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.