, Ryan, Gagne, Leone, Usunov, and Kornazheva (2001), for example, showed that need satisfaction was elevated when autonomy was granted. Furthermore, this need satisfaction was related to wellbeing (for similar results, see Reis, Sheldon, Gable, Roscoe, & Ryan, 2000). These findings were replicated in both Bulgarian and American samples.

Experimental studies have also confirmed these findings. In one study, autonomy, competence, and relationship needs were manipulated experimentally. These manipulations tended to affect intrinsic motivation as well as mood (Sheldon & Filak, 2008).

Autonomy and sensitivity to procedural justice

As van Prooijen (2009) maintains, when the need to experience autonomy remains unfulfilled, individuals become more sensitive to the justice and fairness of procedures. Specifically, in workplace settings, when autonomy is infringed, individuals strive to ascertain whether or not authorities, such as their supervisors or managers, will be benevolent and thus respect their autonomy. That is, these individuals scrutinize cues, including the behavior and practices of these authorities, closely and diligently to evaluate the intentions of managers.

Specifically, consistent with fairness heuristic theory (Lind, Kulik, Ambrose, & De Vera-Park, 1993) as well as the uncertainty management model (Van den Bos, 2001), individuals gauge the procedural justice of organizations to evaluate the intentions of authorities. If organizations exhibit procedural justice--that is, if the procedures are consistent across individuals, utilize all possible information to arrive at decisions, accord with the prevailing moral values of society, and grant opportunities to express concerns--employees assume the authorities are benevolent. If organizations do not exhibit procedural justice, authorities are not assumed to be benevolent. They might impede the autonomy of employees.

As a consequence, when individuals feel their need to maintain autonomy has not been satisfied, they monitor the procedural fairness of their organization closely, primarily to evaluate the benevolence of their managers. Indeed, van Prooijen (2009) conducted a series of three studies to corroborate these arguments.

In the first study, participants completed a scale, developed by Sheldon (1995) to ascertain the extent to which individuals feel a sense of autonomy or choice when they reach decisions. A sample item includes "I always feel like I choose the things I do".

Next, participants completed a computer task, which entailed counting squares, embedded within larger figures. Putatively, several participants collaborated, over computer, to complete this task. Some, but not all, participants were granted an opportunity to express their opinion on how the rewards should be distributed across individuals.

Minutes later, participants who were granted this opportunity deemed the experimenter to be more fair and respectful than participants who were not granted this opportunity. Nevertheless, this relationship was observed only i a subset of participants--specifically, in the individuals who did not enjoy a sense of autonomy or choice. Accordingly, when autonomy is hindered, individuals are more sensitive to the procedural justice of some policy. They are more appreciative of the opportunity to express their opinions, called voice (Thibaut & Walker, 1975).

The same pattern of observations was observed when autonomy was manipulated rather than measured. In particular, when participants were permitted to choose which of two activities they would like to complete--a choice that instills a sense of autonomy--evaluations of experimenters were less contingent upon procedural justice (van Prooijen, 2009).

Job attitudes

Need fulfillment might underpin the benefits of person-environment fit. That is, when individuals experience a sense of fit with their workplace environment, their job satisfaction and commitment rises (Ostroff, Shin, & Kinicki, 2005;; Piasentin & Chapman, 2007;; Verquer, Beehr, & Wagner, 2003

Five distinct forms of person-environment fit have been differentiated:

As these definitions imply, fit is sometimes complementary in which individuals might redress deficiencies in the environment--or in which the environment fulfills needs of the individual. Alternatively, fit can be supplementary in which individuals and the environment share some quality or value (see Kristof, 1996).

Typically, fit does improve employee attitudes, such as job satisfaction and organizational commitment. These effects are especially pronounced when multiple dimensions of fit are established (Ostroff, Shin, & Kinicki, 2005;; Piasentin & Chapman, 2007;; Verquer, Beehr, & Wagner, 2003).

According to Greguras and Diefendorff (2009), many of the benefits of fit can be ascribed to self determination theory. In particular, when individuals experience person-environment fit, their needs to experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness were more likely to be fulfilled. Because these needs were fulfilled, individuals felt more committed to their workplace. One form of fit was especially beneficial--the fit between the demands of a job and the competence of individuals.

