Beyond Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


At the height of WWII, Abraham Maslow proposed a “hierarchy of human needs,” often depicted as a pyramid, where it was necessary for one need to be fulfilled in order to meet the next.  By the mid-1950’s he had written a book popularizing this same idea. The theory is that lower needs, like food and shelter, capture our attention until they are met.  Thereafter, “higher” needs, referred to as “self-actualization,” can then be attained.

Maslow’s notions became popular with marketers at a time when the USA was king.  We were one of the few industrialize countries left untouched structurally by the ravages of war.  Industry and advancement was an unquestioned good.  Oil flowed freely, and the GI Bill offered returning soldiers a chance to take advantage, to “self-actualize,” as they never were able to before.

WWII also gave a tremendous boost to the field of psychology, as many tests were developed to rank, measure, and place thousands of people along an imaginary grid of ability, intelligence, and leadership qualities.  In addition, the end of the war also gave a boost to clinical psychologists, who found a new group of patients, left violently impacted by the War, either through their experiences abroad or here at home, and now with new economic resources to spend in order to “better themselves.”

When we no longer had to concentrate on physiological need, the argument went, we humans could begin a journey toward self-discovery.  “Safety” (securing your ‘stuff’) could be reached after physiological needs.  Once that was secured, “Love and Belonging,” became a need to be realized.  This was followed by “Esteem” of self and others, and finally, “Self-Actualization.”

All but the last group were considered building blocks- “D” or deficiency needs, necessary for self-actualization, but arising from deprivation.  In contrast, self-actualization needs were “B” or “being” needs, “growth” needs, where notions of morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, freedom from prejudice, and “acceptance of the facts” allowed people to be free of the worry of what others thought, now possessing the capacity to live up to their “true potential.”

The distribution of wealth in the US, at the time Maslow wrote, was dramatically different than today.  Today, one percent of the population continues to expand their wealth, while the remaining ninety-nine percent sink, making us now an “Underdeveloping Nation.”

Many in the Peak Oil community accept Maslow’s paradigm without question, but this has serious implications for how we conduct our lives and our preps:

  • Does one set of needs have to be met before the next can be satisfied?
  • Does one improve one’s marginal existence first, or does developing community facilitate this improved standard of living for all?
  • Do we need to secure more “stuff” in order to build community?
  • Do poor people lack the capacity for creativity or self-pride?
  • If you are “busy putting on your oxygen mask first,” do you forget that a larger system supplied you with that oxygen mask to begin with?
  • Is property a more basic need than friendship, family, or sexual intimacy?
  • Does sex always precede sexual intimacy?
  • If we, in the wealthier countries, have the “foundations” for self-actualization, don’t we have an obligation to lead the rest of the world to do the same?
  • If some of us (wealthy/industrialized) have a superior grasp of the “facts” isn’t it our duty to shape reality for the remainder of the planet?
  • Are we so certain that bio-systems have no role to play in our self-actualization, that we destroy them without thought?

Another View

Development is about people, not about objects.  Manfred Max-Neef

These notions of human “nature” have led to increasing poverty throughout the world, not to prosperity and self-actualization.  While marketing theories have used Maslow’s work to promote increased consumptive patterns, this approach has resulted in massive debt and ecological devastation.

An alternative view proposed by Manfred Max-Neef, rejects the “hierarchy” notion, choosing instead to focus on a constellation of universal needs that are integrative and additive.  These include:

  • Idleness (Relax)
  • Subsistence (Survive)
  • Freedom (Choose)
  • Affection (Love)
  • Identity (Belong)
  • Protection (Protect)
  • Understanding (Understand)
  • Creation (Create)
  • Participation (Stand Up)

Greed should be among those who have nothing.  No. The more you have, the more greedy you become…          Manfred Max-Neef

Chilean economist Max-Neef, proposed that human needs are few, finite and classifiable.

While the strategies may change in an attempt to meet them, the needs remain constant throughout the world, and at all times throughout history.  In sharp contrast to a hierarchy, these needs are interrelated and interactive. This model replaces the notion that humans are driven by insatiable needs for consumption, replacing it with a notion of “satisfiers” which can either be genuine or false.

Max-Neef points out that an attempt to satisfy one need can inhibit or destroy others.  For example, an ‘arms race’ satisfies the need for protection, while destroying the need for subsistence, freedom or participation.  Materialism can express identity, while removing time for relaxation or subsistence of the biosphere.  We have to learn to calculate the real costs of our needs, not just the obvious price-tag.

