Friday, September 12, 2014

Pyramids of needs

Other animals spend their whole lives trying to get fed, stay alive, and get laid. That’s about it. But the needs of modern humans involve much more. This is captured especially well I think in the work of French philosopher Albert Camus (1942), suggesting that we humans are creatures who spend our whole lives trying to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd.

Motivation theories have inspired many decades of research in the behavioral sciences (Deci & Ryan 2000, Cosmides & Tooby 2013). In one of the early influential models, Maslow’s (1943) ‘pyramid of needs’ defines several more or less universal features of human nature in terms of a hierarchical series of motivations. Thus the most basal categories are ‘immediate physiological needs’ followed by ‘safety’, and higher order needs are distinguished by ‘love (affection, belongingness)’ and ‘esteem (respect)’, with ‘self-actualization’ occupying the apex of the pyramid. The pyramidal architecture then serves to represent that higher order needs are normally not attained unless more basal needs are met first, and that these commonly manifest along a developmental trajectory with advancing age.

An important update of the Maslow pyramid was proposed recently by Kenrick et al. (2010) to give it a more explicitly Darwinian framework, firmly grounded in modern evolutionary theory — i.e. where motivations are linked to their presumed/probable functions as adaptive cognitive domains in rewarding the reproductive success of ancestors. This approach has parallels in the more recent ‘Selfish Goal’ model of Huang and Bargh (2014) and in an earlier account of self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan 2000), which also regards “…psychological needs as universal aspects of human nature…” and which “…fits broadly in an adaptationalist perspective that emphasizes how our common evolutionary heritage produces such regularity” (p. 252).

Fig. 1. The pyramid hierarchy of fundamental human needs /
motives by Kenrick et al (2010), modified from Maslow (1943).
In the Kenrick et al. (2010) pyramid ‘renovation’ (Fig. 1), Maslow’s lower and mid-level needs are essentially retained (with some revised labelling) but the major and significant distinction is the replacement of the pyramid apex by three goals drawn from evolutionary life history theory: mate acquisition, mate retention, and parenting. In this renovation, Maslow’s ‘self-actualization’ is not regarded as a functional need, and is considered instead to be “… largely subsumed within status (esteem) and mating-related motives” (Kenrick et al. 2010, p. 239).

But something important it seems to me is missing here. Building on inspiration from the Kenrick et al. renovation, I offer another version for remodeling a pyramid of human needs or ‘drives’ (Fig. 2) — also conceptually framed by Darwinian evolution. To reinforce the central importance of the latter, the exalted pyramid cap represents not a motivation per se, but the overarching functional (adaptive) consequence connected to all of the underlying needs / drives: gene transmission success. The lowest and highest categories of motivations in Figure 2 have essentially the same elements as corresponding levels in the Kenrick et al. version. In the latter, those levels associated with the core of ‘somatic effort’ — Immediate Physiological Needs, Self-Protection, and Affliliation (Fig. 1) — are subsumed here under Survival Drive (Fig. 2). Similarly, the higher order ‘reproductive effort’ needs — Mate Acquisition, Mate Retention, and Parenting (Fig. 1) — are distilled within Sexual/Familial Drives, which also includes kin-helping (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. The ‘four-drives’ model for additional renovation of the pyramid of 
human needs, building on the explicitly Darwinian framework incorporated 
by Kenrick et al. (2010) (Fig. 1). Needs are represented here within four 
fundamental human ‘drives’, representing products of selection for distinct 
domains of human motivations that were essential — collectively as an 
integrated set, it is argued — for effecting gene transmission success in 
ancestors. The latter — the overarching evolutionary ‘goal’/consequence — 
thus occupies the apex position (the only level in the hierarchy distinguished 
as a pyramid in its own right).

