Instinctoid Needs [Abraham Maslow]

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who was never happy with the idea of drives because of their homeostatic nature. Motivation he realized, was not a matter of restoring biological equilibrium but rather groups of needs acting together to cause change, health, growth and survival. While Maslow did not subscribe to the idea that humans were motivated by instincts, as are apparent in many other animals, he did understand that humans were propelled into action by needs that of necessity have to be inborn and thus instinct like. He created a new word 'instinctoid' to differentiate what he was talking about from what is usually understood by instincts. These needs are exemplified in his pyramid of needs.

Although Maslow often talked about these needs as if they were acting singularly to promote a behavior, he was well aware that they always acted together. He understood that any single behavior could be shown to be motivated by all the needs in some percentage. It was just that the currently most prominent or influencing need was simply acting with a greater percentage of strength. If any single thing is misquoted or misunderstood about Maslow's work it is this one thing.

What Abraham Maslow suggested, was that all living things have a group of instinctoid needs which must be satisfied for their survival, health and growth. He further suggested that in man, these needs are clearer, more defined and are more extensive. He also set these needs in a hierarchy of growth. This hierarchy as he saw it consisted of five levels. At the bottom of the hierarchy the needs are those which are most important for life and growth of individuals when we are born, and they become less important as they are satisfied. This allows the next level of needs to become more prominent.

For instance Maslow placed the need for food at the bottom of his hierarchy, in a group of needs he calls physiological needs, which would make them initially the strongest needs. When a child is hungry his whole motivation becomes centered around food. Only after the child's need for food is satisfied will this child be motivated by other needs. In other words we can say that a need will be strong and even all consuming if it is not satisfied, conversely causing all other needs to become weak at the same time. Also the lower the need in the hierarchy the stronger it is compared to needs further up if both are equally unsatisfied. Thus if a child is both hungry and unloved the child will be primarily motivated by hunger. allows the next level of needs to become more prominent.

However, this site holds that another need is more important or so entwined with all needs that it needs to be included in Maslow's hierarchy. This is the need to know. Is hunger more basic a need that the need to know how to satisfy that hunger? Does hunger even mean anything without the knowledge of how to satisfy it? For more on the need to know see below and click here.

All needs motivate us all the time. Although Maslow did not say it often enough, he was quite clear just how we move from one level of need to another. Some people seem to think he was saying that when a need was satisfied it would stop acting. So when we eat enough we are no longer hungry and the need disappears. This would mean that the need would come back just a strong as before next time we became hungry. But this is not what Maslow meant and it certainly is not true. Here is what Maslow actually said in his book "Motivation and Personality":

"So far, our theoretical discussion may have given the impression that these five sets of needs are somehow in such terms as the following: If one need is satisfied, then another emerges. This statement might give the false impression that the need must be satisfied 100 percent before the next need emerges. In actual fact, most members of our society who are normal are partially satisfied in all their basic needs and partially unsatisfied in all their basic needs at the same time. A more realistic description of the hierarchy would be in terms of decreasing percentages of satisfaction as we go up the hierarchy of prepotency. For instance, if I may assign arbitrary figures for the sake of illustration, it is as if the average citizen is satisfied perhaps 85 percent in his psychological needs, 70 percent in his safety needs, 50 percent in his love needs, 40 percent in his self-esteem needs and 10 percent in his self-actualization needs.

As for the concept of emergence of a new need after satisfaction of a prepotent need, this emergence is not a sudden, salutatory phenomenon, but rather a gradual emergence by slow degrees from nothingness. For instance, if prepotent need A is satisfied only 10 percent the need B may not be visible at all. However if prepotent need A becomes satisfied 25 percent, need B may emerge 5 percent. As need A becomes satisfied 75 percent , need B may emerge 50 percent and so on."

Maslow clearly thought that all the needs are acting on individuals all the time, but in varying percentages. He goes on to say:

" would be possible (theoretically if not practically) to analyze a single act of an individual and see in it the expression of his physiological needs, his safety needs, his love needs, his esteem needs, and self-actualization. This contrasts sharply with the more naive brand of trait psychology in which one trait or one motive accounts for a certain kind of act. i.e., an aggressive act is traced solely to a trait of aggressiveness."

