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Rethinking the Core Human Needs

January 31, 2011 110 comments

Okay, everybody…I need your help with this one.

Normally when I post an entry, it’s because I’ve reached a conclusion. This one is different. It’s unfinished. I’ve thought about this entry for a long time, and I’ve taken it a certain distance, but I need some help and feedback to finish it. In this entry, I talk about a new way of thinking about our core psychological needs. I’ve got a good start, but there are some inconsistencies I discuss at the end, and I’m not sure what to do with them yet. So, when you get to the end, please let me know your thoughts. Here we go:

There’s a good reason that Maslow’s Hierarchy has survived as long at it has: it covers every rational need you could think of. When you look at the model, it just strikes you as sensible and exhaustive. The first level of needs is Physiological, and you think, well that’s obvious. Without food, water, air, and the like, we don’t make it very long…so I can see that. What’s next? Safety needs, like health, property, security, etc. That also makes a lot of sense. When our immediate security is threatened, we feel a ton of anxiety. So that one is also easy to buy. What’s next?

English: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Resized,...

English: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Resized, renamed, and cropped version of File:Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs.svg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Next is Love and Belonging. Possible to survive without it, be we know that people have gone seriously nuts in isolation. So yeah, that makes total sense. From here on, we get a little more abstract. Fourth level is Esteem. These are qualities like self-confidence, respect, and achievement. Who among us doesn’t know someone who’s seriously off-kilter because of how they perceive their own value? What the hell: who among us hasn’t struggled at some point – even a little bit – with issues of how we perceive our own value? So that level seems to belong. The fifth level is Self-actualization, which sounds nice, but few of us really have an internal notion of what that is. It sounds like something that would really make us happy, if we ever got there.

These categories are broad, and seem to capture everything, but actually, they don’t quite. If I could pick one bone with this otherwise excellent model, it’s that it emphasizes rationality. We’ve since come to learn about man that not only is he far from rational, but that his most interesting tendencies seem on the surface completely irrational. The man with the gambling addiction, which of Maslow‘s needs is he fulfilling? How about the woman who drives a wedge between her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend? How about the friend of yours who has to top everyone’s experience story, like that Kristen Wiig character from Saturday Night Live?

Kristen Wiig as Penelope, the Attention Seeker

Kristen Wiig as Penelope, the Attention Seeker

One could argue all three of those examples into a Maslow category, but it feels like a stretch. I wanted to understand our core psychological needs and drives in a way that spoke more directly to our everyday lives. So I’ve been keeping my eyes open for a new model.

I stumbled upon a talk that performance coach Tony Robbins gave to the 2007 TED Conference (I geek out and watch those talks whenever I can). He espouses his own model of six core psychological needs. While I am not a drinker of the TR Kool-Aid, I thought his model was interesting for a couple of reasons. His six needs are 1) Certainty, 2) Uncertainty, 3) Significance, 4) Comfort and Love, 5) Growth, and 6) Contribution.

His model is interesting for a number of good reasons. First, he is the first person I’ve known to list “uncertainty” as a need. It’s irrational to need uncertainty; if we were all acting in our own rational self-interest, we would want life to be as predictable as possible so that we could reap the most advantage. We typically try to eliminate unpredictability, but Robbins acknowledges that we also crave it. He also posits that we need to contribute to causes greater than our individual selves as a prerequisite to fulfillment. One could argue this is implicit in Maslow’s self-actualization, but this model gives contribution the individual emphasis it really deserves.

Tony Robbins at the 2007 TED Conference

Tony Robbins at the 2007 TED Conference

I played with a couple other different needs models as well. I took a look at Max-Neef’s “Human Scale Development,” Cialdini’s Influence Triggers, Jonathan Haidt‘s Moral Matrix, David McClelland‘s Achievement Motive, and some other ideas from Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, and other contributors. But something keeps bringing me back to Robbins’ contribution, because I see insights in that model that I don’t really see in some of the others. True, there are examples that I can’t make fit into Robbins’ model, but I don’t think that’s as much a problem with the model as it is with its phrasing. I think that using Robbins’ model as a starting point, we can come up with a truly psychologically insightful model of rational and irrational needs.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. These are the six categories of psychological need as best I can articulate them (physiological needs are omitted). They are not mutually exclusive, meaning that one event can satisfy multiple needs at once. It’s not perfect, and I’ll go through some inconsistencies at the end. Please leave comments with your ideas for how to refine this idea. Read more…

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All Positive Thinking is Not Equal

January 27, 2011 2 comments

Do yourself a favor really quickly: go and bookmark a blog called Psyblog. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Here also is their RSS Link for your reader.

Psyblog LogoPsyblog is a British blog on psychology and motivation written by Jeremy Dean, a researcher at University College London. He publishes rich and insightful explanations of fascinating psychological studies, applying them towards understanding and persuading other people. His work is something I aspire to.

Recently, he posted an entry called, “Success! Why Expectations Beat Fantasies.” The entry uses a 2002 study to explain how certain types of positive thinking about the future bring about better results than other types of thinking.

The study examined people who were about to go through certain significant life challenges: finding a partner, finding a job, passing an exam, or going through surgery. According to the study, those who expect that they will do well at an upcoming challenge will tend to do well at that challenge, but those who fantasize about doing well at that same challenge will do comparatively poorly. Read more…