Although Maslow did not describe it in this way, the hierarchy of needs is usually represented by a pyramid. However, in my view, a tree may be more appropriate.
The trunk represents the existence and procreation needs or contra-needs that we all share. The branches and twigs represent our higher needs and contra-needs. Satisfying our needs can be likened to climbing this tree. As we ascend, from the trunk to its outermost twigs, our needs become higher. The highest needs are those at the outer twigs and the lowest those nearest the trunk. The higher the need the more branches or twigs there will be. It is this diversity which gives us our own unique personalities and motivations.
Representing needs and contra-needs in this way helps us to understand several things:
- Initially, we must satisfy our existence and procreation needs. We begin climbing at the trunk therefore, and, as we ascend to satisfy higher needs, they become ever more personal and diverse.
- We must continue to maintain the trunk and branches that we have already ascended if we are not to fall from the tree. This means that we must regularly attend to our lower and more basic needs even whilst focussing on higher ones.
- The diversity of higher needs has implications for empathy. We all share common existence and procreation needs. It is, therefore, relatively easy to understand these needs in others and to empathise with any difficulties they have in satisfying them. However, as we climb higher and choose branches which satisfy our own more personal needs, our understanding of the branches occupied by others begins to diminish. Thus, we have less empathy for people who are having difficulty in satisfying their higher needs. Rather, it is easy to behave in a manner which restricts diversity and to believe that others should be like oneself.
- As one ascends the tree there become fewer people on each branch and it becomes harder to find others with whom to share an interest. Thus, the risk of feeling isolated becomes greater.
- We must have aims to be motivated and as we ascend the tree it becomes ever more difficult to find and settle on these. The tendency is, therefore, to do more of the same. For example, wealthy people may seek ever more wealth, and politicians ever more power.
- Representing needs in the form of a tree also has implications for diversity. The diversity within the branches of the tree reflects the diversity within societies. Societies in which people can satisfy their higher needs are more diverse than those in which they cannot.
In my next post I will describe Manfred Max-Neef’s theory of how we satisfy our needs and some of the ways in which this may not succeed.