Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is Great, But Wrong

Imagine being in an airplane accident that left you and five others stranded in a partially frozen over river, during a snow storm. You are all hanging on to debris and barely conscious from the crash, the cold water means you only have at most 45 minutes to live. After a time that seemed like ages, a helicopter comes comes in to save you all, but can only air lift one or two out at a time depending on size. You’re the most alert and seem able to respond, so the helicopter drops the line to you first. What do you do? Get the heck out of there right? Or maybe instead, you decide to give it to one of the survivors next to you, and the next, and the next until you’re the last one. But it’s too late, you saved the rest, but you just couldn’t take it any longer and slip away into the ice cold water.

Physiological and Safety Needs

Arland D. Williams Jr was exactly that person, who died sacrificing himself to let everyone go first in a tragic Air Florida Flight 90 crash in 1982. It’s what everyone would consider not physiologically conducive conditions and definitely not safe. When those needs aren’t met, according to Maslow we won’t be able to have our psychological needs met or self-fulfillment. He states that “all other needs may become simply non-existent or be pushed into the background.”. Clearly, Arland wasn’t really following the normal human theory of motivation.

Maslow introduced the Hierarchy of needs in 1943 in the “Psychological Review” Journal and called it “A Theory of Human Motivation”. He stressed the human factor and underscored that there was a difference between behavior and motivation. Indicating that behavior is usually motivated by what his theory provides. He also noted a key factor that our story of Arland may not account for and it is that “individuals in whom a certain need has always been satisfied who are best equipped to tolerate deprivation of that need in the future”.

So to refute Maslow’s claims we would need to find a story of sacrifice that involved someone who has never had the basic needs met; is that possible? Not really. Every single human being who is alive ultimately had “basic needs met” otherwise they would be dead. Since we are ultimately having our basic needs met every day, we then have to qualify “needs being met” with more than just not starving, or not dying, which is likely why Maslow had a problem fully proving his theory.

Technically everyone can move past the lower tier of “survival and safety” by not starving or freezing to death for some amount of time or in some consistent way. Arland was able to override the need for safety and physiological needs, is it because he had these lower needs met for longer? Or was it because there is something else he is aligning himself to?

Love and Esteem Needs

The need for “love, affection and belonging” is another clear need that Maslow defines. There are many studies involving the need for interaction and touch. For instance, Harry Harlow studied primates and their need for warmth, touch and interaction. The monkeys raised in isolation exhibited disturbed behavior. The primates also rather be held by a warm surrogate with no milk, than a cold hard surrogate with milk. Yet that also underscores another issue, that it wasn’t “Love” or “Affection” that the monkey was receiving, it was warmth, isn’t that more of a physiological thing? Also noteworthy is that, a major key in Harlow’s experiments seemed to be the need for social interaction, not necessarily love or warmth for that matter.

What about “esteem”? Some self confidence or belief that we can operate in this world is definitely necessary. Do we need to have been loved before having self esteem though? Probably not, but would we have needed some form of social interaction at all? Possibly, but a bigger problem is that we/Maslow are trying to have these as separate phases instead of something that happens in tandem. For example, similar to safety, we all needed to have some form of interaction to be alive today. It’s not possible to survive as a baby without someone taking care of us. Could it not be argued that, at a very early age we are developing a low level understanding of social interactions and even self esteem at that early of an age?

Self Actualization

According to Maslow, “the clear emergence of these needs rests upon prior satisfaction of the physiological, safety, love and esteem needs” and that “in our society, basically satisfied people are the exception, we do not know much about self-actualization, either experimentally or clinically”. The idea of self actualization is that we chase a goal that is “over and above” the prior basic needs; it serves a greater purpose. The term first used by Kurt Goldstein, and acknowledged by Maslow is used to describe someone who is actualizing their potential as a person.

While this feels like an important concept, why does it need to come only after the rest of the needs are satisfied? That is ultimately like saying, we cannot have a goal over and above survival and safety. We saw, in the Air Flight 90 disaster, that some people certainly can and do. Maybe we learn about ourselves and create something amazing, despite not belonging.