What Maslow appears to have believed was, that if our need for food was satisfied regularly over a long period of time the need for food would diminish. He thought that under these conditions the desperation in the need faded and the need became weaker. He did not believe it disappeared but rather became sufficiently less strong that other stronger needs could take precedence and be acted upon instead of the need for food even when the person was hungry. It followed that when needs began to be satisfied on a regular basis the needs began to weaken and the needs further up the hierarchy began to become stronger. He thought the child who had his appetite satisfied regularly began to be more concerned with being safe. Thus we would get to a point where a child who has satisfied his need for food and safety could actually starve itself in order to obtain something as abstract as love. This would happen because love had become the more pressing need.

Autonomy and competence. It is the understanding of this site that although Maslow had brilliantly conceived of how man progressed through a hierarchy of needs, he had failed to quite grasp, that his hierarchy was all about learning. While the satisfaction of needs on a regular basis was important, what was essential was how each person learned to satisfy those needs. Having food, water, heat and shelter is merely the first step to satisfaction of those needs. We can only feel truly satisfied when we believe we have learned how to obtain those things through our own actions and not have to depend on others for them. Similarly feeling safe when others were there to help and guard us is only the first step to truly feeling safe and secure. Only when we believe we have learned sufficiently that our abilities and actions can make us feel safe do we truly feel safe and secure. We need to feel we have the choice and competence to make ourselves safe.

Likewise when we are loved and have friends it is still not enough to diminish our need for love and friendship. Only when we believe we have learned how to cause or enable others to love and become friends with us through our own actions, will we begin to feel sufficiently loved and have sufficient friends to no longer need more. We need to feel we have the choice and competence to make others love us and thus allow us to belong. Also, having the esteem of others is not enough either. What gives us true self esteem is the belief that we have learned how to inspire others to hold us in high esteem. This in turn happens because we have learned how to perform actions that others consider to have worth. In each case, we need to know that we can make a choice as to who will hold us in high esteem, and that we have the competence to inspire that esteem in those people.

We also need to know that others cannot control us by holding our needs to ransom, where we are totally dependent on those others to satisfy our needs. We need to know that we have the autonomy and competence to satisfy our own needs.

Once we understand this, we can see how, in most people, all needs are acting all the time to some extent. People who have satisfied their needs regularly over a period of time and who feel secure in their ability to satisfy those needs themselves are different to other people. They are different in that, in them, these needs are not only weaker, but when they are not needed they are in fact not acting on the person at all. The most important part of this is the learned abilities and competence. It is as if a need can not really be satisfied over a period of time sufficiently to allow progress up the hierarchy, unless the person becomes confident that he can satisfy the current need himself.

This means that people in good circumstances, who grow confident in their ability to satisfy their own needs, tend to ascend Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Eventually such people reach a state where the only needs acting strongly on them are the needs that we usually call values (unless for some reason they are deprived of the satisfaction of some of the lower needs). Maslow calls such people self-actualized. They are people, who even when deprived of the lower needs, find satisfaction primarily in these higher needs.

Deficiency needs and being needs. At the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy we have the needs most necessary for the survival of individual humans and at the top we have the needs most necessary for the group survival of humans or even all life. Also these lower needs, which Maslow called deficiency needs, are about the separation of the self from others. They are about defining what is self and what is not. The higher or being needs, as Maslow called them, are about the self re-merging with others, ideas and even inanimate things to become a greater self, which includes much more, far beyond the boundaries of the skin.

How do these needs fit with Popper's ideas?
Popper says:

"A "trial" or a newly formed "dogma or a new "expectation" is largely the result of inborn needs that give rise to specific problems. But it is also the result of the inborn need to form expectations (in certain specific fields, which in their turn are related to some other needs); and it may also be partly the result of disappointed earlier expectations."

Below is 'Maslow's Hierarchy' updated to accommodate Self-determination theory:

  1. Knowledge Needs Although Maslow talks about a need to know he never placed it on his hierarchy. The need for knowledge should be at the very bottom of the hierarchy as per Popper's ideas on learning (a need for universal invariants). Nothing can be satisfied without building up the knowledge of a stable universe. This is the need for invariants. However, the need for knowledge also should be placed at the very top of the hierarchy, because knowledge stretches from invariance to variance and is never satisfied not even when all other needs are satisfied.
  2. Competence Needs. Here this site has placed the needs for competence at the side of Maslow's hierarchy to indicate that without the knowledge of their own competence in satisfying the other needs, movement between those needs is impossible. It is evident that the other needs cannot be properly satisfied until the organism has learned how to do it and feels confident that he can.

