Maslow 2.0: Replacing the Pyramid of Needs with a Sailboat of Needs

At the 50th anniversary of Abraham Maslow passing away, a bold new book provides an updated version of his theory of needs by integrating it with the latest developments in empirical psychology. But what exactly are these new growth-oriented needs of humans?

Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs is undoubtedly one of the most iconic psychological images. Reprinted countless of times, the pyramid depicts physiological needs such as breathing, food, and water at the base of the pyramid. The next layer is safety and security, then comes love and belonging, then self-esteem and respect, with self-actualization at the top.

Once you’ve seen it, the idea of a pyramid of needs sticks with you. It is intuitive, it is memorable – and it is wrong. As an image of human needs, Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs is mistaken on two accounts: It’s not Maslow’s pyramid. And the needs don’t form a pyramid.

First, rather surprisingly, Abraham Maslow himself never created a pyramid of needs. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1908, Maslow is still regarded as one of the most influential Twentieth-century psychologists who is indeed especially famous for his theory of human needs. Reacting to the atrocities of the WWII, Maslow wanted to develop a psychology of human potential, the good in each of us, and what humans ultimately need to flourish.

However, the shape of a pyramid is nowhere to be found in Maslow’s writings. It was a bunch of management scholars who in the late 50s and early 60s drew the pyramid as a mnemonic for managers wanting “maximum motivation at lowest cost.” The pyramid, thus, does not have anything to do with Maslow himself but rather the iconic shape spread through management textbooks and business consultants eager to sell the pyramid as a tool to extract motivation from unsuspecting employees.

Second, the scientific community realized already decades ago that while humans certainly might have psychological needs, these needs don’t arrange themselves into a clear hierarchy. Furthermore, the list of needs provided by Maslow has been challenged by newer, more empirically supported theories.

In a bold new book, entitled Transcend – The New Science of Self-Actualization, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman aims to make Maslow relevant again by retaining the healthy core of his theory, while integrating his ideas with the developments of empirical psychology that have taken place in the five decades since Maslow passed away in Menlo Park, Ca., on June 8, 1970, when his eager writing to revise his theory came to an unfortunate halt through a fatal heart attack.

Kaufman argues that the part of Maslow’s theory that has stood the test of time is a distinction between two types of needs. First, there are the deficit needs, which dominate our motivation and trump any higher needs when they are urgently lacking. If I am underwater and start to be out of oxygen, self-realization is not the first thing on my mind. The only need I care about is the necessity of being able to breath again. The more precarious a physical need becomes, the more it preoccupies our mind. Hunger is a powerful motivation. However, as long as my access to water, food, and shelter feels secured, I don’t think about them much. Deficit needs thus become activated mainly when we are lacking them.

Human existence, however, is not mere passive reactance to deficits. As the movie character Solomon Northup memorably states in 12 Years a Slave: “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” We humans are not mere survival-machines, but active and growth-oriented, eager to take on challenges through which to manifest our full potential. A human being has a tendency for self-fulfillment, “to become actualized in what he is potentially”, as Maslow put it. In this quest to realize ourselves, we are guided by what Maslow called growth needs. While deficit needs are driven by fears, anxieties, and a push to quench what we are lacking, growth needs pull us towards what we find intriguing and valuable. They are the sources of intrinsic fulfillment we are drawn towards when we don’t have to worry about mere survival.

The pyramid fails to capture this fundamental distinction between deficit and growth needs. In its place Kaufman proposes a sailboat. Life isn’t a project or a competition; it is a journey to travel through “a vast blue ocean, full of new opportunities for meaning and discovery but also danger and uncertainty.” The hull of the boat is what keeps us afloat, offering security from the waves. It represents the deficit needs essential for survival. Kaufman proposes three such needs: feeling safe, feeling of belonging and not being rejected by others, and protecting our self-esteem. In other words, we need to feel safe both in the physical realm, in the interpersonal realm, and in our relation to ourselves.

