Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Frustration of basic psychological needs

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Frustration of basic psychological needs:
What causes frustration of basic psychological needs and what are the consequences?
Figure 1. Aarrrgghh (Wikimedia Commons, 2021)

Overview[edit | edit source]

Most people have experienced the euphoria of achievement, and mastering important milestones, such as riding a bicycle or graduating from college. People's happiest memories often involve feeling deeply connected to other people, such as during family holidays or falling in love. Additionally, many people opt for tree- or sea-changes in response to yearning for a lifestyle free of obligations and responsibilities, and to live close to one's own values. The reason these life experiences feel good is because they satisfy our basic psychological needs and provide intrinsic reward and enjoyment. However, life experiences change when these needs are unmet, and especially when they are frustrated.

This book chapter will:

  1. identify the underpinning theory
  2. look at what basic psychological needs are
  3. define frustration; and
  4. examine causes and situations where this occurs.

Theoretical constructs[edit | edit source]

Basic psychological needs theory (BPNT) is one of the six sub-theories of self-determination theory (SDT). SDT is a theory of personality and motivation concerning people's inborn inclination to, and need for, growth and development. It is concerned with the motivation behind the choices people make for their own volition, without being influenced by others (Koole, et al, 2019). A well-known sub-theory of SDT is Maslow's hierarchy of needs (Figure 2), and is depicted as a pyramid with levels. In ascending order, the pyramid begins with basic physiological needs, basic psychological needs (BPNs), and finally more advanced needs. The model implies that, beginning at the base, one can only progress to the next level when the previous need has been met. Furthermore, the satisfaction of all needs will lead to the stage of self-actualisation.

Satisfying BPNs is a requirement to become a fully-functioning human being (Ryan & Deci, 2017). BPNs assist the development of intrinsic and internalised motivation for engagement in important life skills, and pro-social behaviours which contribute to wellbeing (Vansteenkiste et al., 2020). Intrinsically motivated activities are deeply satisfying and self-sustaining as they produce their own reward, as opposed to goals which are directed by extrinsic motivation such as praise, money, or to avoid negative outcomes (Ryan & Deci, 2017; Reeve & Lee, 2018). Frustration of BPNs can result in external regulation, motivation that derives from trying to meet these external expectations (Reeve & Lee, 2018); or introjected regulation, to escape feeling guilty or worthless (Warburton et al., 2020).

Self determination theory - Types of extrinsic motivation
Type Motivation behind the behaviour
External regulation Anticipation of reward or punishment
Introjected regulation Obligation, to avoid guilt or boost self-esteem
Identified regulation Valuing the behaviour as important
Integrated regulation Aligning with the individual's own values and self-identity

Table 1. Four types of intrinsic motivation (Reeve, 2018.)

Figure 2. Maslow's hierarchy of needs (Wikimedia Commons, 2020)

Ongoing external or introjected regulation can lead to a wide range of negative outcomes, such as burn-out and low mood in athletes (Bartholomew et al., 2011), and poor functioning in work (Trepanier et al., 2016), study (Jang et al., 2016), romantic relationships (Kindt et al., 2016) and physical exercise (Teixeira et al., 2018). Frustration of BPNs can also lead to compensatory-type behaviours, including, inflexible patterns of behaviour, such as study or exercise routines, in seeking a sense of safety and predictability (Ryan & Deci, 2000), oppositional defiance, aggression and delinquency, in attempts to resist feeling controlled, problematic usage of computer gaming and dating apps, in seeking connection with others and intimacy, and dysfunctional eating and body-image fixation (Vansteenkiste et al., 2020). Hence, frustration of BPNs can hinder the development of a coherent self-identity, and result in emotional dis-regulation, disengagement, and multiple forms of maladjustment to life (Vansteenkiste et al., 2020).

What is frustration of basic psychological needs?[edit | edit source]

Frustration of BPNs is different from neglect, which is merely the absence of something. Frustration implies a stronger process that actively prevents needs being met (Ryan & Deci, 2017). Human beings have a natural tendency to gravitate towards growth-eliciting experiences under supportive circumstances, so when they are prevented from doing so, this can impact their development and life satisfaction, health and well-being (Vansteenkiste et al., 2020). The following scenario distinguishes between psychological need frustration as opposed to neglect.

