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When CIA Needs are Harmed


Explanations > Needs > CIA Fundamental Needs

Control | Identity | Arousal |  So what?


In the The CIA Needs Model, it is noted that it can be very helpful to understand human needs through the lens of three deep needs for how we feel: The Need for a Sense of Control, The Need for a Sense of Identity and The Need for Arousal.

As a part of understanding this, we may consider what happens when these needs are not met, or even harmed in some way.

Control harm

When our need for sense of control is negatively affected, we are effectively harmed, which leads to negative feelings.


Have you ever been given work where you have little or no control over those things you need to use to achieve your goals? Do you remember that deep sense of powerlessness and dread? Did your manager demand that you do impossible work and refuse to help? This is the 'setup to fail syndrome' whereby people are subjugated and power asserted over them.

You may get a similar feeling when you or a loved one are unwell and the doctors seem unable to help. The sense that nobody can help even if they want to, simply makes the helplessness worse as you realize there is no hope. In this way, a lack of control leads to significant discomfort.


In a stage beyond helplessness, we may get to a place where it is clear that something is irretrievably lost. This confirmation that we can never regain what is lost can be deeply distressing. It is as if as loved one has died, which is why it can tip us into the Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle.

Loss is a confirmation that we do not have full control or that those we trusted do not have full control or, and perhaps worst of all, that those we trusted cannot be trusted to supply the control we want. Betrayal leads to strong responses, which shows the power in loss of trust.

Identity harm

Just as harm may be done to our sense of control, so also can our identity be damaged.


One of the deep human needs associated with our sense of identity is for meaning in our lives. We want purpose, to achieve things, for meaning in even the small things that we do. When we feel that what we do has little or no meaning, then we are quickly demotivated.

In a simple demonstration of the power of meaninglessness, Ariely et al. (2008) paid subjects declining amounts to assemble Lego models. Some had successive models left on the table, even though they knew these would be disassembled afterwards. Others had the models they had just built disassembled in front of them. This second group gave up on the task much earlier.

One of the best ways to demotivate is to prevent a person from meeting their goals. In many workplaces, people are frustrated in their attempts to do good work and so their performance declines further.

Identity loss

If a person loses their sense of who they are, then a deep panic can set in. Identity loss is confusing and terrifying.

Cults use identity destruction, as do terrorist groups and intensive interrogators, using methods such as isolation, exhaustion and confession to break down the person and their self-image, reducing them to a nervous wreck before rebuilding them as ardent followers.

Bullies use similar, if not as extreme methods to cause people to doubt themselves and feel disconnected from others.

People in solitary confinement can also lose their sense of self. When we have no contact with others, we may even start to hallucinate.

Arousal harm

Our need for arousal covers physical, mental and emotional stimulation and experience. Harm can be done to any of these at either end of the scale of arousal.


If you put a person into a physical sensory deprivation tank, where they feel weightless as they float in a bath of blood-temperature brine and all other lights and sounds are cut off, then they will soon start to hallucinate.

Emotional under-arousal is that bland state when you feel very little. Mentally, people can suffer from abject boredom.

We all need stimulation, and if it is removed, our brains will either shut down or create something out of nothing for us. In either case, insufficient arousal is deeply disturbing.


Perhaps worse than under-arousal is when arousal is so high that the person cannot cope with the stress felt.

Physically, a boxer may be beaten senseless. Torture works often on physical overload, but can also wear down a person mentally or emotionally.

Intellectual overload can come from thinking too much or trying to understand complex ideas. Over-working can also cause breakdown. Emotional breakdown can appear when a person is emotionally engaged at a high level, whether it is in work or in personal life.

In the Yerkes-Dodson curve, a person under pressure seeks any way to get away from the stress and may eventually suffer a complete breakdown. Even good arousal can be too much and jouissance has been described as 'pleasure too great to bear'.

So what?

If you harm people's needs then they will either be much easier to persuade or could fight back, so be careful and understand the person when contemplating this.

Beware of your own desires leading you into situations where your needs are threatened as above.

See also

Yerkes-Dodson Law, Stress


Ariely, D., Kamenica, E. and Prelec, D. (2008). Man's Search for Meaning: The Case of Legos, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 67, 671–677


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