Formal democracy, which is supposed to meet the need for participation often dis-empowers and alienates; commercial television, while used to satisfy the need for recreation, interferes with understanding, creativity and identity – the examples are everywhere.                                          Source

In contrast to satisfiers that violate or destroy, others are “synergic” where two or more satisfiers cooperate together for an even more gratifying outcome.  Think of examples such as preventative medicine, group sing-a-longs, or breastfeeding.  Every implementation of a satisfier has to be examined through the lens of its capacity to provide multiple benefits, or antagonisms to other satisfiers.  In other words, we need to grasp the trade-offs.  An essential feature of needs satisfaction is the evaluation of its benefits and costs.

While Western psychology has had a decidedly individual perspective, that model no longer fits the situation we’re facing.  Embracing “Maslow’s Hierarchy” no longer fits the problems we are confronting.  We have to get, on a cellular level, that run -away economic growth is no longer a possibility.  We either get, or reject, our place in the biosphere.   It isn’t some romantic notion.  It is preparation for a life that’s dramatically different from the one we are living now.

You  learn extraordinary things living among the poor.

” The first thing you learn [from people] in poverty is that there is an enormous creativity.  You cannot be an idiot if you want to survive.  Every minute you have to be thinking:  “What next?  What next right now What can I do here?  What’s this? da da da.  Your creativity is constant.  In addition there are networks of cooperation, mutual aid, all sorts of extraordinary things, which you no longer find in our dominant society. .. which is individualistic, greedy, egotistical, etc.

And sometimes, it is so shocking that you will find people happier in poverty than you would find in your own environment.  Which also means that poverty is not just a question of money, it’s a much more complex thing.” Max-Neef Video Here

These are more than the words of an idealist.  This is a comprehensive model of human “being”, a psychological view of humans that extend back well before the oil age, and will, if we survive, extend well into the future.  Like Max-Neef, I listen to the stories of the poor, stories of survival, creativity, community.  Unless we collectively begin to grasp the fundamental nature of this truth, and reject Petroleum-informed models of individualism–a belief that only wealth can bring tolerance and creativity–we will handicap ourselves beyond our imagination.

About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.


  1. “a belief that only wealth can bring tolerance and creativity”

    While wealth may not be the only way to bring tolerance and creativity, if it gets bad enough from the combination of economic collapse, peak oil, and global warming, that people are starving to death, no mind-games are going to prevent them from feeling miserable and probably doing things that they would otherwise see as immoral.

    So Maslow’s Heirarchy puts a floor upon which civil society can expect to function. Look at things like Katrina for examples of what happens when certain minimum requirements are not met. Or worse–the Donner Party.

    Do I think we’re gonna face that tomorrow? No. But when I extrapolate the trendlines, I see it descending into the abyss. It’s just a matter of time, really.

  2. I must politely disagree. Just because the marketers hijacked Maslow is no reason to toss his theory. It’s not his viewpoint that has led to poverty — it is the actions of those who never developed empathy. What is wrong with his theory? It is clear that when a person is starving, they are not going to be focused on making art. And when their world is not safe, most will not be able to worry about their self-esteem. Safety and food also come before sex – there are ample anecdotes from almost any big war.

    I think his hierarchy holds, but what has been distorted is our definitions of those levels! The US and other developed countries have gotten so comfortable that we don’t really recognize a need, unless disaster strikes. The upper levels are somewhat harder to quantify, and there will always be those who are “driven” by their creativity such that it provides all three of the top levels — but Maslow’s pyramid is very helpful (and will be more so once the brown stuff hits the rotating wind machine) because it can help those of us who have filled many of our basic needs be more empathetic with those who don’t.

    Yes, it’s true that we see much more greed among the wealthy than would seem sane, but other books have described well the various psychological problems that the wealthy can have, which would explain a good portion of that greed (ie: substituting money for love, or for self-esteem). It doesn’t justify their actions, but it can explain them within Maslow’s theory.

    Max-Neef sounds like someone who has not read the many, many studies of human needs that we’ve amassed… and I think what is “integrated and interactive” are the upper levels of the pyramid — once you get past food and safety, then there is a constant up and down (or back and forth, if you prefer) as situations give or deprive us of some of those needs. His point about “creativity” in situations of poverty actually begs the question (excuse the pun): if people are forced to be creative and cooperative to get food, are they fulfilling their need to be creative or to have love? No, they are focused entirely on getting food, and using the tools they have at hand. Maslow’s creativity and community needs refer to something different, I think.

    There is no way I can put “subsistence” on the same level as “idleness” — certainly you can say that all of his “needs” would be required in order to make a happy, fully-realized person… but again, I don’t see his theory as an improvement so much as simply another way to see it, a way that doesn’t like hierarchies (which have been villified a lot recently.)

    Despite my counterpoint, I think there is room for both theories; I dont’ see it as an either/or.

