Your Social Needs Determine Where You Are on the Pyramid

Abraham Maslow (1902-1970) was an American psychologist who was best known for creating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority. Maslow’s original basic needs are all related to things we can’t control but are essential for living. This hierarchy ranges from more concrete needs such as food and water to abstract concepts such as self-fulfillment. Social need is any essential need for the survival and the progress of the individuals (or the society as a whole) and its derivatives. Examples of social needs include: food and water, energy, health protection and medication, education, transportation, employment, safety and security etc. Social challenges refer to problems that people in a particular social group may face. Examples of social challenges include unemployment, lack of education, integration of disadvantaged or disabled members into the society etc. These social challenges can be local, regional, national or global.

Instead of focusing on psychopathology and what goes wrong with people, Maslow (1943) formulated a more positive account of human behavior which focused on what goes right. He was interested in human potential, and how we fulfill that potential. In Canada and the US, the vast majority of the population are living in urban cities having easy access to most of these physiological needs without even noticing that. We don’t worry about how we get those things. It is not until you are in a situation where you are unable to do things that you really realise how many daily things in life you do take for granted. The rate of consumption skyrocketed in the last 50 years, being quite clear that part of the population consumes more than they need while another part is lacking resources and access to the basics. We are also creating new needs and products every day, not really considering which impacts these activities have on earth equilibrium.

Humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, whether it comes from a large social group or a small network of family and friends. Other sources of social connection may be professional organizations, clubs, religious groups, social media sites, and so forth. The third level of need is love and belonging, which are psycho-social needs. When individuals have taken care of themselves physically, they can address their need to share and connect with others. Deficiencies at this level, on account of neglect, shunning, ostracism, etc., can impact an individual’s ability to form and maintain emotionally significant relationships. For example, applying Maslow’s hierarchy helps to explain why so many people feel the urge to use Twitter and Facebook in times of crisis when they feel their own security is threatened. These social communities provide a pathway for potentially satisfying the need to be safe.

Social media is simply a (relatively) new tool to meet our innate need for human connection. Human behaviours adapt to the environment to support our psychological needs. We strive to achieve those needs within the technological constraints of our environment. Social connections and collaboration are at the center of human motivation. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that if a lower need is not met, then the higher ones will be ignored. For example, if employees lack job security and are worried that they will be fired, they will be far more concerned about their financial well-being and meeting lower needs (paying rent, bills, etc.) than about friendships and respect at work. However, if employees receive adequate financial compensation (and have job security), meaningful group relationships and praise for good work may be more important motivators.

Self-actualization needs are the highest level in Maslow’s hierarchy, and refer to the realization of a person’s potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences. It is important to note that self-actualization is a continual process of becoming rather than a perfect state one reaches of a ‘happy ever after’ (Hoffman, 1988). During this pandemic, families who are in different situations are going to have different worries and concerns. Some families are struggling just to meet basic needs like food, health care and maybe even shelter. These families are really struggling financially. Maybe the sole breadwinner lost a job during the pandemic, and rent is coming due. These families are going to be focused on keeping everybody safe and fed. During this time governments must consider the social and economic dimensions of this crisis and focus on the most vulnerable. This can only be achieved by designing policies that support the provision of health, unemployment insurance and social protection while bolstering business to prevent bankruptcy and job loss.1

According to Maslow (1970), certain needs of security and stability (that ranged from the mere physiological to more emotional and interpersonal ones) must be satisfied before the individual could consider developing higher personal tasks such as self-realization. In other words, it was assumed that the individual required a secured economic basis from which to start “growing as a person”. According to Aubrey’s perspective, one of the most characteristic changes brought by the emergent neoliberal working ethics is the exceptional stress on personal responsibility. Neoliberalism has brought a highly fluid, risky, deregulated, individualized, and consumption-centered economic setting. The “new spirit of capitalism” – small government and minimal regulations – created a new working ethics as consequence of the continuous change in the nature of organizational life. This lead to the progressive dissolution along the past decades of the ideas of job security and stability.

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) developed the concept of cultural hegemony: the dominant ideology of society reflects the beliefs and interests of the ruling class. Cultural hegemony locks up a society even more tightly because of the way ideas are transmitted by language. The words we use to speak and write have been constructed by social interactions through history and shaped by the dominant ideology of the times. Thus, they are loaded with cultural meanings that condition us to think in particular ways, and to not be able to think very well in other ways. Gramsci suggested that power also rested in the institutions of ‘civil society’ or the structures and organization of everyday life. The revolution or change would therefore have to aim not only at conquering state power, but much more importantly, to create an alternative civil society, which would have to be able to attract the majority of people by convincing them of the validity of the project, which was in turn premised on its ability to perform.

A system of minimal regulations and small government did not come about naturally. Laissez-faire liberalism is a political program, designed to change – in so far as it is victorious – political policies, and to change the economic program of the state itself, in other words, the distribution of the national income. Laissez-faire is supported by an economic elite which wishes to modify not the structure of the state, but merely government policy – to reform the laws controlling commerce, but only indirectly those controlling industry. Today neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning. Inequality is recast as virtuous. With respect to social needs, their belief is the market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

In a regime faithful to neoliberal policies, governance must be carried out within the constraints of the doctrine of limited government and self-regulating markets. This type of management shifts the locus of power away from citizens and their representatives towards those with capital. Governments adopt the neoliberal governance model creating the mechanism of a free market for decision making-processes. Today neoliberal proxies make it possible to hear distant echoes of motivation theory and self-realization. It is not that neoliberal enterprise aspires to deliver the sustainable material security that Maslow regarded as a baseline accomplishment, but that these needs could not, indeed should not, be met by corporate employment. Rather the reverse: employment security was produced by enhanced corporate competitiveness that is, in turn, dependent on the depth of emotional commitment of individuals. In other words, Maslow’s iconic hierarchy of need is turned upside down.

The needs lower on the hierarchy which have to do with survival have to be satisfied before reaching the one at the top which is self-actualization. In addition to these needs, Maslow also believed that we have a need to learn new information and to better understand the world around us. The COVID crisis has pushed millions down the pyramid of needs to survival. Now where does this leave the worries about the important but less critical to immediate survival needs – such as sustainability, climate change even gender balance in the workplace? When survival needs are met, which an evolved society which is economically stable can do, the other issues on which many of us were focused before the pandemic, can be addressed. It’s high time to re-evaluate what we really need and be aware that our habits are completely related to the major problems of our society. Where are the policies to address our community’s social needs ensuring everyone has a chance to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be?

1 Saul McCleod (29 Dec 2020) Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology

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