Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Hierarchy of Needs

A theoretical construct that I've found useful is Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. While it's been criticized when followed rigidly (for example, trying to claim that hungry people are not capable of love, or people who extend it to try to prove that it's not possible for poor people to go for achievement or self-actualization), I think that as a general guideline it's valuable. (One of the people who has criticized it is Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef, who claims that there is no hierarchy of needs; instead, he says that needs are satisfied through 'simultaneity, complementarity and trade-offs'. He does, however, admit there is a basic need for survival and subsistance.)

Maslow postulates that there are at least five levels of growth, and each level needs to be met (overall) before moving on to the next level.

He starts with 'Physiological Needs'. Among other things, he includes eating, drinking, shelter, and warmth. Every human being needs oxygen to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat. We need shelter and warmth to survive. This means we need to deal with issues like hunger and housing as a priority. Energy needs are in here as well (for warmth among other things) as well as the needs for clean water and clean air. Here also is where concerns about the corporate control of drinking water (especially in poorer countries) come in to play.

Once these needs are met, he goes on to his next level which he calls 'Safety Needs'. You may not be starving to death but if you have to worry about being killed or injured at any time, you are not much better off. Here lies many issues that we have let the conservatives run with: crime and terrorism and economic issues--but also more progressive issues like war and job safety. This also includes people who have enough to live on but live in fear that this little margin of security may disappear any moment, not to mention the need for adequate health care. We need a society

The next level he labels 'The Love Needs'. Here he includes "love and affection and belongingness". Other people have pointed out that this is about our need for healthy relationships, for friendship, intimacy, a sense of family. It's not enough to have your basic needs met and to feel safe. If these are met, you need to feel loved. Here it's clear that love isn't 'all you need' but it is certainly something you need.

Maslow's next level is for esteem, achievement, and respect. Self-esteem and self-respect are key here. People need to feel accepted and that they are making a contribution.

Maslow refers to these four levels as "deficiency needs", claiming that if they are met, they become nearly irrelevant. When they are fulfilled, we move on to higher levels.

Beyond these needs are what Maslow refers to as "growth needs", needs for knowledge, beauty, and 'self-actualization", the drive to make the most of who you are.

One useful piece of this model is that it reminds us to start with basic needs. Make sure everybody has food, water, shelter. Make sure everybody feels safe and secure. Make sure that everybody feels loved. Make sure that everyone feels they are worthwhile and making a contribution. Then we can worry about more complex needs. (And maybe we don't need much beyond this.)

Next: What do we need? And what don't we need?

Quote of the day: "Anyone who attempts to make an emergency picture into a typical one and who will measure all of man's goals and desires by his behavior during extreme physiological deprivation, is certainly blind to many things. It is quite true that man lives by bread alone — when there is no bread..." - Abraham Maslow
Word (or phrase) of the day: Reification
Hero(es) of the day: Herbert and Marianne Baum

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