Did Maslow Get it Wrong?

by | Feb 24, 2021 | Culture

Takikawa Garden | Shimenawa | Did Maslow Get it Wrong?With the exception of Sigmund Freud, there is arguably no psychologist who has had more of an impact on modern culture than Abraham Maslow.  Unlike Freud, however, whose occasionally scabrous imaginations have permeated our fantasy lives more than our everyday actions, Maslow’s influence has been much more straightforward – impacting clinical practice in the fields of medicine as well as psychology, while leaving a deep imprint on how we, as ordinary folk, understand our own lives and our own behaviors.

Maslow’s influence stems from a paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation”, originally published in the Psychological Review back in 1943.  To summarize briefly, Maslow posits a hierarchy of human needs, consisting of five levels:

  1. Basic bodily needs such as food, clothing and shelter
  2. Safety and security
  3. Acceptance and love
  4. Esteem, both from self and others
  5. Self-actualization, i.e. achieving your full potential with respect to the hand you were dealt.

The theoretical content of his paper is that these needs form a hierarchy because lower level needs must be satisfied before the higher level needs emerge.  As Maslow himself put it, “For the man who is extremely and dangerously hungry, no other interests exist but food.”  This of course accords with our common sense in extreme cases.  In less extreme cases, common sense will also tell us, as Maslow grants, that healthy humans will be pursuing needs on all these levels, in greater proportion as the need is more basic and less satisfied.

So far, so good.  But there is another interpretation Maslow’s hierarchy which has taken root in the popular mind.  In this interpretation, the fact that some of these needs are placed at the “top” seems to imply that they are bigger, better, closer to the summum bonum than the needs lower down.  Such an attitude was well articulated by one of my high school English teachers back in 1967.  When asked by a student why we should study literature, the teacher replied, “There are some of us whose thoughts rise above our belt.”

In other words, this alternative interpretation places a value judgment on the hierarchy, with “self-actualization”, as expected, being accorded the highest value.  And it is plausible that this alternative Interpretation has been at least a contributing factor to our modern obsession with self, and the pursuits of the self at the possible expense of others.  This was well articulated by many of the slogans that were so prevalent in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, such as “do my own thing” and “free to be me”.  In recent times, these obsessions have reached such a fever pitch that the freedom to self-actualize has been extended into realms hitherto incomprehensible, even into the ridiculous.  One recent presidential candidate announced himself as sticking up for the right of men to have abortions, whatever that means.

But what about “giving”?  Is it possible that we also have needs to give, to provide for the needs of others?  Where would they fit into the hierarchy?  Maslow’s original paper is silent on this point.

No person, let alone a whole society, can possibly stay sane if they are willing to countenance such extremes in pursuit of the self.  A spiritual counselor I once met put it quite crisply, “The self is a cruel master”.  C.S. Lewis, in his Screwtape Letters, goes on at length about the process of following the dictates of the self can reduce the ordinary man to rubble.

In fairness to Maslow, we can’t blame him for this misinterpretation of his work.  Maslow makes no attribution of value to the levels of his hierarchy, and of course he shouldn’t – value judgments are outside the realm of science for good reason.  Maslow’s argument rests solely on observations about human behavior, from which he derives the idea that more basic needs must be met in order to lay the groundwork for pursuing others.

In terms of Maslow’s own methodology, though, it’s perfectly fair to ask if his observation of human behavior is comprehensive and complete.  Does he identify all the ways in which these needs interact.  We can start by noting that every one of the needs Maslow posits is about the need to receive something – food, security, love, appreciation, fulfillment.  In other words, they are all about “getting”.

But what about “giving”?  Is it possible that we also have needs to give, to provide for the needs of others?  Where would they fit into the hierarchy?  Maslow’s original paper is silent on this point.

Now it’s not my intention here to go into competition with Maslow and offer a replacement theory.  All I want to do is provoke some thoughts on this issue.  But even with this abbreviated intention, we can follow Maslow’s own methods to reach some preliminary conclusions.

Photo Dec 17 5 56 49 PM | Shimenawa | Did Maslow Get it Wrong?First off, do we observe such needs to give in ordinary human behavior?  Of course we do.  Take a look at the parents in any healthy family for instance.  In a child’s early years, they work incessantly to provide for the needs of the child.  From the moment a baby is born, the parents willingly enter into a life of sacrifice.  Sacrifice of their sleep, for starters.  Endless rounds of changing diapers, meltdowns in the grocery store, bailouts from adolescent misjudgments that could impact their entire lives.  You can tell I’ve had a few of my own, so I know what I’m talking about here.

Parents have been known to sell their home in order to be able to afford college for their kids.  And many have told me that, well into their ‘60’s and even ‘70’s, they still spend large amounts of time and energy thinking about their kids, worrying about them, and even dreaming up ways to be of further assistance.

Now, some might argue that all this giving has it’s basis deep in one’s DNA – in the so-called “selfish genes” and their will to propagate, regardless of the cost to their “host” parent.  And there may be something to this notion.  But is it the whole story?  Do we see analogous behavior in the animal kingdom?

