i. Obstacles to Wellbeing in the West

Obstacles to Wellbeing in the West

A healthy society is one which provides for the wellbeing of all its members. It is one which enables its members to strive to satisfy their needs and which does not put obstacles in their way. In practice, this means equitable access to resources and protection from the anti-social needs of others. However, society is rarely, if ever, perfect and some examples of the difficulties we currently face in the West are described below.

In early, small scale societies relationships were complex. Between each pair of individuals there were several types of relationship and the quality of each had to be balanced with the quality of others. This type of society is the one in which we have evolved to live. In modern society, relationships between individuals often serve a single, relatively simple purpose and people learn to act out a role.

Furthermore, even these relationships are being replaced by technology, and we are beginning to interact either with, or via machines to a significant extent. Indeed, the difficulties involved in learning successful social interaction and in building our social capital have not been helped by the comparatively recent intervention of technology and commerce in our social lives. Social media have communication benefits, but have also led to more distant, impersonal social connections, to online bullying, grooming and exploitation, to commercial opportunities, the spread of fake news, the spread of conspiracy theories, and pressure to conform to fast changing fashions.

The pressure of producing and consuming in an economy which relies on constant growth means that the time available for more complex interaction with family, children, and friends is much reduced. Thus, we are no longer interacting with one another in the way that we have evolved to do. Our social nature is not being satisfied, and we are suffering a poverty of relatedness needs.

Security in the satisfaction of our needs involves an accumulation of material capital, for example the deposit for a home. However, several factors currently conspire against this: the ever-growing wage gap; insecurity of employment; the high cost of purchasing a home; the availability of cheap credit; the pressure to accept it; social and advertising pressures to purchase consumer products; and so on. These are all consequences of consumer-capitalism which, because of its in-built reliance on economic growth, has become exploitative and is approaching the limits of sustainability. The Office of National Statistics Survey reports that “An increasing proportion of young people aged 16 to 24 years in the UK reported that they were finding it difficult or very difficult to get by financially.” In 2016/17 this was 6%. In 2017/18 it had increased to 9%. In particular, “the increase was significant among young men of this age.”

In his book “Cultural Evolution”, Ronald Inglehart says that, in a post-industrial culture, we place greater emphasis on the growth need of self-expression, and data from the World Values Survey bears this out. Culture affects what we believe our growth needs to be and how we go about satisfying them. However, our culture is often steered by royal, aristocratic, political, religious, or commercial elites in their own interest, rather than in that of the general population.

Some have argued that the free-market, consumer economy in the West was brought about by elites as a reaction to a decline in their relative wealth after the two world wars. Again, the statistics bear this out. The documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis also provides convincing evidence that the present emphasis on individuality has been steered, by commercial elites and consultant psychologists, into self-expression through consumption. The concept of lifestyle has been promoted, primarily via advertising, and we have been encouraged to see it as a way of expressing our individuality.

If a need is satisfied, then it no longer motivates us. So, to persuade us to buy products, advertising offers false promises. It is often suggested, incorrectly, that a product will satisfy our needs for  relatedness, belonging, and self-esteem. Furthermore, it does so in a subliminal manner, often not recognized by the conscious mind.

The involvement of commerce in the way we make our social connections adds an extra layer of complexity and difficulty to the satisfaction of our relatedness needs. For example, social media influencers are, essentially, engaging in lifestyle-based advertising and earn their living by promoting products. However, they are also role models in terms of behaviour, social status, and appearance. Most cosmetics, for example, are now sold to the 20 to 23 age group, which, ironically, is when the majority of us are physically at our most attractive. There is also a growing tendency for men to use cosmetics.

Whilst people imagine that they are satisfying their needs for individuality, self-esteem and belonging in the way they consume products and services, this is merely a pseudo-satisfier. It is unsurprising, therefore, that mental ill-health is becoming a significant concern, particularly among the younger generations. The survey by the UK’s Office of National Statistics also found that:

  • “Several measures of personal well-being of young women aged 20 to 24 years in the UK have declined in March 2020 from five years previously”.
  • There was “a fall in the percentage of young women in this age group reporting very high life satisfaction and happiness, and very low anxiety.”
  • “There is evidence of increasing anxiety and depression among young women aged 16 to 24 years”. In 2016/17, 26% reported some evidence of depression or anxiety . In 2017/18 this increased to 31%.
  • “There was a decline in young people’s satisfaction with their health …”. In 2016/17, 59% of those aged 16 to 24 years said they were mostly or completely satisfied with their health. In 2017/18, this fell to 52%.
  • “Young people aged 16 to 24 years” … “may also be feeling more disconnected from their communities”. In 2014/15, 57% agreed or strongly agreed that they felt a sense of belonging to their neighbourhood. In 2017/18, this fell to 48%.