  3. Self-determination Needs. It is also true that although Maslow never referred to self determination and it is impossible to disentangle self-determination from movement between the various needs in his hierarchy. Even if we feel competent to satisfy our needs, if we do not do so of our own volition and intention, we feel unsatisfied. If we satisfy our needs at the behest of others they are not truly satisfied.

  4. Physiological Needs. Maslow himself placed these needs at the bottom of the hierarchy and they include the following; the need for air, the need for warmth, the need for food, the need for water, the need for elimination of wastes, the need for sleep, the need for shelter and the need for sex.
  5. Safety Needs. After physiological needs are satisfied you will notice animals and man suddenly become more concerned with their safety and being secure. The need to feel safe and secure becomes the primary motivator.
  6. Love Needs. When organisms feel safe they become concerned with belonging, friendship and love. When we feel safe the need for friends, the need to belong and the need for unconditional love take center stage and become the most important motivator.
  7. Esteem Needs. When organisms belong, have friends, and feel loved they become concerned with the regard others have for them, and the regard they have for themselves. When we feel loved the need for the esteem of others and the need for self esteem become ascendant.
  8. Aesthetic Needs. When organisms have self esteem and the esteem of others, the needs change from deficiency need to being needs. We no longer feel deficient but rather we feel a need to manifest whatever is potentially within us. Maslow supplies a long list of these upper level needs such as the need for beauty or the need for justice to name a couple. These needs are all about our concern for others.
  9. Self-actualization It seems likely that self actualization is not exactly a need but rather the outcome of these aesthetic or being needs being satisfied on a regular basis. As we satisfy truth, justice and beauty etc. we begin to define ourselves in terms of our potential and beyond. All deficiency needs drop away becoming less pressing and being needs do not decrease but rather increase as they are satisfied. Motivation, as these needs are satisfied, comes more and more from our own potential and our ability to extend that potential through learning. Each person tends to become most fully that which their genes have bequeathed to them and far more because: "...a person's true potential is unknown (and unknowable);'s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training." Carol Dweck. There is simply no way of knowing. When nothing is stopping us we become whatever it is we can become simply because we are willing to put in sufficient effort.

Self-actualization is the pinnacle of Maslow's hierarchy. The few people who manage to achieve this state are what Maslow believes to be the healthy members of society. These healthy specimens are by no means perfect and are quite capable of doing things that moralist might find questionable to say the least. They do, however, have the ability to put the welfare of others before themselves.

So what might this mean to say a self-actualized person who was in a concentration camp? On the one hand a self-actualized person would have a better chance of surviving in a concentration camp because he would be less concerned about his more basic needs. He would be more able to take the needs of others into consideration and thus earn the help and appreciation of others. On the other hand a concentration camp would tend to reinvigorate those more basic needs in such a way as to cause him act in a perhaps less noble manner that he would in more favorable circumstances. For instance he might have to choose to provide bread for his children while letting others go hungry.

Self-actualizers are not super men. Maslow's investigations seem to indicate that any body should be able to achieve this state. Why then, you may ask, if self-actualization is achievable, do so few humans achieve this state? There are a number of reasons for this sad state of affairs. They are as follows:

  1. Dependency. The most general reason for failure to achieve self-actualization is that for lower need levels especially safety, love and esteem we depend initially, while still infants, on other members of society particularly our parents, to help us satisfy those needs. If we do not satisfy our needs when we are young the chances are we will not when we become adult. So it seems that Freud was correct at least in his belief that what happens to us when we are young can cripple us for life. However, as explained previously, it is not enough to have these needs satisfied. Mastery of abilities that enable us to satisfy those needs is the only way to lose the desperation of the lower needs and move to the meta-needs. If we do not learn these skills and abilities when we are young we can become emotionally crippled and dependent in our adult life. Maslow speaks clearly about the necessity breaking away from dependency.
  2. Maslow says: "Another crucial aspect of healthy growth of selfhood and full-humanness is the dropping away the techniques used by the child, in his weakness and smallness for adapting himself to the strong large, all-powerful, omniscient, godlike adults. He must replace these with techniques of being strong and independent and being a parent himself."

