I was talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs the other day. Then I came across the above image today. It must be time to put down a few thoughts about the concept. The comparison of Maslow vs Lennon is actually a perfect springboard for some of my thoughts on the subject.
Abraham Maslow is credited with the concept of the hierarchy of needs. The pyramid diagram on his Wikipedia page is a more detailed presentation of the concepts than the one in the John Lennon comparision.
The bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, Physiological Needs, has a firm rooting in reality. Who can argue with the idea that air, food, and water are fundamental needs which much be addressed before any other needs can be considered? I don’t think placing sex at this bottom level makes sense. It probably just shows some influence from Wilhelm Reich on Maslow’s thinking, (or at least on whoever made this graphic). The rest of the bottom layer however seems pretty solid. Though one’s culture may have a lot to say about the way these needs are met in practice, they are basic biological needs which do not vary from culture to culture.
The second layer, Safety Needs, also has a firm foundation in reality. I think the best way of describing this is that it is just the same physiological needs only in the future. If you have food now, level one is under control, but if food next week is uncertain, your level two need isn’t being met. As with placing sex in the first layer, the way this is described in the graphic begins to wander from the moorings. Property and security of property can fit in here, but just placing property at this level seems excessive to me. It’s not clear to me that the security of a Rolex watch or Ferrari belongs at this level. Property such as a coat in the winter, a pot to cook in, or a craftsman’s tools seem to be the kind of property which might fit. Family is also debatable here. It certainly fits for a child, but mostly as a need for the older generation to provide the rest of the list. As one transitions to adulthood, the dependence on the older generation lessens. Certainly when an adult has dependent children, his needs include providing these needs for his children. Merely placing the word “family” at this level without defining what about family pertains to this level is not very helpful. Family shows up again higher on the pyramid, and I think that’s a better place for it. Certainly the morality of others can have a large effect on one’s ability to plan for future needs, but morality covers a lot of ideas, not all of them well defined, so it strikes me as strange to see it listed. The details of this safety level will vary much more than the first level from culture to culture, since cultures vary quite a bit in how they provide for future needs. Certainly what kind of property belongs here is culturally specific. Many items often included in the list of second level needs were only introduced into western culture in the last couple of centuries, hence must be more culturally specific than generally human.
The middle of Maslow’s pyramid also has grounding in human nature. “Psychological Needs” seems to me to be the worst way of describing it, since the definition of psychological needs depends a lot on the school of psychology involved. A better description is “Social Needs“, which specifically implies our need for connection with others. The shortest description I’ve seen is simply “Love“. Whoever created the Maslow/Lennon juxtaposition missed an opportunity in not following that precedent by simply naming the center of Maslow’s pyramid Love. Calling it love is more poetic and evocative than social needs, but all of the ideas which love conjures up can distract us from what is really important about social needs. Adding “Belonging” to love is helpful in bringing it closer to social needs, but I think it loses something of what is really important here in that belonging feels somewhat static and what is important here is something dynamic. I think a good candidate for what really belongs in the layer above physiological and safety is a concept I’ve recently been exposed to from the world of occupational therapy: Participation. Once needs are met which insure the immediate and continuing survival of the individual, the individual needs something to participate in. Saying a person needs something “to do” does not capture it anywhere nearly as well. Participation involves a relationship with what is being done and the context it is being done in. Some of the fundamental forms of participation are simple things such as feeding and dressing oneself. When one is very sick, being fed by a caring person can be comforting and in way it is a form of participation in a relationship with the caregiver, but such passive participation is not fulfilling in the long term. A person needs to get back to active participation in such basic functions. Extending out from the basics, participation involves wider and wider contexts, family, neighborhood, social groups, even one’s country or the world at large. The specifics of this participation are highly culturally specific, since a culture defines the way a society functions and who can participate in what aspects and how.
