Decision making is a term that means different things to different people.
I’m not just talking about how people might define it. I’m talking about the wide variance in driving forces behind people’s decisions—the why of why people do what they do. What compels one person to do X can be the exact thing that compels their next-door neighbor to the opposite of X. You might rate X as your highest priority and determining factor, while your mother might rate X as an instant deal breaker that will bring shame to the family.
Decision making affects us all differently because we are different people. We might be similar superficially—we all wear blue jeans and like showers. We want jobs that make an amount of money that will leave us comfortable, but we don’t want to work long hours. We generally like our families and don’t wish physical harm to most people. Those are all shallow factors that we are indeed similar in.
One of the first factors to consider in any decision is the motivation behind it. These differ drastically in each individual, whether they realize it or not. Specifically, most of what influences our decisions and everyday actions are subconscious needs and desires that you are probably unaware of.
These are the motivations and reasons that we instinctually act upon yet may not be able to articulate when pressed to clarify. These are what comprise the “gut feelings,” “hunches,” or flashes of insight that seemingly come from nowhere. It’s because we all have different subconscious needs vying for dominance in our head that seek to influence our actions for greater happiness. You may be able to consciously articulate that you want to eat Chinese food tonight, but that’s a one-off decision, whereas your subconscious needs create a unique pattern of behavior.
Unsurprisingly, subconscious desires and motivations have been studied heavily by psychologists over the years. For a brief glance, Sigmund Freud and Ivan Pavlov represent some of the most fascinating findings about our subconscious selves that we listen to far more than our conscious thoughts.
Pavlov is generally considered the discoverer of classical conditioning on account of his experiments with his dog. He paired feeding his dog with ringing a bell, and after a few weeks, his dog salivated at only hearing the bell. Of course, the dog was unaware of how he associated the food with the bell—we are similarly controlled and influenced by factors that we don’t consciously realize.
Freud popularized the notion that we are ruled by childhood events, and there are three parts to our personalities. They are called the id, ego, and superego, which all have varying motivations that tear us in different directions. Our conscious thoughts are only a result of internal forces at war and who is winning at that particular moment.
If subconscious desires contribute to our decisions more than we previously realized, then it’s clear we have to examine the existing models to categorize them. This allows us to understand what our potential range of needs and desires are, so you might be more aware of what you are influenced by and what you ultimately rely upon to make your decisions.
It’s an attempt to make the subconscious more conscious; in essence, you are thinking about your thoughts so you can better understand yourself.
The three models of subconscious desires and needs are Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Tony Robbins’s matrix of human desires, and the Max-Neef model of fundamental human needs. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Maslow’s primary theory is that human beings are a product of a set of basic needs, the deprivation of which is the primary cause of most psychological problems. He encapsulated his findings into a hierarchy, which maps out basic human needs and desires and how they evolve and change throughout life. The important thing is that it’s a hierarchy, meaning that some needs cannot be fulfilled until the ones beneath it are. Your location in the hierarchy at any given time is what influences your subconscious needs and desires.
The needs are: physiological needs (such as for food and shelter), safety, love and belonging, esteem, and the final rung, self-actualization. Maslow believed that very fe people reached this final level, and that most of us achieved only part of our full potential.
The hierarchy functions like a ladder. If you aren’t able to satisfy your more basic foundational human needs and desires, it is borderline impossible to move forward to the next ladder rung without profound stress and dissatisfaction in life. The higher you are on the ladder, the more of your physical and security needs are taken care of, at which point you start yearning for psychological needs.
To illustrate, let’s briefly look at how our needs change from infancy to adulthood. As infants, we don’t feel any need for a career or psychological satisfaction. We simply need to rest, be fed, and have shelter over our heads. Feeding and survival are our only real needs and desires (and changing diapers as parents of newborns will tell you).
As we grow from infants into teenagers, simply staying alive and healthy doesn’t bring satisfaction. We hunger for interpersonal relationships and social fulfillment. What drives us is to find a feeling of belonging and community. Then, as we mature into young adults, simply having a great group of friends is no longer enough to satisfy us. It feels empty, actually, without an overall sense of life purpose. We don’t like to feel aimless and like every day is the same as the one before it.