To truly satisfy our need for individuality, it is necessary to build up a resistance to these advertising pressures. We can learn to resist some of them, but others are beyond our individual control. As Mark Carney, a past governor of the Bank of England,  put it in his 2020, BBC Reith Lectures, the economy is driving society’s values and not vice versa. He argues that we now need a post-consumer economy which delivers on society’s values. That is, what society holds to be good, rather than what has a monetary value. However, he also believes that this cannot be left to free markets, which tend to follow the same path until a bubble bursts. One way in which the latter can occur is through the over-exploitation and wastage of resources and it is quite likely that we have now begun to see the effects of this. He argues, therefore, that  government intervention is needed to steer markets in the appropriate direction.

Unfortunately, politics has taken a lesson from commerce and is beginning to operate in a similar way, employing psychologists and, with their advice and insights, also exploiting our needs.

h. Resources, Poverty and Wellbeing

Resources, Poverty and Wellbeing

We use resources to create satisfiers. Resources include, for example, time, physical effort, mental effort, emotional resources, and material resources or property. A key feature of resources is that they become depleted with use. Knowledge is not a resource in this sense, however, because it does not become depleted.

Property is the resource that an individual or group of people hold to satisfy their needs and which they will defend. Ownership attaches to property, it is associated with a particular individual or group, and only they have the right to use it. It is human nature to hold property and respect for ownership must be reciprocal if ownership is to exist.

An inability to satisfy one’s needs due to a lack of adequate resources or other obstacles can be described as poverty. Normally, due to its prevalence, this term applies to an inability to satisfy our existence needs. However, it can also be used to describe an inability to satisfy other needs. It can be a poverty of existence and procreation needs, for example an inability to feed or house oneself, a poverty of relatedness needs, for example an absence of kin and other people with whom to form relationships, or a poverty of growth needs, e.g., an inability to develop one’s talents and skills.

The term “wellbeing” is commonly used in the medical profession as an indicator of physical and psychological health. Here, however, it is given a broader meaning, i.e., the extent to which the needs of an individual or population are satisfied and, of course, the extent to which contra-needs are not.

Wellbeing is far more than “something that it is nice to have”. It affects the way in which we behave as individuals and the success or failure of a society. There are positive and negative feedback loops between individuals and society. If society, which can be regarded as a satisfier, provides wellbeing then individuals will support it, will be able to pursue their needs and will be better able to contribute to that society. This is a positive feedback loop. Conversely, if society becomes a contra-satisfier, for example when a minority exploit the majority, then the latter will become alienated, engage in conflict and the society will fail. This is a negative feedback loop.

Different cultures provide for the needs of their population in different ways, and their success in doing so varies. It is possible to evaluate a culture from the way it uses the available resources to satisfy the needs of its population and others with whom it interacts. In general, resources satisfy the wellbeing of the population most efficiently if they are used in an egalitarian manner. That is not to say that every resource should be apportioned equally. As individuals ascend the tree of needs their needs begin to differ from those of others, and so too do the resources required to satisfy them. Thus, equitable sharing is related to needs satisfied rather than the resources applied.

Numerous attempts have been made to measure the wellbeing of populations: the Gini Index, a measure of the income distribution of a country’s residents and thought to be a good indicator of the level of inequality; Bhutan’s measure of Gross National Happiness; the OECD’s Better Life Index; the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW); subjective wellbeing (SWB); and so on. In the author’s view, however, it may be possible to measure an individual’s wellbeing in terms of the value they place on the resources available to satisfy their needs. For example, if they place a high value on personal time or money then this implies that they have insufficient to satisfy their needs. All these approaches have their flaws and can be criticised. I do not propose to look at them in detail, therefore. I merely wish to establish the principle that wellbeing can be measured, and serious attempts are being made to do so.

g. Anti-social Needs and Behaviour

Anti-social Needs & Behaviour

Our normal needs have an evolutionary basis and are those which, in the past, best enabled us to survive and procreate. They are the result of order brought about by life’s struggle against entropy and can be likened to the sandcastle described in my first article “Schrodinger’s Other Paradox”. They have a basis in both genetic and cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, due to the same evolutionary processes, some individuals have anti-social needs which cause behaviour that is a contra-satisfier resulting in harm to others. Note that I do not regard simple differences of opinion or personality as being anti-social. Nor do I regard outrage or disapproval as a harm. There must be a genuine impact on the contra-needs of others. Anti-social needs are the inevitable effect of entropy both on society and on the human genome, and can take many forms, most of which are harmful. Their existence can be likened to the many ways in which the sandcastle can begin to decay into a random heap of sand.

In practice, both normal needs, anti-social needs, and the behaviour they cause are defined by laws, norms, and consensus. These differ from nation to nation, culture to culture, and time to time. Generally, however, crime is subject to laws and punishment by the state, for example, imprisonment for theft. Violation of moral and religious codes has been regarded as punishable by God. Historically, for example, hell has been the ultimate fate of sinners. In some highly religious societies, the state can also intervene and, for example, impose punishment for blasphemy. Violation of social norms is punishable by the community by, for example, shunning. However, acts that cause mental stress or psychological damage to the victim often receive no censure.

