Inverting the Maslovian Hierarchy of Needs
24 September 2015
Perhaps one of the most familiar psychological ideas of our time is the Maslovian hierarchy of needs, and the most familiar form of the exposition of the hierarchy of needs is that of a pyramid resting on a broad base of physiological needs, culminating with self-actualization at the peak of the pyramid.
In one of Maslow’s briefest expositions of the hierarchy of needs he wrote:
“Man is a hierarchy of needs, with the biological needs at the base of the hierarchy and the spiritual needs at the top.”
Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, p. 186
To fully appreciate Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and his humanistic pyschology which serves as the conceptual framework of the hierarchy of needs, all of this must be understood in comparison to (and indeed in contradistinction to) the tradition of Freudian psychodynamic psychology, which, when Maslow was writing, was the dominant school of thought in psychology.
Freud began as a physician, and approached the human psyche as a physician. “Success” in Freudian psychology is formulated in the most minimal and modest way imaginable — this is the famous idea that, “…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness” (cf. From Neurotic Misery to Ordinary Human Unhappiness). Freud did not focus on what makes an individual mentally healthy, but on treating specific pathologies. Patients came to him with problems, and he tried to cure them. The cure was considered efficacious if the patient was relieved of their neurotic misery and returned to a condition of ordinary human unhappiness.
Maslow had something very different in mind. His systematic works like The Psychology of Being don’t focus on the treatment of specific pathologies but instead seek to understand and define the human person in its optimal state of being, especially in relation to “peak experiences” and self-fulfillment. Ordinary human unhappiness is not good enough for Maslow; he wants to see the healthy individual converge upon a state of psychological self-actualization in which the highest spiritual goods are realized and personal fulfillment is achieved.
All of this sounds wonderfully inspirational, but I am deeply troubled with the implications of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the same way that I am deeply suspicious of Erikson’s stages of personality development. There is a perennial human tendency (perhaps rooted in a cognitive bias) to mistake (or even to twist) a description into a prescription, transforming an analysis into a norm. Thus one might say that if you aren’t experiencing the particular psychosocial crisis that Erikson has defined for the stage of life in which you find yourself at present, then there is obviously something wrong with you and that you aren’t developing naturally or normally. Similarly, it might be asserted that if you are not going about clambering up the hierarchy of needs in an orderly and linear fashion, starting with the satisfaction of your physiological needs and gradually working your way up to spiritual self-actualization, then there is something wrong with you, and you need to start over and get it right next time.
One cannot, of course, blame Maslow or Erickson for he dumbed-down versions of their ideas that have filtered into mass consciousness by way of simplified expositions in the mass media, but there are insidious assumptions built into the hierarchy of needs (and, for that matter, Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development) that are intrinsic even to the most refined and sophisticated expositions.
Let me start with something basic — something drawn from the most fundamental physiological human needs. Even if you are tired, hungry, thirsty, and cold, if you see a violent mob moving in your direction you are going to run the other way to keep yourself alive, despite your immediate physiological needs. While these physiological needs are the basis of human well being, I can’t imagine Maslow telling someone about to be murdered by a mob that they ought to get something to eat and drink, put on more layers of clothing, and then get a good night’s rest before running to save their lives. This is the reductio ad absurdum of the hierarchy of needs, and such an observation in no way vitiates the overall scheme, insofar as any general scheme must admit of exceptions.
If that were all, appropriate exceptions could be built into the hierarchy of needs to accommodate immediate exigencies, but that isn’t all. The very idea that our moral life is a distant and expensive luxury that occurs at a peak of self-fulfillment and self-actualization (perhaps reserved for exemplary individuals) is so profoundly misleading that it falsifies what it means to be human.
Let us consider another example. If you find yourself isolated, without friends or family, and thus lacking all the components of love and belonging — and, to formulate this even more strongly, perhaps you see no way whatsoever of lifting yourself out of this isolation — and you use this isolation to focus on the fulfillment of a higher creative or moral calling (instead of fruitlessly expending your energies trying to fulfill this level of the hierarchy of needs, in order to move up to the next level in an orderly and purposeful manner), is your flaunting of the hierarchy of needs a sign of your pathology?
Some of the greatest works of art in human history, the pinnacle of achievement of what would ordinarily be thought of as the work of exemplary individuals, have grown out of circumstances that seem to pervert every assumption built into the hierarchy of needs. Certainty there is sense in which the construction of great communal projects such as the Parthenon, Chartres cathedral, or the Taj Mahal rest on an established material and intellectual framework which is the civilizational equivalent of physiological needs, but the hierarchy of needs was formulated to describe individual psychology and not the functioning of exemplary civilizations (though it may be applicable to this also, mutatis mutandis). Certainly in some individuals we see a progressive fulfillment of needs from the physiological to the intellectual, but I don’t think that this is an adequate, or even a fair, portrayal of the further reaches of human nature.
I have often said that, “…I don’t believe that a person can get out of bed in the morning without implicitly having formulated a philosophical judgment that life is worth living and therefore there is a reason to get out of bed, and not merely to lie there and do nothing.” (cf. Doing Justice to Our Intuitions: A 10 Step Method). Taking this as the basis for all else that follows from this experience of the human condition, it is in this sense that I have used “raison d’être” as the foundation of an inverted hierarchy of needs (see illustration below). From the individual’s raison d’être at the foundations of an inverted hierarchy of needs there follows, in perfectly reverse order, the fulfillment of emotional and psychological drives eventually building up to the final satisfaction of physical drives and needs.
While it is true that if you do not have air you will die within minutes, and if you do not have water you will die within days, such immediate exigencies can be compared to the immediate exigencies noted above in relation to Maslow’s formulation of a hierarchy of needs: the existence of these immediate contingencies in no way vitiate the overall scheme. An inverted hierarchy of needs admits of certain exceptions. Granted these exceptions, I find this to be a more accurate depiction of actual human experience than Maslow’s version.
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A revised and expanded version of this can be found at Inverting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Revised and Expanded, as well as two addenda, Addendum on Inverting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Another Addendum on the Moral Psychology of Needs.
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