If, as young adults, we are fortunate enough to be able to provide financial security and stability for ourselves and our families, then our desires and needs can turn outward rather than inward. It’s the same reason that people such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates start participating in philanthropy to make as big an impact as they can on the world. This is not a stage that everyone will reach in their lives, unfortunately.
As you can see, only when you can satisfactorily accomplish one stage can you move on to addressing the next, higher, and more psychologically fulfilling stage. You can’t very well be giving all of your money to charity if you don’t feel secure in your own basic needs. Simply put, the stages of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are why you feel unsettled and uncomfortable at work if you are at risk of eviction from your apartment. Your apartment represents your more fundamental need for survival and safety, while your work represents a relatively secondary need.
The stages of the hierarchy are as follows—remember that where you are in the hierarchy is what tends to influence your decisions more than you may realize.
Physiological Fulfillment. This is easily seen in the daily life of an infant. All that matters to them is that their basic needs for survival are met (i.e. food, water, and shelter). Without security in these aspects, it is difficult for anyone to focus on satisfaction in anything else. It would actually be harmful to them to seek other forms of satisfaction. This is the baseline level of fulfillment that must first be met. This is logical, because nothing else matters to you if you are homeless or starving.
Safety. You might call this stage security. If someone’s belly is full, they have clothes on their back, and they have a roof over their heads, they need to find a way to ensure that those things continue. They need to have a secure source of income or resources to increase the certainty and longevity of their safety. The first two stages are designed to ensure overall survival. Unfortunately, many people never make it out of these first two stages due to unfortunate circumstances, and you can plainly see why they aren’t concerned with fulfilling their potential.
Love and Belonging. Now that your survival is ensured, you’ll find that it is relatively empty without sharing it with people that you care about. Humans are social creatures, and studies have shown that living in isolation will literally cause insanity and mental instability, no matter how well fed or secure you are. This stage includes relationships with your friends and family and socializing enough so you don’t feel that you are failing in your social life.
Of course, this stage is a major sticking point for many people. They are unable to be fulfilled or focus on higher desires because they lack the relationships that create a healthy lifestyle. Isn’t it easy to imagine someone who is stuck at a low level of happiness because they don’t have any friends?
Once you reach this level, you start living outside of yourself. You start seeking something bigger and higher than yourself, in part because you don’t need to account for yourself as much anymore.
Self-Esteem. You can have relationships, but are they healthy ones that make you feel confident and supported?
This stage is all about how your interactions with others impact your relationship with yourself. This is an interesting level of needs because it boils down to self-acceptance. You know you have a healthy level of self-esteem when you can accept yourself even if you are misunderstood, or outright disliked, by others.
For you to get to this stage and have a healthy level of self-esteem, you have to have accumulated certain achievements or earned the respect of others. There is strong interplay between how you get along with others and help others and how you feel about yourself.
Self-Actualization. The highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization. This is when you are able to live for something beyond yourself and your needs. This is where people chase self-fulfillment and find their destinies, so to speak. When people finally have the foundations of a great life, suddenly that is no longer enough for personal satisfaction.
This is the stage people are at when they say they want to find their calling and purpose in life. They now have the luxury to ruminate on these issues, as opposed to worrying about where their next meal will come from. They can focus on a project, idea, or concept that is above their own petty, self-centered concerns. These are people who can set aside their own needs and work for or toward something that is beyond their mundane and self-serving concerns.
Sadly, many of us may never make it to this stage because we haven’t fully satisfied the needs of the prior stages. It is a very privileged position to be in and shouldn’t be taken for granted.
If you can accurately pinpoint where you fall in this hierarchy, it will let you know immediately what is going on in the background of your decisions. For example, if you are facing eviction, many of your actions will probably be oriented toward preventing that situation, and you won’t care about your friendships for the time being. You must first feel safe and secure before wanting to socialize.
Maslow’s hierarchy gives us a template for diagnosing ourselves and what occupies our mental bandwidth more than we might think. You may be stuck at stage one—physiological fulfillment. If so, you might feel like you just need to get everything together and focus on yourself for a while. You’re searching for resources and security, and your decisions will (and should) reflect that.