Our contra-needs, or those harms that we wish to avoid, also have an evolutionary basis and are largely universal. Any behaviour which impinges on them will, therefore, be regarded by the recipient as unacceptable. If social controls favour normal needs, then the tendency will be towards orderly and healthy societies. However, if religious dogmas, political ideologies, corruption, or any combination of the three gain undue influence, especially control of the state, then incompatibilities can occur. This results in a society which can only be sustained through force, coercion, and repression.

Although normal needs are relatively universal and based on what has best enabled human beings to survive and procreate, disorder can occur in infinite ways. The causes of anti-social needs are, therefore, boundless. Examples include heredity, biological disfunction, drugs, upbringing, poverty, social, political, and economic factors, and so on. Criminologists recognise, for example, that the causes of crime are unique to each individual and that a combination of several factors may be in play.

It is impossible, therefore, to categorise anti-social needs. Furthermore, because an actor with anti-social needs will usually disguise them to avoid social controls, and will not be forthcoming with researchers, it is also extremely difficult to assess the priority that he or she gives to them and to anticipate when anti-social behaviour will occur.

Anti-social needs do, however, lie on a scale of type, which can vary from extreme psychological disorder, to exaggerated normal needs. Once a need is adequately satisfied, we usually move on to the satisfaction of others. However, for a variety of reasons, such as social influences, force of habit, or personality traits, it is possible to become trapped in the satisfaction of a particular need, to the extent that it is indulged in to harmful excess. For example, the pursuit of excessive wealth, power, or celebrity.

Anti-social needs also lie on a scale of harmful intent. At one extreme lie psychopathy, paedophilia, narcissism, etc., where the need is only satisfied by deliberately causing harm to others. At the other extreme lie antisocial behaviour and Schadenfreude or pleasure at the misfortune of others. Anti-social behaviour, as we presently understand it, is inconsiderate behaviour. It incudes, for example, vandalism, graffiti, littering, and dumping rubbish.

Finally, anti-social needs lie on a scale of effect which depends on the priority given by the victim to the relevant contra-need. Death, for example, would be high in the list of a victim’s contra-needs.

Life is a struggle against entropy, and it is inevitable, therefore, that we will always be faced with anti-social needs. However, this does not mean that we should just accept them. They are entropic in nature, and we are compelled by evolution to fight against them.

Most criminologists recognise that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. It is also the case that people are attracted to institutions, organisations, and individuals who they feel will satisfy their needs. Knowing this, risk assessment, deterrence, prevention, and mitigation, based on the priority of the relevant contra-needs and the number of people affected, could be a practical approach. This would, for example, involve assessing the risk of an institution being steered in a harmful direction, and taking measures to reduce the risk that an individual with relevant anti-social needs can take its reins.

f. Sense, Order and Meaning

Sense, Order and Meaning

Among our growth needs are two which drive us to make sense of the world. They are the need to perceive order and the need for meaning. Meaning is of two types: everyday meaning, for example that imparted by speech or text, and existential meaning, or why we exist. It is my own understanding of the latter, developed over several decades, that I will discuss here.

Perceiving order in the world helps us to make sense of it. The universe follows physical laws, and, through curiosity, investigation, and reason, we can discern the order that these laws impart. This enables us to make successful decisions when faced with a threat or opportunity. On the other hand, if we cannot perceive order, then this increases our vulnerability. However, we often see order as being imbued by something other than physical laws. For example, rhino horn has been thought to provide sexual potency because of its shape and the strength of the rhinoceros.

Meaning is a different concept to order. To find meaning would be to understand the purpose of the world and our part in it. The search for meaning has a side effect in that it helps us to discover order and, so, to survive and procreate. However, whilst meaning is a need, and we can be strongly motivated to search for it, meaninglessness is an existential given or unavoidable contra-need. In other words, we can never truly find objective meaning because, in practice, the universe appears to have none. Meaning is, therefore, entirely subjective, and personal. Finding subjective meaning involves much effort, but ultimately it can be highly rewarding. On the other hand, effort to seek objective meaning, will rapidly run up against the limits of our knowledge and abilities. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it can lead to frustration, distress, and a readiness to accept “wishful beliefs”. Such beliefs are often “off the shelf” and include a super-natural or super-human element. Because they may be emotionally satisfying and superficially appear to fit the facts, they are often inadequately criticized. This can open us up to potential exploitation by their authors.

According to the British Psychologist, Frederic Bartlett, to understand the world we create schemata or mental models. This is as true in the search for meaning as it is in more practical matters. Our schemata determine the way in which we understand meaning and perceive order. Because of the mental effort involved, once a schema is established, it is resistant to change. We are more likely to remember information that is consistent with our schemata and less likely to remember, or may even modify, information that contradicts them. This process is sometimes referred to as “effort after meaning”.

Schemata are established in childhood by our parents and other close adults. They can include erroneous or “wishful” beliefs. For example, meaning can be seen to be something other than personal and subjective arising, for example, from a supernatural source. Schemata grow throughout our lives, becoming ever more complex. Although resistant to change, they can be affected by our cultural environment and, depending on its nature, can be either reinforced or slowly altered as we age. If they are reinforced, this can cause us to become set in our ways. If they are revised, this can cause any beliefs gained in early childhood or later life, to become unacceptable, leading to disappointment, dissatisfaction, and social difficulties. Nevertheless, realism does stand up to the test of time.

