Critically evaluate Maslow's theory of needs in light of your own experience of human behaviour

Isaac Hunt

This analysis will be approached in two sections. Firstly, a brief description examining Maslow's hierarchy of needs and discussing it in light of his background and expectations. Also, to examine the contexts or applications of his theory in fulfilment within the family, at work or in leisure. It is this last category which gives me a personal viewpoint of self- actualisation, the central theme and pinnacle of his thinking. This and the observations of the behaviour of others will constitute the second part of the study.

Maslow's classification of needs (see appendix 1) has been produced by his observations of friends and colleagues to describe the different levels of priorities that an individual is trying to achieve. At the base level are the primary, physical needs of any person, food, water, sleep and shelter rising through social and ego or esteem needs to the apex where he places creative and self fulfilment psychological factors. The basic premise of the theory is that satisfaction  derived at every level leads to improved work and social behaviour, and that fulfilment at each level automatically leads to the next.
The top most level represents what Maslow calls self-actualisation; "becoming everything that one is capable of becoming" (Maslow 1970), i.e. realising one's full potential.  An assumption could therefore be, that if an individual is not fulfilled at work, he/ she will look to leisure or cultural activities to meet their needs.

However, the concept of  "needs" can be misleading, any of these higher categories could be satisfied in a variety of ways; self achievement and fulfilment is entirely subjective. Also, these needs may not be so ordered or divisible for an individual, often overlapping or occurring simultaneously. For example, raising a family may meet all the higher parts of this model, if the individual values their children above all else.

Therefore, although useful in describing the development of human behaviour, the quantifying of higher human needs is difficult.
By placing his own ideals into such a model, it could be argued that Maslow is making value judgements on needs, i.e. motivations that he considers more worthwhile than others. Therefore, creative and intellectual pursuits, which are after all, are representitative of his own and academic friends careers (and probably leisure activities) may not be reflected in society as a whole. His background as a white, male, middle class, Jewish American academic must influence his choices and preferences. These are perceived as achievements for himself and his subjects. So, their relative success could be said to be being measured retrospectively and goals seen as needs, important for only quite a small cross section of our society. These goals may simply be the expectations of this strata of society which the subjects (or himself) may have had little awareness of really wanting. After all, for many of us our lives are mapped out to some degree, especially someone with Maslow's background - Certain school, certain approved pastimes, living in a certain area, certain job or career, perhaps even a certain type or religion of women he should marry! These then may be the motivations or needs of his parents or peers and that which they believe will lead to success or happiness. Needs could simply be the expression of the expectations of culture.

Despite these possible criticisms, his theory is very positive and life affirming. The emphasis is on personal or psychological growth rather than material possessions or gain. The "American Dream" that reflects the society of Maslow would have success or wealth at the pinnacle of needs, the social standing of wealth supposedly fulfilling all of the lower needs of esteem and belonging. Therefore, there must be some question of the validity of a theory written in 1954 with the modern lifestyle and expectations of today; the long term goals and aims of self achievement losing value as people look for instant gratification. This can be seen even in children as their play changes from an experience of learning and exploration to "fun on demand" from television and computer games, alongside less interaction with friends and parents. The theory is obviously about self; self awareness and understanding, but possibly modern society is becoming more selfish and losing sight of many of the higher needs. This could be especially true with a high proportion of even western societies population struggling to meet survival needs with unemployment, housing problems, poverty etc.

Work too has become not only more competitive, but employment is less secure than previously. This is one of the lower "needs" that may affect all those above. This model appears to better fit an agrarian society, a simpler lifestyle with fewer of the modern life constraints and pressures. Most people now consider work to be just the means to survive and afford leisure; work, family, leisure all becoming more compartmentalized. If work is not rewarding then perhaps leisure is the modern answer to the quest for self  Interestingly, work patterns are changing, and people are now creating jobs through their leisure interests. What was previously a hobby or pastime becoming a pleasurable job.

 On a more personal note, just as Maslow is interested in the self, I have decided to approach his theory with regard to human behaviour from my own experience over the past ten years. In this time I was a professional golfer, and my understanding and experience of "peak experiences" is familiar but somewhat dissimilar to Maslow's concept of self- actualisation. These feelings were to Maslow, the measurable part of his hierarchy. Maslow describes "peak experience" as; " transient moments of self actualisation. They are moments of ecstasy which cannot be bought, cannot be guaranteed, cannot even be sought." (Maslow 1962) 

The sensation that I have experienced is when one is totally absorbed in the game. You are not conscious of the crowd, your partners or any outside distraction and could best be described as a form of tunnel vision: your field of vision actually narrows.
 This is uncanny; that you are not aware of how you achieved this state, how long this has occurred and sometimes how you arrived at a certain part of the golf course.