The most significant renovation proposed here involves greater emphasis on a ‘narrative of the self’, involving motivational elements that include and expand on notions of self-actualization — not as a priority (in the Maslow sense) only after all other core needs are satisfied, but rather as a more integrative construct at the mid-level. In this sense, ‘Legacy Drive’ is inserted as a distinct intermediary domain of motivation (Fig. 2) — and within which, the ‘Status/Esteem’ needs of Kenrick et al (2010; Fig. 1) are subsumed. ‘Legacy Drive’, together with a second intermediary domain — ‘Leisure Drive’ (Fig. 2) — represent adaptive cognitive systems rooted in uniquely human, innate predilections for existential meaning, purpose and larger-than-self identity (Aarssen 2010, Klinger 2012, MacKenzie & Baumeister 2014). Importantly, it is argued, failure to meet these domain-level psychological needs — as with failure to meet survival needs — can be expected to limit or incapacitate deployment of the higher order (Sexual/Familial) Drives linked most proximally to reproductive / gene-transmission success.

Others have also called for retaining greater emphasis on components of meaning and self-actualization within the needs pyramid framework (Kesebir et al. 2010, Peterson & Park 2010), and this chimes with an emerging field of research in existential psychology (Vess et al 2009, Schnell 2012, Shaver & Mikulincer 2012a, Batthyany and Russo-Netzer 2014). What remains, however, is to place these drives explicitly within the context and logical implications of an evolutionary analysis like that of Kenrick et al. (2010) — i.e. to consider how these uniquely human drives are likely to have played a critical role in propelling the genes of ancestors into future generations, thus deserving domain-level distinction in the pyramid hierarchy. Indeed, in a response commentary, Kenrick and coauthors seem at least partially sympathetic to this objective: “…perhaps it is worth thinking a bit more deeply about motivations associated with meaning … There is no doubt that, as a result of relatively recent historical circumstances within which human culture and human cognition coevolved, people uniquely attach symbolic meaning to a dazzling array of ideas and artifacts. There is also no doubt that people seek meaning … The bigger question, then, is whether the needs for meaning … have unique implications for reproductive fitness and thus qualify for a place in our pyramid” (Schaller et al. 2010, p. 337).

In later posts, I will argue that they do.


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Batthyany, A., & Russo-Netzer, P. (Eds.) (2014). Meaning in Positive and Existential Psychology. New York: Springer.

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Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000). The ‘‘what’’ and ‘‘why’’ of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268.

Huang, J. Y., & Bargh, J. A. (2014). The selfish goal: autonomously operating motivational structures as the proximate cause of human judgment and behavior. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37, 121-175.

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Kesebir, S., Graham, J., & Oishi, S. (2010). A theory of human needs should be human-centered, not animal-centered: Commentary on Kenrick et al. (2010). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 315–319.

Klinger, E. (2012). The Search for Meaning in Evolutionary Goal-Theory Perspective. In Wong, P. T. P (Ed.), The Human Quest for Meaning: Theories, Research, and Applications (2nd edn.), pp. 23-55. New York: Routledge.

MacKenzie, M. J. & Baumeister, R. F. (2014). Meaning in Life: Nature. Needs, and Myths. In P. A. Batthyany and P. Russo-Netzer (eds.), Meaning in Positive and Existential Psychology, pp. 25-37. New York: Springer.

Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.

Peterson, C., & Park, N. (2010). What happened to self-actualization? Commentary on Kenrick et al. (2010). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 320–322.

Schaller, M., Neuberg, S.L., Griskevicius, V., & Kenrick, D.T. (2010). Pyramid power: A reply to commentaries. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 335–337.

Shaver, P. R., & Mikulincer, M. (Eds.) (2012a). Meaning, Mortality, and choice: The Social Psychology of Existential Concerns. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Schnell, T. (2012). An existential turn in psychology. Meaning in life operationalized. Habilitation Treatise. Innsbruck: University of Innsbruck.

Vess, M., Routeldge, C., Landau, M. J, & Arndt, J. (2009). The dynamics of death and meaning: The effects of death-relevant cognitions and personal need for structure on perceptions of meaning in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 728-744.