I would suggest, therefore, that finding meaning involves:

  1. accepting that we are naturally evolved organisms with all the limitations it entails. As the Chinese author, Cixin Liu says in his novel The Dark Forest: “It’s a wonder to be alive. If you don’t understand that, how can you search for anything deeper?”;
  2. recognising that finding meaning is a personal and subjective endeavour; and
  3. being critical of the numerous erroneous, “wishful” beliefs on offer.

We are motivated by needs for existence, procreation, relatedness, and growth. The satisfaction of most is necessary for a happy and meaningful life. However, there can often be obstacles in the way. When people find it difficult to satisfy their existence and procreation needs their focus is on these, and on relatedness. This means that “wishful beliefs” are often used as a way of satisfying their growth needs with minimum effort. This can lead to exploitation and the elimination of poverty would, therefore, have great societal benefit.

There can be contradictions between different needs. Ronald Inglehart, in his book “Cultural Evolution” identified that, since the 1980s, there has been great emphasis, in the West, on self-expression, a growth need, at the expense of relatedness. However, we are social animals, co-operation better enables us to survive and so a balance must be sought. Social connection brings with it the pressure to conform to a culture. If there is a conflict between this and the need to be oneself then, in extreme cases, according to the psychologist Karl Rogers, mental ill-health can result. Thus, we must reconcile our growth needs with our relatedness needs.

So far, I have discussed what might be referred to as “normal” human needs. In my next post I will discuss “abnormal” needs because of the powerful influence they have on human affairs.

e. Individuals, Generations, Age-groups, and the Prioritisation of Needs

Individuals, Generations, Age-groups, and the Prioritisation of Needs

Pursuing the satisfaction of our natural human needs is what motivates us. However, much effort is involved in doing so. It is a lifelong process, and we meet many challenges on the way. If we can overcome those challenges, then this contributes to a general sense of happiness and wellbeing. Happiness is a relatively short-lived emotion that we experience from time to time. However, wellbeing is a state of mind which persists for so long as we are satisfied. On the other hand, if we encounter insurmountable obstacles, then we can experience frustration, a low sense of wellbeing, ill health or even death.

Maslow’s theory maintains that needs lower in the hierarchy must be largely satisfied before we can move on to higher needs. However, as explained in an earlier article, there is little evidence that we do actually prioritise our needs in this way. There is not a simple correlation between age and the hierarchy of needs. Rather, several other factors can cause significant differences between generations and age-groups. They can also cause significant differences between individuals from the same generation and age-group. Examples of these factors include:

  1. Biological Factors. For example, our individual capabilities and the physiological and health risks that we face in childhood, as a parent, or in old age.
  2. Social Role. At different stages in our lives, society provides us with different forms of support and demands different forms of contribution. Some are common to all societies. For example, in childhood our existence needs are provided for by our parents. However, support and demands also vary according to the nature of our society, our gender, and our socio-economic status. Social support and demands are significant factors in deciding how we prioritise our needs at different stages in our lives.
  3. Cultural Change. The culture of a society can alter rapidly from generation to generation, and the prevailing culture in our formative years will affect our priorities in later life. Thus, different generations can be typified by different priorities, irrespective of age. Today, cultural change is far more rapid than it has been in the past and is, therefore, having a much greater influence.
  4. Significant Events. World Wars, epidemics, and economic depressions, when they occur, can reshape the priorities of all generations. However, if they occur during our formative years, they can have a particularly long-lasting effect on our priorities. This can cause different generations to be typified by different priorities.
  5. Time to Learn. It can take considerable time and effort to learn how to satisfy a need, sustain that satisfaction and deal with the difficulties associated with doing so. The natural world and human society are both extraordinarily complex. Understanding them and learning successful behaviour requires much effort, therefore, and whilst making that effort we age.

Thus, whilst there is a general trend in the way that different age-groups prioritise their needs, there is also considerable variability as different generations come to occupy an age-group. There is also considerable variability between individuals within an age-group.

Some examples from Western society may serve to demonstrate how the above factors interact to cause a general trend in the priorities of different age groups. Whilst this trend may be true of humanity in general it is not necessarily so for the individual.

