Did Maslow get it wrong, or did we?


Maslow’s pyramid?
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Did Maslow get it wrong, or did we?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Counselor.

Does Maslow’s hierarchy of needs make sense today?

If you took a class in beginning psychology, you probably were taught about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s been a long time since I took that class, and I’m not sure if I remember what we were taught accurately, but I am starting to question some of the basic principles as I remember them. Some of the books I’ve been reading recently have made me think maybe that way of looking at things isn’t the final authority.

I first encountered these ideas back in the 1960s. When I went to college, I wasn’t sure what a major was, let alone what I should major in. My experiences as a professor at the local community college since 2008 have led me to believe that fuzzy majors continue to be a problem today.

I took some psychology and some sociology classes in my first year at the community college. Seems like everybody was a psychology major at some point in that decade. Psychology seemed to offer so much promise for helping you decide what the correct choices to make were. Unfortunately, classical psychology was primarily based on research on rats and female college sophomores. That research didn’t actually help most people figure out how to solve their problems. Or how to avoid mental illnesses that counselors and therapists are trained to treat.

Remember that Maslow wrote about a hierarchy of needs during World War II and directly after. His ideas and how psychology professors interpreted them were heavily influenced by their life experiences. Many of our teachers in school in the 1960s had lived through the Great Depression and then World War II. Some of my teachers can home from Europe or Asia and then went to school on the G.I. Bill. Those who taught us had to live through some pretty grim times.

We were taught that physiological needs come first.

Considering what Maslow and those who taught us his hierarchy of needs had lived through, the idea that meeting their physiological needs should come first and that people wouldn’t pay attention to those other “higher” needs would come later makes sense. There may be some reasons to question this notion.

Now I’m not saying that things are any less challenging today, at least for some people. I just think that the challenges the majority of Americans face are different. People who had to live with the possibility of imminent death or who went without food, shelter, or basic necessities of life were affected both physically and mentally by those struggles.

Many parents and grandparents, possibly great-grandparents of people reading this blog, concluded that what mattered in life was a secure job with a good enough paycheck that you would always have food to eat, clothes to wear, and a house to live in. If meeting your physiological and safety needs is what matters, why are there so many people who are depressed, anxious, and about to give up hope?

Is there a shortage of food, water, and shelter today?

Despite the phenomenal creation of wealth since World War II and our emphasis on having the latest technology at our fingertips, the truth is that there are still a lot of people in American society who worry about where their next meal will come from and whether their children will receive adequate healthcare. Our welfare programs and government subsidies provide some relief from the harsh realities, but we still have our homeless, our underfed, and those who can’t get reliable medical care.

From that perspective, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs makes some sense.

The way I understand his theory is that humans have certain basic needs. We need air to breathe, preferably healthy, unpolluted air. The human body needs food and water, but given the chance, most humans consume unhealthy food and water. The hierarchy of needs tells us that we need sleep, but more than one productivity guru tells us we can sleep less and produce more as if more were beneficial.

So how come highly paid tech people have so much anxiety and depression?

Meeting your physiological and safety needs does not result in happy people. Many people with a lot of material possessions are saying that life is meaningless and the money they are earning isn’t meeting their emotional needs.

Without meaning, purpose, and a sense of mastery, the rest doesn’t matter.

What I hear repeatedly from clients is if they are depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges rarely come from a lack of food, water, or even adequate housing. Instead, what’s missing and so many people’s lives is a sense that their life has meaning.

Victor Frankel described this in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. His experience in the concentration camp convinced him that having meaning and purpose in your life was far more important than food, clothing, or other physical necessities. People who had a sense of purpose survived camps despite horrific conditions.

Today in a land that’s richer than probably any in the history of the world, we still have a lot of people who can’t find anything that gives their life meaning and purpose. When you’re overweight, more food won’t help. It’s very easy to be lonely in a house with dozens of bedrooms.

How come people are willing to trade sleep for video game time?

The primary benefit derived from playing video games is a sense of mastery. As we move farther and farther into an economy where work is disconnected from physical objects is harder to experience mastery. The inherent thing that video games can give people is a chance to master an environment, albeit an artificial one. In the videogame, every time you achieve mastery, you level up and have new challenges to face.

Maybe it’s not the physiological and safety needs that are the foundation of the human hierarchy of needs. People short of food and safety can find abstract principles they’re willing to fight and die for. People with lots of physical possessions may think of suicide and self-harm because they lack meaning, purpose, and a sense of mastery.

I’ve come to think that those things we learned as being necessary only after the baser needs were met are, in fact, the foundation needs that we all are looking for.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was not a pyramid.

Just as a by the way. When we say Maslow, most people think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a pyramid. I came across an article about Maslow’s pyramid, which tells us that Maslow didn’t write about his hierarchy of needs as a pyramid. Nowhere that we have been able to find in his writing does that pyramid diagram appear. Where that came from, we can’t be sure.

But I think teaching Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as if it were a pyramid makes those abstract principles seem far less important and places too much emphasis on the needs of the body rather than the emotional needs of the person.

Does David Joel Miller see clients for counseling and coaching?

Yes, I do. I can see private pay clients if they live in California, where I am licensed. If you’re interested in information about that, please email me or use the contact me form.

Staying in touch with David Joel Miller.

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