Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a fairy tale of privilege.
If it was just an ancient psychological theory, I wouldn’t care, but thinking that agrees with it continues to shape people’s judgments about motivation and acceptability.
Let’s break it down.
Maslow’s hierarchy sought to explain human motivation. In simple terms, it says humanity has 5 basic needs which motivate behavior. These needs fall into a pyramid-like hierarchy. People want to fill the lowest level need, then the second lowest, and so on, until they reach the peak of motivation: self-actualization. It lists needs as (from most fundamental, moving up):
Physiological: health, food, water, sleep, clothes, shelter, and sex
Safety: personal, emotional, financial, health (i.e. a sense of security and stability)
Social belonging: friendships, intimacy, family
Self-esteem: feeling respected and valued by others
Self-actualization: utilizing and developing abilities, talents, and goals
Transcendence: finding purpose outside one’s self, e.g. altruism or spirituality
Why is this model (and beliefs that reinforce it) so toxic?
1. Designed for those with privilege
The model was based on studying the healthiest 1% of the college student population.
Maslow specifically reported that he wanted to study the most healthy and successful people because “the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy” (Maslow, Motivation and Personality, 1954).
In other words: Maslow looked at people most likely to have their needs met as the model for what motivates people, while deliberately ignoring populations who could not get these needs met. It does nothing to examine why this disparity in needs exists, i.e. the effects of inequality and biased social structures.
Look, if I usually don’t have to worry about where my food comes from, I will probably want to eat lunch before going out and doing altruistic volunteer activities. Makes sense, right? Why not make sure I’m at my best before I help others? Especially since food is easily accessible.
But what if worrying about where food comes from is your daily reality? For years? Are you supposed to stop caring about emotional stability, friendships, feeling respected by others, or having personal goals?
Maslow’s model would say yes.
2. Defines healthy behavior
Maslow specifically puts this model forth as a model for healthy motivation. After all, he based it on the “healthy” people.
The real insidious twist: that means veering outside this progression of motivations makes your behavior unhealthy. It means, to expand on the example above, wanting to feel respected even when you can’t afford food is unhealthy. Wanting to pursue self-actualizing goals (i.e. hobbies, interests, passions) in the words of Maslow, would be a “cripple psychology.”
This has huge implications for the ways we treat people.
If I am at the highest level of motivation, I would donate money to a food bank. But the people who need that food? They haven’t reached the motivation level where they should care about respect, that’s like three levels higher. This feeds into the entitlement of some “benevolent” folks: I will help you, but I won’t respect you. This becomes readily apparent when someone supposedly lower on the hierarchy of needs calls out the behavior of someone higher: “Gosh, how could they say that? Shouldn’t they just be grateful?”
That comment? Not theoretical. It happens all of the time.
3. Infects pop psychology and societal values
Many people who have never heard of Maslow still live in the shadow of his model. Despite numerous criticisms and lack of empirical evidence for his model, it has shaped psychology, health care, education systems, and entertainment at every level.
Yeah. There are numerous lessons on writing and storytelling that use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a tool for thinking about conflict and motivation. This model has infected popular beliefs, at least in the United States, for decades.
It has become an unconscious model of health. It has become an unconscious definition of healthy motivation vs. unhealthy motivation. In the U.S., it is extremely potent because it fits right in with the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality of the States. It gives “scientific” backing to a harmful cultural myth.
4. Reinforces an individualistic model and disempowers community action
This model places physiological needs at a higher priority than relationships, being valued and respected, long term goals, and altruistic action.
This is not an accident.
On the surface level, it reinforces an individualistic mindset.
On a deeper level, it implies collective action and community support should be reserved for those at the top of the motivation pyramid, i.e. those with the most resources and privilege.
In other terms: don’t have your basic needs met? Well, get that fixed before you start thinking about coming together as a community to help each other.
It seeks to focus marginalized folks away from combining efforts to meeting their immediate survival needs.
Now place that dynamic within a society that makes it difficult to move out of poverty or other marginalized situations into a place of privilege?
The marginalized would never organize. Never unite. Never join their limited resources to lift each other up.
If collective action and healthy relationships are only for those with the most resources and power, that means the greatest changes and action are further reserved for them. It means the only healthy change would come from those already experiencing the most need fulfillment.
5. How we treat each other
All of these dynamics feed into how we treat each other if we’ve ever been influenced by this model.
It affects how those with more resources view the actions and motivations of people with less resources. This leads to judgments about people’s respectability, responsibility, and “health” of their lifestyle.
But it doesn’t just affect those with resources: it affects everyone.
And that means marginalized people also judge each other by this standard. And judge themselves by this standard.
“I can’t ask for that…that’s needy.” (Needy is a stand-in for unhealthy or wrong).
“They shouldn’t be focused on those goals right now…I’m going to distance myself from them.”
And so on.
6. A word about colonization
This hierarchy is not benign. It is not just about an academic model from an individualistic mindset.
Colonization attempted to erase culture (art, music, language) and sought to create separation and discord in indigenous populations as an act of war…because it worked.
When you take people’s art, music, language, jokes, when you try to erase these aspects of identity it is demoralizing, depressing, and paralyzing. It is an assault. It is to take away a core part of human existence. Art is not trivial; if it was, why would it be found in every time period and every population? If it was, why would so many modern mental health treatments focus on helping people re-engage with hobbies, pleasurable activities, leisure?
This goes beyond the production of art to the enjoyment of art and other interests. Hobbies are not trivial; they are fundamental.
When you push people to focus on their limited resources and survival, at the expense of helping others or appreciating that needs beyond basic survival have fundamental value, it weakens the entire group. It disempowers them. The history of U.S. colonization is overflowing with examples of this tactic.
Maslow’s hierarchy is not just an academic idea. The assumptions is pushes, the definition of health it establishes, the discourse is shapes as a result, is colonial in nature.
So if you want to write that you’re decolonizing your games? You are decolonizing your thoughts? You want to help decolonize our society?
Start by taking a step back and looking at Maslow’s hierarchy.
Look at how it has shaped your own judgments—of yourself and others—and how those judgments affect your actions. Your relationships.
Examine how it affects what we value and who gets to value certain things.
And then take some time to think for yourself: how do you want to define health? How do you want to define healthy communities? And how can you move towards that?