A university assignment is designed to present optimal development opportunities for students. Simply not engaging in the task would be neglectful of a student's competence. However, if a student had numerous questions about an assignment and in seeking advice and guidance was provided with information that was incorrect, in a language they didn't understand, the lecturer was consistently unavailable, or they couldn't access the resources they needed, this may result in frustration of their need for competence, autonomy and even relatedness.

What are the basic psychological needs?[edit | edit source]

BPNs have been defined as universal "psychological nutrients" that are essential to create and sustain a person's optimal functioning, personal growth and wellbeing (Ryan & Deci, 2017). These basic needs direct people to become self-organised, well-adjusted, and to flourish (Vansteenkiste et al., 2020). BPNT identifies three BPNs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy relates to having a sense of control and choice over one's decisions; competence involves developing and mastering skills and knowledge to be able to function well in life; and relatedness refers to the need for at least some relationships to be based on closeness, warmth and caring. Cases for the inclusion of other psychological needs have been argued; however, these three have been shown to be universal across personalities, developmental history, cultures, genders and ages (Vansteenkiste et al., 2020). These needs may vary in intensity or importance to some extent according to the individual's personality and personal priorities, the situational context, and the probability of satisfying these needs (McClelland, 1985).

Figure 3. Basic psychological needs (Wikimedia Commons, 2020)

Having one's psychological needs met promotes adaptive functioning, vitality, personal growth, health and wellbeing (Ryan & Deci, 2017). Currently, there is little research exploring the frustration of these BPNs. The reality is that frustration is very common, and that most social contexts are a mixture of elements that both support and thwart growth and wellbeing (Reeve & Lee, 2018). Bartholomew et al. (2011) refers to these two processes in the dual process model, as the "bright side" and "dark side" of relationships (Figure 4), indicating the benefits of BPNs being met and the costs involved when they are frustrated. Additionally, whether one attributes a need as being satisfied or frustrated can fluctuate from day-to-day or during the course of a day (Sheldon, Ryan, & Reis, 1996).

What are the causes of frustration?[edit | edit source]

The social environment is key in either supporting or thwarting one or more of these BPNs (Ryan & Deci, 2017) as demonstrated in the following case study.

Case Study: In My Blood It Runs (Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, 2019).

10-year old Dujuan, grew up in Alice Springs where he lived with his mother, maternal grandmother and younger siblings. Dujuan was struggling with the school curriculum that was delivered in English - his second language - and he worried that he would be removed from his family for falling behind. Additionally, he found failing to obtain satisfactory grades humiliating and demotivating. Faced with poor report cards and increasing disengagement in the classroom, Dujuan began to truant and to explore his outback surroundings with his brother and friends instead, thereby giving him a greater sense of freedom, purpose and connection with others.

In response to growing boredom and frustration, Dujuan joined the other youths at night becoming involved in petty crime and was on the pathway to juvenile detention, where Indigenous children as young as 10 are incarcerated in detention centres in the Northern Territory. Strain theory can provide an explanation as to why young people join gangs and how a lifestyle of petty crime can satisfy unmet basic psychological needs. We see this in Dujuan’s story as he began to develop skills in stealing cars, thus increasing his sense of control and competence, while at the same time being esteemed by his peers for these developing skills.

In desperation, Dujuan’s mother and grandmother sent Dujuan to live with his father in a remote community in the Gulf of Carpentaria. This appears to be the turning point for Dujuan: It is here we see him engaged in the local school that taught Aboriginal language and culture, completing his homework, and spending time with his father fishing and hunting, learning new skills and developing his connection with family and country.

Dujuan flew to Geneva at the time of the release of this documentary to appear at the Human Rights Council to advocate for the raising of the legal age of juvenile detention from 10 to 14, in line with the average age of incarceration in the global population.

Fostering support of another's BPNs requires awareness and specific skills (Reeve, 2018); as a result, many social situations and environments fall short of ideal. Adverse childhood experiences can thwart BPNs (Afifi et al., 2017). These include child abuse and neglect (physical, emotional and sexual), exposure to domestic and family violence, and other parental events and behaviours such as divorce or separation, substance abuse, mental illness, suicide, and jail terms (Afifi et al., 2017).

