Stop the Maslow Madness

Submitted by wngreen on Thu, 2010-02-04 14:46

I'm tired of every class ramming Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs down my throat.

In 1943 Maslow published "A Theory of Human Motivation". His basic idea was that there are five abstract goals that he called basic needs: physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization. These basic goals are in a "hierarchy of prepotency" meaning that people focus on the former ones until a minimum satisfaction is achieved before moving to the higher ones. Man, as a "perpetually wanting animal", is on average most often partially unsatisfied in all of his wants. Maslow traces all psychopathology to things that threaten the achievement of these basic human goals. This is the most enlightening part of his paper:

The role of gratified needs. -- It has been pointed out above several times that our needs usually emerge only when more prepotent needs have been gratified. Thus gratification has an important role in motivation theory. Apart from this, however, needs cease to play an active determining or organizing role as soon as they are gratified.

What this means is that, e.g., a basically satisfied person no longer has the needs for esteem, love, safety, etc. The only sense in which he might be said to have them is in the almost metaphysical sense that a sated man has hunger, or a filled bottle has emptiness. If we are interested in what actually motivates us, and not in what has, will or might motivate us, then a satisfied need is not a motivator. It must be considered for al pratical purposes simply not to exist, to have disappeared.... The perfectly heatlhy, normal, fortunate man has no sex needs, or hunger needs, or needs for safety, or for love, or for prestige, or self-esteem, except in stray moments of a quickly passing threat.
I think this is full of rationalism. First, there is no evidence that man is born with a built-in need hierarchy. In fact, as Objectivists we know that to live man requires three fundemntal values: reason, purpose, self-esteem. These needs, though, must be discovered by man as he matures and he isn't born with them. He chooses his values and their hierarchy either by conscious effort or default. Dr. Locke points out that:

Certain types of deprivation do result in death faster than other types; for example, oxygen deprivation causes irreversible brain damage within about 2 minutes, whereas people can live without water for several days and without food (if there is water) for several weeks. But this does not prevent people from risking their lives to save loved ones from drowning. Nor do physical needs automatically take priority over psychological needs. For example, a person with very low self-esteem may not eat or may commit suicide.
Dr. Locke further points out that people do figure out some of their needs in part by having them deprived, for example the growling of your stomach tells you that you are hungry. People don't know automatically what to do about it though. The growling doesn't tell you how to get food. Someone who feels worthless doesn't automatically know how to build his self-esteem. I know I tend to buy food at the store before I'm hungry, anticipating my needs before I'm deprived. Reason is the way people learn to discover their needs and how to satisfy them.

Examine also the view of man held by Maslow. A man with unsatisfied needs is a sick one and by contrast a man who is healthy has no needs. Man though must constantly take action to sustain his values -- and there is no limit to a man's need for self-esteem (or sex!). Happiness is not the absnese of needs:

The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement. Existentially, the activity of pursuing rational goals is the activity of maintaining one’s life; psychologically, its result, reward and concomitant is an emotional state of happiness. It is by experiencing happiness that one lives one’s life, in any hour, year or the whole of it. And when one experiences the kind of pure happiness that is an end in itself—the kind that makes one think: “This is worth living for”—what one is greeting and affirming in emotional terms is the metaphysical fact that life is an end in itself. (Rand)
These are the reasons why I'm tired of having to hear about Maslow. His theory isn't useful to me. Does this make sense to you? Post your comments and lets discuss!

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Luke Setzer's picture

It is always better to paint your own worst moments than to let others paint them, so let me open my confession with this phrase about the importance of planning despite the facts that plans can change instantly:

"Plans are nothing. Planning is everything." -- Military Battlefield Commander

Making plans familiarizes oneself with a system so that one can change those plans efficaciously as new information arrives.

At a SOLO conference in California a few years ago, I had made a thorough list made of items I needed to get at the local store. Despite my best efforts, I forgot to get ... toilet paper! So I had to ask someone returning to the store to get some since our rental house had run very low.

No flow charts needed this time, Linz.


Lindsay Perigo's picture

Are there flow charts to go with that? Eye

(If there are and you dare post them I'll tell the toilet paper story. Evil )

Maslow Has Limited Use

Luke Setzer's picture

Obviously a person who needs air, food, water, shelter, and clothing will have a hard time meeting higher level needs until he gets those basic needs met at least to a subsistence level. That said, there is no such thing as a "needless" person, only one who has his needs met to varying levels. According to marketing theory, "wants" are simply "needs" shaped by various factors such as personal tastes and cultural upbringing. Everyone "needs" food but many more Japanese than Americans will "want" sushi to satisfy that need. "Demands" are simply "wants" backed by purchasing power!

"The wants of men are innumerable and, considered as a whole, are never satisfied. There seems to be no limit to the variety of things desired. But if we single out any one commodity, we find that our desire for it is limited." -- Elementary Principles of Economics by Richard T. Ely and George Ray Wicker (1904)

Rather than a needs "pyramid," I favor the notion of a needs "wheel" where one unmet need leads to a "flatness" on part of the wheel and a resulting "bumpy ride." See Hyrum W. Smith's book The Ten Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management for more on this. I also contend that no matter what needs model one uses, a strong element of self-actualization will run through the individual's unique ways of satisfying those needs in a free society. For instance, look at clothing. Unless you choose to live in a nudist colony -- itself a form of self-actualization -- your choices of clothing strongly embody your sense of self and how you intend to actualize it. Moreover, many people are willing to trade "lower" needs for "higher" ones, e.g. trading safety and security needs for self-actualization needs such as climbing Mount Everest.

Maslow has earned his place in the history of psychology, but critical thinkers will readily see flaws in his hierarchy that make his edifice collapse!

Maslow and Norton

Chris Cathcart's picture

Norton in Personal Destinies consults Maslow in part for his (Norton's) conception of self-actualization/eudaemonia. I haven't gotten to that part of the book where he does so, but since the book so far is so damn good, the treatment of Maslow is also likely to be damn good.

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