The Human Need For Approval: A Fact Or Merely A Belief?

In recent posts, I’ve advanced arguments which have defended the idea that human beings are born with a fundamental need for the approval of other human beings that is utterly immune to the efforts humans have made throughout history to make it disappear. I think a somewhat more formal presentation of my ideas on this topic is warranted.

I’ve developed a somewhat unique philosophical outlook which can be attributed to my realization, back in my early twenties, that the notion that certain privileged individuals are able to achieve an ideally imagined mental state of Emotional Invulnerability is almost certainly a myth. Since that time, I have spent much time and analysis on my efforts to reconcile these suspicions with the analytical contributions of philosophers throughout history.

As a starting point, I prefer to follow Rene Descartes’ lead in using the solipsistic method of doubt he made famous. Unlike Descartes, after establishing that I am ‘a Thing that Thinks’, I have no particular interest (at this time) in his desire to prove the existence of God, but am focused instead on certain aspects of this Existence that have made quite an impression on me: viz., the experience of pain and pleasure.

At this early stage of self discovery, I am not aware that there is any such thing as a ‘Need’ but only that this experience with Existence entails the regular recurrence of various painful & pleasurable sensations.

At a certain point, however, I do find it helpful to conceptualize the ‘cause’ of these distinct, situation-specific painful/pleasurable sensations as a collection of identifiable needs that have been imposed on me as a condition of my existence as a human being.

I call these ‘causes’ needs for one reason: I’ve found that I need to get them satisfied if I want to experience the pleasure they generate when satisfied, or if I want to experience relief from the pain they’ve inflicted on me when I have failed to get them satisfied.

Usually, it is only upon experiencing either pain or pleasure like this that we become aware that we even have needs. From these basic observations, I have arrived at a definition of ‘Need’ that is quite different from the one currently favored by psychologists (and also many philosophers):

I define a human need as that which—when satisfied—rewards us with the experience of some type of pleasure or satisfaction (or, when dissatisfied—punishes us with some type of pain or discomfort).

Notice this definition owes nothing to the teleological concerns that are regularly invoked by other theorists. I am concerned only with the consequences of need-satisfaction or need-deprivation in my efforts to identify what is a need and what is not a need.

Epistemologically speaking, it is rather obvious that we are not born with a knowledge of what our many & various needs are, so we have had no choice but to rely on our guesses as to what they are and how we might best go about arranging for their satisfaction. Over time, we have been able to gradually improve the accuracy of many of these guesses.

Given my preferred definition of ‘Need’, I am able to state with confidence that we humans experience the pleasure of need-satisfaction whenever we’ve felt joy, ecstasy, hope, pride, contentment, security, or even just a feeling of being ‘complete.’

We can say that the pain of need-deprivation has been experienced whenever we’ve felt agony, anguish, boredom, ennui, angst, or even just a feeling that ‘something’s missing.’

Notice that this much broader definition of ‘Need’ allows for an entire category of human Needs that most psychologists hesitate to actually refer to as needs, preferring to call them ‘wants’ or ‘motives’ instead. These would include the various mental/emotional needs that humans experience which are not associated with any kind of tissue damage.

When we experience the emotional pain of ‘hurt feelings’, it may not be possible to point to any physical wound, but when our feelings are hurt, there is little doubt in our minds that we have experienced something painful.

There is one mental/emotional need in particular which stands out for the powerful impact it has on the behavior of humans and that is our fundamental need for the APPROVAL of other human beings.

It is a need that is different from our purely biological needs in some special ways.

It appears to be an ‘open-ended’ need in that there is no point of homeostasis at which it is finally satisfied. We can enjoy approval from every imaginable source all day long and still feel hurt by disapproval at the end of the day. More approval received always continues to feel good.

But it’s not just a lack of approval that causes emotional pain, even though that eventuality is certainly painful in its own right (loneliness). Expressed disapproval seems to dramatically aggravate the need, often inflicting acute emotional pain (embarrassment, ridicule, rejection).

But it’s not just a need to avoid disapproval. Expressed approval feels so good, we are always eager for more. It is a need that can be satisfied and/or deprived through many different forms of expression in many different types of circumstances.

But isn’t it true that different people have different emotional needs?