But having a protective body is not enough for real movement. Kaufman quotes Seneca: “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” What we need to do is to open our sail and dare to embrace life and direct our efforts towards actualizing ourselves. As for the growth-oriented needs, Kaufman again proposes three: exploration, love, and purpose. We explore our environment for the sheer pleasure of it, we want to feel a deep sense of connection and love with others, and we seek goals worth pursuing to energize our activities. The growth needs are thus not depicted as a pyramid to climb; they are ultimately about opening up to life, daring to treat life as a quest. Of course, the stronger the hull, the easier it is to boldly open up the sails.

However, I would dare to go beyond Kaufman’s contribution by offering three other needs to fill in the sail of the boat. In 1970, the same year that Maslow passed away, Edward Deci, a young psychologist inspired by Maslow, got his PhD from Carnegie-Mellon University. He was soon joined by Richard Ryan and guided by a Maslowian vision of humans as inherently self-motivated beings actively following their internal motives, goals, and values, this dynamic duo of professors founded Self-Determination Theory. The research around the theory has exploded especially in the last two decades, with the number of empirical articles on the theory counted in thousands, and it being applied in contexts ranging from education, work psychology, and sports coaching to promotion of health behavior and parenting, to name but a few. This has made self-determination theory one of the most empirically validated theories of motivation and well-being available in psychology.

At the core of the theory is the idea that humans have three psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy as a need is not about independence and standing apart from others but about a sense of volition: We humans need to feel that we are the authors of our own lives, endorsing our own actions, rather than being forced to do things. Competence is about the sense of fulfillment we get from learning and getting better at something and the sense of mastery of being at the top of our game and getting things done. Relatedness is about having deep, mutually caring relationships in one’s life. Chronic frustration of these needs has been shown to hurt our motivation, leading to deviance, depression, and other psychological ill-adjustments. The satisfaction of the three needs, however, has been associated in hundreds of studies with becoming more energized and engaged, more intrinsically motivated, and experiencing a higher sense of well-being.

My own encounter with Self-Determination Theory started on a riverboat in Moscow in 2012. Attending a psychology conference, I had just heard a keynote speech by professor Ryan when I saw him in the bar of the riverboat, where the conference dinner was held. I decided to approach him. In hindsight, he treated me surprisingly encouragingly, given that I was a student who had just first time heard about the theory he and hundreds of others had spent decades in developing, and in the naïve hubris of youth I was already proposing a bold revision of the whole theory.

Long story short, half a year later I was, with my family, boarding a plane to Rochester, NY, to move there to join Ryan and Deci’s Motivation Research Group. My own research has especially concentrated around psychological needs and meaning in life, aiming to demonstrate that the three needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are not only important for our sense of well-being but also for our sense of meaning in life. They indeed seem to be the higher needs Maslow was trying to identify that go beyond mere survival and point the way towards what makes this human life of ours truly worth living.

In investigating meaning in life, I am fortunate to live in a time when it has become a legitimate topic for empirical research, with new studies on the nature and sources of meaning proliferating. Here, psychological science is finally aiming to fulfill Maslow’s vision. He was not content with merely listing the psychological needs of humans. In his later years, he was working towards a humanistic revolution in psychology. In one of these drafts, Maslow confides that his ultimate aim is to spell out “the consequences of the discovery that man has a higher nature and that this is part of his essence.“ He wanted to work towards a world where each of us would have the means to transcend the mere strive for survival, and be in better touch with what is higher in us.

Maslow’s message to us, as distilled by Kaufman, is that “each of us is capable of transcendence in this brief, suffering, and yet sometimes miraculous lifetime.“ The better angels of our nature already live within each of us. As Maslow put it, “human beings can be wonderful out of their own human and biological nature.” We just need to ensure that each of us is in a secure place, where our inherent tendency for growth is supported, and our basic needs satisfied. The worse in humans – passivity, selfishness, aggressiveness – is typically a reaction to one’s basic needs having been frustrated for too long.

Maslow wanted to democratize the opportunity to live a growth-oriented life through removing the obstacles for it, like material scarcity, emotional coldness, and institutions crushing our dreams. This is the legacy of Maslow worth fighting for: To build a culture and institutions that support the ability of each of us to grow and become the best versions of ourselves. This is done through ensuring that as many as possible can grow up, live, and work in environments that support the satisfaction of our basic psychological needs.

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