Roles and responsibilites

Universal psychological needs

The importance of universal psychological needs

According to SDT, there are three psychological needs that are universally important for psychological wellbeing and autonomous motivation. We can think of these universal needs in the same way we think of physiological needs (e.g. hunger, thirst, sleep) - if any of these needs are not satisfied, our wellbeing will suffer and our motivation is likely to dip.

Three psychological needs:


  • Feeling like you are in control and have choice in your life
  • Making informed decisions (based on your values and beliefs)
  • Taking responsibility for your decisions and actions
  • Feeling free and willing

  • Having an optimal level of challenge in your life (i.e. to give you the opportunity to feel a sense of competence - not too easy, not too difficult)
  • Feeling able to have a go at challenges
  • Feeling confident in your ability to complete tasks
  • Feeling goals are achievable

  • Feeling connected to others around you (e.g. family, friends, colleagues, exercise instructors)
  • Good social support network
  • Feeling like other people care about you

1. Think about your psychological needs in life in general.   How satisfied do you feel in autonomy, competence and relatedness?  What effect does it have if one or more of your psychological needs are not satisfied?  E.g. if you feel like you lack control, are feeling incompetent, or not feeling loved by others.  Think about the effects on both your wellbeing and your motivation.  

2. Now think of a hobby you do regularly (perhaps it is some kind of physical activity, arts/crafts or cooking).  How satisfied do you feel in autonomy, competence and relatedness with respect to this specific activity? i.e. to what extent do you feel this activity is determined by you, how capable do you feel, and how much support do you feel you have from others around you?  What is it that makes you feel this way? 

What if a parents needs aren’t satisfied?

Parents whose needs aren’t satisfied may have low self-esteem, appear unmotivated or express a lack of control over their current situation. As a practitioner you can play some role in supporting a participants psychological needs, but it is also important to consider other factors in their lives that may influence their needs (e.g. is their partner/family supporting them). If a parent is struggling to change their lifestyle behaviours, consider any other influences that are getting in the way of fulfilling their needs. Is there anything you can do to help satisfy these needs?

Sometimes others can behave in a way that actively oppresses an individual’s psychological needs. For example a mother (in law) saying there is nothing wrong with a child, it’s puppy fat, they have a big appetite etc., saying negative comments about an individual’s efforts to change, or that they are not capable of achieving change. Look out for signs that a parent may be experiencing this from their family, partner or friends. Can you talk to them about how this makes them feel, what they think they can do to manage the situation?



In the example below, consider how satisfied Nicola’s psychological needs are in relation to the physical activity and diet of her children? What factors may be affecting her feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness?

Nicola is a single mother with three boys aged 10, 5 and 3 years. She lives in a council flat on the 10th floor in a local tower block. Nicola used to work in a local supermarket but since having the children, she has had to give up work because she can’t fit it in around taking her children to school and looking after her 3-year old.  

Nicola’s children are fussy eaters so she tends to give them things they like (e.g. white bread, chips, chicken nuggets).  Often these foods are cheaper too. When the family are at home the children watch TV most of the time because there is nothing else to do. They’ve got lots of friends in the neighbourhood but they’re all in the same situation, so the children just tend to go and watch TV or play on X-boxes at each others’ houses.   


2Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology, 25(1), 54-67.