What Maslow Misses

For many years, any discussion of what people want has been shaped by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. His pyramid is perhaps one of the few tenets of psychology that could be referenced by any educated man or woman on the street (click for larger image on all charts).

Maslow jpeg

In reality, the 1943 paper that launched the pyramid, “A Theory of Human Motivation” now looks dated. The pyramid doesn’t recognise homo sapiens as being–if nothing else–social animals. Accordingly, the motivation for what we do is not so much to reach our own personal fulfilment but more to secure the appreciation of those around us–and thus reach our own personal fulfilment at one remove.

Of course, any evolutionary psychologist would emphasise that such acts may ultimately be selfish in terms of securing our genetic inheritance, but we still need others to get where we want to go. We don’t buy a BMW for the driving experience but rather as a signal to those around us of our wealth. Restated, to get what we need–whether sex, friends, family support or status– we must enlist the support of others. The psychologist Pamela Rutledge puts it this way in an article titled “Social Networks: What Maslow Misses“:

But here’s the problem with Maslow’s hierarchy. None of these needs — starting with basic survival on up — are possible without social connection and collaboration.

According to Rutledge, Maslows’ needs exist but there is no hierarchy. Rather, we strive for a variety of goals within a social setting.

Modern Maslow jpeg

I am now creating a connection with Aristotle and UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s conception of ‘the good life’ that I blogged on here.

In the speech introducing the Conservative Party manifesto, Cameron took a hunter gatherer approach to our needs. In this view, we occupy a very narrow circle of society composed of an inner circle of family and friends. Our needs are fulfilled by getting stuff for ourselves and our kids.

This vision is very different from the 2010 Conservative Party manifesto within which the Big Society loomed large. This was a wider view under which Maslow’s self-actualization was achieved through conservative communitarianism and a vibrant civil society.

The evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller would perhaps be a lukewarm supporter of the Big Society but he certainly would agree that the emerging fields of evolutionary psychology and sociology are opening up new approaches to politics. To Miller, both the left and right have either co-opted naive views of Darwinism or wrongly rejected Darwinism all together. Consequently, we are landed with such simplistic formulations as these:

For the right:

Human nature + free markets = consumerist capitalism

For the left:

The blank slate + oppressive institutions + invidious ideologies = consumerist capitalism

Miller’s book “Must Have: The Hidden Instincts Behind Everything We Buy” (which also goes under the title “Spent: Sex, Evolution and the Secrets of Consumerism“) sets out the social side of “wantability”. We don’t buy for us, we buy for the perception by others of us.

It’s a simple observation but has massive implications for society. In short, a self-aware society is able to take a far more objective view of our need to signal. We may laugh at the rich kid teenager who buys a Hummer, yet we all frantically signal just the same with anything and everything we do–from the university degrees we obtain, to the food we eat, the music we listen to, and the clothes we wear.

Overall, there appears a quiet revolution taking place in academia which is just percolating into the wider world. On the one hand, scholars of happiness and well-being are demonstrating that what we want is not necessarily what makes us happy. On the other hand, evolutionary psychologists tell us that we are spending vast quantities of time and money signalling to secure the favourable judgement of totally irrelevant others.

Such knowledge is very powerful. Unlike our primate cousins, our large social brains have given us an extraordinary ability for self reflection. Once we know that what we want doesn’t necessarily make us happy, we have the ability to override our automatic yearnings. This may require a bit more effort than practising contraception–which is also an override of our evolutionary drives–but it is not impossible.

Likewise, once we understand the game of evolutionary signalling, we can come to realize that so many of our signals are an utter waste of time. Do we really have to signal fitness, status and wealth to people we are not going to mate with, socialize with or even interact with in any meaningful way?




6 responses to “What Maslow Misses

  1. The pyramid doesn’t recognise homo sapiens as being–if nothing else–social animals.

    Somehow I seem to be looking at a different pyramid. After the bottom rung of physiological needs, every other level of need includes a large dollop of social interaction. What are “family, social stability, friendship, intimacy, sense of connection, respect of others and morality”, if not socially determined definitions of human needs?

    And as for the hierarchy; I think that there is a great deal of sense in assuming that a person needs to be alive before other needs become relevant. What good is social interaction without air, water, food and freedom from hypothermia?

    Some things make such basic sense that there is no need to re-invent them. Wheels, and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, both fit in that category.

    • Joe. Not really. Food, water, shelter, clothing, sleep all require social cooperation. As individuals we are inefficient at obtaining these things. Indeed, out on the savannah we would likely only last a few days outside of a group.

      And how have we evolved to obtain these things at the base of the pyramid? By using all those things in Maslow’s other layers. For example, creativity allows ones to obtain food, shelter and so on. We are big brained apes because we are physically weak apes.