In fact, Maslow has several “aside” comments that leaves a lot of holes in the hierarchy. For example, one section “preconditions for the basic needs” discusses that things like freedom of expression, justice, self defense and curiosity are just as important as basic needs. That any blocking of these freedoms will result in similar “emergency reactions” and feelings as if we were starving. While this is true, it could end up being a completely different hierarchy and then we could ask why not build on top of those instead of physiological needs?

Maslow also notes several other “reversal” situations where he acknowledges that it doesn’t follow the hierarchy. For example he notes that some people hold self-esteem higher than love. Some creative people seem to be in a self-actualized state “in spite of lack of basic satisfaction”. Finally, he concludes that the needs aren’t about being 100% satisfied in each area. He uses the example of an average person and says they could theoretically be “85 per cent in his physiological needs, 70 per cent in his safety needs, 50 per cent in his love needs, 40 per cent in his self-esteem needs, and 10 per cent in his self-actualization needs.”

If this is the case, then what percentage “satisfaction” is a graduation to the higher level? How do we accurately identify “satisfaction”? There’s too many variables and as such, it seems to be the hierarchy should be changed.

A Different Hierarchy

Maslow did a great job going over various possible constructs that motivate us as humans and the need themselves seem to certainly be a key component of who we are. However, it seems to me that they can come in just about any order, at just about any time in our lives. That means that while it may not really be a hierarchy, it still seems to be a great way to look at potential areas that motivate us. What we could do from that perspective instead then is to give broad categories that are a little more cleanly separated. For example, when we discuss safety, is that “perceived” or “actual”? Then we can go as far as to say, what is actual? Is a person with a gun a perceived or actual threat to safety? Very few things are known for 100% fact, we can only assess things with the senses that we have available to us.

Instead of a hierarchy of needs, I propose a “network” of needs all interacting with each other, one not necessarily more important than the other. The emphasis on one or another primarily a result of the myriad of environmental as well as internal factors. One important note is that the idea of “feelings”, for example love and emotions are actually external from this breakdown, those are treated more like “signals” of a need and not the need themselves.

Network of Needs

  • Physiological -> Close to what Maslow proposes and includes the various chemicals involved in keeping us alive and functioning which includes the pleasure and pain centers. Dopamine releases and drugs are in this realm.
  • Interactive -> Similar to the “Love and Belonging” portion, except includes any external interaction, primarily social, but can extend beyond social. We interact with our enviornment and has a major influence on what motivates us.
  • Intellectual -> The cognitive portion, of predictions/assessments. This is the “theoretical” side of the fence, thinking about things outside of simply experiencing them.
  • Experiential -> Experiences and past events that can be the “default” reaction or intuition.

Notice for something like “safety”, it requires all four quadrants to drive / motivate. We cannot have or understand or be driven by safety without all of them. Similarly every area mentioned by Maslow like self esteem, is also based on all four areas. We have to have the right physiological break down, we have to interact with others in just the right way, we have to reason and think about things and have experiences that all together lead to our ability to have self esteem. Any one of them with just the right combination can come before or after another.

We can also just as easily divide these broad categories into much smaller ones and focus on the various ways we interact, the various things we experience, etc. In doing so we’d end up with a lot of smaller “blocks” again, all networked with each other, like a cognitive web all contributing to what is ultimately our “motivation” for doing what we do.

A Tribute and Lesson

Maslow came up with a lot of great concepts and only by building on concepts and ideas of the past can we create new ideas and possibilities. Whether this construct is better or more useful, as of right now it certainly isn’t. However, there are too many cases that simply don’t follow the “hierarchy” and I felt it is important to start to think outside of that box a little. There are children who haven’t had all their needs met and seem pretty “self actualized”, there are those who have not been loved ever and end up loving better than everyone else. What drives and motivates us includes the various areas Maslow speaks of, but it isn’t a hierarchy, it’s a network of complex interactions and depending on the infinite possibilities, various combinations that differ just slightly can produce completely different results.

We should not move through life thinking that we need “belonging” before having self esteem, we shouldn’t think we need to feel “accomplished” before we can achieve our potential. We are distinctly human because we can create our own algorithm and it is why people like Arland can do what he did. It’s why those who are “self actualized” can be anyone who has goals greater than themselves from a starving child, to an 80 year old millionaire. Find those goals and chase them.



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