What if Maslow Didn’t Have it All Right?

In 1943, even Abraham Maslow noted that there were flaws in the theory he presented when he published his paper, “A theory of human motivation.”

Still, he continued to tease out its more tangled bits until in 1954, he published a book on the subject: “Motivation and Personality.”

Whether the theory caught on because of the paper or the book is a matter for some debate. But what’s clear is that, flawed or not, the pyramid demarking the human hierarchy of needs became a touchpoint in psychology, sociology, management training, and our individual understanding of how to measure our growth and gauge our stability.

You likely learned about this pyramid in some general education health class, or in Psych 101…

At the very least, it’s probable that you’ve heard the expression “self-actualized” applied to someone we as a society would consider put together well.

The pyramid functions thusly: The motivations at the bottom tier are human beings’ first and most basic motivator. As we move up the pyramid and needs are met, motivation graduates to less tangible pursuits. 

On the bottom tier are the Physiological Needs that you must meet in order to survive. They are: food, water, shelter, rest, warmth.

On the next tier are the Safety Needs that you must meet once the Physiological Needs have been met. They are: security and protection.

On the next tier are the Connection Needs that you must meet once the previous two have been met. They are: intimate relationships, close family, friendships.

On the next tier are the Self Esteem Needs that you must meet once the previous three have been met. They are: pride in yourself, prestige, accomplishment feelings.

On the final tier are the Self-Actualization Needs that you must meet once the previous four have been met. They are: reaching your full potential and feeling satisfied at your final result.

But there are another set of needs that have been said to influence Maslow’s admittedly unsound model: the indigenous Blackfoot Nation’s hierarchy of needs. 

The Fundamental Flaw

Before we get into the Blackfoot Nation’s pyramid, let us try to spot where Maslow may have missed the mark.

I’ll give you a hint…

Self-actualization is not the apex of human growth. Or rather, it’s not the apex of human growth in a society that meets the bottom tier’s needs.

In the 1940s and 1950s, it was normal (as it is today) for each individual person to be responsible for their own survival needs.

So when Maslow visited the Blackfoot Nation in 1938 and learned from them their own motivational model, it makes sense that he would tweak it a bit to make it applicable to not all of humankind, but Western capitalistic householders. His theory is less reflective of the universality 

For the Blackfoot Nation, the motivational model looks like this:

On the first tier is Self-actualization – a feeling of reaching one’s potential, completeness, ease with oneself.

On the second tier is Community Actualization – this references an idea antithetical to the Western principles of individualism. The community ought to function as a living, breathing organism, focused on maintaining self-sufficiency and care-taking all of its members.

On the third tier is Cultural Perpetuity – even though the life of each man is finite, the life of the culture may live on forever if the tiers below are fully realized, the health of the community is ensured, and traditions as well as new ideas are nourished.

What Does This Mean for Us Today?

For most of us in the West, it’s difficult to wrap our heads around such an idea. 

Thousands of people live in neighborhoods, but how many are involved in neighborhood endeavors – monthly meetings, community safety and clean-up, community-supported agriculture plots? Usually, it’s a very small percentage. 

And of course, there’s no wonder that’s the case. Because we spend most of our lives trying to meet the lower tiered levels of Maslow’s pyramid before even reaching self-actualization…

It’s certainly more of a struggle to consider needs outside of the self when the needs inside of the self have yet to be met – and in our world, meeting the needs inside of the self is made to be a perpetual trial.

That’s why, for Maslow, it seemed worthy of its own pyramid. 

However, in an indigenous nation, with its emphasis on connectivity and communal living, self-actualization isn’t some elusive goal, like a horizon that recedes as you approach it.

It’s considered not only possible, but a basic need. The true goal was to build a legacy that lasts.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week – however you’ve decided to or not decided to – we would do well to remember the legacy of togetherness and community care baked into the philosophies of many indigenous nations, how we’ve interpreted them, and how we can better integrate those principles into our own lives.

While you’re giving thanks this year, think of ways that your community has supported you, and give thanks for that too! 

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.