  1. When we are born, we aspire to satisfy our existence needs, i.e., food, warmth, shelter, etc. Satisfiers are, of course, provided by our parents and we must merely cry or smile when a need arises. Our social skills are innate, and we have yet to develop the cognitive skills to pursue higher needs.
  2. In our teens and early twenties, security in the provision of our basic needs continues to be provided by our parents, and so, our aspirations focus on social relatedness. Historically, we would seek a partner and reproduce in our teens and early twenties, so biological factors may also have a part to play.
  3. Later, as we raise children, our existence needs must be secured for us to do so successfully. An example is the desire to own a home of our own because, in most cases, our need for shelter will previously have been satisfied in a less secure way by living with our parents or by renting.
  4. It has been suggested that our large brains evolved to enable successful social interaction. However, these brains also bestow on us the ability to safeguard the satisfaction of our existence and relatedness needs. This is where our aspirations are next likely to be focused, therefore. However, the way in which we satisfy this need is also affected by our cultural upbringing. In some cases, it may be by accumulating wealth and property. In other cases, it may be by building strong social connectedness and support networks.
  5. Our large brains also give us a need for meaning in our lives, curiosity, creativity, and an ability to master complex skills.  It is to these that we turn when other needs are largely satisfied. Due to the time involved in learning how to satisfy all our needs, these tend to come to the fore as we become older. It is notable, however, that some creative people will forego the satisfaction of lesser needs.
  6. A culture can assign different roles to different genders. Furthermore, hormones are known to affect the state of mind of both sexes. It is conceivable, therefore, that there are gender differences in the way that we prioritise and satisfy our needs. Unfortunately, little objective research has been done on this subject.
  7. Finally, evidence from surveys shows that the need for safety or freedom from existential threat is a more significant aspiration amongst older people.

In very general terms then, but with much variance, the Western trend in priorities can be summarized as: the satisfaction of existential needs as a small child; relatedness needs in our teens and early twenties; safety and procreation needs in later adulthood; and security, safety and growth needs thereafter.

d. Satisfiers and Contra-satisfiers

Satisfiers and Contra-satisfiers

In the 1990’s, to address some of the limitations of Maslow’s theory, the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef and his colleagues developed an alternative way of categorising human needs. Details can be found in their 1995 book “Human Scale Development”.

Max-Neef’s principal contribution, however, was the identification of “satisfiers”. These are external things which assuage our needs. Examples include physical things, such as rice and houses, or actions by others, such as medical treatment. Max-Neef explained that external things, such as food and shelter, should not be seen as needs, but rather as external satisfiers of an internal need for subsistence. On the micro-scale, satisfiers can be the goods and services that form the basis of economics. On the macro-scale, they can be the institutions that form the basis of politics. Satisfiers can, therefore, also be provided by organisations, by the way in which society is organised, or by its culture. For example, education is a satisfier of the need for understanding, and healthcare a satisfier of the need for protection.

As an economist, Max-Neef’s focus was mainly on physical and cultural satisfiers. However, there are also psychological satisfiers, such as the various belief systems on offer.

Max-Neef held that fundamental human needs are a constant, but that societies alter the satisfiers of those needs. Thus, satisfiers may differ from nation to nation, culture to culture, and time to time. He also held that there is not necessarily a single satisfier for any one need. Rather, several different things may satisfy it. Nor is a satisfier necessarily associated with a single need. Rather, it may assuage several needs. He cited the example of a mother breastfeeding her baby and argued that this can satisfy the baby’s need for subsistence, protection, affection, and identity all at the same time.

Although anything can be a satisfier, not everything is a satisfier. Max-Neef used the following classification:

  1. “Synergic Satisfiers”* satisfy a given need, whilst simultaneously contributing to the satisfaction of other needs. They are generally those chosen by the individuals concerned as best satisfying their complex of needs, rather than those chosen by any external agency, particularly an authoritarian one, whose motives often differ. (*Note that this term is given as a quote because, if taken literally, it would mean several satisfiers working together to satisfy a need rather than the definition given.)
  2. Singular Satisfiers satisfy only one need and are neutral in respect of other needs. They are often a consequence of well-meaning, but remotely planned interventions by voluntary, private sector, or government organisations. Examples include food and housing programmes.
  3. Inhibiting Satisfiers over-satisfy a particular need. They can become addictive, and so, prevent a person from satisfying other, higher needs. Max-Neef and his colleagues believe that inhibiting satisfiers originate in deep rooted customs, habits, and rituals. An example is the addictive pursuit of wealth among those who already have sufficient to meet their needs. This can lead to a failure to move on to other needs such as raising a family. Another example is drug addiction which becomes an artificial existence need and prevents an individual from adequately addressing higher needs.
  4. Pseudo Satisfiers claim to be satisfying a need, but really provide little or no satisfaction. They are often associated with advertising. Products may, for example, be marketed as glamour or lifestyle accessories, with the implication that they will improve the purchaser’s self-esteem.
  5. Violators are things which, although they are claimed to satisfy a need, actually make it more difficult to do so. Max-Neef used the example of a drink advertised as being thirst quenching but which, due to its ingredients, causes dehydration. By their nature, violators are also often associated with the consumer economy and marketing.

Satisfiers can, of course, satisfy some needs or the needs of some whilst reducing the satisfaction of other needs or the needs of others. Overall, the reaction of any individual to a satisfier depends on the extent to which it satisfies their needs, the needs of those close to them, and the extent to which it acts as a contra-satisfier. The reaction may also be determined by collective needs which apply to us as a species and also to those which apply to the natural environment.

Contra-satisfiers were not identified by Max-Neef but are those things which cause the contra-needs we wish to avoid. For example, crime and war can lead to insecurity, injury, and death.