    This is not to say that all dependency is bad. Many things in the world can only be accomplished by group interdependency. Also those who are not fully equipped to help themselves such as children or cripples have to remain dependent on others to some extent, although they should try in so far as it is possible seek to be as independent as possible as regard to satisfaction of needs. 

    Children should be able to assemble the skills, the competence, to allow motivation by the deficiency needs to recede and the being needs to increase. This process in children is understood to be a seeking of independence and autonomy and is necessary and healthy. Parents can and often do prevent this healthy outcome for children by either being too controlling or being too protective.

    If parents protect their children from everything, they will never learn how to make themselves safe. If parents love them too much they will never seek love elsewhere and never learn how to make others love them. If parents provide all their esteem needs they will never learn how to earn the esteem of others. Basically parents can spoil and smother their children preventing these skills and competences from developing. Such children will be unable to cope with their own deficiency needs. Such children can find themselves helplessly stuck far down Maslow's hierarchy completely dependent on their parents and others.

    On the other hand, if children are not allowed to choose for themselves the actions by which they can satisfy their needs, they will also have difficulty developing the necessary skills to satisfy those needs. Too much control on the part of parents can make it difficult for children to learn anything. They fail to see their actions as their own, and always look to parents for guidance. They too remain lost far down Maslow's hierarchy, unable to fend for themselves and dependent.

  3. Pathological personal strategies. In order to satisfy our own needs we have to form conjectures or strategies for satisfying them. Sometimes the strategies we form are faulty and do not in fact satisfy the need we are trying to satisfy. This obviously causes people to become stuck at one of the need levels unable to progress. For instance a child needing love may reach out instead for attention by indulging in socially unacceptable activities. This can become what Horney calls a circularly determined syndrome. In this syndrome the deviant behavior can actually block the formation of love while the need for love continues in its morphed form to motivate the child to behave in socially or psychologically unacceptable ways. This can become so pathological the child can grow into adulthood unloved. When looking for a sexual partner who will love them the strategy will probably be used again making the possibility of ever being loved remote. This may manifest itself in many different and socially unacceptable behaviors. Such people can end up as anything from wife beaters to those who are suicidal when relationships fail as they inevitably must in these cases.

    The need for esteem is another level where our strategies for obtaining it can be erroneous and form a circularly determined syndrome which prevents the formation of true self esteem. There are many people in this world who mistake power for esteem. They seek power which makes others fear them, but not hold them in high esteem. This need for esteem is not satisfied by gaining power, thus causing them to believe they need even more power. The person seeking power never has enough because what he really needs is esteem. The more power he has the more he feels he needs. The more others fear him the more he in turn fears them. This can push the person far down the hierarchy where there is no esteem, no love, and no safety.

  4. Pathological environment. Where there is oppression there is a pathological environment. Imagine the children living in concentration camps. Surely they could never feel safe. Having said that of course it is possible having higher needs such as love and esteem satisfied in this environment may have helped them to satisfy the need for safety after they got out. Such an environment may not be so bad if compared with an environment where the parents of children do not help supply the needs for safety, love and esteem. Gregory Batson studied many of the families where one member in that family was classified as a schizophrenic and found the families created and an environment which caused this particular type of insanity. He coined the term double bind to describe the interactions between the schizophrenic and members of the family that created the insanity producing environment.

    A double bind occurs when a person is given mixed signals about the options that are available to him or her. These signals set up a situation where all courses of action will be wrong. Usually only two courses of action are possible and both of them are wrong. If a person is trying to satisfy the need for love or the need for esteem, they cannot because in a double bind situation, whatever they do they is wrong. An example that Bateson gives is that of a mother who simulates a loving attitude with her child, but is unable to prevent the child picking up on sub-textural signals that would tell the child that the mother is withdrawing, and is frightened or even disgusted by affection. The more the child is loving to the mother, the more the mother withdraws, but when the child is not loving the mother laments that he does not love her. He cannot win. If he is affectionate he is wrong the mother withdraws more. If he is not affectionate he is told he is withdrawing from the mother. Children in this situation cannot form a right strategy while they are with this type of family and can only be saved if they are removed from the family or the whole family agrees to be treated.

