Difference between Need and Want

Updated on August 18, 2017

Wars have been waged, civilizations flourished (and fell), and whole economic systems have been built to meet human needs and wants. While needs and wants vary in a number of ways, it is not unheard of to blur the lines of distinction between them! This article aims to identify the differences between the two.


A child choosing between what he needs and what he wants

A need usually refers to something that an individual requires in order to survive (e.g. food, water); that is, a need is such a basic requirement that if not met in a timely manner, it may lead to physical or mental sickness. It can also result in someone not being able to function well in society. Failure to satisfy a basic need could even be fatal. Psychologists believe that needs are what drive an organism to reach certain goals. Others view individual needs as a representation of how it is to be a member of society. They believe in the importance of the state in fulfilling the basic needs of the people that will promote their capacity to make informed decisions and possess physical health. Thus, an individual who fails to have these needs met will not function well as a member of society.

Behavioral psychologists classify needs into two groups: objective (i.e. physical) needs and subjective needs. Objective needs are satisfied by tangible things such as food, water, air, and shelter. Subjective needs are needs that can help promote one’s emotional health. These are a person’s need for self-esteem, approval from others, and the need for security. The inability to meet these needs can lead to physical and mental distress or even illness. In extreme cases, it can also lead to death.

The term want can be defined in several ways. In psychology, a want is viewed as something a person would like to possess, and “wanting” is an emotion considered similar to desire. It is the desire to acquire something either in the present or in the future. Buddhism sees want as the root of human suffering. They explain further that, by nature, man will always want no matter what he has. Similarly enough, economics sees people’s wants as “unlimited,” supported only by limited resources. However, economists believe that wants and needs are the same, and sorted by order of importance.

Wants are relative and can differ from person to person. What some want may not sit well with others, particularly when cultural differences are at play. Regardless of cultural background or personal preferences, everybody has wants in different levels of importance. In addition, wants may change over time and get replaced by other wants.

Need vs Want

So what’s the difference between need and want? While it is possible for an individual to want something so badly that it is viewed as a need, there are clear distinctions between the two.

A need is something that is required by a person to live a healthy life. The most basic needs include food, water, air, and shelter. A want is something that a person desires to acquire. Examples of wants are usually material in nature. They can be a new house, a car, or large sums of money. Human needs are usually the same across cultural boundaries. Wants, however, vary from one person to another and can even change over time. Needs are essential for an organism’s survival, and failure to meet the most fundamental needs is detrimental to any organism. Wants are secondary things that people can typically live without.

Comparison Chart

What an organism requires to surviveSomething a person would prefer to acquire
Includes food, water, etc.; also includes approval and acceptance from othersIncludes material possessions such as houses, cars, money, etc.
Does not changeCan change over time
Satisfaction of needs is critical to lifePeople can typically live without satisfying all wants