Consequences of need obstruction

According to Radel, Pelletier, Sarrazin, and Milyavskaya (2011), when the needs of individuals are thwarted, two sets of processes may ensue in sequence. To illustrate these processes, suppose the autonomy of individuals is obstructed, perhaps because the manager is demanding. Initially, individuals will attempt to seek other opportunities to fulfill this need. That is, they may scan the environment to uncover tasks or activities in which they can experience autonomy. If these attempts are unsuccessful, however, their need for autonomy will subside. Instead, they will compensate by pursuing other motives, such as to seek recognition.

Radel, Pelletier, Sarrazin, and Milyavskaya (2011) undertook three studies to explore some of these premises. Specifically, as these studies showed, when autonomy was thwarted, individuals demonstrated an immediate motivation to restore this autonomy.

To illustrate, in one study, participants first performed a puzzle. In particular, they needed to construct specific figures from a series of shapes. In one condition, autonomy was thwarted: Participants were told they must complete the task in one minute and they must use particular shapes. The tone of experimenters was also quite demanding. In the other condition, autonomy was not thwarted. Participants were informed that people often complete the task in one minute but this deadline was not imposed.

Next, participants completed a lexical decision task in which they needed to indicate whether various strings of letters were words. Some of these items were synonymous with autonomy and choice. Finally, during a break, participants were granted a choice as to whether or not they would like to continue with the puzzle.

If autonomy was thwarted, participants could more rapidly recognize words that were synonymous with autonomy. They were less inclined, however, to continue attempting the puzzle. Thus, when autonomy was obstructed, participants seemed to become more sensitive to other opportunities to restore this need.

The second study was similar except a different measure was used to gauge the motivation to restore autonomy. In this task, a schematic picture of a person and a word appeared on the screen. The task of participants was to shift the person, using a key, towards nouns and away from other words. Sometimes, the word was also synonymous with autonomy.

When autonomy was thwarted, individuals shifted the person towards the noun more rapidly if the item was synonymous with autonomy. As this finding implies, if autonomy is obstructed, individuals tend to approach objects that epitomize autonomy.

In the final study, participants completed a personality inventory. To obstruct autonomy, some participants were informed they are likely to be controlled by other people. Other participants did not receive this information. Next, they were instructed to evaluate artwork that other people had already designated as either high or low in quality. If autonomy had been obstructed, individuals dedicated more time to observing the artwork. Presumably, these individuals attempted to restore autonomy and, thus, did not want to depend on the evaluations of other people.

Nevertheless, as other research indicates, when autonomy is thwarted too often, this need is frequently eschewed in the future. One study, conducted by Williams, Cox, Hedberg, and Deci (2000), showed that adolescents who had been raised by domineering parents sought autonomy less often than peers. Instead, they were more motivated to earn money or seek other rewards and recognition.

Determinants of need fulfillment

Self concealment

Self concealment might curb need fulfillment. That is, some individuals often conceal adverse information about themselves, such as errors or diseases. This tendency is called self concealment (Larson & Chastain, 1990;; see self concealment).

Uysal, Lin and Knee (2010) maintained that self determination theory could explain the consequences of concealment. Specifically, concealment might obstruct the core psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

To demonstrate, when individuals conceal some information about themselves, they often need to hide other acts or monitor their communication, incessantly and vigilantly. Their behavior, thus, is constrained rather than autonomous. In addition, because they conceal adverse information, their behavior cannot be validated by friends or family--integral to the need for competence. Furthermore, they do not feel they can form trusting, stable, and candid relationships with other individuals, obstructing relatedness.

Uysal, Lin and Knee (2010) conducted two studies to assess this set of arguments. In the first study, participants completed a survey that assessed the extent to which they conceal negative information about themselves, with items like "I'm often afraid I'll reveal something I don?t want to". The next scale measured self disclosure--which is related to, but distinct from, self concealment. The third scale evaluated the degree to which individuals felt their core psychological needs-- autonomy, competence, and relatedness--were fulfilled. Questions included "People in my life care about me". Finally, the participants completed a series of questions that assessed their wellbeing, encompassing anxiety, physical symptoms, perceived stress, self esteem, life satisfaction, and subjective vitality.

