Wedded and Bedded

The name of psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) is associated in our minds with his “pyramid”. He accomplished a great deal of other work in related areas but his hierarchy of human needs sticks in the lay mind. And it will probably survive a revised version which has recently been produced by psychologists who believe that they know more (although they might know less) about human nature.

Maslow’s approach was novel in the sense that he chose to study normal human development rather than pathological psychology. His concern was with what is known as “humanistic psychology”: an approach which sees the epitome of psychological health as the human being who can reach his full potential as a human being. While Christian belief would hold that this ultimate aim can only be reached through grace, we have no difficulty in relating to the dynamic and the direction of humanistic psychology.

Maslow’s pyramid can never be more than a model. It is necessarily limited but, like all models which accord with our intuition, it helps us to see aspects of reality more clearly. It is posited on the idea that human beings have basic needs which have to be fulfilled before we can ascend a stage higher on the pyramid. But once these basic needs are satisfied they cease to be needs because we no longer see them as important.

The lowest layer of the pyramid is concerned with needs such as hunger and thirst. Until we have met these we do not move up to the next level – which is to feel safe and secure. On this foundation our pressing need turns to being loved, belonging, being accepted. Once this is fulfilled we come to the need to gain approval, to be esteemed and recognised.

We then move to higher needs. First, our need for knowledge and understanding; second, our need for order and beauty; finally our need for self actualisation.

In self-actualisation we are no longer simply reacting to situations but aspiring to greater accomplishments. We are able to be in harmony with ourselves and our surroundings. We move towards our full potential as human beings.

Most of us would recognise this description although we might argue, in terms of our own experience, with detail. In particular we might remember that in reality our needs do not divide so neatly, and are rather more volatile than the pyramid suggests.

Maslow came from a Jewish background and, although there is nothing specifically religious in his concept of self-actualisation, we would have no difficulty in relating it to the fullness of the Christian life. And so the pyramid may be a useful tool for us, in enabling us to consider where we stand in relation to these needs, and where we can make progress.

The revisions to his pyramid, which were reported in March this year in Perspectives on Psychological Sciences, are based, it is claimed, on “new findings and theory from fields like neuroscience, developmental psychology and evolutionary psychology”. In themselves they tell an interesting tale.

The lower levels of the pyramid remain much the same as Maslow’s. But the three higher levels are replaced by mate acquisition, mate retention and parenting. Knowledge, aesthetics and self actualisation are off the list.

This is not quite as barmy as it appears. The argument is that the three missing items are secondary. That is, their achievement is merely the means towards mating and parenting. You may not have known when you finished War and Peace, listened to some Mozart, or wrote a poem, that you were unconsciously doing it to increase your attractiveness to the opposite sex. (Or even, since we are in the area of modern psychology, the same sex.)

Yet the “Machiavellian brain” hypothesis is still with us. It suggests that the homo sapiens brain developed because the more intelligent and socially competent among us had an advantage in the mating game. The male who was successful in a competitive society, who could negotiate better deals, who would typically be more ingenious or manipulative, would be picked by the female for his supposed ability to provide for a family.

But it is nearly as barmy. It has become very necessary to the scientific mind to connect everything to materialist evolution. Thus, as Professor Dawkins, in his The Selfish Gene, would have it, the meaning of life is that we are all, from the most primitive organism to an Albert Einstein, no more than vehicles used by our genes for replication and development. Mating and procreation is what life is all about. So those great elements of human nature such as deep understanding, aesthetic expression, and spiritual aspiration must be neutered by reducing them to mechanical neurological phenomena actuated by a need to mate and to parent. Forget Shakespeare, Teresa of çvila and Plato. A human’s highest aspiration is to get bedded and wedded.

So there are a number of questions to think about here. For instance, are the two versions of the pyramid compatible – being no more than different ways of looking at human beings? How would we list and prioritise human needs? Would our list be similar to one which Christ would have drawn up, if we may, without blasphemy, think of him doing so.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Wedded and Bedded

  1. Ion Zone says:

    Good article, but I would point out that “wedded” is no longer on the menu.
    .
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    Also, Dork’s idea of ‘enlightenment’ is the enactment of the kind of prejudice and hate we see in the comments of this article (I caution you if you are easily offended by disgusting levels of ignorance and hate)
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    http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2010/07/05/perhaps-throat-cancer-will-move-christopher-hitchens-to-a-change-of-heart/
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  2. Ion Zone says:

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    By the way, Quentin, they seem to have removed the link to your blog on the CH site.
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    Personally, while I think the first pyramid is a reasonable explanation for those who are not familiar with psychology (and its fads). The new one is just a gimmick that says more about the creator (plagiarist) than it does humanity.
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    Personally, I think you nailed it, with big nails. The new pyramid is a pyramid of want, not of betterment. The hack who stole it has missed the point so much it is almost funny.
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  3. Iona says:

    Did Maslow draw on information from a wide variety of very different types of society? Apart from the lowest levels of his pyramid (basic physical needs, and need to belong and be accepted in a group, usually the family group initially), I suspect his hierarchy of needs merely reflects Western-type society at the time he was writing. Life in ancient Sparta might have yielded a rather different pyramid. Similarly life among traditional Inuit groups.

  4. Vincent says:

    Iona, I think you’re probably right. All of us, including Maslow, are inclined to interpret human ideals in term of our own society, The Spartans, whom you mention, would presumably have a warrior ideal in which the individual loses his identity in his military duties. Orthodox Marxism’s ideals must be centred on society and gives no place to the individual. What would a Buddhist pyramid look like?
    Having said that, I would argue that the Spartans, the Marxists and the Buddhists do not do justice to human nature, while the Maslow pyramid is much closer even if it lacks a Christian dimension. I wonder what a Christian pyramid would look like.

  5. Ion Zone says:

    I think you are partly right Iona, but the original pyramid seems to be much ‘purer’ in that it starts with the things we need for survival and moves towards a state I would term as being fully in control of yourself and aiming for something far greater than sating the self.

  6. Iona says:

    But perhaps that judgement is itself influenced by the value placed on individualism in 21st century Western society. Other societies have other values, and who’s to say that the values of one type of society are more authentically human than those of another?

  7. newmo says:

    What would Christ have put in a pyramid if he had chosen this way of representing the heart of man? One thing that the Gospels seem to undermine is a sense of security (or rather that is the way I read them). The thief in the night for example or knowing not the hour. The drama of sin where in some teaching you could lose everything with a momentary slip also challenges our need for security doesn’t it?(though it is possibly poor teaching rather than anything you find in the Gospels).

    And what would he do with sex – Maslow’s hierachy also includes sex and is criticised for placing it at the bottom level that is detached from the social and ego needs.

    Maslow derived his results from the study of exemplary individuals. Its a shame he didn’t analyze Christ’s life. How would his death and suffering fit in to Maslow’s scheme seeing their centrality to a life that Christians would claim is the most fulfilled ever lived.

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