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Murray's system of needs

In 1938, Henry Murray published Explorations in Personality, his system describing personality in terms of needs. For Murray, human nature involved a set of universal basic needs, with individual differences on these needs leading to the uniqueness of personality through varying dispositional tendencies for each need. In other words, specific needs are more important to some than to others. Frustration of these psychogenic (or psychological) needs plays a central role in the origin of psychological pain.

Murray differentiated each need as unique, but recognised commonalities among the needs. Behaviors may meet more than one need: for instance, performing a difficult task for your fraternity may meet the needs of both achievement and affiliation.

For Murray, human nature involves a set of universal basic needs. Individual differences of these needs lead to the uniqueness of a person's personality due to varying amounts of each need. In other words, specific needs are more important to some than to others. He believed that the study of personality should look at the entire person over the course of their lifespan (Flett, 2008). According to Murray, human psychogenic needs function on an unconscious level, but they can play a major role in our personality (Cherry, 2015). According to Murray, personality can be determined in four major ways. These include constitutional determinants, group membership determinants, life role determinants, and situational determinants (Flett, 2008).

He defines a need as a "potentiality or readiness to respond in a certain way under certain given circumstances" (1938). Murray defines needs in two ways- primary and secondary. Primary needs are any biological need, such as food, water, and oxygen and secondary needs as needs that are generally psychological- such as nurturing, achievement, and independence. Murray identified a total of 17 needs—each belonging to one of five particular need categories. The five categories of needs that Murray identified are Ambition, Materialism, Power, Affection, and Information.

While each need is important in and of itself, he also believed that needs can support other needs, conflict with one another, and can be interrelated. He coined the term subsidation of needs when two or more needs are combined in order to satisfy a more powerful need and fusion of needs when a single action satisfies more than one need (Flett, 2008). For example, the need for dominance may conflict the need with affiliation when overly controlling behavior drives away family, romantic partners, and friends. Environmental factors play a role in how these psychogenic needs are displayed in behavior.

Domain obstructive Need for… Representative behavior
Ambition Achievement To accomplish difficult tasks, overcoming obstacles and becoming expert
Ambition Recognition * Describing accomplishments
Ambition Exhibition To impress others through one's actions and words, even if these are shocking.
Materialism Acquisition Obtaining things
Materialism Order To make things clean, neat and tidy
Materialism Retention Hoarding things
Materialism Construction Building something
Defense of status Infavoidance Concealing a handicap or a failing
Defense of status Defendance To defend oneself against attack or blame, hiding any failure of the self. Explain or excuse
Defense of status Counteraction To make up for failure by trying again, seeking pridefully to overcome obstacles.
Human power Dominance To control one's environment, controlling other people through command or persuasion
Human power To admire a superior person, praising them and yielding to them and following their rules.
Human power Autonomy To break free from constraints, resisting coercion and dominating authority. To be irresponsible and independent
Human power Contrariance Being oppositional
Human power Aggression To forcefully overcome an opponent, controlling, taking revenge or punishing them
Human power Abasement To surrender and submit to others, accept blame and punishment. To enjoy pain and misfortune
Human power Blame avoidance Stifling blameworthy impulses
Human power Harm avoidance To escape or avoid pain, injury and death.
Human power Infavoidance To avoid being humiliated or embarrassed.
Affection between people Affiliation To be close and loyal to another person, pleasing them and winning their friendship and attention
Affection between people Sex To form relationships that lead to sexual intercourse.
Affection between people Rejection To separate oneself from a negatively viewed object or person, excluding or abandoning it.
Affection between people Nurturance To help the helpless, feeding them and keeping them from danger
Affection between people Succorance To have one's needs satisfied by someone or something. Includes being loved, nursed, helped, forgiven and consoled
Affection between people Play To have fun, laugh and relax, enjoying oneself
Exchange of information Sentience To seek out and enjoy sensual experiences.
Exchange of information Understanding: To be curious, ask questions and find answers
Exchange of information * Delivering information to others
Ambition Materialistic Power Affection Information
Achievement: Overcoming obstacles, success, and accomplishment Acquisition: Acquiring things Abasement: Apologizing and confessing Nurturance: Taking care of another person Exposition: Educating others
Exhibition: Thrilling or shocking other people Construction: Producing things Autonomy: Independence and resistance Play: Having fun with others Cognizance: Seeking knowledge and asking questions
Recognition: Gaining social status and displaying achievements Order: Making things organized and neat Aggression: Ridiculing or attacking others Rejection: Refusing or declining others
Retention: Keeping things Blame Avoidance: Following the rules and regulations in order to avoid blame Succorance: Being protected or helped by others
Deference: Cooperating and obeying others
Dominance: Controlling others

  • Murray, H. A. (1938). Explorations in personality. New York: Oxford University Press


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