Structural equation modeling confirmed that self concealment was inversely related to need satisfaction, which in turn was positively associated with wellbeing. This relationship between self concealment and need satisfaction persisted after self disclosure was controlled.

Uysal, Lin and Knee (2010) also conducted another study. In this study, participants completed a series of questions daily, over the course of 16 consecutive days. Again, the questions assessed self concealment, need satisfaction, and wellbeing during the corresponding day. The results of the previous study were replicated, both between and within participants.


Perfectionism can also affect the degree to which basic needs are satisfied or thwarted. In particular, recent studies indicate that perfectionism, especially in sport, entails two distinct facets: concerns and strivings (Stoeber, 2011, 2014). In particular, perfectionistic concerns revolve around the degree to which individuals want to achieve the elevated standards that other people impose, primarily to prevent disapproval. These concerns are measured by items like "People expect nothing less than perfection from me". In contrast, perfectionistic strivings revolve around the degree to which individuals strive to achieve the elevated goals they impose on themselves. These strivings are measured by items like "One of my goals is to be perfect in everything I do".

In contrast to perfectionistic strivings, perfectionistic concerns should impede, rather than satisfy, the basic needs of relatedness, autonomy, and competence. That is, when guided by perfectionistic concerns, individuals are too inclined to avoid the negative emotions that relationship and skill development may entail. They are also too motivated to accommodate other people to feel autonomy. Perfectionistic strivings might satisfy these basic needs. Individuals are more inclined to embrace the negative emotions that relationship and skill development may entail, for example.

Jowett, Hill, Hall, and Curran (2016) conducted a study that vindicates these premises. In their study, perfectionistic concerns were associated with the satisfaction, and not the thwarting, of basic needs. In contrast, perfectionistic strivings were associated with the thwarting, but not the satisfaction, of basic needs. Furthermore, need fulfillment was associated with engagement instead of burnout. Need thwarting was associated with burnout instead of engagement.

Work-life balance

Work-life balance could also affect need fulfillment. For instance, if individuals feel they cannot accommodate both their work and life demands, some core needs might not be fulfilled.

Gropel and Kuhl (2009) conducted a study to show that work-life balance is indeed a key antecedent to need fulfillment. This study was also undertaken to ascertain whether need fulfillment mediates the relationship between work-life balance and wellbeing.

In this study, participants completed a set of questionnaires. One questionnaire ascertained whether individuals felt they are granted enough time to satisfy both their work and social goals. A similar questionnaire determined whether individuals felt their work demands impinge on their family responsibilities, and vice versa, representing work-family conflict.

Participants completed another questionnaire to ascertain whether they feel their needs have been fulfilled. Most of the needs that were assessed, such as control, sense of meaning, status, intimacy, and receipt of help, correspond roughly but not explicitly to autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Finally, measures of positive affect, negative affect, and life satisfaction were included to represent wellbeing.

As hypothesized, work-like balance was positively, and work-like conflict was negatively, related to need fulfillment (Gropel & Kuhl, 2009). Need fulfillment was also related to subjective wellbeing. These relationships persisted after social desirability was controlled (Gropel & Kuhl, 2009).

Presumably, when work demands obstruct family responsibilities, and vice versa, individuals are not granted the autonomy to pursue their core needs (Gropel & Kuhl, 2009). These needs, thus, remain unfulfilled. According to Sheldon and Kasser (1998), impediments to the fulfillment of these core needs, instead of the impediments to the fulfillments of other goals, compromises wellbeing.


Activism refers to behaviors that promote some political cause, such as human rights or abortion. Such behaviors, unless risky or illegal, enhance well-being and evoke a sense of vitality, increasing the likelihood that individuals seem to flourish and thrive (Klar & Kasser, 2010). Conceivably, activism may elicit behaviors that satisfy fundamental needs. Specifically, when individuals engage in activism, they establish their autonomy by challenging obsolete practices. They sometimes experience feelings of competence and challenge. Finally, they reinforce their relationships with other people. Their concerns transcend their personal needs and shift to the well-being of other people and communities.

