One of the most popular theories in modern psychology is Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Even if you aren’t familiar with the name, you’ve likely seen its diagram: a pyramid divided into three sections, which are labeled something along the lines of “Safety and Security,” “Bonding and Respect,” and “Self-Actualization” (which is another way of saying becoming the best possible version of one’s self).
Maslow’s Hierarchy Is a Great Practical Tool…
The basic premise of this theory is that humans all have a set of fundamental, biological needs, and that our bodies are designed to motivate us to fill those needs at all costs. Further, there is a rank-order system of need-fulfillment which says that we will not actively pursue needs higher up on the pyramid until those further down have already been satisfied; this is where the term “hierarchy” comes from.
This theory is immensely popular because it works.
In both personal and professional settings, it is easy to look at human behavior through the lens of this hierarchy. Take a work setting, for example. If a manager believes that an employee is struggling with performance (i.e., self-actualization), they can use Maslow’s pyramid to analyze that employee’s relationships with peers and management. Do they have a sense of belonging within the organization? Have they been rewarded for their past work with recognition and respect? When the manager focuses attention on building the employee up from a community standpoint, the performance often improves.
Maslow’s framework can also be used to diagnose why people sometimes act against social norms. When children are brought up in poverty, they lack the fundamental feeling of safety that is required to feel confident enough to develop healthy relationships with friends and teachers outside the home, and act out in frustration. Similarly, when parents can’t afford to provide the bare necessities for their children, they sometimes resort to stealing food or diapers. The “old-school” approach might call for the students to be expelled or the parents to be arrested for their actions. A more Maslovian solution uses social workers and institutions to help provide these families with the security they need to fit into society.
…But It’s a Not a Great Psychological Theory
As a human problem-solving paradigm, the pyramid approach of Maslow’s Hierarchy works. If someone is struggling with high-functioning outcomes, simply look to see where their more basic needs can be fulfilled to unlock their pent up motivation. It’s efficient, it’s effective, and best of all, it’s focused on the individual as a human being.
As a psychological theory, however, Maslow’s theory begins to fall apart.
Like any other field of science, psychological theories are tested through experimentation. A hypothesis is identified, a variable is manipulated within a population and then tested against a control group, and statistical algorithms determine whether or not the effect of that variable actually made a difference or not. Then, those experiments are repeated and applied to different scenarios.
When this rigor was applied to Maslow’s idea that higher needs are not pursued until more basic ones are satisfied, the evidence did not support the claim.
Take Oprah Winfrey, for example, who was born into poverty and raised by a teenage single mother in a home without running water or electricity. Today, she runs a media empire based on developing healthy relationships and becoming the best possible version of yourself. Or Malala Yousafzai, who literally put her life on the line to advocate for the right for women to improve themselves through education. If safety is such a basic need, how could Oprah thrive without it, and why would Malala jeopardize it for the sake of others?
The answer lies in purpose.
Purpose: The Transcendent Need
Around the same time that Abraham Maslow was developing his theory of a need-based hierarchy in 1940’s America, another psychologist named Viktor Frankl was observing real-life experiments in Nazi concentration camps across the ocean. As a Jewish prisoner of war, Frankl and his fellow inmates were denied every one of their human needs. Maslow would have predicted some of the phenomena that Frankl wrote about in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. For example, the men in the camp did not have dreams of their missing wives or children, but instead fantasized about food and water. In other words, their bodies craved safety and security more than human bonding, which is higher up on Maslow’s pyramid.
For Frankl, this purpose came in mentally rewriting a book that he had started prior to being captured. In a drastically different example, those prisoners who were given titles by their Nazi captors and tasked with maintaining order within the camps ended up relishing the authority they had been given, even though they were hated by their compatriots.
Whether or not the purpose was morally good or bad, Frankl observed that those who could identify one had higher morale and survived longer than those who could not. It seems that purpose not only can come before physical safety, it can also create it. After Frankl achieved his freedom, he created a new branch of psychology called Logotherapy which uses the identification of purpose to help people overcome suffering and pursue their ideal life.
For his part, Maslow came around to recognizing this as well later in his own career. Towards the end of his life, he identified an additional need within the human hierarchy, one that he called transcendence, or the need to feel like everything in life fits into some part of a bigger picture.
Some depictions place the need for transcendence above the pyramid, as if it were the final rung of the ladder. But in fact, it is the ladder itself, allowing you to climb up and down the rest of the hierarchy using nothing but your willpower and a purpose to direct it towards. And if that’s the case, then it answers the question of how Maslow’s hierarchy can be consistently useful while also scientifically invalid. As humans, we can either be controlled by the needs of our inner biology, or we can control them through the purpose of a higher calling.
No matter what your current situation is, or what has happened to you in the past, you can climb out of your existing paradigm and into one of your own choosing. So find your purpose, and start pursuing it.