Maslow’s Pyramid Gets a Makeover

What are the fundamental forces that drive human behavior? A group of evolutionary thinkers offer an answer by revising one of psychology’s most familiar images.
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What are the fundamental forces that drive human behavior? A group of evolutionary thinkers offer an answer by revising one of psychology’s most familiar images.

Abraham Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs is one of the iconic images of psychology. The simple diagram, first introduced in the 1940s, spells out the underlying motivations that drive our day-to-day behavior and points the way to a more meaningful life. It is elegant, approachable and uplifting.

But is it also out of date?

That’s the argument of a team of evolutionary psychologists led by Douglas Kenrick of Arizona State University. In the latest issue of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, they propose a revised pyramid, one informed by recent research defining our deep biological drives.

Their new formulation is intellectually stimulating, but emotionally deflating. “Self-actualization,” the noble-sounding top layer of Maslow’s hierarchy, in their model has not only been dethroned, it has been relegated to footnote status. It has been replaced at the top with a more mundane motivation Maslow didn’t even mention: “Parenting.”

The new pyramid is based on the premise that our strongest and most fundamental impulse, which shapes our day-to-day desires on an unconscious level, is to survive long enough to pass our genes to the next generation. According to this school of thought, backed by considerable — though not irrefutable — evidence, all our achievements are linked in one way or another to the urge to reproduce.

In other words, aside from our powerful brains, we’re pretty much like every other living creature.

Given that we humans like to think of ourselves as special, this new pyramid will surely encounter strong resistance. But it could also become a shorthand way to clarify the often-misunderstood concepts of evolutionary psychology, which, its advocates insist, are not as meaning-denying and ego-deflating as we might think.

“There is such a thing as self-actualization, developing your inner potential, a self-need to become brilliant at whatever you’re doing,” says Kenrick, who studied classical guitar before devoting his professional life to academic research. “I just don’t think it’s divorced from biology.

“The reason our brains work this way — the reason we’re always so curious, we’re trying to solve problems, we’re trying to perfect the product of our creativity — it’s because when our ancestors used their big cerebral cortexes in those ways, the result was an increase in reproductive success.”

That’s on average, of course; individual results may vary. J.S. Bach fathered 20 children. Beethoven had none.

A native New Yorker, Abraham Maslow first proposed his theory of human motivation in a 1943 issue of the journal Psychological Review. The humanistic psychologist, who was teaching at Brooklyn College at the time, began with the self-evident idea that our most immediate need is to ensure our physical survival.

Thus the first level of his pyramid is labeled “Immediate Physiological Needs,” which refers to such basics as food, water and sleep. The second level, which is closely related, is labeled “safety.” As best we can, we need to see to it that those life-giving resources won’t be taken away.

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)

Maslow was a leader of the humanistic psychology movement, a positive approach to human behavior which emphasizes our innate capability to reach our full potential. The eldest son of Russian emigrants, the Brooklyn native taught at Brooklyn College and later served as chairman of the psychology department at Brandies University.


Once those needs have been comfortably satisfied, Maslow believed we can start exploring others. In ascending order, he listed these higher-level needs as love, esteem/respect and, finally, self-actualization — finding our innate potential and fulfilling it.

This notion of human beings aspiring to ever-higher levels of meaning has had lasting appeal. University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson found more than 766,000 images of Maslow’s pyramid on the Internet. MIT psychologist Joshua Ackerman suspects its allure is based on several factors.

“One is that it fits people’s notions of the kinds of the goals that are important to them,” he says. “Second, it gives people a track on which to proceed through life. People everywhere tend to search for meaning in life. This gives people a structure by which to do that.”

Despite the pyramid’s continuing popularity, Kenrick and his colleagues — Vladas Griskevicius, Steven Neuberg and Mark Schaller — note some modern researchers consider it “quaint” and largely irrelevant. But during the years they spent studying deep-seated human motivations from an evolutionary perspective, Kenrick and his colleagues realized many of their findings lined up quite nicely with Maslow’s concepts. The lower rungs of his hierarchy — immediate physiological needs, safety and, a bit higher up, esteem — appeared quite solid in light of this new evidence.

But they also found several problems with the pyramid. We now know that needs, once they are met, don’t simply disappear; rather, they reappear when prompted by certain environmental cues. Watching a news report about a crime spree will trigger fears for our own safety, which can influence our opinions and behaviors even if that need is being effectively met. (More fancifully, Kenrick notes that many well-fed people love to watch cooking shows. Having a full belly doesn’t negate our fascination with food.)

So Kenrick and his colleagues created a new pyramid in which the needs overlap, rather than completely replace, one another.

“When a new one comes in, it doesn’t just cover up the old one the way a new city is built on ancient ruins,” he says. “The old and new continue to coexist.”

