Why being 'needy' isn't such a bad thing cover image

Why being 'needy' isn't such a bad thing

Dorian Minors • April 13, 2016

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

Have you ever complained about 'needy' people? Or maybe you are one? Well, people being 'clingy' has a simple psychological explanation and is surprisingly common. Not only that, but it actually might not be for the reasons you expect.

Let's start simple

To consider the root of our 'neediness' we must start simple. Let's take, for example, thirst. Yep, psychologists are very interested in thirst. In fact, many Universities teach a course on the psychology behind eating and drinking. You see, we can think of thirst as a drive to address a need. In this case, a deficiency in water. When we're low on water in the system, our brain recognises this as a threat and drives us to fix it. You can probably tell that I'm driving at a point here (see what I did there?). Our motivations very often come from something our body thinks is a danger. The issue with this automatic kind of triage service our brain undertakes when assessing the body is that it isn't always very accurate. Ready for some science?

. No, I'm not about to tell you how to sort our your coffee addiction.

Assessing needs is a tough thing for our brain to do

How does the brain assess a need? Well, in the case of thirst, it looks at the cells. Checking out our intracellular (inside the cell) and extracellular (outside the cell) water content. Makes sense, if we're checking water, we check where the water should be. You wouldn't be surprised to find out that that is the primary cause of thirst (when those levels are low). But then, why will imagining a nice cold glass of water give you a little twinge of thirst? Well, the brain is also looking out for external signals. In this case, we should probably stock up because the reality of water now is better than the possibility of water later (and your brain is assuming you're thinking of it because it's there). It also pays attention to external cues that might indicate that water is scarce, like dry air or dry food for example.

Needs can become overwhelming in a bad way

We can think of needs as being a response to danger in three categories:

  1. threat of damage to the body gives rise to physiological needs (like thirst above)
  2. threat of damage to our concept of self gives rise to psychological needs (like a need for praise or encouragement)
  3. threat of damage to our relationships gives rise to relationship needs (like greater intimacy, for example)

But as we mentioned, our brain doesn't just think about the real level of the threat (like the water content in our cells), but tries to predict the future (by noticing dry food and assuming water is scarce). In a relationship, this could mean that, for example, rather than considering how much intimacy you're actually receiving, you realise your partner doesn't really talk to their mother much anymore and extrapolate that to mean they aren't going to pay as much attention to you over time. These kinds of processes might be useful, or they might lead to baseless stress for yourself and those around you.

. Or, they might lead to a sophisticated and ruthless culture designed almost entirely around the omnipresent fear of that need. One way to address it. Image courtesy of Herbert Properties LLC.

What to do?

Well, first we must understand where the need comes from. What are the drivers that fuel these needs? For example, in relationships our needs often come from three sources; control, intimacy and affection. Understanding how to fulfill these will lead to much less stress in our relationships. For every need, there is a little cognitive mechanism that controls it. Perhaps it's time you took your brain off autopilot. Needs drive us differently, learn how your brain prioritises them, and how to beat the system. Or learn just how important our need for social relationships can drive us to do ridiculous things. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist with The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.