Conventional wisdom says they do. After all, isn’t it obvious that three different people could respond to the same kind of criticism in three different ways? One could be crushed by it, another could be aroused to great anger, while still another seems to be dismissively amused.

Doesn’t this mean that some people have emotional ‘needs’ that are less sensitive/demanding than others? Well, actually no. People may show different emotional responses to similar situations, but the reason for it is not that they have different needs. It is important for us to understand why.

One very basic reason why some observers have guessed that different people have different emotional needs is the fact that human beings are not born with an understanding of what their needs are. While it is not true that different people have different needs, it is true that different people embrace different guesses about what it is that they really need.

Another big reason why different people seem to have different emotional needs is the fact that individuals often make the mistake of mis-identifying a particular means-to-an-end as an ultimate end-in-itself.

A teenager, for example, may feel a powerful ‘need’ to own a certain brand of stylish clothing, but it is not the clothing, qua clothing, that she feels she needs. The outfit she wants may have some value just-as-clothing, but the primary reason why she feels such a strong desire for that particular brand is primarily because she hopes it will enable her to experience a certain emotional satisfaction that she craves.

Maybe she hopes she will hear some favorable comments (approval) from her peers, or maybe she just hopes that she will be spared the pain of being perceived as an ‘outsider’ (implicit disapproval). Quite often, people are completely unaware of the fact that the need they are actually trying to get satisfied is their fundamental emotional need for the approval of others.

(Note that this also helps to explain why different people embrace different ‘values’, i.e., which are the different means by which they all pursue the satisfaction of the same, shared needs)

But aren’t some people more ‘needy’ than others?

One reason why some people appear to be more needy than others is because different people have different emotional histories. Some individuals are fortunate enough to have been born with strikingly handsome features or perhaps they grew up in environments where they became quite accustomed to experiencing frequently expressed approval.

When individuals are able to enjoy such conditions for a period of time they develop an expectation—a confidence—that it will continue. In contrast, those who’ve had a history of regularly experiencing disapproval will develop a different sort of expectation. They will fear the pain of disapproval because that is a response they’ve become accustomed to.

Both types of individuals have exactly the same need for approval. Both are equally “needy.” Both can be just as easily hurt. It’s just that some individuals are accustomed to having their emotional needs regularly satisfied while others are not.

Perhaps the single biggest reason why some individuals appear to be less needy to us than others is the collection of factors that enable human beings to hide their vulnerability from each other. On the receiving end, human beings seem to be easily fooled by the performances of others. We tend to believe what other people show us.

If someone responds to vicious criticism with a confident smile (instead of with tears or fear) we tend to interpret such a performance as an indication that the individual doesn’t have the same vulnerability that we have. But these performances can only be maintained for a limited period of time.

If an emotional attack were to continue, the facade of invulnerability would eventually break down because the performer will notice that the ruse isn’t working…he can no longer look forward with confidence in his hope that others will be fooled. When that happens, the only way to continue to hide one’s vulnerability is by responding with raw anger. Then, instead of seeing vulnerability, an attacker would see the opposite: a threat.

Those who have come to understand the Emotional Facts of Life recognize that anger is one of the most glaringly obvious signs of emotional vulnerability. It is a biologically programmed emotional response that is triggered by either actually experienced pain or by the mere perception of a threat of pain. If anger surfaces, it is because pain was experienced, or feared.

If it were ever possible for an individual to become truly indifferent to disapproval, he would never respond to disapproval with anger. In fact, there would be no response at all since the individual would be utterly unaffected by it. No pain would be experienced so there would be nothing to be upset about. Noticing that someone was laughing at you would have as much meaning to you as noticing that yet another leaf had fallen from a tree.