In my next post, I will describe some of the ways in which the priorities we give to our needs can change with generation and age group.

c. The Tree of Needs

The Tree of Needs

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

b. Contra-needs and Existentialism

Contra-needs and Existentialism

For every human need there is a contra-need. I have coined this word because the English language has no suitable opposite to “need”. Contra-needs are physical and psychological states that we wish to avoid, such as injuries or illnesses. In the same way that we are motivated to satisfy our needs, we avoid anything that causes a contra-need.

Maslow incorporated our physiological or existence contra-needs into his hierarchy by referring to the need for safety and security. This list, however, is incomplete. To describe all of our contra-needs, I will use the modified ERG model from the previous article.

  1. Existence and procreation contra-needs. These provide the strongest behavioural predispositions. They include the opposites of Maslow’s safety needs. For example, diseases, illnesses, addictions, physical harm, assault, torture, pain, and death. They are caused by various threats in our environment. These contra-needs also include the opposites of Maslow’s security needs. For example, fear for one’s material wellbeing, which can be caused by crime, unemployment, war, or social instability.
  2. Kin relatedness contra-needs. These provide the second strongest predispositions. They include the opposites of Maslow’s love and belonging needs, but only insofar as they refer to our kin or lack of kin. For example, a feeling of isolation, which can be caused by rejection, conflict, or enmity. They also include the opposite of Maslow’s self-esteem needs. For example, despising oneself as a result of failed endeavours or the contempt of others.
  3. Non-kin relatedness contra-needs. These provide the third strongest predispositions. They are the same as the kin-relatedness contra-needs but apply to non-kin-relationships.
  4. Growth contra-needs. These are the opposites of Maslow’s self-actualisation needs. For example, a feeling of not being in control of one’s life; that one’s personality is suppressed; one’s existence purposeless, or feeling just “one of the crowd”, rather than an individual. They can be caused by a lack of freedom of choice regarding how to live one’s life, which, in turn, can be caused by the effort required to satisfy lower needs, by overly oppressive social norms, or by an authoritarian society.

If a contra-need is sufficiently pressing, we may plan to avoid it. However, like needs, contra-needs often result in behavioural predispositions which are only acted upon when a threat arises. Some behavioural predispositions, such as the “fight or flight” reflex, are strong enough to be inherited. Others are learned.

It is not usually the case that a single need or contra-need motivates a single action. Normally, several needs or contra-needs acting together result in an action.

A longstanding predisposition to avoid a contra-need can have an adverse effect on our sense of wellbeing and mental health. It is not good for us to live in fear. In recognition of this, existential philosophy focuses on how to cope with contra-needs, such as death, that, ultimately, are unavoidable. It recognises that life is not fully satisfying and is a journey in search of meaning. This philosophy was developed in the mid 20th Century from the writings of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus. Their writings followed the Great Depression and the two world wars when the world turned from a sense of optimism to one of despair. In the late 20th Century, it was developed into a psychotherapy by the American psychotherapist, Irvin D. Yalom, and others.

In Yalom’s view, we must learn to accept and manage four which cannot be avoided. These are:

  1. Death. Yalom regards death as being the most pressing of our concerns. One’s death is inevitable and the knowledge of it pervades the conscious and unconscious mind. This leads, at times, to great anxiety. He suggests that the recognition and acceptance of death leads to a better appreciation of life and encourages us to make the most of it. Grief at the death of a loved one is another inevitable fact of life. It is a consequence of our connections to others and is often managed through the same connections. Death, however, is the ultimate expression of entropy in our lives. There are other inevitable effects that we also need to come to terms with, such as illness and aging.
  2. Freedom (lack of guidance). In the existential sense, freedom does not mean social and political liberty. Rather it means fear arising from a lack of guidance in our lives. Awareness of this and accepting responsibility for our own guiding principles is important for an emotionally healthy life.
  3. Isolation (separateness). Existential isolation is not the same as loneliness. The latter arises from the physical absence of other human beings with whom to interact. Existential isolation refers to the unbridgeable gap between oneself as an individual, others, and the world that we inhabit. It means that, inevitably, we are apart from others and cannot merge ourselves with them. There is no solution to this form of isolation. It is a part of our existence that we must face up to and come to terms with.
  4. Meaninglessness. Yalom argues that we need meaning in our lives and its absence can lead to distress and even suicide. Ultimately, however, meaning is a human concept which does not exist in the external world. We inhabit a universe that has no inherent meaning and so must create it for ourselves.

Duality pervades human understanding. There are two sides to every coin, but we often focus on one side, whilst neglecting the other. The theory of human needs appears to have neglected those things that we are motivated to avoid. The “existential givens” are the unavoidable contra-needs that we must come to terms with. Needs, contra-needs and “existential givens” all form part of the human psyche. There are no apparent inconsistencies between them, which implies that they are each part of a complex structure seen from a different perspective, as shown in the table below.

Modified ERG NeedsExistential Given or Unavoidable Contra-Need
Existence and procreationDeath (personal)
Kin Relatedness
Non-kin Relatedness
Death (grief)
Freedom (lack of guidance)
Isolation (separateness)

Needs and contra-needs motivate our physical behaviour and interactions. Reconciling “existential givens” is about personal, mental, and emotional wellbeing.

