Human Givens?

I thought I’d share something I stumbled across a few years ago – the Human Givens Institute’s Emotional Needs Audit

Human Givens is a relatively new body of theory, which proposes that our emotions serve as signals, letting us know when our underlying psychological needs are not being met.  The needs audit linked above reflects a list of 9 psychological/emotional needs, which Human Givens theorists believe are genetically programmed into all humans, irrespective of cultural background.

To my mind, it does beg the question as to whether there are any ‘universal’ characteristics common to all humans.   There is considerable diversity in the world. I’m thinking of the people of North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal, probably the most mysterious and uncontacted group of people on the face of the planet.  The Sentinelese have had zero communication with the rest of the world; attempts to interact with them have been unsuccessful, even resulting in death.  If it were possible to communicate with the Sentinelese, would they agree with the list of Human Givens…? 

Looking at the needs audit, I feel suspicious that certain western-liberal values may be present there.  We in the west place high value on individualism, personal liberty, equality before the law, and human rights.  So some of the questions on the needs audit – for example, those to do with personal privacy, autonomy, and achievement – do rather smack of liberalism.   Maybe these needs are rooted in values, which aren’t as universal as we might think.  It may be worth pointing out here that even the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” isn’t universally (or globally) respected.

So I wonder whether anything about humans can be taken as a given.  Many believe we are fundamentally social creatures… except, perhaps, for hermits.  I like to think compassion is a human trai… but then I think of psychopaths.  I’m reminded of the numerous accounts of ‘wolf-children’ from around the world, and the testimonies of their unhuman-like behaviours. It seems to me that any universal theory or hypothesis we might propose can, sooner or later, be falsified.  Including the claim that human nature is determined by our genes.

I’m conscious here it might sound like I’m ripping the Human Givens theory apart, or at least tearing a sizeable hole in it.  That’s not my intention: actually I like the theory, I appreciate the simplicity and neatness of it, and I do believe the needs audit can be a useful tool.  Sometimes we feel a bit ‘out-of-sorts’ without knowing why and a list of suggestions could help us narrow it down. In the world of me, all suggestions and ideas are welcome, and it matters less whether a theory is ‘right’ than whether it is helpful.

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