I recently heard a distinguished economist claim that Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a ‘totally pernicious doctrine’. He expressed a strong objection to the idea that ‘first you have to satisfy the body and, only when you have done this can you satisfy the spirit’. I will refrain from naming the individual and providing a link to his remarks because I am not sure that the comment represents his considered view. He might have just been intending to provoke further thought about Maslow’s theory.
Maslow presented his hierarchy of needs as a theory of motivation in a paper written in 1943. He suggested that a person who is lacking in food, safety, love and esteem would probably hunger for food more strongly than anything else. He hypothesized that humans are motivated by a hierarchy of needs, which they seek to satisfy in the following order: physiological, safety, love, esteem and self-realization. He acknowledged that the order of need gratification might not be as rigid as this ranking implies and that it was not necessary for a particular need to be entirely satisfied before a higher need emerged.
It seems to me that the idea at the core of Maslow’s theory is that gratification of the most basic needs releases a person to focus on higher needs. This idea of natural progression to satisfaction of higher needs is the opposite of extreme asceticism which implies that higher needs can only be met through denial of desire. There may also be some tension between Maslow’s view and the Buddhist view that gratification of desires can be addictive, as explained by Lam Goembo Dorji in a recent paper.
In testing Maslow’s theory it seems to me that the central issue is the extent to which people actually move on to satisfy higher needs as their incomes rise. Maslow’s theory should be rejected if most people do not respond to rising incomes by moving on to satisfy higher needs. It ought not to be rejected just because a few relatively enlightened people are able to flourish even though they have relatively low incomes.
A recent study by Louis Tay and Ed Diener tests Maslow’s theory using data from the Gallup World Poll as indicators of the needs identified by Maslow. The authors found some support for Maslow’s theory in that people tend to achieve basic and safety needs before other needs. They also found that fulfilling the various needs has relatively independent effects on subjective well-being, so humans can derive happiness by simultaneously working on a number of needs regardless of the fulfillment of other needs. (The paper, entitled ‘Needs and Subjective Well-Being Around the World’, JPSP (2011) can be obtained here, and Bridget Grenvill-Cleave has written a good summary here.)
There are some other posts on this blog that are relevant to the priority that people give to various needs. In a recent post I discussed evidence presented by Christian Welzel and Ronald Inglehart that as the contribution of greater financial satisfaction to overall life satisfaction has become ‘saturated’ to a greater extent with higher levels of economic development, people tend to achieve higher life satisfaction to a greater extent through activities that enhance feelings of agency.
In the post entitled ‘Does the law of diminishing returns apply to a level of achievement?’ I used Australian survey data to explain life satisfaction in terms of levels of satisfaction with seven domains: standard of living, health, safety, relationships, community connectedness, future security and achievement. Best fit was obtained from a linear function, suggesting that the various domains have independent effects on life satisfaction. However, satisfaction ratings in the various domains are correlated - for example, there is a relatively high correlation between satisfaction ratings for relationships and achieving.
In a related study (reported here) I attempted to identify whether high satisfaction in any particular domains of life are more necessary than others to high satisfaction with life as a whole. The criterion used was the percentage of respondents with high satisfaction with life as a whole among those with low ratings on particular domains of quality of life. The relevant percentages were follows (ranked in order of importance of each domain): personal relationships 10.8%, achieving in life 11.8%, standard of living 12.8%, future security 15.6%, health 15.9%, community connectedness 19.0% and safety 20.3%. The results suggest that satisfaction with personal relationships and achieving are more necessary to high life satisfaction of Australians than is satisfaction with standard of living and future security.
A post entitled ‘Are the world’s poor motivated solely by survival needs?’ discusses survey evidence about the ways very poor people spend their incomes. Surprisingly, they tend to spend a substantial proportion of their income on entertainment, suggesting that they are not motivated entirely by survival needs. The post discusses why this might be so and also why some wealthy people stay fixated at a materialistic level. The way people respond to experiences depends importantly on what those experiences mean to them. It is possible for wealthy people to feel deprivation and for poor people to feel that living means a lot more than meeting physiological needs.
So, where do I end up? I like the idea that self-realization is a fundamental human need that people seek to satisfy if they are able, but I don’t think gratification of desires is a particularly helpful frame of mind - individuals are more likely to realize their potential if they seek equanimity rather than pleasure. Yet, it seems obvious that human flourishing is not possible unless basic physiological needs to be met. I am impressed by the evidence that there is a general tendency for people to move on to satisfy other needs as their basic physiological needs are met. At the same time, there is plenty of evidence that some people achieve high levels of satisfaction with life at relatively low incomes and that some wealthy people are not satisfied with their high income levels. The extent to which people perceive increased economic opportunity as an opportunity to satisfy higher needs may be strongly influenced by culture, values, frames and beliefs.
Maslow may have been too simplistic in suggesting that gratification of the most basic needs releases a person to focus on higher needs, but that doesn’t mean his theory is a pernicious doctrine.