Applying Maslow’s Theory Today

Abraham Maslow’s Theory of human motivation is like Isaac Newton’s laws of motion: neither of them has an expiration date. New theories often come to the fore, but after a while, it becomes obvious that they are nothing more than derivatives and only confirm the original idea.

With the shooting epidemic sweeping the US, everyone is wondering what is the root cause of this epidemic. To answer this question, we need to understand the motivation – of all parties involved. Without being too fancy, I suggest using the foundational theory of human motivation formulated by Abraham Maslow almost eighty years ago.

This post was prompted by a question asked on Quora: What societal issue can be explained using Maslow’s theory?

The Theory

Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation suggests that people are motivated by satisfying their deficiency needs and growth needs. According to Maslow’s model, there are five levels of needs. Most of us know this as Maslow’s Pyramid.

Although each more basic level of needs must be met before the person can step up to the higher level, Maslow had never presented this hierarchy as a pyramid. I.e., there are no defined steps or levels, and It’s better to visualize the five levels of needs as a spectrum in which certain colors become dominant, usually in sequence. 

Another important detail. There’s only a fine line between needs and values. Abraham Maslow’s idea is quite logically supplemented by Shalom Schwartz’s theory of Basic Human Values. The difference is in the visualization of the two theories, but otherwise “Maslow’s Pyramid” is aligned with “Schwartz’s Circumplex.” Plus, Schwartz’s model presents a verified list of basic values into which all human values and needs roll up, and none of these values is perceived as higher or lower. It’s just that each value has a different underlying motivation, specific for each individual.

Armed with this combined model, let’s try to understand the root causes of one of the most outrageous mass shootings in the United States, which occurred at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX.

After several months of investigation, we may say with certainty that a combination of two factors led to the Uvalde disaster:

  • incapacity of the Uvalde police
  • the shooter’s motives

The Police

Uvalde is a small municipality, a tad below the US average in almost all statistical parameters. Typically, citizens of such municipalities belong to the Safety group in Maslow’s hierarchy. As human needs are not separated into clear steps in real life but rather coexist as a spectrum, the population of Uvalde belongs to several groups, of which the Safety group is dominant. Aligned with Schwartz’s model, this group values Conformity, Tradition and Security above all.

According to Maslow, the Safety group usually consists of blue-collar workers with a limited but steady income, and it represents the second level in the hierarchy of needs. Police work is very typical of this group, and many Uvalde policemen live in the area and fit well with their community and with their job.

Living on the Safety level of Maslow’s hierarchy is neither good nor bad. Valuing above all Conformity, Tradition and Security is just a characteristic that makes certain behaviors more natural for the group members. This is better visualized on Schwartz’s circumplex.

In particular, Security, Conformity and Tradition values, although quite appropriate for police officers, are opposite to Stimulation and Self-Direction (see pic) and therefore less common for the members of the Safety group. Thus, while being able to adequately carry out their regular policing duties, these individuals may become completely helpless when faced with a “stimulating” situation, personal risk and the need for self-direction in rapidly changing circumstances.

No wonder, local policemen, almost 400 of them, arguably all being from the same Safety group, were not able to take control of the non-standard, fluid and risky situation. As their values profile would suggest, they are all good fathers, neighbors, Little League coaches, and volunteers – but not Navy SEALs.

I realize that there’s nobody expects a rural police department to be staffed with Navy SEALs. I mention this to illustrate how the incompatibility of personal values may become a decisive factor in a critical situation. In everyday situations, it remains a contributing factor, but hardly any civil organization takes personal values alignment seriously.

The Shooter

We all have strong hindsight. The media authoritatively concluded that “the school shooter left a trail of warning signs ahead of the attack.” Of course. But was the shooter so really different from many other young Americans with a similar social background? He was not: there are thousands if not millions like him.

This epidemic of shootings – as well as some other massive social maladies – indicates that this observation is probably correct.

The problem manifests itself most painfully in the US but the tendency is global. Those “petits blancs frustrés” already got their assigned name in several languages. The majority of mass shooters in the US are white males 18-19 y.o. or young adults – hardly an underprivileged segment of the population. Yes, oftentimes the investigation would see in the rear-view mirror that the guy was not perfectly stable psychologically. However, in most cases, the shooter was stable enough to obtain any kind of firearms legally. Likewise, “living in relative poverty” is not an excuse to commit a heinous crime: there are millions of people living in absolute poverty (the lowest Maslow’s group), but their survival needs may actually be holding them back from extreme antisocial behavior.

Not all of them kill innocent strangers – some kill themselves. The rest of the “frustrated” folk come up with diverse aggros to fellow citizens, police, colleagues or classmates. Regardless of the nature of the public order disturbance – from homicide to suicide to overdose to defund police to (add your preferred misdemeanor here), the root cause of their antisocial behavior remains unchanged:

What drives these angry young men to commit a crime is the dangerous misalignment of values and needs.

Applying Maslow’s Theory Today

Throughout one’s life, every person is slowly but surely moving up through the needs levels following Maslow’s hierarchy, or clockwise through basic human values on Schwartz’s circumplex. Like Maslow’s needs, Schwartz’s values are not precisely delineated but rather indicate general, dominant tendencies. The important thing is that as a person moves up (or clockwise) in his1 lifelong progression, he has another need or value to focus on.

This is not always the case.

For generations, the majority of the population was focused on survival and safety – the lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Anything above those was hardly dominant, and with a short lifespan and plentiful everyday hardships, no one cared much about higher-level needs and values.

With evolution, slowly but surely, we move through the levels of needs and values, solidifying our dominance in the biological world. Crucial to our biological superiority remains the existence of the next, higher level that we focus on. Having something to desire, to anticipate, to look forward to as the next desirable milestone – is what separates us from animals.

This evolutionary growth process has worked naturally well for millennia. Apparently, something in human society has changed in the last century – or the societal changes have become too rapid. Our physical condition and material well-being have outpaced our moral development.

(GDP per capita

Now that we have been safe, secure and well-nourished for over fifty years, some people, having met their low-level needs, simply have nothing else to strive for (pic). What makes things worse, society around them has nothing to offer either: It may not even recognize the existence of the void.

This void is deadly.

Nature Abhors a Vacuum

According to Aristotle, nature abhors a vacuum. The Greek polymath rightfully concluded that having an unfilled space is against the laws of nature. Although he was referring to the physical world, he would have considered the psychological implications of his discoveries if he had met Maslow earlier.

Continue to Part 2 – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: a Must-Have Tool in the Knowledge Economy.

1 Disclaimer: On this website, the masculine pronoun is used without discrimination and solely for the purpose of making the text easier to read.