Maslow and Motivation

1b. Motivation to Breathe

Abraham Maslow’s ‘Model of Human Needs’, shows a motivating hierarchy that might explain why we behave the way we do. It has been a strong influence in understanding our culture since the 1950’s. It is used in advertising to predict and manipulate people’s needs and motivations, in health and social services as a sort of scale of personal well-being and in cultural and business studies as a reference to personal development in relation to employment.

Maslow’s original model shows a hierarchy of human needs that start with 1. Basic physiological needs and work in ascending order.

1. Basic physiological needs – to be able to eat, drink and maintain physical integrity, air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc. Once we have attained these basic needs we can progress to;

2. Safety needs – freedom from attack, from extreme environmental conditions, security, order, law, limits, stability, etc. Then to;

3. Social needs – to have a sense of belonging to a group, tribe, work group, family, affection, relationships, etc. These lead on to;

4. Esteem needs – the need to derive some positive value from our actions, self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc. Then:

5. Self-actualisation needs – the need to ‘become who you are’ – self-fulfilment, realising personal potential, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

Maslow suggests that until one level of need is fulfilled that the person is unlikely to move on to the next, for example if you are hungry and thirsty and have nowhere to live you are unlikely to be looking for social status. He suggests that each need has to be aroused and unsatisfied to be a motivating force in behaviour.

Watching adverts on TV it is easy to see how they work to arouse unsatisfied needs at these five levels to motivate people to buy stuff. You ‘must have this’ in order to ‘look cool’ to your group (social). ‘Protect your family’ with this amazing product (safety). You will ‘never be happy until’ you have this product (esteem).

In fact, happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an ant-aging moisturiser? You activate someone’s worry about aging. How to you get someone to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel they are being left behind.

More common in this age of ‘celebrity consumer capitalism’ is an appeal to the ego to manipulate ‘the perfect you in the process of becoming’ (self-actualisation) in the interests of consumerism. Consider, for example, some of these prime values from brand-name adverts:

  •         Weightwatchers club: “Be Who You Want To Be
  •         Microsoft: “Where do you want to go today
  •         Mortgage company: “Make your One Day – Today
  •         Hyundai: “Drive Your Way
  •         Harpic: “What does your loo say about you?
  •         O2: “The World Revolves Around You
  •         Hugo Fragance: “Your Fragrance – Your Rules
  •         City & Guilds web site: “

Since the 1950’s, before we had houses stacked out with consumer durables to make our homes safer, trendy, the envy of our neighbours – other needs have moved on to the top of the hierarchy. In the 1970’s, two more levels were added to the top of the hierarchy, after ‘esteem needs’ (4) and before ‘self-actualisation’ (5 moves to 7). These were generally recognised as:

6. Aesthetic needs – appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.

7. Cognitive needs – knowledge, meaning, etc.

Not many people in the West could deny that many of us now live in a culture of celebrity; a social system where the trappings of wealth and fame increase people’s self-esteem and motivation to ‘do better’. ‘The cult of me’, that of celebrity worship, is central to many motivators in Western culture.

People who self-actualise in a public way are given special status, whether this is through politics, royalty, movie fame or reality TV. Everyone, it seems, wants their fifteen minutes of fame. Our celebrity culture provides one of the motivations for Capitalism: upward mobility through an apparent meritocracy.

But this type of self-centred, self-actualisation is one peculiar to the West. A close look reveals that this particularly Western cultural model is missing important elements for those who believe life on earth might actually have a purpose.  It is one of the models at the heart of a dangerous materialistic creed that has produced a ‘Me First’ culture driven by ego, greed and desire. It has resulted in a cultural philosophy hell-bent on self-annihilation. Stopping Maslow’s Hierarchy at ‘self-actualisation’ reveals the extent of our shallow ambitions for ourselves.

In a moment I am going to reveal some other levels, but what seems to stop people evolving at ‘self-actualisation’ is one very important question:

Are we related to something beyond our limited ego sense, something bigger than ourselves, something infinite – or not?

In other more spiritual cultures the highest attainment of the evolved human is in the service of others. We could call this ‘transcendence actualisation’ – ‘I can’t be me unless you can be you!’

This means recognising that on one level whatever I do to you, or you do to me – we also do to ourselves. We are all caught up in the ‘circle of life’. This is reflected to a by an addition in the 1990’s of another need placed at the top of the hierarchy:

8. Transcendence needs – helping others to achieve self-actualization.

So the whole model from the top-down looks like this:

  • 8. Transcendence needs
  • 7. Self-actualisation needs
  • 6. Cognitive needs
  • 5. Aesthetic needs
  • 4. Esteem needs
  • 3. Social needs
  • 2. Safety needs
  • 1. Basic physiological needs

This is a sign that new consciousness is dawning on some members of Western culture. It is a recognition that compassion for others and co-operation may be more important than competition, and that consideration for others is an essential part of sharing a planet.

Some of us are transcending into this realisation of ‘mutual survival’ where ‘what I do to you, I do to myself’ because we are all part of one thing. Unfortunately, many people not evolving into this realisation are very busy wrecking the environment for all of us.

If you believe that life has a purpose, that we are here in the universe for a reason then we can add even more layers to the derived Maslow model:

9. Species Actualisation  –   discovering and working towards all human evolution.

10. Planetary Actualisation – humans working together with the nature on this planet to evolve as one.

11. Universal Actualisation – humans working together with the natural universe to evolve as one.

12. ‘God’ Actualisation – the actualisation of whatever forces hold this miraculous universe together.

Unfortunately most of humanity is still caught up in the first five levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy. It is my belief that humans are just beginning the process of coming into their potential. I see many people as on this journey, despite the best efforts of the social system we have trying to turn us into slaves for a money system.

But the clock is ticking and Nature is starting to have her say.

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