John Lennon said in his song that All You Need Is Love, but I take that as poetic hyperbole. I’m sure he wasn’t suggesting that love was more necessary than food, it’s only reasonable to assume he meant after one had the more basic needs met. However, I think there is something which can be missed when you characterize love as a need. Love is an emotion, and it is an emotion which arises when a certain kind of need is being met. The need is, again, participation. We have a basic human need to participate in relationships with other humans. Love is a feeling which arises from that participation when the participation is working. Different forms of love arise from different forms of participation, with parents, children, friends, or lovers. Love is a secondary need which is fulfilled when the primary need for participation is fulfilled. Just as our need for lack of hunger is actually a need for food, our need for love is actually a need for participation. That being said, “All you need is love” sounds far better set to music than “All you need is participation”.
The worst problems with Maslow’s hierarchy are what happens in the levels above Social Needs, and they are serious problems. Placing terms like self-esteem and self-actualization at the top of the pyramid involves some unsupported assumptions. As I said in my post about Free Will, we don’t have a very good definition of what a self is. It’s hard to say who would even be having free will unless we can define who it is that is having the free will. Terms like self-esteem and self-actualization are even more problematic in that they invoke the word self directly. Self-esteem looks like another emotion, and again, an emotion can’t be a primary need, it is at best an indication of whether a need is being fulfilled or not. There is a useful concept behind the term, but the term itself is more of an impediment to understanding than a help. Self-esteem would mean that some self, which we don’t have a good definition for, feels good about itself. That could mean something good, or it could mean narcissism. The best definition for the idea that is being reached for by the term self-esteem would be the feeling which arises when one’s participation is working well and being acknowledged. Rather than the indirection involved in feeling self-esteem after a job well done, it seems more direct, and more like actual human nature, to say that it feels good to participate in a job well done. The participation is the need, and the emotion is the sign that the need is being met.
Self-actualization is even more of a problematic concept, not only do we have the ill-defined self, but this other ill-defined idea of actualization. If we just look at descriptions of self-actualization through the lens of participation it seems pretty clear that what is really being described is achievement of more effective and fulfilling forms of participation.
So, the first step to fix Maslow’s hierarchy is to remove the word self from it. Once the word self is removed, all of the top three levels can be replaced with participation. You could try to further characterize participation in to levels to indicate how fulfilling it is, but I’m not sure it’s easy or fruitful. There are a number of ways to measure one’s participation. for example participation can vary in breadth and depth. But how does one compare on a linear scale having a profound effect on a single person with having a minor effect on a very large number of people? How about the varying importance of participating with family, friends, neighborhood, town, country, the world, on-line community … I’m not sure trying to present it in a hierarchy is a good thing. The valuation of of the participation is something which happens inside the individual according to the emotions felt as a result of the participation or in others measured by how much the participation is appreciated.
It’s interesting how employment in our society straddles levels. It’s nice to know one has a job which will cover the level two needs, but providing jobs for the poor which only cover level two needs will not heal society of poverty, since it will leave the level three need unfilled. If you want people to stay employed, the employment should also help fulfill their level three need of participation.
The psychological concept of the self can be traced back to a number of thinkers, such as Descartes, but it was Freud and his successors who developed it into a concept with such a profound effect on the culture of the 20th century. This conceptual atomization of society into separate selves has not been beneficial for the individuals or the society. Maslow’s hierarchy separates the needs of this atomic self from the needs of society and places them at the top of the hierarchy, above social needs, as if this atom has inner needs which supersede those of the society in which the the individual is embedded. But this atomic self has never been well defined, or even shown to exist. If one looks at actual humans, once the basic survival needs are met, and the constant worry about tomorrow’s survival is alleviated, then a human’s overriding need is to participate in society. In a sense, we are our participation, our very identity is entangled with it. Who we feel ourselves to be changes with our participation in society. There is far more real evidence for this than there is for the atomic psychological self. When a human is cut off from a functional participation in society, whether due to physical disability, economics, discrimination, what have you, that human feels distress. When impediments are removed and the person is able to participate, the distress is relieved. When the participation is acknowledged and appreciated by other individuals or a social group, the participant feels emotions variously described as self-esteem, fulfillment, and yes, even love.
So sure John, nitpicking over primary or secondary needs aside, if you’re feeling love, it must be a sign that things are working. We all need to be in a place where we feel that. So I’d rather throw in with Lennon’s simple formula than Maslow’s selfish one: