Where is Freedom in the Hierarchy of Needs?

We have the image that freedom is a luxury, only to be sought when all else is safe and secure – but it may be the other way around. The lack of prejudice is very low on the hierarchy of needs, something we can only afford when we feel safe and wealthy. And yet, prejudice harms productivity by lowering the performance of both the privileged group, and those who are stereotyped as low-performers. 

Similarly to conditional stupidity, people can be rendered immoral by their own expectations that 1) others are immoral so one cannot afford to be moral, or 2) that others perceive them as such anyway (prejudice).

The famous Maslow pyramid may need an face lift to avoid damaging interpretations. 

Recessions (or security threats) are times when people make a few steps down on the ladder of the hierarchy of needs. Life gets harder and resources scarce – and we tend to accept that we cannot raise our sight and pursue metamotivational needs as long as the lower needs are not safely satisfied.

maslow old

The original version of the famous Maslow-pyramid. Freedom is a ‘luxury’ or metamotivational need that comes after all other needs are safely fulfilled and secured. This, however is not necessarily a fact. But it definitely is the way we regard ourselves. We need to challenge this notion.

Abraham Maslow presented a very convincing argument in favour of the general hierarchy of needs. He quoted examples to support his point – and this is exactly the way people see themselves. Hence the popularity of the notion of the pyramid. Even though he mentioned that the hierarchy is by no means fixed and unchanging throughout life and for every person, we still stick to the notion that it is.[1] Conventional wisdom about the hierarchy of needs states that needs must be topped up from bottom to top. The pyramid described how we already view ourselves – and others. Not necessarily how things should work.

But Maslow also described cases when the hierarchy is not fixed – and this is where lessons and opportunities arise.

When the hierarchy of needs does not help thinking

For every example of a guy who wanted his future secured before he concerned himself with freedom or other vague, metamotivational needs, there is a starving artist, a child who doesn’t know his limits and dares to dream big, and a freedom fighter or whistle-blower, who gives up his chances to a peaceful life by provoking the resentment of an overwhelming and organised force.

They may or may not be a minority. For all we know everyone could be a “conditional whistle-blower”.  What is important is what makes these people willing to reach for a metamotivational need, when they have lower-ranking needs unfulfilled or when they have something to risk.

A few important notes by Maslow that qualifies the rigid bottom-up view of the pyramid:

“In certain people the level of aspiration may be permanently deadened or lowered. That is to say, the less pre-potent goals may simply be lost, and may disappear forever, so that the person who has experienced life at a very low level, i. e., chronic unemployment, may continue to be satisfied for the rest of his life if only he can get enough food.” (MASLOW 1943:384)

In other words, people whose needs have been chronically unmet, especially at an early age, tend never to raise their aspirations to the next level. This is a tragic condition and quite possibly a strong element in the behaviour and mental models of oppressed societies.

People who have been satisfied in their basic needs throughout their lives, particularly in their earlier years, seem to develop exceptional power to withstand present or future thwarting of these needs simply because they have strong, healthy character structure as a result of basic satisfaction.”(MASLOW 1943:388)

“there is a certain amount of sheer habituation which is also involved in any full discussion of frustration tolerance”

The general logic of filling up needs from the bottom up may apply to a group of people, but certainly not to individuals who are (and consider themselves) more capable to transcend levels of needs driven by a higher aspiration.

It is worth noting, however that the bottom of the pyramid will never be solidly fixed as long as we don’t start paying attention to the metamotivational or “luxury” needs. Paradoxically, without paying attention to the top, or “luxury” needs on the pyramid, even basic needs aren’t secure.

“There are certain conditions which are immediate prerequisites for the basic need satisfactions. Danger to these is reacted to almost as if it were a direct danger to the basic needs themselves. Such conditions as freedom to speak, freedom to do what one wishes so long as no harm is done to others, freedom to express one’s self, freedom to investigate and seek for information, freedom to defend one’s self, justice, fairness, honesty, orderliness in the group are examples of such preconditions for basic need satisfactions. Thwarting in these freedoms will be reacted to with a threat or emergency response. These conditions are not ends in themselves but they are almost so since they are so closely related to the basic needs, which are apparently the only ends in themselves. These conditions are defended because without them the basic satisfactions are quite impossible, or at least, very severely endangered.” (MASLOW 1943:384)

Prejudice harms prosperity

According to a rigid interpretation of the hierarchy of needs, for instance, the willingness to let go of prejudices and thinking without stereotypes is on the highest level of the pyramid – it belongs to the desire to know and understand. Prejudice, however, results in a general decline in prosperity. In other words, it affects the bottom of the pyramid.

