Five tiers of success - the hierarchy of needs cover image

Five tiers of success - the hierarchy of needs

Dorian Minors • February 17, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

I often get asked if there is a psychology equivalent of a recipe for success. The short answer is, of course, no. However, there are a bunch of scientists who spent their whole lives trying to come up with a theory that holds up against the kind of testing furious other scientists carry out trying to find one. Today I want to talk about one of the most pervasive; Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Image sourced from Wikipedia. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

You might know of this bad boy. A lot of people do. However, the problem with things that a lot of people know about is that it starts to change. Like chinese whispers, the message begins to loosen up and lose some of the depth. So lets run through a bit of psych 101 on Maslow's hierarchy, what it's really about and why you should care. Maslow never actually wrote his theory up in a pyramid like that, but it's useful to conceptualise it that way. Essentially, he talks about five 'levels' of needs in order of their priority. As we satisfy each level, we spend more time on those that are less vital and so become closer to his conceptualisation of the peak of human existence. Sounds pretty exciting, no? Maslow tells us that the most important level of needs is comprised of our physiological needs. In our search for satisfaction, the first thing we need to address is our need to breathe, have food and have water. We can also place our need for shelter from the elements here because our physiology is very tied to our core temperature.

Sometimes, the solutions we go to hurt us more than they address the problem. Photo courtesy of mark owens (Flickr) Sometimes, the solutions we go to hurt us more than they address the problem. Photo courtesy of mark owens (Flickr)

Our next level of needs surround safety. This one is rather under-represented in discussions of the hierarchy because it's a little more complicated than the others. We as humans are always very aware of our security. It's the reason we'll cross the road to avoid shady people. It's the reason we're glued to the news even though we know it's terribly biased and negative. It's why we worry about interest rates and savings accounts (or go into denial and blow all our cash). Our need for safety is very often on our mind and if it's not adequately addressed, we will quickly become very neurotic and nervous people. The next most important level is to do with affection. Humans are extraordinarily social creatures. That's probably why you're here on this site. If we feel like we aren't loved and don't belong, our physical health suffers significantly. Our blood pressure goes up, our immune system weakens. Single men have a mortality rate roughly 250 times that of married men. 'Loneliness', alongside 'hopelessness' is one of the most consistent factors reported as a reason for attempted suicide. If our social needs aren't met, we suffer and unfortunately so many people struggle unnecessarily at this level because we fail to realise how important it is. So important in fact, that it can trump all other levels if things get bad enough.

Not this kind of experiences. Photo courtesy of Daniel Smith (Flickr) Not this kind of experiences. Photo courtesy of Daniel Smith (Flickr)

Then we have our self-esteem needs. Maslow split this level in two; our need for self respect and our need for the respect of others. Maslow placed the premium on self respect, saying that we seek this before all else. We need to have experiences, both personal and vicarious (through others) that enable us to believe in ourselves. Less vital, but still important, is our need for others to recognise our worth and to admire our successes (which I go into more detail about here). Now, it's important to note that these levels aren't experienced exclusively, according to Maslow. We dip in many at once, restoring fractures in our satisfaction of these needs. While we might be secure in our house and job and family, a friend may die and this loss of love will need addressing although you are mostly working on gaining respect in a new job. At the same time, you might realise that the same thing that killed your friend could kill you so you need to reach into your safety needs and soothe that concern by quitting smoking or going to the gym. Our needs are two varied to consolidate the whole level before moving up the hierarchy. What Maslow said was that we must address the level to some measure of satisfaction, before we are capable of setting our sights on the next. Once we have addressed all these needs to satisfaction and are performing the necessary ongoing maintenance, Maslow tells us that you may then experience 'self-actualization'. In fact, Maslow tells us that we are reaching for this need always, and it is part of what drives our climb up the hierarchy. But when we are at this stage, we have an understanding of our full capability as people. We realise our full potential. We strive to 'be all that we can be'. Maslow tells us that in this phase of the hierarchy are people most successful. Once we have mastered those needs below, we can concentrate on mastering our ability to achieve and this is where the real magic happens.

Sometimes psychology sounds a bit like magic. It's a serious problem for people trying to be taken seriously. Photo courtesy of Rachel Baran (Flickr) Sometimes psychology sounds a bit like magic. It's a serious problem for people trying to be taken seriously. Photo courtesy of Rachel Baran (Flickr)

Sounds a bit cliche, doesn't it? So how does it hold up against evidence? Well, research certainly supports the idea of universal human needs. Unfortunately, what is most criticised is Maslow's sequence. The path is often seen as too linear, which would be an understandable criticism if Maslow had not written that we never stop needing to reach down and patch the holes that appear in our other levels. A more valid criticism lies in the fact that Maslow was Western, and in Western cultures we value the individual over the collective. In more collective cultures, these needs may well prioritise needs in a different way. A final criticism which I believe is worth noting comes from Maslow himself. Maslow believed that in his original work, he did not address spirituality, altruism and the giving of the self to others. As such, he added a level - 'self-transcendence'. It should be interesting to know that spirituality appears to very much be an important part of being human. However, none of this detracts from what I think is an important point. We as humans are forever striving for success, and certainly when these needs aren't met, we are distracted from that search. Maslow's model is a useful one to conceptualise how to free yourself from the shackles that hold you back. When you check off each level as satisfied, you can consider yourself that much closer to the freedom one often needs to succeed and achieve their value. So go on, succeed. If you're looking to be more successful, why not check out our article on why smart friends aren't always so great. Or maybe you'll be interested in a theory that some people think trumps Maslow's entirely in terms of why we're successful? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology. Thumbnail image courtesy of sweetcaroline ♥ Espejo (Flickr)

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.