Maslow Theory: Investigating authentic demand

Source : Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow authored a positivist theory about human behavior that broke with the then-dominant psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud which, while undoubtedly helpful to therapists and their patients, sought to explain mental dysfunction and pathology rather than healthy human motivations. A 1st-generation American born in Brooklyn in 1908 to immigrant parents from Kiev, then part of the Russian Empire, his framework explains the powerful grip of human aspirations and desires.

Building on the work of other humanists like the Swiss psychoanalyst Karl Jung, Maslow wrote that all human beings strive to meet similar fundamental needs and desires. And that the prioritization of those motivations is both dynamic and predictable.1

As illustrated in figure above, at the most basic level we all need to satisfy physiological needs with, for example, water, food, and shelter. Next, we try to ensure our safety and wellness. Beyond these concerns, many human behaviors result from a drive to satiate social and emotional needs while still others reflect a concern for achieving competency and status. Finally, the most psychologically personal drivers make us yearn for knowledge, creative expression and self-actualization. Ultimately, according to Maslow, psychologically healthy individuals universally will seek to realize their full potential.

Maslow’s hierarchy, sometimes represented as a pyramid by others (he never did), implies that we cannot aspire to satisfy our most powerful, higher-order motivations until our basic needs are met. In its simplest interpretation, the theory posits that our kin and we must be fed, lodged, healthy and safe before we reach for love, social connections, skills and creative pursuits. Up to this point, his theory seems empirically reasonable though hardly surprising.

Less obvious but more intriguing is Maslow’s assertion that once people begin satisfying higher-order desires and needs for social connection, a sense of competency and status, and self-realization, they try to preserve those achievements at almost any cost — even if it means foregoing continued satisfaction of more basic needs. We rise the hierarchy’s ladder readily, but get dragged back down kicking and screaming. Parents will sacrifice their own safety and well-being to protect their children. Warriors will die for country or clan. Fortune rarely compensates for a previously acclaimed performer’s loss of fame. Artists prefer going hungry to selling their paint brushes or cameras.

1 Maslow, A (1943), “A Theory of Human Motivation”, Psychological Review #50, 370-396. Reissued in 2004 as an Appendix to The Third Force: The Psychology of Abraham Maslow in Adobe PDF.

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