The nearest analogy to every day life would be driving your car almost on "automatic pilot", arriving at work, perhaps with little memory of the journey. However, this is far more intense in that the body almost seems to be in control, the mind is operating on such a high level of concentration it is not aware of outside stimuli. It is if the mind has retreated to a inner area, deciding that everything not immediately involved in the tasks taking place are not important. All the decisions taken, it seems subconsciously, are correct, the performance usually far higher than recent form or practice would lead you to expect and the feeling of disappointment at the end of the game is intense. This is what Maslow would have us believe is performing at, or being all of our potential.

This may be the case, but my own experience of the condition he calls self-actualisation is simply best described as peak concentration. This, is simply an explanation of how we can subjugate the mind and its negative thoughts to allow the subconscious to perform tasks.

 All we are doing is distracting the mind to concentrate on one thing to the exclusion of all other things. Another factor to consider is the possibility of " muscle memory ," where the tasks involved have been repeated so often, the muscle groups almost "know" what to do themselves, all built around a specific routine. This applies to preparation, practice and the game itself. So where Maslow says it cannot be sought or guaranteed, he is correct, but you can influence the likelihood of it occurring. Some golfers now take advice from sports psychologists,  to train the conscious mind away from negative thoughts. 
This is achieved through repetition of routines, forming mental "pictures" and ignoring the "what if?" doubts. 
This is the pinnacle of the needs hierarchy. What of the lower needs needing to be fulfilled to achieve self actualisation? I believe that peak concentration shuts out any concerns, whether they are to do with the game or normal life. During this time worries are forgotten; this is part of the pleasure of such a level of concentration. 

To a lesser degree, the amateur sportsman must be seeking a similar condition. But what of the player with little skill or ability? He may achieve some of the social needs of belonging to a group of like minded people and be accepted away from his place of work, but has no prospect of ever achieving a reasonable standard. I have seen many members of my various clubs who have actually disliked the game intensely, but still continue to play. This is purely a cultural expectation that someone of his / her social standing is expected to join a golf club, wear the clothes and behave in a certain way. The same person may be successful at work and may not enjoy this either. So, where would such a person attain the perceived needs in Maslow's hierarchy? He may be just conforming to society's pressures and the successful, perhaps wealthy, popular, friendly "bloke" is probably deeply unhappy. 

In conclusion, Maslow's theory could be better seen more as a philosophical viewpoint  similar to existentialism, where life is based more on personal experience rather than a psychological framework of peoples motivations. It is the uniqueness, age, experience and choice of the individual that makes the classification of needs too specific, both for modern society and the number of limiting factors in our lives. Needs are entirely subjective, changing through one's life cycle, and fulfilled through a variety of ways; we may not all want what Maslow prescribes as the norm.

He may be somewhat judgemental in his higher needs, just as he says that his model is about the self, may he be writing about himself and his needs? As I have discussed, cultural expectations and conformity limit the extent of anyone to achieve self actualisation. It would take a very strong minded person to shake off the restraints of society's view of normality
and achieve a personal sense of individuality. The desire to conform is a very limiting factor. This individuality could be a better description of needs, some measure of happiness should have to be included also.

APPENDIX 1: Maslow's theory of Self Actualisation

Self-actualisation needs
Use of abilities,
aptitude and need for creativity

Ego needs
Esteem, recognition, prestige, reputation

Social needs
Belonging, association, acceptance

Safety / security needs
Physical safety, job security

Physical / biological needs
Survival, food, shelter

Source: Psychology. The science of Mind and Behaviour. Richard D. Gross 

Bugental J.F. (1967) Challenges of Humanistic Psychology, London. McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Maslow (1970) Gross R.D. (1993) Psychology, The Science of Mind and Behaviour, London. Hodder and Stoughton.
Hewstone M. (1990) Introduction to Social Psychology. Oxford. Blackwell Ltd.
Torkildsen G. (1992) Leisure and Recreation Management. London. E & F Spon.

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