Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Is Maslow's hierarchy of needs a pernicious doctrine?

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.


Nicola Moir said...

I enjoyed your post. I remember studying Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs at Uni. At the time I never really saw the point to it, as it was so vague and simplistic. Yet, on reflection it could be interpreted as a pernicious doctrine, as has the potential to imply that a person’s accumulation of wealth is linked to the realization of their full potential. As a society we need to move away from this connection between the accumulation of capital and fulfillment, as it is the core motivator that destroys community.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Nicola. Your comment has made me think a little more about this issue.
I find it hard to see how anyone could get the idea from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that wealth accumulation is linked to realization of their full potential. It would be hard for anyone to argue that they need a great deal of wealth to satisfy their physiological needs. People with great wealth often don’t even get a great deal of esteem these days. I remember that when I first heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs it was from a management consultant telling us – a group of economists in management positions – that we shouldn’t assume that the people working for us were all seeking high pecuniary rewards (as assumed in standard economics text books). She was trying to tell us that the people working for us would probably want to feel that they were doing something worthwhile, were a valued member of a team, wanted some influence over the way work they did their work and when they did it, and usually had families that they wanted to spend some time with. She was right about all that – and I still think that is the message that most people would take from Maslow.
I don’t agree with you that wealth accumulation is the core motivator that destroys community. I think the core motivator (or non-motivator?) that destroys community is probably the feeling that nothing an individual can do makes any difference.
There is a fair amount of evidence that a desire for wealth is usually bad for the individuals concerned and I expect for their families too. At a community level, however, I don’t think it matters too much whether people are motivated by a desire to accumulate wealth or more noble desires – the invisible hand of the market still works its magic to ensure that their actions are mutually beneficial. People who are motivated by wealth accumulation could even be motivated to do voluntary work because it may be good for business to have a reputation for helping the community.
A few weeks ago I posted some research findings (here) which suggests that people who identify with the proposition, ‘it is important for this person to be rich’ tend also to identify more strongly than average with helping other people. It seems that people who identify strongly with just about any proposition about the importance of a particular value in their own lives tend to identify strongly with helping other people.

Nicola Moir said...

Hi Winton,

It is very easy to get the idea that Maslow's Theory has the potential to imply that a person's accumulation of wealth is linked to the realization of their full potential.

Maslow's basic proposal is that individuals prioritize their needs, moving with increasing incomes to satisfy safety and social needs, finally through to self-actualization. This is so clearly linked to the accumulation of wealth. Once the basic needs are met, the next stage is safety. A key aspect of this is economic safety. How can you say this is not about wealth accumulation? Also the stages that follow are about the need for prestige and status, which so often in our society is linked, to employment status and income.

Maslow's Theory implies the notion that individuals move up the hierarchy of needs in line with their changes or increases in income. Needs of shelter and food can only satisfied sufficient income, and as income increases then individuals have the opportunity to obtain the next hierarchy of need.

A key problem that a lot of theorists have pointed to with Maslow's Theory is the narrow concentration on the personal growth of the individual. Surely the personal relationships are as important?

I guess my central problem with Maslow is why do we need his theory. What does it add to our understandings of the world? Why should our needs be placed in a hierarchy? As I said before it is simplistic and vague and, in my opinion, serves no purpose apart from providing management consultants with pretty diagrams.

Winton Bates said...

Nicola: I am enjoying this discussion.
While I agree with a lot of your criticisms of Maslow's theory, I still don't think it is pernicious.
What is it that would make a theory pernicious? It seems to me that the first step would be to show that the theory is false. We can say that the theory once held by many medical practicioners that smoking is good for health is pernicious because it is false as well as potentially damaging to the health of the people who believe it to be true.
In the case of Maslow's theory the basic idea that people tend to move on to satisfy other needs after satisfying basic physiological needs has not been disproved. Recent studies by psychologists and sociologists actually tend to provide support for the theory.

Xerographica said...

I have a hard time seeing how Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (MHN) could be considered pernicious...and, unlike Nicola, I never considered it to have anything to with wealth accumulation.

There are so many examples of self-actualized people who had very little material wealth...Jesus, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, a gazillion artists, writers, philosophers, etc.

MHN is one of the psychological terms that stuck with me all these years since my one psychology class at University. Other terms I remember and reference on occasion are locus of control, self-efficacy, Freud's defense mechanisms (especially sublimation) and probably a few more I'd remember with some context.

Recently I've been advocating for a system where donations to government organizations (GOs) would be 100% tax deductible (pragmatarianism). The most common response has by far been that some GO would be underfunded...which just reflects that most people have no idea how the invisible hand works.

But it's interesting when people predict that defense and/or public healthcare would be "underfunded". Their predictions reminded me of MHN...so it was a neat coincidence to run across a libertarian blog with an entry on MHN.

How could MHN be applied to pragmatarianism? Would anybody familiar with MHN ever predict that defense would be "underfunded"? Of course, when the supply for a public good meets the demand for a public good then we could never say that a public good was over/underfunded. The amount of money a GO received would accurately reflect how much society valued the public good produced by that GO.

Logistically, each GO website would have a progress fundraising bar. If somebody wanted to pay their taxes...could MHN predict the order in which they visited the various GO websites? Would they start at the DOD website and work their way towards the National Endowment for the Arts website?

Winton Bates said...

Xerographica: Pragmatarianism is a very interesting idea. Good luck with it!