In fact we do, but only to a certain extent.  Mother birds will lure predators away from the nest at great risk to themselves.  Or even go hungry in order to feed their chicklets.  But once the birds have left their nest, or been weaned, that is the end of it.  The idea of a bird or a dog sacrificing itself for a grown offspring unthinkable.  Instinctive or not, the self-sacrificing behavior of human parents goes way beyond anything we observe in the animal kingdom.

Ask any parent why they willingly endure all of this, and they will likely try to explain it in terms of “love”.  But notice, this is a very different type of love than the one that Maslow talks about in his third need.  There is precious little “getting” in this type of love.  Any parent knows that it will be years, if not decades, before this love can be reciprocated in any form.  If ever!

Suppose you are a musician, and you compose a piece of music that rivals or even exceeds Pachelbel’s Canon in its ability to express a longing for the Transcendent.  Do you make a private recording that only  you can listen to?

In other words, it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to say that the love need we are observing here is more a need to give love than a need to receive it – a need on which Maslow’s original paper has nothing whatever to say.

Lest we think that this sort of need to give love is the exclusive province of biological parents, let’s remind ourselves that we see it as well in adoptive parents, and in adults who care for their own parents.  On (all too rare) occasions, we see it blossom into a near-universal need to shower love on others, as exhibited by the life of Mother Theresa.

So it seems we can justifiably posit a need to give love alongside the need to receive love.  And following Maslow’s logic, we would expect the need to give love to be on a higher level than the need to receive love.  Once the need to receive love has been satisfied to some extent, a corresponding need to give love arises.

But I think we can also make the case for the notion that the need to give love is intimately bound up with other needs, especially and surprisingly perhaps with the need for self-actualization.

Say you are a painter, and  you’ve developed your skills up to some level, but you want to go further.  You paint what you think may be your best picture ever – a picture that you believe is so beautiful it brings tears to your own eyes, and likely to the eyes of anyone who sees it.  So what do you do with the painting?  Lock it away in your bedroom where only you can enjoy it?  Not likely, unless you are suffering from some sort of pathology.

Or suppose you are a musician, and you compose a piece of music that (in your view) rivals or even exceeds Pachelbel’s Canon in its ability to express a longing for the Transcendent.  Do you make a private recording that only  you can listen to?

Or what if you are a scientist who has just discovered a cure for a virulent form of cancer,  or for our current scourge, COVID-19?  Would you keep the cure in a sealed flask locked away in your laboratory so you can privately revel in its elegance and efficacy?

In each of these cases, I would wager you feel the urge to share it with others.  In the last case or course, you would have to be some sort of monster not to feel that urge.  But why?  To receive their feedback so as to improve your skill level?  Quite possibly, in some cases.  If so, this need to share with others is simply a stepping stone, a part of the same process of meeting your self-actualization need that you’ve already embarked on.  Right in line with Maslow’s theory.  In other words, nothing new.

On the other hand, could  your need to share your work with others be driven by a desire for approbation, applause, or recognition?  In that case, you would be pursuing Maslow’s #4 goal (esteem) in parallel with #5 (self-actualization).  Again, this is already accounted for Maslow’s framework. Again, nothing new.

But there is a third intriguing possibility.  What if your need to share your work is a reflection of your desire to give to others – to enable them to receive the joy, benefit from the discovery, be enthralled by the beauty, or inspired by the truth of what you have created?

In this case, then, we are dealing with something new, something unaccounted for in Maslow’s paper.  To the extent that this is the case, it would seem that  the urge to “give”, the need to share, applies not only to love, but even to our most personal and individual needs for “self-actualization”.  And if this is the case, even in a minority of instances, it raises an important question – is our need for what Maslow called “self”-actualization really about the self at all?  Or to put it more accurately, is it about the self alone?  What if our own hard-won achievements are precious precisely because we can turn them right around and share them with others?  I dare say that every teacher, every authentic teacher, knows in his heart that this is true.

What if, then, there is a second an parallel hierarchy of needs – mirror images of the first hierarchy – that are about giving what we have received?

  1. To provide for the bodily requirements of others
  2. To ensure the safety of those we care about and our community as a whole
  3. To warm their hearts with our love and affection
  4. To build their confidence by showering them with our esteem
  5. To edify and inspire them through our own accomplishments

And if that could be the case, is it just possible that the first set of needs, the “getting” needs, are only preparatory steps, gathering the resources and fashioning the tools, if you will, for the second set.  And that the fulfillment we experience in the satisfaction of the first set of needs simply lies in the realization that we have been blessed to “put on our own oxygen mask first” and in anticipating the greater joy we might experience in using these tools and resources to help others?

And what if this is the only mission and final destiny of every one of us who sojourns here on earth?  To develop our skills and talents to the utmost?  And then to distribute the gifts we create with the same free and prodigal generosity that Heaven has shown by endowing us with those very skills and talents in the first place?

About Mike Freiling

Mike’s interest in the connections between different cultures and their philosophies began during his year as a Luce Scholar (1977-1978) at Kyoto University, when he first learned the meaning of the shimenawa and translated the Heian Period poems of the Hyaku Nin Isshu into English. In 2020, he founded Shimenawa no Michi to leverage his experience as an investment advisor into a broader initiative to help people navigate the challenges of life, love, and the search for transcendence. Mike also holds a PhD in artificial intelligence from MIT and a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA®) designation from the CFA Institute.

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