In the next post, some of the implications of these needs and contra-needs will be discussed.

a. The Hierarchy of Needs Reviewed

The Hierarchy of Needs Reviewed

Human needs are internal physiological or psychological states which can be satisfied by interaction with our environment. They form the basis of our behaviour. For example, if we are hungry, then we try to find food. In his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”, the humanist psychologist, Abraham H. Maslow was the first to formally identify our needs and his suggestions are listed below.

  1. Physiological Needs. These are health and physical wellbeing and are satisfied by air, food, water, shelter, clothing, sleep, sex, etc.
  2. Safety and Security. A feeling of safety and security includes freedom from fear and can be satisfied by employment, social support networks, insurance, property ownership, financial security, family, and social stability.
  3. Love and Belonging. A sense of connection with others which can be satisfied by being accepted as a group or family member, by friendship, and by intimacy.
  4. Self-Esteem, i.e., possessing a sense of personal value, confidence, self-regard, mastery and the feeling of being unique. It can be satisfied by achievement, recognition by others and the respect of others.
  5. Self-Actualisation. This means being fully oneself and possessing morality, creativity, spontaneity, acceptance, experience, purpose, meaning, and inner potential. Self-actualisers can appear in any field, for example Einstein in the field of science, Roger Federer in sport, Michelangelo in art and, if the myths are true, the Buddha in spirituality.

Maslow explained that human behaviour is motivated by a requirement to satisfy these needs. Without them behaviour would not exist, and we would be unable to function.

According to Maslow, these needs form a hierarchy with physiological needs at the bottom and self-actualisation at the top. People must satisfy needs lower in the hierarchy and ensure that this satisfaction is sustained before effort is expended on higher needs. He does, however, qualify this by referring to degrees of relative satisfaction. It is not the case, he argues, that a need only emerges when those lower in the hierarchy have all been fully satisfied. Rather people are usually in a state where all their needs are, to a greater or lesser degree, only partially satisfied. Furthermore, the level of satisfaction of their needs tends to decrease as we ascend the hierarchy. A higher need may not be apparent at all if lower needs are not adequately satisfied. However, it will emerge by degrees as their level of satisfaction increases. The diagram below represents an analogy in the form of a drinking glass. Our needs are represented by the bands around it. Water, which represents the effort put into satisfying our needs, steadily fills the glass. At first, all the effort goes into satisfying physiological needs. However, as these are close to being fully satisfied, some of the effort goes into safety and security needs. As these begin to be fully satisfied, some goes into love and belonging, and so on. Once a need is satisfied, however, we do not ignore it but continually return to it to ensure that it remains so.

Maslow’s paper was instrumental in changing the focus of psychologists from aberrant to normal behaviour. Unfortunately, it was largely speculative and based on personal observation. Furthermore, subsequent research does not support the position of each need in a hierarchy. Not all psychologists agree with his theory, therefore. It is probably too detailed and fails to recognise inherited and learned individual differences and those arising from culture.

Several alternative models have been suggested, for example, the ERG (existence, relatedness, and growth) model proposed in 1972 by Clayton Alderfer. Alderfer’s existence needs correspond to Maslow’s physiological and safety needs, his relatedness needs to social belonging and self-esteem, and his growth needs to self-actualisation. He proposed that individuals can be motivated by several levels of need at any one time, but that their relative priority can change according to circumstances and the individual’s way of thinking.

Based on the evolutionary theory discussed in my previous articles, I would, however, suggest that the following modified version of the ERG model more accurately reflects reality. In this model I refer to “behavioural predispositions”. These are states of mind which do not necessarily lead to immediate action, but which prepare us to act when the opportunity to satisfy a need arises. They are like bowstrings; drawn by a need and released by an opportunity. However, if a need is sufficiently pressing, we will attempt to create those opportunities.

  1. Existence and procreation needs, i.e., Unsatisfied physiological and safety needs, provide the strongest behavioural pre-dispositions. All living things, since they first appeared, have physiological needs. These needs have the longest history, the most firmly established presence and are responsible for our strongest behavioural predispositions. This means that there is a hierarchical relationship between existence needs and all other needs and that they must be adequately satisfied before we attend to other needs.
  2. Kin relatedness needs, if unsatisfied, provide the second strongest predispositions. Kin level selection is shared only by animals with the cognitive ability to recognise their kin and apply to the family part of our relatedness needs. They emerged more recently in evolutionary history, and the predispositions they endow are, therefore, somewhat weaker, than those for individual level selection. Family members capable of procreation, i.e., the younger members, tend to be favoured, but elders are also valued for the support they give. The predispositions provided by relatedness needs vary in strength among humans. In extreme cases, individuals, such as those with anti-social personality disorder (ASPD), may have no predisposition to family relationships at all.
  3. Non-kin relatedness needs, if unsatisfied, provide the third strongest predispositions. Group level selection is limited to just a few eusocial species, including humans, and is very recent in evolutionary terms. The predispositions arising from group relatedness needs are, therefore, weaker than those from kin relatedness and existence needs. Again, their strength varies from individual to individual.
  4. Growth needs, or self-actualisation needs, if unsatisfied, provide behavioural predispositions of different strengths. The evolution of our large brains in parallel with our emerging eusociality has given us cognitive and physical skills together with the need to employ them. In satisfying our relatedness and growth needs, we face the dilemma of whether our chances of survival and procreation and those of our kin are best served by attending to growth needs or relatedness needs. Our choice does, of course, depend on our circumstances and way of thinking. Depending on these, the priority given to growth needs can, therefore, be greater than or less than those of kin or non-kin relatedness.

