Friday, June 1, 2012

The Dangers of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Every semester in my public speaking course I teach Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a way for students to find a motivating reason to persuade their classmates.  Maslow's theories are as pervasive in intellectual circles as Darwin's.  But sometimes we forget that they are just theories, and may have no relationship to real experiences of real people.

For those of you who have forgotten Maslow's hierarchy, here's a graphic to explain it:






A few things jump out at me whenever I see this chart.  First it seems that family and friendship, sexual intimacy, etc., are separated from morality and the acceptance of facts.  They seem to come before the higher order human experiences.  In fact, this theory is the reason many argue that impoverished people must be given birth-control and abortion services at the same time that they are given food and water.  The argument is that the potential parents must have meaningful work and a solid home before they can bring a child into the world.  But the definition of meaningful work or what a home is can vary greatly according to each person.  If I'm happy in a two bedroom home with 4 children in the United States, I'm considered poor.  In India, I would be wealthy.  If I work in a factory in the United States, I'm lower on Maslow's rungs than that same person in India.

The practical implementation of Maslow's theory is a tendency by the wealthy to create class warfare.  If a person is poor, struggling to provide basic necessities like food and water, or a home, then they have no morality.  As Catholics, we know this is not true.  In truly poor places, friendship, problem solving, and respect of others allow people to come together for the benefit of others.  Poverty, and the generosity it creates in those who live it daily, often engenders spontaneous acts of selflessness. I'm not romanticizing poverty.  It is simply true that  a neighborhood of factory workers is far more likely to loan each other the chain saw when a tree falls than a neighborhood of CEO's.

Our Catholic heritage is full of stories of Saints who were poor, but gave generously to others regardless of their poverty.  I think of Mother Theresa, Saint Anthony, most of the apostles.  And there are those Saints who lived as hermits, without human friendship or families, but were clearly self-actualized.  Even our wonderful parish priests who live celibate lives can be the most seal-actualized people we know. 

These things probably seem obvious, but to the teacher in the psychology classroom of a Catholic or public high school, these points are often lost in the lecture.  I've seen students eyes glaze over when this slide appeared in my college class.  They've been told by high school teachers that  if they are lucky, they may make it to the third or fourth rung on the ladder, but the top rung is only for the select few.  Yet if they really looked at their lives and experiences, most would find they are already at the top.

The  result of thinking that the top is  not yet achieved, or unachievable, is people living as though morality is the province of the wealthy.  Only those with money have the leisure to live moral and virtuous lives.  It is obvious that this is not true, and yet every public school graduate, and most from Catholic schools will have been told this at least once while in school. 

Maslow's theory is clearly debunked by any life that includes an active faith in God.  Human needs are not rungs on a ladder to be met and ticked-off  on a list.  Rather, the human experience of faith in Christ shows us the possibility of meeting all of the higher needs even when deprived of food and water.  This is what fasting is all about.

It is clear that Maslow's hierarchy has affected the way we view ourselves and our world.  It is the foundational reason for entitlement programs in the United States, and the mercenary out-reach of the United Nations.  But when programs are based on a flawed premise, those programs fail.  Instead of lifting people out of poverty, entitlement programs turn people into whining dogs, standing over a food bowl, waiting for it to be filled.


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