On the Variety of Human Needs: Maslow and Max-Neef

Which list do you think is more helpful to you? Do you feel that self-actualisation and self-transcendance are important to your life? I’d like to know what you think. Let me know in the comments.

Maslow and Human Needs

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist probably best known for developing a hierarchy of human needs. It has become known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs.

I have a problem with it being organised as a hierarchy — a bit about this (and an alternative to it) later. But first, what is it?

Two Groups of Needs

Maslow distinguished five kinds of needs: physiological (food, drink, sleep, etc.), safety (bodily, health, etc.), love and belonging (friendship, etc.), esteem (from self and others), and self-actualisation.

Maslow then divided these needs into two groups. He distinguished between deficiency needs (the first four needs listed above) and growth needs (‘self-actualisation’ in the list above).

I think it is fair to say that it is for the inclusion of ‘self-actualisation’ as a need that Maslow is most famous. Maslow suggested that people aren’t content once they have their physical and social needs met — people also have a need to actualise who they are. He later expanded the hierarchy, adding two needs before self-actualisation (understanding needs and aesthetic need), and adding a further need after self-actualisation — self-transendance. For good coverage of the expansion of the growth, needs see Dr Bill Huitt’s summary.

This was quite a proposal. And it is backed by people like Viktor Frankl who, while imprisoned by the Nazis, found that those who survived were not necessarily the young and fit but those who had something to live for. This story is told in his book Man’s Search for Meaning [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].

Self-Actualisation

I think that self-actualisation explains a lot in our lives, especially that income does not correlate with happiness. It has often puzzled people that as we get wealthier we don’t get much happier. And sometimes people report their happiest times are times of adversity (such as during a war).

This can be explained by the need for self-actualisation. The extra wealth is not necessarily earned in ways that help us actualise who we are. The times of adversity are times when people can have a sense of purpose (e.g., we need to win this war, for the sake of our family and other loved ones).

Likewise it explains why people don’t always opt for the job that can bring them the most money. Once they have enough money to meet the other needs (physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem) they are then interested in work that answers the need for self-actualisation.

Hierarchy?

My problem with Maslow’s hierarchy is that it is a hierarchy. One common criticism is that it means that, “Only wealthy people can be self-actualised”. I think this is a fair criticism.

Actually I have found those who are poorer in my society (Australia) are often more generous than the wealthy (though the poor in Australia can be wealthy in global terms). And Viktor Frankl observed (in the same book) that when people are deprived of everything, they don’t necessarily behave badly toward each other.

This discussion can get touchy awfully quickly. We don’t wish to minimise the suffering of poverty, but neither do we wish to reduce poor people to not caring for others because they are hungry. People who are hungry care for each other, can live in loving families and even have a good sense of being respected by others and having respect for them.

The needs being arranged as a hierarchy can lead to the impression that people care only about their most basic needs if these needs are not met. This I don’t think is true, even at an everyday level: sleep deprived parents, for example, do care for their children.

Summary

I think the need for self-actualisation is a genuinely powerful and important insight. I have problems with the needs being arranged in a hierarchy. I think in our lives the situation is a good deal more complicated and fluid than this.

Another List of Needs

Manfred Max-Neef, an economist and environmentalist, developed his list of needs in the context of working for social development.

His list of needs is: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom.

What I like about this list is that it includes both leisure and freedom. These don’t easily fall within Maslow’s hierarchy. I also like the feeling of ‘participation’ as opposed to belonging (from Maslow’s needs) — it has a more active sense to me. I do miss the sense of self-actualisation and self-transendance that appears in Maslow’s list.

Max-Neef’s list is not arranged as an hierarchy. Here are the two lists side by side:

  • Physiological
  • Safety
  • Belonging
  • Esteem
  • Understanding
  • Aesthetic
  • Self-Actualisation
  • Self-Transcendance
  • Subsistence
  • Protection
  • Affection
  • Participation
  • Understanding
  • Creation
  • Identity
  • Freedom
  • Leisure

Which list do you think is more helpful to you? Do you feel that self-actualisation and self-transcendance are important to your life? I’d like to know what you think. Let me know in the comments.

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