Figure 4. Dual-process model in supportive and thwartive relationships (Reeve, 2018.)
Figure 5. Immediate and long-term consequences of corporal punishment (spanking) (Reeve, 2018)

What are the consequences of frustration?[edit | edit source]

Thwarting BPNs can result in a wide range of maladaptive developmental and situational outcomes, including self-centredness, passive resignation, defensiveness, aggression, and misery (Ryan & Deci, 2020). Situations often involve more than one BPN, and these intersect with physiological needs as well as each other (Vanskeenkiste et al., 2020). The sections below will provide specific examples of frustration for each BPN.

Autonomy-frustration[edit | edit source]

History demonstrates the effects of colonialism from the late 18th century, which suppressed and denied the basic human rights and autonomy of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Dispossessed of their land, and denied the right to practice cultural traditions or to speak their native languages, many Indigenous people have developed high rates of chronic disease, distress and mental health disorders, such as depression, alcohol and other drug dependencies, and are overrepresented in the criminal and justice system (Hamptom & Toombs, 2013).

Slavery provides another extreme example, which has been cited as one of the most psychologically traumatic events from which some victims never fully recover (Longman-Mills et al., 2019). Slavery and kidnapping impact mood, behaviour, and cognition in ways consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (Longman-Mills et al., 2019). These include "fear, anxiety, denial, sadness, dissociation and guilt wth surviving, as well as extreme helplessness and hopelessness" (Longman-Mills et al, 2019) Typical behaviours include "social withdrawal, hypervigilance, hyperarousal, avoidance of reminders of the event, and irritability"; while cognitive reactions include deficits in memory and concentration, flashbacks and confusion (Longman-Mills et al, 2019).

Additionally, controlling and punitive school, sport or work pressures can undermine enjoyment or satisfaction in one's achievements, and leave participants feeling emotionally and physically drained (Ryan et al., 2009). Warburton et al., (2020) illustrate the pressure to compete in sport from parents, coaches, sporting associations and spectators, which can lead to amotivation, low functioning, and adverse outcomes (Reeve & Lee, 2018).

Competence-frustration[edit | edit source]

A classic example of competence-frustration occurs during toddlers' developmental years, the 'terrible-twos'. As many parents will testify, children often have overwhelming feelings of frustration in not being able to try out and fulfil desired activities, resulting in emotional outbursts or tantrums. The consistent frustration of the development of skills can lead to feelings of failure, inadequacy, uselessness and helplessness (Vanskeenkiste et al., 2020), and result in amotivation (Reeve, 2018) and learned helplessness (Seligman, 1972).

In examining the impact of intrinsic motivation on physical exercise levels, Ryan et al. (2009) found that when faced with non-optimal and overwhelming challenges, incompetence and disengagement are experienced. This finding can be exemplified as a person embarking on a healthy exercise and eating regime, that, at first, feels overwhelmed. Subsequently, it is all too easy for this person to give up, and instead, reach for that Tim Tams packet and switch on Netflix.

Sports injuries can be competence-frustrating experiences which can lead to the emotional responses of frustration, depression, anger and anxiety (Johnston & Carroll, 1998). Frustration can increase if rehabilitation is viewed negatively, and these negative emotions can lead to exercise withdrawal. Li et al. (2019) found that frustration of BPNs in university athletes was associated with higher stress levels which negatively impacted attention, neuromuscular control and immune responses which then contributed to sports injury. Injured athletes respond in two ways, they may become disillusioned, leading to apathy and amotivation, or they may divert their vital energy into other meaningful and intrinsically rewarding pursuits (Li et al., 2019). Social support for the satisfaction of basic psychological needs was crucial for fostering internalisation of behaviours which lead to maintaining these behaviours over time (Ryan et al., 2009).

Competence-frustration can be a regular daily occurrence in response to critical feedback on task performance at work or at home. This can lead to people becoming discouraged and disengaged (Ryan et al, 2009). Criticism of one's skills or competence is one of the leading contributors to relationship breakdown and divorce (Gottman & Silver, 2015).

