The one with Maslow

Maslow's pyramid

I knew a pastor who started every sermon with “This is hard.” Ouch, I was counting on him to help make some sense of life for me.

Working with an actress in a dramatic scene, I told her to enter the room and loudly proclaim her opening line. She looked at me and asked: “What is my motivation?” No, it wasn’t good enough to say: “Because the line is in the script.”

In a business meeting, I outlined a perfectly reasonable option for the client, only to have them drag their feet and want to study it more. What was going on?

Life is complex and every day we experience a range of different physical and psychological needs and emotions. In ourselves or as expressed by others. At first glance, a person’s actions may not make much sense at all to an observer (or even to the person himself).

A number of models have been introduced seeking to make sense of needs and behaviors. Abraham Maslow proposed a multi-level model in 1943, dividing our needs into 5 levels: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization.

Sometimes there’s actually an additional 6th level in his model: self-transcendence. This final, top level is often left out of representations of Maslow’s pyramid. Possibly since it is about finding actualization in a higher goal outside oneself, such as altruism or spirituality, and so harder to apply to everyday cases.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

Physiological needs
This most basic level is about human survival. Air, water, food. Clothing. Shelter. It’s about survival.

Safety and Security
Once the physiological needs are met, we are concerned with safety. Physical, economic, health, protection against catastrophic accidents/illness

Social Belonging
We all need to belong, be connected with other humans. Tribe, acceptance, social connection, sexual connection. We need to love and be loved.

This is about the need to feel respected, esteemed, valued. Maslow made note of a lower and higher level of esteem: The lower is being respected by others, the higher is self-respect. It’s his thinking that self-respect takes priority over respect by others.

We’re talking about a person meeting his or her full potential here. As the Army recuiting posters once said: Be all that you can be. To Maslow, for a person to understand this level of need, the other levels must first be achieved and mastered. Expressions here can be inventions, art, athletics, personal achievement.

Finally Self-Transcendence: Reaching a level of self-actualization where it’s no longer about me at all, but about reaching a higher goal outside myself, where the entire focus is on others, expressed in altruism and spirituality. Like I noted, many representations leave out this level because it’s rather intangible.

Maslow's pyramidThese levels are often illustrated as a pyramid, with physiological needs at the base and then moving upward towards self-actualization. The idea is that each level builds on the previous levels. Maslow certainly recognized that needs and motivations are very complex and there will be overlaps, but as a general observation, if physiological or safety needs are not met, we’re not going to be looking at spending time on self-actualization by painting stunning pictures or setting a new 100 m dash record.

So what does all this psych mumbo-jumbo have to do with me, you might ask? Isn’t this the stuff of Psych 101 or Human Behavior 101. Basic, and ignored because while Frasier and Niles might delight in it, it doesn’t apply to regular people?

And yet it does. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is useful in many places where we look to understand behavior and motivation — our own lives, to make sense of how others behave, in business interactions or to flesh out characters when writing a book or movie.

What if it can help us understand ourselves and others better? For instance, if James looks at his behavioral motivations through the lens of these levels, he might notice that time and time again in key events in life, his behavior is governed by a particular level on the pyramid. If things are turning out for good, that lets him build on that response and build healthy habits. If this response is limiting him, he might do some digging to find out what’s missing in this level and be able to address that.

We could look at a person with a chronic health condition and dismiss them as lazy or unmotivated when they don’t display any drive to get better or set goals for themselves. But what if the reality is that due to the demands of the health condition, all that person’s energy goes to focusing on the physiological needs and safety/security. There’s simply no energy left in that person to pursue social relationships, build self-esteem or even think about doing something creative or reaching a goal.

There’s no right or wrong answer here. This is about understanding.

As with the actress looking to know her motivation in order to deliver her lines more convincingly, in real life it’s also helpful to understand what motivates us and drives us, so we can make more intentional decisions going forward.

In a coaching program, we went through an exercise with Maslow’s pyramid and our past experiences to help find our main motivation for why we do the things we do.

The exercise involved mentally going back over my life and look at peak emotional experiences from different periods. Once I wrote down the event, I then determined the dominant need (level on the pyramid).

Finally, I tallied up and found out which level(s) appeared most in the list. That gave me a top and secondary need that most of the time motivate me.

Here’s the exercise for you to try yourself:

Download the worksheet

For each decade of your life, write down 1 or more peak emotional experiences. Think about what happened and what made it so emotional. Then refer to Maslow’s pyramid of needs to determine which dominant need covers each peak emotional experience. There may be a secondary need involved as well.

With the list done, tally how many times each need appears. Which need or needs top the list? What does that tell you about yourself? What implications could that have for your future? For your interactions with other people?

In doing this exercise, I discovered that a majority of key events in my life involved Belongingness and love needs as well as Self-actualization. Come to think of it, that probably explains why I’m writing this blog and working on a novel.

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Disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional and don’t play one on TV. This is not medical/psychological advice. Your mileage will vary. While doing this exercise was helpful for me, it may not be for you. Enter at your own risk.