Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" and the question of how much is "enough"

A reader responds to my piece on "enough":
"I am not completely convinced that "enough" is primarily related to contentment, philanthropy, spiritual, cultural, or economic factors. It seems to me that the concept of "enough" has several levels and that Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" serves as a good initial classification scheme. For all living entities, the satisfaction of primary physiological needs of the organism, enabling the maintenance of the normal homeorhettic processes of life, define the first level of "enough". The next level would then be the satisfaction of those additional physiological needs required to propagate the species, but not required for individual survival. The introduction of species survival adds the factor of time, in that "what is enough" changes with the (often implied) duration under consideration. Without at least the satisfaction of these primary, physiological needs, "enough" is meaningless, hence the satisfaction of these needs is, in mathematical parlance, necessary."

He goes on to say many other useful things, but I thought it might be worth discussing his point about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs which, it seems to me, has been drilled into everyone who has studied any field connected with Psychology (and therefore shapes the thinking of most educated people who are either Westerners or Western-educated).

Maslow's first proposed the "Hierarchy" in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. It posits that human nature first seeks to satisfy 'basic needs' before it seeks to satisfy successively 'higher needs': the four lower levels are grouped together as deficiency needs associated with the body. The lowest level is needs such as food and water, the next level is safety, then love or belonging, next esteem and finally what he called "self-actualisation" (which might also be called self-fulfilment). He called the higher levels growth needs as they are more associated with the mind or the psyche.

The "Heirarchy" has the advantage of intellectual elegance, and it certainly has some initial or superficial appeal.

However, anyone with any experience of the world, or even the willingness to reflect on the news headlines each day, will be aware, for example, that parents are often willing to go without food so that their children can be fed (which violates Maslow's point about his most basic level): something "higher" drives them to abandon their "most basic" needs. Similarly, people are often willing to sacrifice the level at which they live in terms of their physiological needs in order to live in a better house. Others are willing to sacrifice both their physiological needs and their housing needs in order to gain love or belonging (think of people who join gangs). Again, consider people who, for love, are even willing to give up their own lives (Dickens's novel, A Tale of Two Cities, springs to mind from the world of literature, in case readers have not come across this in their own experience). Similarly, anyone who has experienced the ghettoes of the West or life in Southern countries will know of millions of people who give up everything at "lower" levels in order to win esteem. You, dear reader, might want to reflect on whether you really eat "enough" or too much or too little – the psyche or mind clearly plays tricks with us even at our "most basic" level.

In other words, Maslow's theory suffers from the usual challenge that faces intellectuals: what is theoretically elegant and, on the face of it, plausible, is not necessarily the case in reality.

The fact is that humans are complex and contradictory. Who of us understands her or his own heart and motivations? How then can we accurately understand the hearts and motivations of others?

Let me tell you a story from my life. When I was around 12 years old, we lived in a tiny house along a little lane in the centre of Delhi. Our next door neighbour was a widow who earned an occasional living as a cleaning woman whenever she could find work. Dependent on her were her father-in-law and her two grown-up sons, none of whom seemed able to find work even as often as she did. The four members of that family had a total living space less than would be occupied by the bathroom in most middle-class families in the West. They usually slept in the lane outside their home: there was certainly not enough space inside, so they slept in the open, summer and winter. However, whenever my siblings and I returned from school, if my mother was absent (which was often the case, as she had to work to bring in the bread for our family, my father having died when I was eight), this neighbour, one of the poorest people in the world, would ask how we were doing at school and make sure that we were fed and watered till my mother returned - usually, five hours later. We were not rich enough to pay for this service and she would have been quite offended if we had attempted to compensate her in any way: she did this out of love for us, and indeed for everyone she came across.

You see why I think that the question of how much is "enough" is vitally connected to the question of how much we love others. Possibly, you see also why I was, and am, not impressed with Maslow's hierarchy.

This woman had learned to live not only within her ridiculously limited means, but learned to live so well within it that she was able to give away not only food and water but also affection. She certainly knew the meaning of "enough".

Maslow claimed deliberately to have studied ideal people such as Albert Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt, rather than mentally ill or neurotic people, on the basis that "the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy" (Motivation and Personality, 1987).

Possibly, Maslow might have come up with a more adequate description of human needs (especially from the viewpoint of our discussion of "enough") if he had widened his understanding of exemplary people to include folk such as my neighbour. By the way, there are millions of such people right across the world. Have you ever asked yourself why it is that people in the so-called "developing world", people with apparently NOTHING, are so often happy, whereas so many of the rich are so miserable? Has it ever struck you that world's highest rates of suicide are in the world's richest countries (Sweden, Switzerland, Japan and so on)?

In any case, I regard Maslow's Hierarchy not only as totally false, but also as quite perrnicious - it has now influenced for the worse the self-understanding and behaviour of the best-resourced and educated part humankind for something over half a century.

Is it possible that, if Maslow's theory had never been propounded, the level of philanthropy, charity, affection and joy might have been much greater in the world?

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