How and why is the theory of Maslow still relevant today?

(Originally answered on Quora, on 10 October 2021).

Is gravity still relevant today? How and why is that?

The answer to this question is obvious because gravity is something that we all understand and can easily test or experience.

It may be less evident, but certain laws are as immutable in psychology as gravity or Ohm’s law are in physics. Maslow’s “hierarchy” of human needs is one of them.

Perhaps, one of the reasons why this question may emerge again and again is the notion of “Maslow’s Pyramid.” The multicolored triangle is easy to reproduce and “sell” to any audience. For practical application, the pyramid is actually misleading.

Maslow had never used the pyramid. Although, had he lived longer, he would possibly have come up with a continuum of needs. Visualizing basic human needs as a continuum could explain many changes in society, even though it would not justify them.

The key observation is that there’s a circular sequence of priorities among human values. As our society evolves, we continue moving along that circle clockwise. Every next value is not a “step” of a pyramid, and definitely not a step up.

For example, mass movements in the old days were mostly about food and physical needs; soon they included shelter (safety). With the wealth of the nations growing, the popular focus moved to freedom of speech and assembly, which gets us to belonging and love. This shift of focus has become possible because our society has been successful in meeting all the needs that were manifesting before – food-, health-, and safety-related.

Not surprisingly at all, next comes Esteem! And indeed, today we see numerous movements demanding “justice” for various factions and groups, insisting that those are all “underprivileged,” and we should all submit, preferably in cash… But for a psychologist, this is nothing but the next sector of the needs (or values) continuum – or the hierarchy, if you prefer to stick with the original Maslow’s vision.

Unfortunately, Maslow could not finalize his theory. In the last months before his untimely death, he tried to expand on self-actualization and the next step – self-transcendence, but that vision is not very clear, especially for pyramid adepts.

This unclear area beyond the “pyramid” or after the “12 o’clock” point on the circular continuum is what makes Maslow’s thinking very relevant today. it is quite plausible that our next evolutionary step is yet unclear. It is possible that we transcend ourselves, break away from the material world and consumerism, and move to a more natural and genuinely happy life, closer to our biological roots.

Or else, if we continue our self-destruction, we’ll kill our civilization – and get back to the bottom of the original pyramid, where all our life will be spent on competing for basic needs.

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