Relatedness-frustration[edit | edit source]

Effects of relatedness-frustration include feeling excluded, socially isolated, lonely, and craving security (Vansteenkiste et al., 2020). Extreme relatedness-frustration can be seen in the 'Stolen Generations', where the government-sanctioned removal of Indigenous children from their families during the mid-1800s to the 1970s. This practice contributed to intergenerational trauma, the psycho-socio-economic effects of which are still evident today, such as a pervasive feeling of shame and worthlessness, anxiety, loss of identity and belonging, mental and physical ill-health, and poverty (Hamptom & Toombs, 2013).

Relatedness-frustration is also outlined in the increased rates of loneliness and social isolation in developed countries, especially in the older generation (Campagne, 2019; Fakoya et al, 2020). 50% of people over the age of 60 are at risk of social isolation and loneliness, and 33% will experience social isolation as they age. The health risks of loneliness and social isolation have been equated to those of smoking, obesity and lack of exercise, and attributed to a wide range of negative health outcomes, including compromised immunity to infection, cognitive decline, depression and dementia (Fakoya, 2020).

A final example of relatedness-frustration is corporal punishment, or 'spanking' of children, which can damage attachment to primary care givers and result in life-long problematic interpersonal relationships (Gershoff et al., 2018). Spanking can result in impaired emotional regulation and social skills through a lower internalisation of socially-acceptable attitudes (Afifi et al., 2017), and can be replaced with an aggressive and violent style of managing conflict, learned through observation, modelling and the justification of violence (Gershoff et al., 2018). Spanking does not teach children the value of the desired behaviour, effective communication and problem-solving skills, or the impact of their behaviour on others (Hoffman, 1983). Spanking is a form of child abuse (Afifi et al., 2017) which can disrupt children's ability to form close and trusting relationships and to behave in appropriately social ways (Gershoff et al, 2018). This poor self-control and aggression can continue throughout the lifespan manifesting in delinquency, abuse of alcohol and street drugs, depression, suicide attempts, domestic and family violence and criminal behaviour (Afifi et al., 2017; Simons et al., 1998), as depicted in Figure 5, in addition to an increased risk of cancer, cardiac disease and asthma (Hyland et al., 2013).

Quick quiz[edit | edit source]

Note: There are no right or wrong answers, the questions are merely designed to prompt reflection.

1 When have your basic psychological needs been frustrated?

At school or university
With parents
In romantic relationships

2 How has this affected your motivation?

Anger has motivated me to try harder to achieve my goals
I gave up trying
I tried to please others at my own expense

3 Knowing what you know now, would you handle a similar situation differently?

Yes I would try advocate for myself more strongly
No, I usually just give in
I could possibly develop better negotiating skills

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

To conclude, the satisfaction of BPNs is essential for optimal functioning, personal growth and wellbeing. Few people have full control over their lives and circumstances or how other people treat them. Therefore, frustration frequently occurs when BPNs are actively blocked in interpersonal relationships and social situations, most of which provide a mixture of need-satisfaction and need-frustration. Since it requires awareness, care and skills to support the psychological needs of others, children are especially vulnerable when parents and other significant people in their lives disregard and even abuse their needs in pursuit of satisfying their own. Frustration of BPNs can result in severe consequences throughout the lifespan, such as an inability to form secure, close and rewarding relationships, a continued cycle of domestic and family violence, aggression, negative physical and mental health outcomes, and criminal and other antisocial activities. Frustration can also prevent the achievement of life goals in employment, education, sport and social contexts. Many of these social situations promote external regulation which can result in low achievement, overwhelm, amotivation and learned helplessness. Additionally, frustration of BPNs can result in discouragement, high stress levels, lowered immunity, and disengagement. Social support has been found to be key in preventing and coping with frustration, in assisting an internalisation of positive attitudes and behaviours which leads to an intrinsically rewarding life.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Afifi, T. O., Ford, D., Gershoff, E. T., Merrick, M., Grogan-Kaylor, A., Ports, K. A., MacMillan, H. L., Holden, G. W., Taylor, C. A., Lee, S. J., & Bennett, R. P. (2017). Spanking and adult mental health impairment: The case for the designation of spanking as an adverse childhood experience. Child Abuse & Neglect, 71, 24-31.

Australian Broadcasting Association. (2019). In my blood it runs [Film]. Australia.

Bartholomew, K., Ntoumanis, N., Ryan, R., Bosch, J., & Thøgersen-Ntoumani, C. (2011). Self-Determination Theory and Diminished Functioning. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(11), 1459-1473.