      From an evolutionary psychology perspective all the “higher” Maslow needs are just variations on the key drivers of survival and reproduction. Self-actualisation is just sophisticated sex and survival strategy. And I stress sophisticated but not superior.

      There is no hierarchy here. We are just Darwin’s Galapagos finches who have evolved to occupy an evolutionary niche. All the higher pyramid stuff is no different from different coloured feathers or beak shapes. It’s not superior in any way to the lower pyramid stuff. It’s a package. A male peacock doesn’t first seek water, food, shelter and sex, and then grow a flamboyant tail. It is born to develop a flamboyant tail in order to secure sex.

  2. All the higher pyramid stuff is no different from different coloured feathers or beak shapes. It’s not superior in any way to the lower pyramid stuff.

    It was my understanding that the most important needs, those that are essential to the preservation of life, are those on the lower part of the pyramid. Maslow never used a pyramid to describe his hierarchy, so using it can confuse the order of importance, which starts with physiological needs as the most important. Our least important needs are at the top of the pyramid.

    Even those most important physiological needs are commonly listed in descending order, that is, those needs that, if not satisfied, are decreasingly lethal; air, shelter (clothing), water, sleep, food. One can live a lot longer without food than without air.

    I would wager that even those hunter-gatherers out on the savanna would agree with Maslow that some needs are more important than others. I can’t help but think that if anyone (or any group) had to choose which needs they would want satisfied first, they would rather breathe than have sex or have water to drink than enjoy the respect of others. How can you say that “there is no hierarchy here”?

    • OK. Let’s take an example. But first from the 1943 Maslow paper:

      “These basic goals are related to each other, being arranged in a hierarchy of prepotency. This means that the most prepotent goal will monopolize consciousness and will tend of itself to organize the recruitment of the various capacities of the organism. The less prepotent needs are [p. 395] minimized, even forgotten or denied. But when a need is fairly well satisfied, the next prepotent (‘higher’) need emerges, in turn to dominate the conscious life and to serve as the center of organization of behavior, since gratified needs are not active motivators.”

      So we are on the savannah in a situation of drought. A hunter gatherer grouping of 30-50 people perhaps (a typical Dunbar group). Each individual is water and food stressed.

      At this point, is each individual shutting down all the Maslow needs above the physiological? Will the “prepotent goal” monopolise consciousness? No, at this point, more than ever, individuals who wish to survive will be focusing on friendship, status and, dare I say it, meaning. Survivors will be within the group, not without it. And this applies doubly for the weaker members. These individuals, like the aged and the infirm, will be expending all their effort on relationship deepening. It’s the attributes at top of the hierarchy that will carry them through the drought not the bottom.

      If I’m being simplistic here it is through viewing the levels in the hierarchy as discrete. Actually, they are holistic. You can’t separate the need for friendship and food – they are all one thing.

  3. I largely agree with your critique of Maslow’s hierarchy, but I think that it would be (and has been) more effectively levelled at the top of the pyramid. Simply put, self-esteem needs are largely a product of individualist cultures and tend to be pursued by attaining status, which is frequently a zero-sum strategy when viewed at a group level. And don’t get me started on self-actualization, a poorly defined grab bag of niceties that includes several items that aren’t even needs (Morality? Creativity? What?)

    Anywho, I recently discovered this blog and have since read a good proportion of your archive. You have a fascinating and much-needed view. Thanks!

  4. Keenan. Thanks for the comments. Yes, I have some issues with self-actualization as well. At its worst, it sits too closely to narcissism for my liking (although the definition is so vague as to make the concept almost meaningless).

    Status is a funny thing. We all seek it even if in convoluted ways. I have just been reading a book called “Suffocation” by James Wallman. He chronicles the minimalist movement where status is secured by not having stuff. This blog is likely a status substitute. I have left a very high paying career to do a bunch of stuff the value of which isn’t measured financially. But I’m probably searching for a different kind of status, but status none the less.

    But I’m not sure is status is zero sum. Then again the happiness literature tells us that we get more happiness from having a mid-range car in a street of low-end cars as compared with a high-end car in a street of supercars. However, I think this is partly because we are incessantly pushed to value our lives that way.

    In the movie “The Theory of Everything”, Stephen Hawking’s wife Jane Wilde suffers a bout of depression and is advised to “join a choir”. Strangely, I’ve heard such a prescription in a variety of contexts. There is some semblance of status within a choir–the choir master and better singers–but overall status and respect come from the actions of this social group. In this case, it’s not really zero sum. The choir gives meaning to lives, a sense of self respect relative to others (basically status) and happiness.

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