Can you ascertain whether you are having issues with the following? (This is the hierarchy starting from the bottom.)
Security in accommodation and employment
Personal and familial safety and health
Relationships and friendships
Romantic relationships and sexual intimacy
Self-esteem and confidence
Acceptance of self
Self-actualization and fulfillment
If you are struggling with one stage, you know that nothing above or further than that stage matters to you. Whatever your concern is will color your perception, analysis, and decision making on a subconscious level.
Sometimes, people look at the various options in front of them and behave as though their current needs are the only needs they’ll ever have. But looking back on your life, you can probably see how wrong this is, and that what constitutes as “good decision” changes with time, and really depends on you and what your needs are in the moment. For example, a person preoccupied at the physiological needs level may make career decisions that heavily favor the acquisition of wealth, while those at higher levels may also factor in the value of family life, of personal fulfilment, or of pursuing higher goals like charity.
Maslow’s hierarchy is just one framework of looking at your subconscious needs. The next framework is Tony Robbins’s six fundamental human needs.
Tony Robbins’s Six Fundamental Human Needs
This framework comes from famed motivational speaker, Tony Robbins. These six needs drive our lives in ways that we can articulate and others that we would never have thought. Again, understanding what your primary needs are will give clarity as to what’s going on in your brain during tough or even daily decisions.
According to Tony Robbins, we generally value two out of the six needs the most at any given time. These two primary needs play a tremendous role in the kind of choices and decisions we make, as well as the habits we develop on a daily basis.
If you can understand these subconscious desires, you can make better decisions and short-circuit your negative impulses and emphasize your positive ones. Reading what follows, you can probably see some overlap with Maslow’s needs.
The Need for Certainty. The need for certainty is about the assurance that you can avoid pain and gain pleasure, which is best done through routine and stability.
The more certain and secure we feel in the predictability of our well-being, the more comfortable we feel engaging in other activities. This is why we crave predictability and assurance in our lives. These are very important because they ensure one extremely important goal: survival.
The more certain we are that there is no danger, the more we can relax to focus on other needs. Certainty forms the bedrock of our hierarchy of needs. Certainty ensures survival, and once this is taken care of, we can then look toward other needs.
However, the other side of the spectrum is when you feel certainty has been established. Think about it. Would you want to watch a basketball game if you already knew the score and everything that would happen in that game? Probably not. That would be boring and predictable.
Everyone requires different levels of certainty in their lives. For example, my own need for certainty is very low compared to others. I travel constantly and always have new hobbies. If things become too routine, I get bored very easily. I need to constantly challenge myself with the next need, which is in direct conflict with the need for certainty.
This need can lead to analysis paralysis, however, if we are unable to at without feeling like we can predict the outcome with one hundred percent accuracy.
The Need for Uncertainty and Variety. The mirror opposite of the need for certainty is the need for the unknown and variety. This is the need for change and new stimuli.
We all need a change of scenery every now and then. The idea of novelty is attractive for a reason, and it’s simply to experience something new and be surprised at an outcome rather than know it before you begin.
Do you want to watch the same type of movie over and over? Most people don’t, but if you do, you might gather that you have a low need for uncertainty and variety. Too much uncertainty brings us fear, but not enough uncertainty will bring us a lack of fulfillment.
It’s why most people enjoy traveling and eating new foods. We don’t want to do the exact same thing over and over again. This is what makes life exciting, because we don’t know what to expect. We have a need for the adrenaline that only novel stimulation can bring us. Routine is death (for some).
Variety brings pleasure even though it may result in a lesser chance of safety and survival.
The Need for Significance and Uniqueness. Deep down we all need to feel that we are important, unique, and special. We don’t want to feel insignificant and that no one cares about us.
We want to be the special snowflakes that we like to imagine we are. We all want to stand out in a positive way and be known for something.
This is manifested in many different ways. Some will go out of their way to achieve in an academic sense, deriving their sense of worth in that realm. Everyone creates an identity of themselves based on their self-perception of how they’re special.
