Shelly’s a busy woman. She teaches high school full-time, she drives our kids everywhere, she calls my mom to say hi and “I love you.”
Excuse me. I got a little emotional with that. She calls my mom to say hi and “I love you.” Clean dishes, neatly stacked and put away, fulfill in her the common needs for order and rest.
Finally some peace of mind. And there’s one more huge need motivating her dishwash spine: when I leave stuff on the dishes, like that big piece of vermicelli hanging off the back, that’s so super obvious to her, after she’s said, “Larry, do a good job this time; this time, please, do a good job,” she concludes I don’t care about her.
If you want to understand everyone, including Shelly, the outside world matters to us only because we’re trying to fulfill needs internally. She doesn’t really care about clean dishes. At depth, she, like everyone else, wants respect, to be loved.
Human behavior is complex, but human motivation is actually simple. We seek these common needs, and nothing else.
Now, I didn’t myself discover that common needs drive human behavior. The idea was proposed around 50 years ago by the psychologist Carl Rogers and then further developed by the extraordinary peacemaker Marshall Rosenberg.
I came across their concepts around 15 years ago, and they made good sense to me. So, I began to implement them in my personal life, to decode family and friends.
And I was understanding people. I was intrigued, but I was also skeptical. I asked Marshall Rosenberg, “Why 30 needs, and not 755?”
And he said, “Oh, it could be 30 or 755. The need to survive, for example, could be further broken down into the needs to not walk off a cliff, or to not be eaten by predators. Thirty is just a useful level of aggregation.”
I thought, “OK, that’s a good answer, but what about this Marshall? What are needs from a neurological perspective? What’s happening in the brain? How do they actually motivate us?”
And here, Marshall said, “Oh, that’s simple. Needs are life force, human life force.”
And I thought, “Whoa. That’s not science at all.”
And so, I spent the next two years meeting with neuropsychologists and speaking with evolutionary biologists and reading cognitive journals with footnotes, and I eventually concluded this needs stuff is grounded in solid science.
And because research shows that if you mention the word “neuroscience” or “brain” in a big talk, it’s a thousand times more likely to go viral, let me say, this is neuroscience. Brain science. Neuro and brain. Neuro-brain.
Now, I’m not a scientist. I’m a lawyer, a mediator, and a writer. But being a layperson has allowed me to unravel this science, to translate it away from chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine and into what I believe is a useful narrative.
And so, here’s what I believe is going on in the human brain, with needs. The human unconscious evaluates the world, telling us whether it’s dangerous or friendly. That’s its job.
Once it reaches its conclusion, it’s got to motivate the whole system, including the conscious mind, to do something about it.
If it concludes that the world’s dangerous, we naturally feel fear or anxiety, and we try to get less of what caused it. If it concludes the world is friendly, we naturally feel happy or excited and we try to get more.
But, and this is the key, how does the unconscious determine what’s dangerous and what’s friendly?
It’s not just left up to each of us individually. Rather, the criteria upon which we evaluate the world is born into you and born into me and born into all of us. Those are the human needs. Those specific criteria were honed through evolution, because they allow us to survive, to relate to other people, and ultimately, to make more people.
“Am I being respected?” “Am I making a contribution in the world?” “Does she think I’m cute?”
If so, pleasure, get more of that! If not, pain, change the world. It took me several years to unravel the science in a way that made narrative sense to me.
And yet, in that time, I actually stopped caring so much about what was happening in the brain. I was using this and understanding people in a way that I didn’t think was possible. I was seeing their hearts, it worked, and really, that’s what counts.
I’d like to tie this together with a story. As I said, I’m a mediator. When people are at war, they come to me and I help them work it out. Not too long ago, I was visited by a couple that had already been divorced.
The ex-wife, Sophia, said a precious object had gone missing. What was it? Sophia had never met her father, and her mother died when she was a little girl. She was raised by her grandmother, and in her grandmother’s house hung this large painting, painted by Sophia’s grandmother, of Sophia’s mother.
Sophia used to look at this painting when she was a little girl and imagine herself holding her mom’s hand and kissing her mom’s cheek. Sophia’s grandmother, the painter, died a few weeks before the mediation, and in her final hours, she signed the picture.