Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs under Fire

Forty years ago, as I was studying for a Masters in counseling, one of the key things we studied was Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs", the idea that people can only focus on higher-level needs after lower-level ones are met. At one level, this is obvious: someone with serious unmet physical needs (such as air, water or food) may not even be able to pay attention to such less-obvious needs as friendship.

Recently though, the top level of Maslow's hierarchy (Self-actualization) has come under attack from at least two directions. One criticism is that there is no evolutionary value to self-actualization. Another, and the reason for this post, is that (like Lord Keynes' endorsement of politicians spending more in hard times) it told leaders what they wanted to hear. As Keith Humphreys puts it here (in a post linked by Instapundit): "Maslow did what Kolhberg did in his theory of moral development and Rollo May and all the existentialist psychiatrists did in their theories: He asserted that the objectively highest state of human development was to be like him and like people he admired."

It's becoming clear to me that I could have been a more-critical thinker in college and grad school, as I happily digested the worshipful teaching of Keynesian economics and Maslow's psychology. I wonder what convenient self-praising beliefs I'm just as uncritically ingesting today?