In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced his theory on the Hierarchy of Needs, which he later developed further. This theory and the graphical representation of human needs in the form of a pyramid (a triangle to be more accurate) became very famous in both academia and popular culture.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was and even still is a very popular framework of what people need and want and what drives human behaviour. The appeal of this framework – the hierarchy of needs – resides in its intuitive nature.
If we think, but not too much, about what people want and need it makes sense that the fundamental layer is that of physiological needs such as food, water, clothes, excretion and sex.
The next, higher, level is that of safety and security and once again it makes sense that after people having what to eat they will want and need to feel safe, to have shelter from the elements, to be and feel safe from aggression and so on.
Going even further to the next level on the hierarchy of needs, it makes sense that after satisfying the physiological and safety needs, one will need and want to belong, to have good relationships with family and friends.
The next level up the Hierarchy of needs is that of esteem which includes needs such as being respected, fame and glory. Again, it makes perfect sense (at first glance) that after having covered the physiological needs, being safe and belonging to a social group an individual will want to feel and be respected by society and to enjoy some fame and even glory.
The next and final level of the framework is that of self-actualization which includes things like mastery and reaching one’s full potential. At this level, the individual has enough social recognition (respect and fame) and needs to fulfill his (her) own aspirations. Once again, it makes sense that people who have everything from food to fame and glory will want to surpass their limits and achieve everything that they can.
Quite interestingly, Abraham Maslow claimed that an individual will not experience a superior need such as esteem unless she satisfied her inferior needs such as physiological and safety.
The hierarchy of needs makes intuitive sense, but it is completely wrong!
You probably saw or heard of people who barely have anything to eat and buy expensive flashy status goods – hence satisfying their need for esteem. It seems a contradictory and counter-intuitive reality.
Moreover, from an intuitively rational point of view, one should first cover their basic needs of food and shelter and Only After, focus on satisfying needs such as achieving a high (social) status.
Although Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is popular and makes intuitive sense, it is nonetheless a flawed model of human needs and motivations. Abraham Maslow viewed people through rather idealistic lenses and not as we actually are.
We are not creatures designed by a Grand Designer with the aim of fitting idealistic models of humanity.
We are creatures shaped by evolution to survive and reproduce, thus perpetuating our species.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs fails at being a comprehensive framework of human needs and motivations because it ignores the mechanisms behind covering the basic needs.
It fails at acknowledging the fact that what it calls superior needs are, in fact, natural ways of satisfying basic needs.
Human needs, motivations, behaviors and overall psychology are a lot messier than the Hierarchy of Human Needs suggests.
People need food and one way of getting it is through collaboration with friends, family and allies.
People need safety and security and one way of achieving that is through collaboration in large social groups.
Moreover, some members of our species might face life-threatening dangers in order to protect others, subsequently gaining social status – esteem, which, in turn, might (will) ease the path to getting sex.
Remaining in the area of sex, I believe that when Maslow placed the need of sex in the physiological needs category, he saw sex as the act of copulation – the actual sex act.
Before having sex, one has to have someone else to have sex with.
Acquiring a sexual partner is far more difficult and complex than the act of having sex with that partner. Getting sex partners is difficult for members of species far less complex than humans. Out of all species on this planet, getting sexual partners is, probably, the most difficult for humans. Our complex biology, our complex way of life and the immense effort needed for a human to reach adulthood (reproductive maturity) make it a big deal to get and hold to sexual partners.
Here is where Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is dead wrong:
Status – esteem – is a way of acquiring sexual partners.
Status is a way of acquiring friends and allies who can contribute to one’s survival, getting sexual partners and contribute to investment in the (future) offspring.
Simply put, status, creativity, spontaneity etc. (seen by Maslow as superior needs) are ways of creating effective social networks that will support an individual to accomplish her basic needs.
For example, if someone is looking for a job, having friends of higher status (which implies having some high status of your own), being seen as moral and reliable will help in getting the job needed. In any society (from the worst corrupt dictatorship to the most meritocratic democracy), a good word from someone important is an advantage and not a handicap.
Status and Self-actualization are not superior needs! They are, in fact, a means to satisfy basic needs!
From a utilitarian point of view, flashy and expensive conspicuous luxuries and expressions of morality and creativity are airs and graces that only the (very) rich can afford.
From an evolutionary psychology point of view, flashy and expensive conspicuous luxuries, expressions of morality and creativity are advertising tools used to communicate one’s value in the social and mating markets.
As a final note: if you hear, in the XXIst century, someone refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a descriptive or predictive model of human needs and wants, then feel free to dismiss that someone as someone who has no idea what she’s talking about.