A More Fluid Look at Life and Going Beyond Maslow’s Hierarchy

I tend to be the kind of person who seeks to understand why things work, particularly when I am interacting with a subject or discipline in a creative capacity. An example of this is seen in my User Experience Design work. I know the programming languages beneath modern front-end interfaces and thus am able to approach interaction design and research from a transparent and holistic perspective, which enables me to have more mastery than someone who only sees the pixels but not the technology and capabilities beneath them.

A complex example, but I think as humans we often mistakenly seek to believe that things are simple, when the nature of reality itself is complex.

It’s not just modern reality that’s inherently complex, (i.e., technology, politics, or careers) but all of reality. Consider for a moment our individual natures: from the Coping Strategies and Defence Mechanisms that drive our behaviors, to the early childhood attachment patterns that shape our internal working models for relationships; the opaqueness of our self-schemas is so complex that few people are even aware of the factors that lie underneath our individual bias and identity.

Note: I did not include biological influences in the preceding paragraph because, while I do believe the foundational basis for our mechanisms of development is rooted within our DNA, I hold the opinion that environmental factors exert a dominant influence on our development over innate factors*.

*I do not know how an intellectual disability would effect this assumption.

The truth is, most people don’t even know why they believe the things they do and even fewer know why they do the things they do. Being human is a complex process (There are 86 billion neurons in your brain.); however, regardless of modern understandings on the complexity of human life and the incredible progress science has achieved in understanding the human mind – many people are operating based on beliefs which go back to the dawn of man (note: Why did the Neanderthals bury their dead along with tools 50,000 years ago?). Yet, even independent from our religious theologies, most adults gain their individual beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors with an operational basis for learning that closely resembles adolescent cognitive development. The progression of their identity remains a static and linear process that accommodates and assimilates ideas, concepts, and beliefs based on personal experience. Well, isn’t that how you learn about life? Yes. That’s exactly how most people learn about themselves and life. And that’s the problem. We learn like sponges and we act like sheep. I recognize that those are cheap metaphors, but I find it a pity that so few outside of academia and medical sciences seek to study and apply the ideas, theories, and models born of some of the absolute brightest minds in human history.

On the first day of my first Psych class (Psych 90) I learned an extremely important lesson on life. The professor (Whom I ultimately disagreed with in many regards i.e., she believed that ‘perpetrators of vile crimes towards children could be fully rehabilitated’.) began the class by teaching us that one must be subjective and critical in learning; that we mustn’t merely absorb what we read or hear, but that we should examine and interpret it, forming our own opinions and beliefs, and decode for ourselves what was of value and what was not. That one lesson has allowed me to learn about life in a way that has enriched and expanded my learning far beyond what I previously knew was possible. As a result, I’ve asked questions that I would have never asked and I’ve formed original and informed opinions rather than forming an allegiance solely to the ideas of others. It was a gift of autonomy as a student that benefited me immensely as a human being.

Perhaps the greatest application of this gift has been in my journey to understand myself through self-study, writing, and introspective reflection. The benefits in each of these areas have not been solely in the practice of intelligently discounting particular ideas and concepts, but moreso in the power to discern the lessons, ideas, and thoughts that have have been the greatest propellants of my growth as a human being.

Without this single consciousness expanding lesson I might have been another inmate in the asylum of life – walking around believing my waking thoughts and the words and actions of others.

Instead, I am capable of bypassing the shallow, skeptical, and biased filter of the ego and processing the internal and external data of life (thoughts, ideas, input, experiences) in a manner that reconciles the outer ‘truths’ of reality with the innermost truths of my soul. This practice of objectively processing yet subjectively filtering the world is slowly allowing me to become more aware of my Cognitive Biases.

An additional, compounded benefit is that this practice / approach allows me to have more fluidity in my identity and beliefs, and a far more open mind than I otherwise would have had. The most recent example of this and the impetus for my writing tonight was in the comments left on my previous entry on Self-Actualization vs. Self-Actualizing. The first comment brought to my attention the inherent and unattainable nature of the achievements within Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid for those with scarce resources. As someone who experienced poverty growing up, and someone who still would not meet all of the requirements as traditionally defined by Maslow, a seed was definitely planted within me. I could look at the pyramid and feel my own shortcomings to a degree that instilled a sense of inadequacy in myself compared to my goals and the ideal self model I hold.

Then tonight, an additional comment contained this statement: Trick for you: Turn Maslow’s famous pyramid upside-down and leave the levels the same.  

Hmm… So I began doing some internet searches on ‘inverted Maslow’s Hierarchy’.

One of the better thoughts on this can be seen here. (worth a read – esp for creative people.) and I’ve excerpted a key takeaway below.

It all made sense. Maslow’s theory that one must satisfy a lower-level need before addressing an upper-level need is actually sound — it’s just that he got the order inverted for creatives. Self-Actualization is the fundamental need that drives all creatives. It is, in many ways, their most basic need. Of course, once they’ve satisfied their own creative mandates, creatives want others to know and appreciate what they’ve done. Esteem is thus something that can be sought only after a creative has satisfied himself. And though many creatives long for intimate relationships, they’re rarely able or willing to put the time and energy into making them work — love simply takes too much time away from the process of creating. Thus, establishing intimate and meaningful relationships is something many creatives can do only after achieving a certain measure of self-actualization and esteem. Finally, many creatives seem to view their own safety, security and physiological needs with a sort of “disdain” — as if the act of assuaging them (or the effort spent in trying) is so pedestrian, banal and trite that their fulfillment is tantamount to “selling out.” Only the most successful, respected and loved creatives ever seem to achieve the top echelon of the inverted Maslow Pyramid.

