Rethinking Maslow: a postmodern take on human motivation theory

TL;DR version

  1. The stages/levels of Maslow’s theory are non-hierarchical when applied to individuals.
  2. Non-self-actualized individuals are driven by a broad spectrum of needs.
  3. Self-actualization is an intrinsic and ongoing concept. Being at peace (i.e. accepting of reality) and yet having a singular focus is the primary hallmark of a self-actualized individual.

Humans are probably the most complex life form, which makes the pursuit of attempting to understand and theorize their motivations entirely justifiable — for reasons both intellectual as well as practical.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, despite having been one of the best theories of human motivation, has admittedly felt somewhat dated for a while — it’s been almost three quarters of a century (from 1943 to 2015) since Abraham Maslow first published his celebrated theory. Before moving further, a simple graphic (courtesy of SimplyPsychology) to jog the memory:

Maslow’s original Hierarchy of Needs.


Maslow updated

Maslow himself had expanded (in the 1960s and 1970s) the original (1943) hierarchy of needs to include additional categories:

  • After self-actualization: Transcendence needs: help others reach self-actualization
  • Before self-actualization: Cognitive needs: search for knowledge and understand the meaning of the world around, and Aesthetic needs: search for beauty, symmetry, etc. in the universe

This expanded the hierarchy of needs into eight stages.

Maslow’s Expanded Hierarchy of Needs.


A short critique with counterexamples

An assumption in Maslow’s theory is that there is a natural progression from the lower rungs of the hierarchy to the upper ones. However, a closer examination of human behavior will reveal that this might not necessarily be true: it is entirely possible to get stuck in one rung of the hierarchy, or to simply skip stages of the hierarchy.

  • What motivates greed? A fairly common example is the pursuit of more money than one might possibly/realistically need, even after all physiological needs and safety needs have certainly been met (it is apt to mention here that making money generally qualifies as a safety need). It is debatable which rung of Maslow’s ladder this pursuit is driven by. Is it safety needs — a couple million in the bank doesn’t afford adequate safety, so tens of millions must be earned? Or is it the rung of esteem needs — the ego isn’t satisfied until the couple million become tens of millions and the tens of millions become hundreds of millions? Or is it in fact the final rung of self-actualization, and the sole purpose in life is the accumulation of ever increasing amounts of wealth? What do you think?

As has been observed by Maslow himself, self-actualized individuals include people such as Einstein, Lincoln, Thoreau, da Vinci, etc.- people who attained their full potential. Many great artists, creators and inventors are also considered to belong to this group. In particular, such people were to possess specific characteristics: being visionary, accepting of reality as is, living life to fulfill their potential etc. It is in a closer observation of the personal lives of such self-actualized individuals that the notion of needs being hierarchical starts to fade.

  • The personal lives of both Lincoln and Einstein (who also suffered the death of an infant daughter) were often distraught, i.e. his love and belonging needs were hardly satisfactory.
  • van Gogh lived his life as a penniless pauper and shot himself. Ergo, it is doubtful if even his survival needs were fully met, but that did not stop him from self-actualizing.

He had little money and ate poorly, preferring to spend the money Theo sent on painting materials and models. Bread, coffee, and tobacco were his staple intake. In February 1886, he wrote to Theo saying that he could only remember eating six hot meals since May of the previous year

Aside: It has been sometimes been claimed that Maslow would not consider people like van Gogh to be self-actualized. This blog disagrees, respectfully. And in doing so, it is not alone. Examstutor considers van Gogh as a self-actualized individual. What’s your take — was van Gogh self-actualized?

  • An excellent list of great achievers who died penniless was compiled by Allison Keene of the website Mental Floss. It is remarkable that people like composer Schubert, Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, Oscar Wilde, who have undoubtedly lived up to their fullest potential, find a place on the list.
  • Srinivasa Ramanujan had his safety needs barely met, and yet he remains one of the most prolific mathematical geniuses till date.
  • Mozart lived much of his composing life on borrowed money and died in debt, so even his safety needs weren’t adequately met either.
  • High school and college students fall for each other, and have their love and belonging needs fully met, yet they can hardly be said to have any real security at all.
  • Galileo Galilei and Socrates were harassed and denounced as heretics their entire lives, yet their potential seems to have been achieved to the fullest, despite the grossly unmet esteem needs.

To be sure, there should be many self-actualized individuals who were also well off with regard to the other/previous needs. However, even in such cases, it is highly doubtful that they actually went through life sequentially fulfilling needs of one level before moving on to the next. It is likely, however, that their lower needs were already met by dint of their having been born into relatively well-to-do societies or families — this is based on the hypothesis that Maslow’s needs are possibly hierarchical when applied to societies at large. Thus, for individuals, the hierarchy of needs is probably better seen as an excellent and logical classification of needs.

Lastly, and vitally, a theory of “human motivation” ought to consider the motivations of humans from all walks of life, as opposed to only the best (from a certain perspective) of people — By Maslow’s own accounts, he preoccupied himself almost exclusively with the study of individuals he considered remarkable or self-actualized, people such as Lincoln, Einstein, etc.

Aside: Entrepreneurs deserve special mention, since they often seem to give up their basic needs (safety need and sometimes even survival needs) in order to achieve “higher” goals/needs. Actually, they willingly give up their basic needs just to get a shot at achieving the higher goals/needs. The same applies to pioneers, explorers, adventurers, etc. But this subtopic deserves a post in its own right.