Here are three quick examples of how this thesis I’m proposing could ultimately impact the perceived legitimacy of certain philosophies and ethical theories that are commonly embraced today:

  1. If indeed this need for approval is universal and unvarying in its demands on all of us, then it would represent a powerful challenge to the political ideology known as Individualism. In order for individuals to be happy, they absolutely must enjoy the approval of the rest of the tribe. No one can become “complete within himself.” Individual ‘Autonomy’ is a fiction. Maslow’s ultimate goal of “self-actualization” is thoroughly discredited. Could the elites that dominate most societies today continue to justify their indifference with respect to ‘the masses?’ (Nothing wrong with having elites, only elites that feel they owe nothing to The Led)

  2. If this need is acknowledged as real and universal and immutable, then it blows away one of the foundational assumptions of Sartre’s Existentialism. We are not 'condemned to be free." We are free only to choose to act to get these needs satisfied, or not. No individual is able to create hiser own ‘values.’ Purpose and ultimate meaning are restored by externally imposed needs. (External to The Will)

  3. I argue that the only reason why ours is a culture that has long discredited moral behavior that is motivated by a desire for approval is because ethical theorists since forever (including Kant) have attempted to explain why people behave morally without acknowledging the necessary reality of this fundamental need for approval.

They all seemed to understand, intuitively, that if they acknowledged that humans have a fundamental emotional need that makes them want to behave morally because ‘it makes them feel good’ when they do so, it would also necessarily mean that the ‘personal aspiration’ of Autonomy (= Emotional Invulnerability) is a delusional fantasy.

And so they came up with ethical constructs which emphasized ‘duty’, only without any reason to actually fulfill those duties except for the fact that they are morally praiseworthy. But then, they are told that if they are motivated by their desire for praise, it annihilates the ‘goodness’ of their actions.

This, of course, sets up an internal conflict within any individuals who sincerely want to nurture within themselves a ‘moral identify.’ It forces such souls into a state of cognitive dissonance, inspiring them to do good, but then making them hate themselves for enjoying the approval it earns them from others (because hating their desire for praise is the only way they can make themselves again deserving of the praise that they feel they must hate!?)

Accepting the fact that we all have the same fundamental need for the approval of other humans makes it possible for us to abandon the truly bizarre tradition within our cultural of idealizing the appearance of “selfless” moral motivation. I argue the opposite: that people ought to do good things for others because there is a great likelihood that it will make them happier if they do so.

We do, in fact, have an inborn ‘natural motivation’ to be good to each other.

I’ll just stop it right there for now…

…a fact for some, a myth for others… depending on circumstance and situation.

Approval for working hard translates into a bonus, but not in an emotional response… that would register as patronising, to most working people, who are simply in it for a monetary return.

Approval shown as an emotional response is for more intimate relationships, or for those that want nothing in return but acknowledgement for a job well done, through… let’s say, a charitable act.

I would say it’s more of a tendency, a method of survival for in-group vs. out-group striving. It is a fact that it’s happening but it does not need to perpetuate. It will, but because I know stars are forming and spectacles present themselves on a much larger stage, why am I worried about having the last word in the argument?

James, you say a lot about the need for approval but how low do you go? It seems true acceptance is needed by many…


How do you conceive true acceptance?

How low do you go…to express approval? I’m not sure I understand what you are asking here. Are you asking if approval should be expressed if none is merited?

Need some clarification…

It’s a simple thing: Humans need approval; and not just humans. The complexity is in explaining and documenting and observing and providing not just evidence, but the full of it for the intellectual stimulus as well as curiosity, no matter how ambiguous the reasons for the curiosity.

I would add that there is a reason why there has been complexity in the explaining and documenting and observing and that has been the predisposition of would-be analysts to not find this need for approval and to not find its powerful influence on every aspect of our social interactions because they have been raised in a culture wherein the notion that some individual might have a need for approval is viewed as a curse or personality defect that the unfortunate soul must hope to find some cure for.

So complete has the nearly universal effort been (by individuals in social situations) to hide the vulnerability that the need implies, that it never occurs to anyone—with so much at stake—to question what ‘everyone else’ seems to accept without question: that some ‘blessed’ individuals out there are able to banish this need from their mental environment and that most others can achieve some approximation of that ‘salvation’ by constantly denying to themselves that such a need exists within them.

Much more discussion and honest disclosure would be helpful…

I say “true acceptance” implies approval, and so it is one of the many ways in which approval is expressed or ‘specified.’ We value acceptance because it satisfies our need for approval.

If you want to make a distinction beyond that, then I would begin by discussing the difference between “acceptance” and “tolerance”.

James, you seem to be rediscovering what Abraham Maslow wrote about many years ago, in what has turned out to be one of the most-widely reprinted papers in academic history. Here is a link to a simplified description of its man points: … y_of_needs
See esp. Section 1.4.