To assess these possibilities, Klar and Kasser (2010) conducted a series of studies. In the first study, university students completed questions that ascertain the extent to which they engage in activism, typified by items like "(I intend to) send a letter or email about a political issue to a public official". The degree to which they have identified themselves as an activist and committed to this identity were also assessed. Other questions gauged various facets of well-being, such as meaning in life, self actualization, positive affect, negative affect, life satisfaction, and hope. Finally, some of the questions assessed whether the fundamental needs of individuals, especially around autonomy, competence, and relatedness, had been satisfied.

In general, the various indices of activism, particular behaviors that are not especially risky or illicit, were positively associated with positive affect, meaning in life, self actualization, hope, and fulfillments of the fundamental needs. A further study replicated these findings, also revealing that activism enhances social wellbeing, in which people feel connected and satisfied with their community.

A subsequent study showed that even momentary attempts to prime activism were sufficient to improve some facets of well-being, especially subjective vitality. In this study, participants were invited to partake in research about the college cafeteria. They were instructed their responses would be sent, anonymously, to the director with responsibility to manage the food at this campus.

For some participants, activism was momentarily primed. These participants were exposed to four suggestions about how ethical or political characteristics of the cafeteria could be improved. One of the recommendations, for example, was the cafeteria should offer fair trade, organic, local, or vegetarian food. Next, after each suggestions, two reasons were presented, such as "To support families in developing countries" and "To foster a just global economic system". Participants rated the extent to which they perceived these reasons as important. Another set of participants were exposed to the same procedure, except the recommendations related more to taste and personal pleasure rather than ethical or political matters. A final group of participants were not exposed to either set of recommendations. Next, participants answered questions on meaning in life, affect, and subjective vitality: A typical item is "At this time, I have energy and spirit." Exposure to recommendations about activism improved subjective vitality (Klar & Kasser, 2010).

One of the practical implications of this study is that managers should encourage employees to engage in conventional forms of activism, such as educating other people, raising awareness, signing petitions, lobbying politicians, protesting, campaigning, and other activities. These activities should be intended to fulfill some important political and ethical issue, particularly around justice and human rights.

Measures of need fulfillment

Several scales have been developed degree to which the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness have been fulfilled. Gagne (2003) developed a scale, which comprises 21 items and assesses the extent which individuals experienced autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Participants specify the extent to which they agree or disagree with various items, such as "I feel like I can pretty much be myself in my daily situations" (autonomy), "I have been able to learn interesting new skills recently" (competence), and "People in my life care about me" (relatedness). The level of internal consistency for the three scales approximates .67, .79, and .83 respectively (see Schlegel, Hicks, Arndt, & King, 2009)

Boundaries and controversies

Psychological need fulfillment, however, does not always enhance life satisfaction. Specifically, in impoverished regions in which drinking water, sanitation, fuels, assets, and education are limited, and therefore basic necessities are not fulfilled, relatedness and autonomy are no longer related to life satisfaction (Martin & Hill, 2012). These psychological needs, therefore, are pertinent only after more immediate dangers and vulnerabilities dissipate.

Indeed, many authors have assumed that, if people feel unsafe--that is, if they feel they could be physically harmed--these psychological needs are not as consequential. Yet, contrary to this assumption, this association between psychological need satisfaction and wellbeing has also been shown to persist even when people feel unsafe, as Chen, Van Assche, Vansteenkiste, Soenens, and Beyers (2015) discovered

In this study, South African students, many of which live in unsafe regions, completed a range of questionnaires, including measures that assess the degree to which they feel their needs are fulfilled and the extent to which they value each need. In addition, four scales were utilized to gauge wellbeing: life satisfaction, depression, vitality, and self-acceptance. Finally, to measure safety, participants indicated the degree to which they agree or disagree with various items like "I feel safe from threats and uncertainties". Psychological need satisfaction was positively associated with wellbeing, and this relationship was not moderated by perceived safety. A similar pattern of results was observed when financial rather than physical safety was examined. These findings conform to the notion that, in the midst of challenges, individuals still seek meaningful goals.


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Last Update: 7/18/2016