What are the human givens?


We are all born with innate knowledge programmed into us from our genes. Throughout life we experience this knowledge as feelings of physical and emotional need.

These feelings evolved over millions of years and, whatever our cultural background, are our common biological inheritance. They are the driving force that motivates us to become fully human and succeed in whatever environment we find ourselves in. It is because they are incorporated into our biology at conception that we call them 'human givens'.

Given physical needs: As animals we are born into a material world where we need air to breathe, water, nutritious food and sufficient sleep. These are the paramount physical needs. Without them, we quickly die. In addition we also need the freedom to stimulate our senses and exercise our muscles. We instinctively seek sufficient and secure shelter where we can grow and reproduce ourselves and bring up our young. These physical needs are intimately bound up with our emotional needs — the main focus of human givens psychology.

Given emotional needs: Emotions create distinctive psychobiological states in us and drive us to take action. The emotional needs nature has programmed us with are there to connect us to the external world, particularly to other people, and survive in it. They seek their fulfillment through the way we interact with the environment. Consequently, when these needs are not met in the world, nature ensures we suffer considerable distress — anxiety, anger, depression etc. — and our expression of distress, in whatever form it takes, impacts on those
around us.

People whose emotional needs are met in a balanced way do not suffer mental health problems. When psychotherapists and teachers pay attention to this they are at their most effective.

In short, it is by meeting our physical and emotional needs that we survive and develop as individuals and a species.

There is widespread agreement as to the nature of our emotional needs. The main ones are listed below.

Emotional needs include:


Security — safe territory and an environment which allows us to develop fully


Attention (to give and receive it) — a form of nutrition


Sense of autonomy and control — having volition to make responsible choices

Emotional intimacy — to know that at least one other person accepts us totally for who we are, “warts 'n' all”

Feeling part of a wider community

Privacy — opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience
Sense of status within social groupings
Sense of competence and achievement
Meaning and purpose — which come from being stretched in what we do and think.
  • Along with physical and emotional needs nature gave us guidance systems to help us meet them. We call these 'resources'.


  • The resources nature gave us to help us meet our needs include:

    The ability to develop complex long term memory, which enables us to add to our innate knowledge and learn


    The ability to build rapport, empathise and connect with others


    Imagination, which enables us to focus our attention away from our emotions, use language and problem solve more creatively and objectively

    Emotions and instincts

    A conscious, rational mind that can check out our emotions, question, analyse and plan

    The ability to 'know' — that is, understand the world unconsciously through metaphorical pattern matching
    An observing self — that part of us that can step back, be more objective and be aware of itself as a unique centre of awareness, apart from intellect, emotion and conditioning
    A dreaming brain that preserves the integrity of our genetic inheritance every night by metaphorically defusing expectations held in the autonomic arousal system because they were not acted out the previous day.

It is such needs and tools together that make up the human givens, nature's genetic endowment to humanity.

Over enormous stretches of time, they underwent continuous refinement as they drove our evolution on. They are best thought of as inbuilt patterns — biological templates — that continually interact with one another and (in undamaged people) seek their natural fulfilment in the world in ways that allow us to survive, live together as many-faceted individuals in a great variety of different social groupings, and flourish.

It is the way those needs are met, and the way we use the resources that nature has given us, that determine the physical, mental and moral health
of an individual.

As such, the human givens are the benchmark position to which we must all refer — in education, mental and physical health and the way we organise and run our lives. When we feel emotionally fulfilled and are operating effectively within society, we are more likely to be mentally healthy and stable. But when too many innate physical and emotional
needs are not being met in the environment, or when our resources are used incorrectly, unwittingly or otherwise, we suffer considerable distress. And so do those around us.


Benefits of the human givens approach


Starts from a solid understanding of the essential needs and resources we all have


Uses the most effective psychotherapeutic techniques from a wide range of approaches


Applies the latest understandings from neuroscience and psychological research

Provides an holistic way of working with patients and enables therapy to be tailored to individual needs

Patients respond quicker and it is suitable for even the most severe patients

More information:

Where did the human givens ideas come from?

Why is the human givens approach important for psychotherapy?

Why we need to understand healthy minds

Click here to watch a video by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell explaining why the human givens approach is necessary.

See the Human Givens Institute's online archive, for a wide selection of articles, several of which discuss new insights and many others show how the human givens approach is improving the work of professionals in a wide range of fields.


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