In reading this, I connected to the idea of self-actualization being a fundamental need based on my own experience and knowledge about myself. I have 100% repressed and stifled my lower level needs based on my need to self-actualize. To some degree, this has been an almost emerging theme in my life over the past few years. Why? Because it was more important to me.

And in this way, am I not able to hypothesize that Abraham Maslow’s own bias led him to develop a hierarchy based more on his bias, then the reality of all humans. Had Abraham Maslow not heard of the starving artist who self-actualized his potential and aptitude in his art, often at the expense of his lower needs?

In returning to the excerpt above, the writer also posits that: And though many creatives long for intimate relationships, they’re rarely able or willing to put the time and energy into making them work — love simply takes too much time away from the process of creating. Thus, establishing intimate and meaningful relationships is something many creatives can do only after achieving a certain measure of self-actualization and esteem. However, in this instance, I cannot agree. I’ve often put love above my desire to self-actualize personally and professionally, and even as I’ve failed to meet lower needs at times I’ve been able to experience incredibly intimate and meaningful romantic relationships. Perhaps only lately, as my priorities have shifted and life has changed, have I invested more in my self-actualization and less in my intimacy.

As a reference, here is a drawing of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (a full list can be seen at Wikipedia)


In taking a fluid look at Maslow’s Hierarchy, I am not reinventing the wheel, but overlapping concepts seen first in Clayton Alderfer‘s 1969 revision of Maslow’s Hierarchy, known as ERG Theory (Existence, Relatedness, Growth), which is similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy, but differs mainly in the following: (source)

Alderfer’s ERG theory demonstrates that more than one need may motivate at the same time. A lower motivator need not be substantially satisfied before one can move onto higher motivators.

The ERG theory also accounts for differences in need preferences between cultures better than Maslow’s Need Hierarchy; the order of needs can be different for different people. This flexibility allows the ERG theory to account for a wider range of observed behaviors. For example, it can explain the “starving artist” who may place growth needs above existence ones.

The ERG theory acknowledges that if a higher-order need is frustrated, an individual may regress to increase the satisfaction of a lower-order need which appears easier to satisfy. This is known as the frustration-regression principle.

Another more fluid reinterpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy was developed in 1991 by Chilean Economist Manfred Max-Neef, who created Human Needs and Human-scale Development to address the inadequacies of traditional models of human development in relation to Latin American Economic systems and Western ideas about poverty and it’s role as a barrier to fulfilling human needs.

In Max-Neef’s model for Fundamental Human needs there is no hierarchy beyond life sustaining needs, and multiple needs may be met simultaneously. Additionally, activities may be pursued that fulfill multiple needs. Another key contribution was that Max-Neef classified satisfiers (ways of meeting needs) under five different categories:

  1. Violators: claim to be satisfying needs, yet in fact make it more difficult to satisfy a need. E.g. drinking a soda advertised to quench your thirst, but the ingredients cause you to urinate more, leaving you less hydrated on net.
  2. Pseudo Satisfiers: claim to be satisfying a need, yet in fact have little to no effect on really meeting such a need. For example, status symbols may help identify one’s self initially, but there is always the potential to get absorbed in them and forget who you are without them.
  3. Inhibiting Satisfiers: those which over-satisfy a given need, which in turn seriously inhibits the possibility of satisfaction of other needs. Mostly originating in deep-rooted customs, habits and rituals. For example, an overprotective family stifles identity, freedom, understanding, and affection.
  4. Singular Satisfiers: satisfy one particular need only. These are neutral in regard to the satisfaction of other needs. They are usually institutionalized by voluntary, private sector, or government programs. For example, food/housing volunteer programs aid in satisfying subsistence for less fortunate people.
  5. Synergistic Satisfiers: satisfy a given need, while simultaneously contributing to the satisfaction of other needs. These are anti-authoritarian and represent a reversal of predominant values of competition and greed. For example, breast feeding gives a child subsistence, and aids in the development in protection, affection, and identity.

This satisfier classification makes an important distinction in that:

From the classification proposed it follows that, for instance, food and shelter must not be seen as needs, but as satisfiers of the fundamental need for Subsistence. In much the same way, education (either formal or informal), study, investigation, early stimulation and meditation are satisfiers of the need for Understanding.

I’m very excited to explore Max-Neef’s model more, and you can as well: Download Manfred Max-Neef Fundamental Human Needs

As the result of the thoughtful comments of two readers and the teachings of that Psych90 professor, I was able to examine my own inability to classify myself under the rigidity of Maslow’s Hierarchy, and recognize that there is no perfect model for every individual, but in studying the contributions to humanity from people like Abraham Maslow, Clayton Alderfer, and Manfred Max-Neef, I’m better learning about the things that motivate and drive me, and why the hell I do the things I do. We’re all just trying to get our needs met, aren’t we.

From here, I’m going to be looking at all three models, and introspectively discovering which elements of each apply to me and then creating a tailored model that reflects the integrity of each school of thought yet accounts for my own stark individuality.

I do truly believe that we can experience Self-Actualization and Freedom / Transcendence (as encompassed in Max-Neef’s model) along the entire journey of life because the potential exists in each of us. I also believe that the path to meeting the entire spectrum of our needs in healthy ways requires us to be willing to get to know ourselves at a level that’s far more complex than any understanding we’ve ever had of ourselves. The day I know what (the underlying psychology of) my real beliefs are and why I do the things I do might just be the day I understand who I am. Until then, I’m doing my best.

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