Post Maslow — a quick overview

Following Maslow’s success and his widespread acceptance, there were many theories that followed the hierarchy of needs (and made an attempt to improve upon it). Some of the better known ones being:

Three of the above four (in particular ERG, and Two factor) non-Maslowian theories are more commonly applied to workplaces, and seem to have been developed for that purpose, and so are considered less apt for a general/life theory of motivation. Maslow’s too, was a psychlogical theory, until it started to be applied (often as gospel) to workplaces.

The theory of Barrett explicitly implicitly implies that the bulk of an individual’s behaviors are driven by his level of psychological development and that deviations due to shocks (threats or peak experiences) occur only occasionally. However, observation of human behavior does not seem to fully support the notion that individuals mostly operate from one level of psychological development/consciousness, only to be disturbed by exceptional circumstances. This conveys an image of ongoing equanimity in mannerisms. Experience and observation reveals people to generally be much more fickle — driven by everything from smartphone notifications to email to TV to Internet blogs. There is no shortage of mental or motivational stimulants, which are neither threats nor euphoric experiences, but just ordinary distractions.

Rogers hypothesized that all individuals are driven towards self-actualization — fulfilling their goals in life. The crux of it is: each individual has their own goals in life, whatever such goals may be. Ergo, self-actualization is an intrinsic and ongoing concept — the fully functioning person continually strives to fulfill his full potential. This is in contrast with Maslow and others, who seemed to be of the impression that self-actualization was extrinsic in nature, and depended on the fulfillment of needs.


A fresh take

In addition to viewing Maslow’s hierarchy as a classification, it might prove conceptually helpful to condense the five (or eight, depending) stages/classes of Maslow into just three — comparable to the Existence Relatedness Growth (ERG) framework. To make an even subtler distinction within the ERG hypothesis, for the purposes at hand, Existence factors can be teased out into a separate level, while Relatedness and Growth factors can be treated as classes within another combined level. In effect, this implies a boiling down into a generalized two stage framework — more generic than the one originally proposed by Herzberg, who mostly concerned himself with workplace motivators.

Generalized two stage theory of motivation


Generalized two stage theory

With this backdrop, and drawing inspiration from the best features of Maslow, Rogers, Alderfer, Herzberg, and Barrett, a more practical and comprehensive theory of motivation can be put forward, based on qualitative observations of thousands of people from almost all walks of life. The tenets of this theory are:

1. Stage I: An individual’s foremost need is that for survival. He first needs to be alive in order to have a life. No army can fight on an empty stomach, nor is religion taught to hungry men.

2. Stage II: An individual who has a life pursues a range of activities, driven by various motivations — in common parlance this is what someone does, or wants to do, with their life. These motivations can span across a broad range of drivers — the classification of Maslow is a good overview/summary. Individuals are mostly driven by a range of different motivators — a primary motivator and a few secondary motivators.

  • Primary motivator: An individual’s primary (non-survival) motivator can be practically anything from the Maslowian classification. However, it is with the secondary motivators that the hierarchy of Maslow has significance.
  • Secondary motivators: Most of an individual’s secondary motivators are likely to be adjacent (in the hierarchy) to his primary motivator. Two examples:
    • Someone who is majorly concerned about arranging shelter for their family (safety need) is unlikely to be focusing on meeting their esteem needs. But instead, this person is probably trying to keep his family together and well-fed (physiological need and belongingness need).
    • An individual who is mainly driven by making new friends (belongingness need) is unlikely to be driven by aesthetic needs; but this individual is quite likely to be keen on being appreciated, i.e. esteem need. To the extent that this person is concerned about aesthetics, it is more likely to be in order to gain the acceptance of his friends, and to be appreciated (esteem need) as possessing aesthetic sense/taste.
  • Effect of secondary motivators: Individuals’ actions are driven by secondary motivators in the presence of situational stimulants or distractions. The extent to which secondary motivators drive an individual’s actions is determined by two factors:
    • Sensitivity of the individual: A focused person or someone of stoic/reserved disposition is unlikely to be affected much with changing situations that present themselves. A sensitive (to situational stimulants) person is more likely to be distracted. E.g.: an easily distracted person on their way to work is more likely to stop by a hawker/peddler on the street.
    • Strength/severity of the situational stimulant: The severity of the distraction is equally important as the distractability of the person. E.g.: a sudden earthquake would distract even the most composed of people.

3. Self-actualization is really an intrinsic and ongoing concept. In a broad sense, self-actualization is to be understood as an individual living up to their full potential and performing at their best to accomplish their perceived purpose in life. Some individuals happen to be almost entirely engrossed in actions driven by a single motivator. This single motivator can be making money or making art or alleviating poverty. An individual who has (to themselves) determined their purpose in life is less likely to have inhibitions and premonitions, and thus is more likely to live life in the present moment — while remaining focused on their goal. For the most part, individuals who are mostly driven by a single (non-survival) need are considered to have self-actualized with that need. From the perspective of the individual, all of their needs and motivations are bundled into that one activity. In this sense, the scientist to his pet theory (cognitive need), or an artist to his masterpiece (aesthetic need), or an entrepreneur to his venture (safety need, or esteem need, or self-actualization) are equally committed.

The individual that has a singular focus and, is at peace with himself and his surroundings is thus considered to be self-actualized from his own perspective. Being accepting of reality (i.e. at peace) and living in the moment is thus the distinction between one that’s simply obsessed and one that’s truly self-actualized. That singular focus is the raison d’etre of the individual, regardless of where he stands in the Maslowian “hierarchy”; all his efforts and skills are dedicated to the fulfillment of the one goal, and it is thus that he is considered to be self-actualized if he is also found to be at peace with the world around. It is irrelevant, to the person concerned, whether the goal is something as mundane as a fat bank balance or something as lofty as organizing all the world’s information, or eradicating malaria, or colonizing outer space.

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