Our Basic Needs: Food, Shelter and… Telling Bed-time Stories?

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You may remember Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. The popular pyramid (first published in 1943 and still a regular fixture in classrooms and corporate teambuilding exercises) puts forth a basic argument about humans psychology: that we satisfy our needs in a well-defined order. First come the basic bodily needs, things like not starving and not freezing to death. Then, once those are sorted out, we can worry about the next level of needs, safety, and so on. At the pinnacle of Maslow’s pyramid is “self-actualization” — the need to reach your full potential, and to lead a fulfilling, creative, and purposeful life.

Now four psychologists have come along with an update to Maslow’s pyramid, and they’ve created a controversy — a somewhat confused controversy, but still — about what it is that we really need. This new pyramid scraps self-actualization outright. At the top of this pyramid? Parenting. That comes in right above finding and then keeping a mate.

The update is designed to bring the famous pyramid of needs more closely in line with what we’ve learned over the last six decades from fields as diverse as neuroscience and evolutionary anthropology, according to the researchers who designed. For obvious reasons, not everyone’s thrilled with the proposed updates, which were published earlier this summer in Perspectives on Psychological Science. For some people, sure, parenting is the most fulfilling thing they will ever do. You might even claim that parenting can be — dare I say? — self-actualizing. But there are some people out there who just don’t want kids. And that seems to mean, in fact, that no small number of people out there find it pretty silly to think that parenting is the highest class of need that humans can fulfill.

As much fun as it might be to mock the new pyramid, this swirling controversy seems, alas, to be more of a misunderstanding than anything else — confusion over whether the needs are things that people should want to do, or whether they’re merely things that evolution tells us members of the species will do. Writing earlier today in response to some of the critics, study author Douglas Kenrick explains:

Maslow’s goal of self-actualization was seen as something to which we should all aspire. This fit with his humanistic inclination to emphasize higher ideals. Indeed, Maslow chose an elite set of highly accomplished, highly sensitive people to demonstrate [in his examples] what he meant by self-actualization. That’s all nice, and it’s part of why we love Maslow.

But Maslow also believed that the goals in his hierarchy were human universals, and that they unfolded in a particular developmental order. Our renovation is concerned with those assumptions. Based on inclusive fitness theory, we argued that human motives are, like all psychological mechanisms, designed to facilitate reproduction, and that Maslow largely overlooked that. Based on research and theory on evolutionary life history theory, we argued that, developmentally, parenting is the goal at the top. This means parenting goals will come to the fore only after other social and reproductive goals have been accomplished. But in our renovated pyramid, the pinnacle is NOT designed to be aspirational.

So we are NOT saying that everyone should aspire to have as many children as they can, or even to have any children at all. My personal belief is that the world is already more than sufficiently overpopulated

There you have it. Whether you prefer writing poetry over changing diapers is irrelevant. This new pyramid shows a human’s needs for individual reproductive success — and those aren’t necessarily the same things that you need to be happy.