By Christine Mason
Maslow’s Hierarchy — probably one of the most frequently shared perspectives in child development, educational foundation, or psychology classes. Abraham Maslow, a psychologist, studied individuals who made significant contributions to society such as Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglas, and compared their lives to those of individuals who were neurotic or mentally ill. Based on his observations, he developed a theory of a hierarchy of basic human needs, which he published in a paper, “The Theory of Human Motivation,” in 1943. In that paper, Maslow explained how humans must have basic physiological needs (such as food and water) met before being motivated to operate at higher levels.
Maslow argued that if individuals do not feel safe or secure, or if basic physiological needs are not met, that it will be hard for them to develop relationships, feel a sense of belonging, or develop a sense of self esteem. While he believed everyone was capable of achieving the higher levels of self-actualization, he realized that sometimes individuals experience setbacks such as trauma. In these cases, individuals may even move down the hierarchy — i.e., the movement is not always upward.
At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization. This includes people who are highly creative, concerned for the welfare of others, and are able to establish deep personal relationships with others.
Numerous examples have been used to question this hierarchy, and, in particular, some have recognized that this may not be a good cross-cultural model. Individuals in India, for example, may live in extreme poverty, yet experience a sense of belongingness and love within their families. Also, many highly creative people may have been productive writers and artists, but lived in poverty. Some researchers are also suggesting that Maslow missed the importance of social connection, and that needs may be “messier” and not arranged in such a neat linear hierarchy.
Recent research conducted over 5 years in 150 countries (Yates, 2011) suggests that Maslow was basically correct. Yates and his colleagues found that the happiest people reported feeling fulfilled in the most areas, and that people were the most positive during the periods of time when all their most basic needs were met. However, in contrast to Maslow’s hierarchy, researchers found that people could report feeling self-actualized and having good social relationships even when their more basic needs were not completely met.
So Where Does Food Fall?
Or for that matter, safety, sleep, security? Many in education and social sciences have altruistic ideals. We do not feel as happy or joyful when we consider the extent of suffering of others. It may be hard to fall asleep at night when we realize our neighbor is hungry. We may be upset when we believe that basic social services may be cut. Contemplating CEI’s recent foray into the teaching about “food insecurity,” I have come to think of all I know today about our brain, the hyper-alertness that the amygdala provides when we sense that danger is near, and the messages that our bodies send to our brain so continuously (I am happy, I am cold, I am tired, I am exhausted, I am scared, I am hungry). Neuroscience tells us that it really is hard for anything to compete with these needs.
Listen to these words, “food insecurity.” A somewhat odd term if you haven’t heard it before. What does it mean to be “food insecure?” Does that mean you are starving? That you can’t count on having a next warm meal? That your shelves are becoming more bare each day? How many of our children and their families are food insecure? And do we have any responsibility to help meet their basic physiological needs?
If we consider what we are learning from neuroscience, and if we have developed a sense of compassion for others, where does our sense of responsibility for others come into play? How important is food? Or safety or security? If we hope to help create a better life for others, how much do we need to focus on helping them obtain nutritional food? How important is it to increase their sense of food security? To not live with the threat of no food for tomorrow? And as educators, what do we want our students to learn about compassion, civic responsibility, and ways to make the world a little bit better for others?
Yates, D. (2011, June 30). Researchers look around the world for ingredients of happiness. Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/230109.php
Find additional information on combating food insecurity here.