What you speak of as ‘the need for approval’ is closely akin to what is roughly-labeled “Esteem” in that Hierarchy of Needs he proposed. He set forth a Need for Achievement which is the way that many seek approval: “by the merit of my work, or output, you shall know me,” people may say to themselves.

BTW, did you know that R. S. Hartman, a major Axiologist, came up with a logical definition for the concept “approval”? He defined it as second-order evaluation of goodness, as follows: approval of x = It is good that x is good.

[Prior to this he had defined “x is a good C” as: there is a complete one-to-one correspondence between the attributes of C and the properties of x. (In other words, x fully exemplifies its concept.)] To learn more about this as-yet-unrecognized genius, see a bio of him on Wiki: -

He and Abe Maslow were buddies; they both posited hierarchies and both justified their proposals with cogent argument. Hartman had a gift for being very deep, yet very clear combined with concise precision of his key concepts.

That ties into us all being raised in an environment that trains us to believe that all that is natural and not-wrong about us IS unnatural and wrong, causing us to feel at odds with our lives until such a point of our lives, if ever, we hit that wall and break through to realize it and become stronger for it and then even stronger in accepting these truths of self, so long as we don’t forget the environment that bred us, because we might be called upon, as many generations and centuries of humans before us have done, to be the ‘bad guys’, the ‘villains’ for the next generation, if need be. Simply because, if it was good enough for us, it might have to be good enough for them, too. One step after another into the future we go through Hell for little slices of Heaven.

I have read Maslow’s Farther Reaches of Human Nature and therein he spoke of B-Needs i.e. Metaneeds which are beyond ‘approval’.

Maslow’s added to his self-actualization needs the sixth level of needs i.e. the Metaneeds in the later part of his writings.

Humans seek and rely on ‘approval’ mostly at the self-esteem and self-actualization levels but not at the level of the metaneeds which are beyond the ego and transcend the typical self.

Note the 6-levels Hierarchy of Needs here;

Yes, my analytical perspective is comparable to Maslow’s in at least one respect: we both agree on the significance of human needs as the ultimate determinants of human motivation/behavior. We also agree on the hierarchical aspect of these needs, on the idea that some of them are ‘higher needs’ which tend to consume more of our time and interest only after we have succeeded in getting some of our more basic—higher priority—needs regularly satisfied.

And yes, we also we both focus a significant amount of attention on a certain category of higher needs, one that involves such desirables as ‘love’ and ‘achievement’ and something called ‘esteem.’ But it is at this point that our analyses split apart in different directions.

For Maslow—and nearly all of his academic peers at the time—the esteem (= approval) that humans have a need for is something that individuals can supposedly provide for themselves, which enables them to achieve a certain amount of ‘autonomy.’

I, on the other hand, insist that the only approval that humans ever experience a need for is the approval of other human beings that individuals cannot provide for themselves. They can become reliant on their abilities to earn/elicit the approval of others that they need, a 'self-reliance of a sort, but they cannot be the actual supplier of that which must come from someone else.

My thought’s on Hartman’s contributions will have to wait 'til next time…

This immediatly makes think of the Millgram experiments where to avoid disapproval and gain approval of the ‘doctor’ running the experiment, nearly everyone gave ‘painful shocks’ to strangers. A few people were able resist, but very few. This tends to support your thesis, while at the same time perhaps being critical of accepting it.

I think it is very problematic if one does not give a shit how other people react and judge one. On the other hand I would like to not be guided by this ‘being affected’ at least not in any simple causal way. If I thinksi something is good or not a problem and other people judge this, I want to both notice their reactions, and
possilbly consider it in a few ways: 1) purely as information, hey maybe I should recheck 2) potentially be scared off but not change my mind. IOW there is a lot of judgment of me on this issue, whatever it is. I think they are wrong, however, there are practical consequences or may be and I want to weigh those, perhaps even backing off. Not because I need their approval, but because I want to not be homeless or imprisoned, etc.
3) I ignore the lakc of approval. I want that option always.

I think being unaffected by the reactions of others is a problematic permanent state of being. I think evaluating one’s choices primarily through others, especially to the extent that you believe something is wrong because of mainstream thinking, is also a problematic state of being.

And I can come up with no simple heuristic to decide when to shut down a choice and when to go on with it anyway.