Beyond Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

March 3, 2011

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

At the height of WWII, Abraham Maslow proposed a “hierarchy of human needs,” often depicted as a pyramid, where it was necessary for one need to be fulfilled in order to meet the next. By the mid-1950′s he had written a book popularizing this same idea. The theory is that lower needs, like food and shelter, capture our attention until they are met. Thereafter, “higher” needs, referred to as “self-actualization,” can then be attained.

Maslow’s notions became popular with marketers at a time when the USA was king. We were one of the few industrialize countries left untouched structurally by the ravages of war. Industry and advancement was an unquestioned good. Oil flowed freely, and the GI Bill offered returning soldiers a chance to take advantage, to “self-actualize,” as they never were able to before.

WWII also gave a tremendous boost to the field of psychology, as many tests were developed to rank, measure, and place thousands of people along an imaginary grid of ability, intelligence, and leadership qualities. In addition, the end of the war also gave a boost to clinical psychologists, who found a new group of patients, left violently impacted by the War, either through their experiences abroad or here at home, and now with new economic resources to spend in order to “better themselves.”

When we no longer had to concentrate on physiological need, the argument went, we humans could begin a journey toward self-discovery. “Safety” (securing your ‘stuff’) could be reached after physiological needs. Once that was secured, “Love and Belonging,” became a need to be realized. This was followed by “Esteem” of self and others, and finally, “Self-Actualization.”

All but the last group were considered building blocks- “D” or deficiency needs, necessary for self-actualization, but arising from deprivation. In contrast, self-actualization needs were “B” or “being” needs, “growth” needs, where notions of morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, freedom from prejudice, and “acceptance of the facts” allowed people to be free of the worry of what others thought, now possessing the capacity to live up to their “true potential.”

The distribution of wealth in the US, at the time Maslow wrote, was dramatically different than today. Today, one percent of the population continues to expand their wealth, while the remaining ninety-nine percent sink, making us now an “Underdeveloping Nation.”Image Removed

Many in the Peak Oil community accept Maslow’s paradigm without question, but this has serious implications for how we conduct our lives and our preps:

  • Does one set of needs have to be met before the next can be satisfied?
  • Does one improve one’s marginal existence first, or does developing community facilitate this improved standard of living for all?
  • Do we need to secure more “stuff” in order to build community?
  • Do poor people lack the capacity for creativity or self-pride?
  • If you are “busy putting on your oxygen mask first,” do you forget that a larger system supplied you with that oxygen mask to begin with?
  • Is property a more basic need than friendship, family, or sexual intimacy?
  • Does sex always precede sexual intimacy?
  • If we, in the wealthier countries, have the “foundations” for self-actualization, don’t we have an obligation to lead the rest of the world to do the same?
  • If some of us (wealthy/industrialized) have a superior grasp of the “facts” isn’t it our duty to shape reality for the remainder of the planet?
  • Are we so certain that bio-systems have no role to play in our self-actualization, that we destroy them without thought?

Another View

Development is about people, not about objects. Manfred Max-Neef

These notions of human “nature” have led to increasing poverty throughout the world, not to prosperity and self-actualization. While marketing theories have used Maslow’s work to promote increased consumptive patterns, this approach has resulted in massive debt and ecological devastation.

An alternative view proposed by Manfred Max-Neef, rejects the “hierarchy” notion, choosing instead to focus on a constellation of universal needs that are integrative and additive. These include:

  • Idleness (Relax)
  • Subsistence (Survive)
  • Freedom (Choose)
  • Affection (Love)
  • Identity (Belong)
  • Protection (Protect)
  • Understanding (Understand)
  • Creation (Create)
  • Participation (Stand Up)

Greed should be among those who have nothing. No. The more you have, the more greedy you become… Manfred Max-Neef

Image Removed

Chilean economist Max-Neef, proposed that human needs are few, finite and classifiable.

While the strategies may change in an attempt to meet them, the needs remain constant throughout the world, and at all times throughout history. In sharp contrast to a hierarchy, these needs are interrelated and interactive. This model replaces the notion that humans are driven by insatiable needs for consumption, replacing it with a notion of “satisfiers” which can either be genuine or false.

Max-Neef points out that an attempt to satisfy one need can inhibit or destroy others. For example, an ‘arms race’ satisfies the need for protection, while destroying the need for subsistence, freedom or participation. Materialism can express identity, while removing time for relaxation or subsistence of the biosphere. We have to learn to calculate the real costs of our needs, not just the obvious price-tag.

Formal democracy, which is supposed to meet the need for participation often dis-empowers and alienates; commercial television, while used to satisfy the need for recreation, interferes with understanding, creativity and identity – the examples are everywhere. Source

In contrast to satisfiers that violate or destroy, others are “synergic” where two or more satisfiers cooperate together for an even more gratifying outcome. Think of examples such as preventative medicine, group sing-a-longs, or breastfeeding. Every implementation of a satisfier has to be examined through the lens of its capacity to provide multiple benefits, or antagonisms to other satisfiers. In other words, we need to grasp the trade-offs. An essential feature of needs satisfaction is the evaluation of its benefits and costs.

While Western psychology has had a decidedly individual perspective, that model no longer fits the situation we’re facing. Embracing “Maslow’s Hierarchy” no longer fits the problems we are confronting. We have to get, on a cellular level, that run -away economic growth is no longer a possibility. We either get, or reject, our place in the biosphere. It isn’t some romantic notion. It is preparation for a life that’s dramatically different from the one we are living now.

You learn extraordinary things living among the poor.

” The first thing you learn [from people] in poverty is that there is an enormous creativity. You cannot be an idiot if you want to survive. Every minute you have to be thinking: “What next? What next right now? What can I do here? What’s this? da da da. Your creativity is constant. In addition there are networks of cooperation, mutual aid, all sorts of extraordinary things, which you no longer find in our dominant society. .. which is individualistic, greedy, egotistical, etc.

And sometimes, it is so shocking that you will find people happier in poverty than you would find in your own environment. Which also means that poverty is not just a question of money, it’s a much more complex thing.” Max-Neef Video Here

These are more than the words of an idealist. This is a comprehensive model of human “being”, a psychological view of humans that extend back well before the oil age, and will, if we survive, extend well into the future. Like Max-Neef, I listen to the stories of the poor, stories of survival, creativity, community. Unless we collectively begin to grasp the fundamental nature of this truth, and reject Petroleum-informed models of individualism–a belief that only wealth can bring tolerance and creativity–we will handicap ourselves beyond our imagination.

Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television. 

Tags: Building Community, Culture & Behavior