  3. The problem, as I see it, is the inherent class-ism in it. It allows quite a few people who don’t bother to delve into his work, to feel superior. Max -Neef doesn’t argue that there are no “baseline needs.” There obviously are. But beyond those, people can have dignity, esteem, love and belonging, while living otherwise very simple, basic lives.

    In a time of economic crash, if we believe we have to have security before we have friendship, we may end up with neither.

    It may be that very desire for security that impels us to create intimate community, and from that fulfillment, satisfy basic needs.
    Hierarchies aren’t necessary. We can get there by understanding the inter-relationships between these needs.

    Max-Neef got his “on the ground” education in the worst slums in the world, as he was trying to figure out an economic theory that would speak to those in severe poverty.

    A friend of mine, hiking in remote sections of Mongolia, entered a village where to celebrate his arrival…..
    They cooked a tuber.
    He knew they had very little food, because of the season, but they celebrated the arrival of this stranger among them. They had community, family, art, culture, love, and music, but few basic resources. Maslow distinguishes between a higher and lower order of morality in his model.
    I’m not comfortable claiming that they have a lower form of morality than those of us in the West.

    UG, I think Detroit is a better example than the ones you point out. We’re talking chronic, deadening hardship, not sudden, shocking catastrophe, IMHO.

  4. I’ll have to go back and re-read Maslow to see if I can see the class-ism. I totally agree with you that lower income communities and individuals can be full of what he listed as the “higher needs” – but to me that proves that those of us in the higher income brackets have lost sight of what is basic — it is our expanded definition of “basic food needs” and “basic safety” that make us surprised (those of us who are surprised – not me) that very poor communities would have all those “higher” functions.

  5. While I find it sad that Maslow’s model has been co-opted by marketers, I also have to politely disagree with your conclusion that the model is flawed. From a nervous system perspective humans are wired the same way as all mammals. If our basic survival needs represented by the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy are not met, our limbic and reptilian brains override our neocortex in order to promote organismic survival. Check out “In An Unspoken Voice” by Peter Levine for an excellent treatment of the nervous system as it relates to trauma.

  6. I think Maslow’s theory works for an average person, i.e. a person who is raised and educated according to the norms of the modern society. This does not work for some people, or some groups of people, that put their cause beyond their basic needs. And surely, there are plenty of examples, think about people fighting wars for the good of their country, or their beliefs.

    Here is another good image that I think illustrates the difficulty of climbing up :)

  7. Hi Kathy, thanks for the great writeup, I have referenced this post in my blog. I was introduced to Maslow’s as part of a MBA Management Marketing course and due to the contention about the pyramid, had been looking for an alternative such as Max-Neef’s work. You and the other commentators may be interested in this opinion piece by Mark Ritson that discredits Maslow’s and SWOT analysis:
    Thanks again,

  8. Really great thanks i find it ,i am doing research in communities development ,i think that the needs is in circle recently because the great changing in our life so i agree with you .

  9. Really great thanks i find it ,i am doing research in communities development ,i think that the needs is in circle recently because the great changing in our life so i agree with you a lot .

  10. One noticeable problem with Maslow is that often times our emotional needs trump our base physical needs, i.e. when you’re upset you don’t want to eat, and when you’re nervous or anxious you don’t want to sleep.


    thyis websites is very good.

    Thank you

  12. I have similar view about the incorrectness of maslow & erg hierarchy of needs.

    See Nain, Bhavya, Nain’s Hierarchy of Needs: An Alternative to Maslow’s & ERG’s Hierarchy of Needs (June 14, 2013). Available at SSRN:

  13. It is disheartening to see that most of the comments here are purely academic, and therefore – argumentative. The world we live in has evolved in a Grand Argument, where winning is a sort of accumulation of academic wealth. Who cares if Maslow was right? What good will it do to determine that?

    It’s good and necessary to understand these theories, but if you do nothing to fix what ever problems you can see threw the insights you’ve gain from that understanding, you are doing exactly what the Misanthropes are hoping for.

    The ultimate act of defiance is drop out of this argument, and do something.

    Ray Bright


  1. says:

    Beyond Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs…

    Many in the Peak Oil community accept Maslow’s paradigm without question, but this has serious implications for how we conduct our lives and our preps: * Does one set of needs have to be met before the next can be satisfied? * Does one improve one’s ma…

  2. […] Kathy McMahon from blog peak oil blues has written a great post on Maslow’s and Max-Neef, if you have ten minutes to spare, check it out. This entry was posted in Marketing, Maslow, Max-Neef by Andy. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  3. […] McMahon, K. (2011, March 2). Beyond Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Peak Oil Blues. Retrieved from […]

  4. […] K. (2011) Beyond Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs [online] available from <; […]

  5. […] Kathy McMahon in an article Beyond Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs gives a great discussion on the origin, uses and outcomes of the hierarchy. She also introduces […]

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