Campagne, D. (2019). Stress and perceived social isolation (loneliness). Archives Of Gerontology And Geriatrics, 82, 192-199.

Buzzai, C., Sorrenti, L., Costa, S., Toffle, M., & Filippello, P. (2021). The relationship between school-basic psychological need satisfaction and frustration, academic engagement and academic achievement. School Psychology International, 014303432110171.

Fakoya, O. A., McCorry, N. K., & Donnelly, M. (2020). Loneliness and social isolation interventions for older adults: a scoping review of reviews. BMC public health, 20(1), 1-14.

Gershoff, E. T. (2002). Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 128(4), 539–579.

Gershoff, E., Sattler, K., & Ansari, A. (2018). Strengthening causal estimates for links between spanking and children’s externalizing behavior problems. Psychological Science, 29(1), 110-120.

Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work. Harmony.

Hampton, R., & Toombs, M. (2013). Indigenous Australians and health. Oxford University Press Australia & New Zealand.

Hoffman, M. L. (1983). Affective and cognitive processes in moral internalization. Social cognition and social development (pp. 236–274). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hyland, M. E., Alkhalaf, A. M., & Whalley, B. (2013). Beating and insulting children as a risk for adult cancer, cardiac disease and asthma. Journal of behavioral medicine, 36(6), 632–640.

Jang, H., Kim, E. J., & Reeve, J. (2016). Why students become more engaged or more disengaged during the semester: self-determination theory dual-process model. Learning and Instruction 43, 27-38.

Johnston, L. H., & Carroll, D. (1998). The context of emotional responses to athletic injury: a qualitative analysis. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 7(3), 206-220.

Kindt, S., Vansteenskiste, M., Loeys, T., & Goubert, L., (2016). Helping motivation and well-being of chronic pain couples: A daily diary study. Pain. 157, 1551-1562.

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Li, C., Ivarsson, A., Lam, L. T., & Sun, J. (2019). Basic psychological needs satisfaction and frustration, stress, and sports injury among university athletes: a four-wave prospective survey. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 665.

Longman-Mills, S., Mitchell, C., & Abel, W. (2019). The psychological trauma of slavery: The Jamaican case study. Social and Economic Studies, 68(3), 79-101,263-264.

McClelland, D. C. (1985). How motives, skills, and values determine what people do. American Psychologist, 40(7), 812–825.

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion (7th ed.). Wiley Custom.

Reeve, J., & Lee, W. (2018). A neuroscientific perspective on basic psychological needs. Journal Of Personality, 87(1), 102-114.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guildford Press.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2020). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Ryan, R. M., Williams, G. C., Deci, H. P, & Deci, E. L. (2009) Self-determination theory and physical activity: The dynamics of motivation in development and wellness. Hellenic Journal of Psychology, 6, 107-124.

Salvagioni, D. A. J., Melanda, F. N., Mesas, A. E., González, A. D., Gabani, F. L., & Andrade, S. M. D. (2017). Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies. PloS one, 12(10), e0185781.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1972). Learned helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine. 23(1): 407–412.

Sheldon, K., Ryan, R., & Reis, H. (1996). What makes for a good day? Competence and autonomy in the day and in the person. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(12), 1270-1279.

Teixeira, D., S., Silva, M. N., & Palmeira, A. L. (2018.) How does frustration make you feel? A motivational analysis in exercise context. Motivation and Emotion, 42, 419-428.

Trepanier, S. G., Fernet, C., & Austin, S. (2016.) Longitudinal relationships between workplace bullying, basic psychological needs, and employee functioning: A simultaneous investigation of psychological need satisfaction and need frustration. European Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 25, 690-706.

Vansteenkiste, M., Ryan, R., & Soenens, B. (2020). Basic psychological need theory: Advancements, critical themes, and future directions. Motivation And Emotion, 44(1), 1-31.

Warburton, V., Wang, J., Bartholomew, K., Tuff, R., & Bishop, K. (2020). Need satisfaction and need frustration as distinct and potentially co-occurring constructs: Need profiles examined in physical education and sport. Motivation And Emotion, 44(1), 54-66.

External Links[edit | edit source]