Difference between Physiological and Psychological Needs

You have probably studied this in school and did not pay much attention to it, and, as it so often happens, most things school related come back to haunt us. We will refer to something called the Maslow pyramid and, believe it or not, understanding the difference between physiological and psychological needs can actually help you put your priorities in order when you are in a tight spot. Here is what you need to know about both of them.


Physiological vs Psychological Needs
Maslow’s pyramid of needs

Physiological needs are what psychologist Abraham Maslow defined as basic needs. These are the requirements of the body, what it needs to function properly. Before being a “social animal”, man is an animal; therefore he needs to breathe air, he needs to drink water and he needs to eat. He will also have to restore his energy level for the tasks ahead of him, meaning he must sleep. Homeostasis is the property of a system with variables to regulate them in order to achieve stability. In this specific case, we can refer to body temperature as a basic need to keep the body at temperatures which are neither too high nor too low.

Sex is a basic need and a physiological one mainly because it is closely connected to our instinct of propagating the species, an instinct all animals have. It is also a very physical stimulus. Excretion is another physiological need as all living organisms need to eliminate residues of what they have consumed and what the body has processed.

Psychological needs are needs of the brain or of the psyche (Ancient Greek for “soul”). The need to protect oneself, the understanding of the concept of safety comes at a higher level, a psychological one. We must feel secure and as if we are in a stable environment, one which we feel we have some sort of control over. The next level is where our social nature intervenes and it dictates how we feel in the company of other people. We want to feel loved, protected, needed and cared for. Once we start comparing ourselves to the rest of the people making up our community we need to build self-esteem, to have achievements which are recognized by others and be respected for them.

Moving higher on Maslow’s pyramid of needs, men’s psychological needs get more and more refined. Once the ones at the bottom are met, he can thrive for morality, creativity, spontaneity, acceptance, lack of prejudice. All of these are values he alone can appreciate for himself without the need of approval of the community.

Physiological vs Psychological Needs

So what is the difference between physiological and psychological needs?

Physiological needs are the ones related to the body, the ones which constantly remind us that we too are animals. We need air to breathe, clean water to drink, food to nourish us, rest to stock up on energy, sex to propagate the species and we need a constant temperature to feel well. Excretion is another basic need.

We have had psychological needs since we started living in societies. They have evolved as a consequence of being close to one another, comparing what we each had and how we each felt. One clear distinction between the two is the fact that the physiological needs are at the bottom of the pyramid and that unless these needs are met, the others cannot follow. A person thriving to reach a higher moral ground or to be very creative will still have difficulties in performing these tasks on an empty stomach or when consumed by lust and desire. And no matter how high a person may go in fulfilling his needs, he will still have to excrete, which is the most painful reminder of our real nature.

Comparison Chart

Physiological needs Psychological needs
All basic needs All needs above the basic ones
Same needs animals have Needs developed within societies
Man cannot function properly unless these needs are met Cannot be met unless physiological needs are met first
Man can survive simply after having met these needs Man cannot survive after having met these needs without meeting the basic ones first