If you’ve noticed someone that appears to be dressing solely for attention, they’re taking pride in their unique appearance. They feel significant because they stand apart from everybody else.
No one would state their goal is to be indistinguishable from their neighbor, so this is a very natural inclination. However, taking things too far to the extreme can turn off most people. You can imagine this in the form of people who dress obnoxiously or who constantly feel the need to discuss how different they are.
Additionally, if you strive for too much significance and differentiation, you may relate to others less and less, which makes the next human need difficult. In the decision-making realm, the need to be unique is actually a great way to cut through mountains of information and identify what matters most to you.
The Need for Connection. We all have an instinctual need to bond and connect with others. We strive for interpersonal relationships because they make us feel validated, important, and social. We want to feel like we belong and are part of a tribe.
Some people are extremely family-oriented and travel in packs, where others are lone wolves that enjoy their own company. Some of us like to play team sports, while others like to run alone along the beach. There’s a happy medium somewhere for everyone.
The basis for most of these connections is similarity and familiarity. You might call that convenience or opportunity, but the truth is that most relationships start there and evolve from that point.
It’s easier to like somebody who is somewhat similar to you, because you can better relate to them. It feels more natural. This is why I mentioned earlier in our need for significance that we can’t overdo things to such an extent that we destroy all similarity. We can be different, but not too different; otherwise, you’re only going to connect with other outliers.
The need for significance versus connection is like trying to feed Goldilocks stew. If our need for connection is not being met, we feel alone and disjointed from people. However, if it’s met entirely, we no longer feel different or unique, and we end up lacking a sense of significance.
The Need for Growth. Everybody is looking to expand and increase capacity and capabilities.
Everybody is looking to achieve their goals and move onto the next. Very few people are content simply watching television every day and starting the process over on the next. Most of us need a sense of progress and enjoy working toward something.
Everything on earth either grows or dies—that’s not a false dichotomy. Human beings are no exception to this. We must feel we’re constantly growing in our lives and moving forward.
The real litmus test occurs when you achieve a goal you set for yourself. Maybe it was a certain financial target, a certain lifestyle, or that new computer. Are you satisfied and no longer feel the need to keep reaching, or do you move the goal posts and start to plan how to exceed your original goal?
Those with a strong need for growth will be unhappy until they set a new goal because they’re not growing anymore. To many of us, living life from day to day without an overarching goal and theme becomes an exercise in futility.
The Need for Contribution. Finally, we all have the need for a sense of contribution to society.
It might be a service to our community or giving money to a cause, but deep down, we all want to feel that we make an impact and won’t pass from this earth without anyone caring. We want to make a mark on the world in our time and be memorable by contributing to society as a whole.
How many people will attend our funerals, and how much will they care?
This explains the popularity of volunteering and philanthropy. It’s a universal need that exists in varying degrees in people. We want to give and contribute to a greater good above ourselves simply because it feels good and fulfills our sense of contribution to the world.
When you see a homeless person, do you feel compelled to give or do you ignore them? Do you want your work to affect thousands of people, or are you content just working for yourself?
This entirely different set of subconscious needs and desires, again, vary in each person, even if they appear to manifest the same. For example, your friend might be exercising fanatically because they have a need for certainty in their physical appearance and significance, but you might view exercise as fulfilling the need for personal growth. It is the same outward manifestation, but entirely different needs are satisfied. On the other hand, you might have the same needs as someone else, but they are manifested in completely different ways. For example, you and your friend both have strong needs for uncertainty and variety. You fulfill it through traveling, but they fulfill it through changes of romantic partners.
How does all of this relate to making better decisions? It can sometimes feel like mulling over decisions is something we do objectively and neutrally, but it’s this very assumption that makes our decision making vulnerable to error. Making decisions is a subjective process, so that’s why it’s important to understand who you are and what you are using to guide these decisions—consciously or unconsciously.
Evaluate which of the six needs resonate with you and try to identify how attempting to satisfy these needs influences your decisions on a daily basis. Self-understanding is paramount to success, because otherwise, you’re just winging it.