While few will take issue with that refinement, the other major change Kenrick and his colleagues propose is more problematic. They note that, from an evolutionary perspective, the idea that “self-actualization” would be at the top of the pyramid makes no sense. For our genes to survive and live on in the next generation, we don’t have to meet or exceed our potential: We just need to survive, attract a mate and have a child. From a genetic perspective, that’s plenty good enough.

So Kenrick and his colleagues revised the hierarchy to reflect this selfish-gene hypothesis. While their bottom four levels are highly compatible with Maslow’s — immediate psychological needs, self-protection, affiliation, status/esteem — their top three differ enormously. They are mate acquisition, mate retention and parenting.

“I think the biggest mistake Maslow made was he considered sexual gratification to be down there with the physiological needs, like hunger and thirst,” Kenrick says. “But we feed ourselves to survive; we have sexual relations for another reason. [The sex drive] has an intrinsic connection to what evolutionary theorists believe makes life go around, which is replication of genes. He kind of missed the boat on that.”

So today we have a sturdier boat. But should self-actualization be thrown overboard? Kenrick argues it must, at least in the sense of thinking of it as a fundamental human motivation. He insists it is an admittedly impressive product of our basic drive to reproduce.

“You could argue that a peacock’s display is as beautiful as anything any human artist has ever produced,” he said. “And yet it has a clear biological function [to attract a mate]. To connect it to its biological roots does not explain it away.”

No, but it does reduce human accomplishment to “something more mundane,” in the words of Peterson and his University of Michigan colleague Nansook Park, who co-authored a critical response to Kenrick’s thesis.

“Our reading of the literature of highly creative people shows their work to be intrinsically motivated,” the pair write. “Nothing — literally — is in their minds when they are creating.”

MIT’s Ackerman replies that many of the greatest human achievements are the outcome of competitions of some sort — anything from a short-story contest to the space race between the U.S. and USSR. In such instances, the desire to come out on top clearly inspired creative people to do their best work.

“What has produced those feelings of competiveness? Why do people follow them? That has to do with mating,” he insists. “Self-actualization is not a fundamental goal in itself.”

While Ackerman agrees with Kenrick on that basic point, he wonders whether the pyramid should be discarded rather than revamped. “An argument could be made that the pyramid shape isn’t the best one, because it implies a sense of progress,” he says. “Taking an evolutionary perspective, the idea of progress isn’t so comprehensible.

“[In Kenrick’s hierarchy], parenting is on top simply because it comes after a lot of these other processes,” he adds. “I’m not sure it represents a culmination of things. It represents a really important goal that just happens after other goals.”

“Fundamentally, like all animals, we’re here because our ancestors were ultimately interested in reproduction,” Kenrick replies. “For humans, that’s not just about sex; we don’t spend a lot of time copulating. We do spend a lot of time developing relationships, maintaining those relationships and then taking care of offspring.

“We could have put ‘grandparenting’ at the top — not that grandparenting is more important than parenting or that parenting is more important than any of the things below it,” he adds. “But it’s the punch line of this developmental story.”

That last reference encapsulates why so many people are reluctant to embrace evolutionary psychology: It views life as something of a cosmic joke (presumably on us). In the words of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “It desacralizes, it reduces, it animalizes.”

And of course, it is not the only evidence-based theory of human motivation. Terror Management Theory, based on the writings of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, argues that one of our most basic drives is to escape awareness of our own deaths — an impulse that leads to a wide variety of destructive behaviors, including war. One can easily imagine a TMT pyramid, in which the top levels would be quite different from either Maslow’s or Kenrick’s.

“What Kenrick and his colleagues did is smart and creative, and I applaud them for tackling a big issue,” Peterson says. “But the jury’s way out on whether it’ll supplant Maslow.

“I don’t think [creative achievement] all comes down to mating. Maybe it does, but their article didn’t convince me.”

Nevertheless, rethinking the foundations of our underlying motivations is an impressive achievement — one could even call it an act of self-actualization — and if the evolutionary psychologists are right, it offers clear practical suggestions.

Even after the changes inspired by the feminist revolution, Westerners still live in a culture where professional success and family obligations are often at odds. If we’re forced to prioritize by either choosing parenting or work — which represents both (economic) safety and esteem – it means some of our most fundamental motivations are in perpetual opposition to one another. That’s a clear recipe for chronic stress.

“It might be possible to rethink the way we structure work,” Kenrick says. “You could make it easier for people to work at home or to take their kids to school. [If workers’ parenting needs are met], you might get more productivity out of them.”

A fine practical idea, but it doesn’t substitute for the spiritual sustenance provided by Maslow’s original pyramid. As high-minded motivations go, simply repopulating an already overpopulated planet falls short of inspiring. Call it the Peggy Lee conundrum: Is that all there is?

“I think what’s required is a reframing in our own minds, a change in how we see the search for meaning,” Ackerman says. “Even if we understand the underlying motivation behind it, it’s just as difficult to set a world record and just as impressive.

“As Carl Sagan used to say, understanding our place in the universe doesn’t remove meaning. It actually makes things more interesting.”