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.

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.

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.