    It becomes clear that parents who do not love their children, parents who are violent toward their children, or parents who are crazy, can provide environments where children cannot learn how to satisfy their own needs. This is especially true of the needs for safety, love and esteem.

  5. Deformed Physiology. Some people are born physically deformed. Strictly speaking it should be possible for them to actualize such potentials as they have. However, some deformities are such that those close to them find it difficult to help them satisfy their needs for love and esteem. It is not impossible they could become self-actualized, but less likely. It is unfortunate that the ugliness of a deformity such as was the fate of the elephant man or a Siamese twin is just too bizarre for them to easily find love or esteem. Even someone as talented and well looked after as the painter Toulouse-Lautrec could not achieve self-actualization. People who have a deformity inflicted on them later in life after having many of their needs satisfied on a regular basis stand a better chance of reaching or maintaining a level of self-actualization. Brain deformity can also be a barrier satisfying needs, where the person does not have sufficient intelligence to satisfy their own needs.

Normal People. The above are mainly examples of explanations for mental illness and unusual situations not really relevant to the average person. But such situations and neuroses can be formed in such a way as to very be mild or partial. They may not fully prevent the satisfaction of various needs. Rather they can make the satisfaction of various needs not regular enough, or they may prevent the learning of sufficient skills and abilities to satisfy those needs. In this way, so called normal people, may never fully proceed to the next need level anywhere in the hierarchy. This, it is suspected, is the position of a large number of so called normal or average people. They are not fully pathological but also their needs are not sufficiently satisfied nor are they usually able to improve this situation sufficiently to move on to becoming fully self-actualized. Normal or average people can also become blocked however, for a different but accompanying reason. If people have their needs satisfied for them, if they never learn how to satisfy those needs for themselves, they are similarly blocked. In the end it is only our faith in our ability to satisfy our own needs (our feelings of competence and self-determination) that allow us to move on from one need level to the next. Normal people can become partially blocked because they are only partially confident of their competence and autonomy in satisfying their needs.

The Third Force and Humanistic Psychology. Maslow's ideas are central to a selection of psychologies that are grouped together to distinguish themselves from the 'Behaviorists' and the 'Freudians'. This branch of psychology has at it's roots a philosophical idea that has an old and proud tradition. The idea is that man is basically or originally active and good. When he is bad or lazy he has been made bad or lazy. (This is the opposite of the Christian Puritan Ethic which implies that man is basically evil and indolent and must be instructed in how to be vital and good.) This is the basic premise of humanistic psychology. This single idea underpins and is essential to the understanding of how learning takes place and was perhaps best expressed by Mencius in China in about 201 B.C.

"The Bull mountain was once covered with lovely trees. But it is near the capital of a great state. People came with their axes and choppers; they cut the woods down, and the mountain has lost its beauty. Yet, even so, the day air and the night air came to it, rain and dew moistened it. Here and there fresh sprouts began to grow. But soon cattle and sheep came along and browsed on them, and in the end the mountain became gaunt and bare, as it is now. And seeing it thus gaunt and bare, people imagine that it was woodless from the start. Now just as the natural state of the mountain was quite different from what it now appears, so to, in every man (little though they may be apparent) there assuredly are once feelings of decency and kindness; and if these good feelings are no longer there, it is that they have been tampered with, hewn down with axe and bill. As each day dawns they are assailed anew. What chance then has our nature, any more than the mountain, of keeping its beauty? that anyone might make the same mistake about us as about the mountain, and think that there was never any good in us from the very start. Yet assuredly, our present state of feeling is not what we began with. 'Truly,
If rightly tended, no creature but thrives;
If left unattended, no creature but pines away'"

Psychogogy. Maslow used the term psychogogy, a word coined by Oswald Schwartz, to describe a possible process for helping people to become self-actualized. This is of course a contradiction in terms. If we help people to actualize their potential they are other actualized not self-actualized. We are concerned here, however, with changing the norms of society and then letting people actualize their potential within that new society. Maslow saw that normal psychotherapy helped to make sick people not sick, but it did not help to make them fully healthy. He foresaw the need for a mental science that would help individuals, through facilitation and nurturing, to grow and become. He also saw the need to design an environment which was itself nurturing in such a way as to make the path to self-actualization easier. This is similar to the ideas embodied in Deci and Ryan's Theory of self-determination.

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