These priorities are supported by evidence from four decades of extensive international research carried out by the World Values Survey. A summary is given in Ronald Inglehart’s book “Cultural Evolution”. When people are unable to take basic survival needs for granted, the focus is on those needs plus social connections. That is, we focus on our existence, procreation, and relatedness needs. However, when people do take basic survival needs for granted, as is the case for most of us in the West, the focus moves on to social connections and self-expression. In other words, we focus on our relatedness and growth needs.

In summary, therefore, the pyramid traditionally used to describe the hierarchy of needs is probably better represented as follows.

i. Is Mankind Still Evolving? A Summary.

Is Mankind still Evolving? A Summary.

The question of whether we are still evolving can be answered if we look at multi-level selection theory. Our continued evolution relies on there being long-standing, not merely transitory, selection pressures which cause individuals with certain mutations to better survive and procreate than others. Because of our large population, any changes will take far more time to predominate than was the case when we numbered in the tens of thousands. Even when accelerated by feedback between cultural and biological evolution, biological change will still be very slow.

Individual Level Selection. In recent years, social values, and norms, e.g., “thou shalt not kill”, have reduced individual level competition. Improved medical, agricultural, and economic practices have significantly reduced the external selective pressures on mankind. On the other hand, globalisation and increasing population density is leading to an increased risk from pandemic diseases. These are highly significant factors in natural selection at the individual level and, together with our reliance on vaccination and other medical technology, they are likely to lead to changes in our immune systems. An example of recent selection at individual level is the predominance of sickle cell anaemia in populations exposed to malaria. When the genes causing this disease are inherited from only one parent, they act as a defence against malaria but, when they are inherited from both, they result in anaemia.

On balance, therefore, it seems likely that natural selection at individual level does still exist but to a much lesser extent than in the past. If so, then natural selection may have shifted more towards the higher levels described below.

Kin Level Selection. We do of course continue to favour our kin, but it is notable that, in the West, the large extended families of the past are in decline and that families are now largely nuclear, i.e., parents and children. There have been several experiments involving raising children outside of nuclear families, e.g., Israeli Kibbutzim, but all have failed. Nuclear families exist throughout the animal world and are strongly established in our genetic inheritance. It is unlikely, therefore, that there will be any change in the future which might lead to genetic adaptation.

Group Level Selection. Global society is moving towards one in which destructive competition between groups is ever more unacceptable. Unfortunately, wars and the abuse of one group by another continue to take place. There also remains an element of cultural competition. However, due to increasing global organisation and centralisation, despite the existence of cultural differences between groups, based primarily and belief, there is also a process of convergence towards a monoculture taking place. We may still be evolving slowly due to group level selection, but again, not at the pace experienced in the past.

An example of human evolution due to group level selection is the gene that controls lactase production. This enables us to consume milk into adulthood. It emerged among tribes with a long history of cattle herding, and appears to be spreading through the global population alongside the consumption of dairy products.

Species Level Selection. Although species level selection may, in the past, have taken place between hominins, Homo Sapiens is now the only one remaining. Our closest relatives are the chimpanzees and bonobos, and we face no interspecies competition for our ecological niche. Different ethnic groups are currently experiencing different growth rates. However, they are all members of one species. Due to globalisation, the finite size of the planet, and ease of travel, there is ever less separation between them. We are almost certainly no longer speciating and, therefore, not subject to species level selection.

Eco-system Level Selection. The human economy is evolving culturally at a very rapid pace and competition between it and the natural eco-systems is fierce. However, it is only enduring changes that will lead to human genetic evolution. An example may be our ability to communicate using technology. Currently, this seems to be the strongest selection pressure on human evolution. Our economy or artificial eco-system is altering the natural environment and we, in turn, are adapting, first culturally, but ultimately genetically, to these changes.

Of course, if an existential catastrophe were to occur, then this situation would change. Those best suited, by random mutation, to the post catastrophic circumstances may survive and continue to procreate. Group separation, and thus speciation, would re-emerge and biological evolution would pick up speed due to new, stronger pressures and the dramatically reduced population. Individual level selection is also likely to come to the fore, once more. We do not know the future nor the genetic mutations that we carry, and so, cannot predict the outcome. However, some of the risks that we face are clear. Climate change and failure of food supply are two examples. It would, therefore, be sensible to act now to eliminate these risks.

This is my final post on evolution. I hope that you have found it interesting. In my next post, I will begin a series on human needs and how they motivate our behaviour. This next series is underpinned by the evolutionary theory discussed so far.