The Wold Development Report uses stereotypes as a textbook example of mental models used by a social group. Prejudices based on easily recognisable traits, such as gender, race, social class, etc. are sticky because they provide an illusion of knowledge, even when they are completely dysfunctional or damaging.

The Report provides the example of schoolchildren in India from two different castes. By naming their own caste (privileged or lower caste) pupils fell prey to the stereotype threat, when they are “reminded” how they are supposed to fare on a task. (See stereotype threat, Baumeister 2005)

When tested without reminding them of their caste, pupils fared evenly.

When tested together with reminder of caste, the lower caste underperformed substantially.

When tested separately, but with a reminder, even the privileged, upper caste children underperformed. According to the Report, reminding them of their privileged status and that they are supposed to perform better anyway made them not even to try.

In other words, prejudice stifles performance for every group (privileged and underclass).

caste and performance stereotype WBR

How prejudice harms performance in both privileged and negatively prejudged groups. High-caste and low-caste boys from villages in India were randomly assigned to groups that varied the salience of caste identity. When their caste was not revealed, high-caste and low-caste boys were statistically indistinguishable in solving mazes. Revealing caste in mixed classrooms decreased the performance of low-caste boys. But publicly revealing caste in caste-segregated classrooms—a marker of high-caste entitlement—depressed the performance of both high-caste and low-caste boys, and again their performance was statistically indistinguishable. WDR, 2015 Page 12

Considering the rigid interpretation of the Maslow pyramid, absence of prejudice and the willingness to accept facts and letting go of dysfunctional beliefs is near the very top of the metamotivational needs. But we want to be wealthy and financially secure before we let go of our prejudices – while our prejudices harm our ability to prosper.

We can see the problem with that interpretation.

Conditional morality – Trapped in a paradox

Another point where received wisdom has proved wrong is the issue of conditional morality.

Similarly to conditional stupidity (Steele – Aronson, 1995), people can be rendered immoral by their own expectations that 1) others are immoral so one cannot afford to be moral, or 2) that others perceive them as such anyway (prejudice).

Paradoxically, in order to create trust, one must deserve it and grant it at the same time. It is created by simultaneous effort, but it can be demolished one-sidedly, by either party.

Distrust creates its own reason.

Economic models predict rational and self-interested players, which would roughly translate into free riders, when the system makes that behaviour available.

Reality, however, is always a bit more complicated. In a public goods game conducted in 8 countries, people proved to be overwhelmingly neither free riders nor unconditional co-operators. The majority turned out to be conditional co-operators. (Henrich et. al 2001, quoted by World Development Report, 2015)

conditional cooperation

In experimental situations, most people behave as conditional cooperators rather than free riders The standard economic model (panel a) assumes that people free ride. Actual experimental data (panel b) show that across eight societies, the majority of individuals behave as conditional cooperators rather than free riders when playing a public goods game. The model of free riding was not supported in any society studied. Source: Martinsson, Pham-Khanh, and Villegas-Palacio 2013 / Figure from WDR, 2015 Page 48

Everyone would love to live in a society where one can leave a bicycle out without chains – but no one dares to go first. The phenomenon applies to a range of other things, from smiles and optimism through trust and cooperation.

How should the pyramid look like?

The new reality we should start to entertain is the notion of conditionality – or reflexivity.

By letting go of notions about (a fixed) human nature as such and moving on to the question of how to facilitate cooperation, morality and trust on societal level, in a conditionally moral and conditionally cooperative environment, we ask better questions. The World Development Report argues that economics has come full circle since Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes staging rational individual against animal spirits, followed by Samuelson and his completely rational players, to the present where we revisit old concepts and reconsider human decision-making, making room for experimental results and conditional behaviour.

After a respite of about 40 years, an economics based on a more realistic understanding of human beings is being reinvented. But this time, it builds on a large body of empirical evidence—microlevel evidence from across the behavioral and social sciences. The mind, unlike a computer, is psychological, not logical; malleable, not fixed.” (WDR 2015:5)

“While our results do not imply that economists should abandon the rational-actor frame-work, they do suggest two major revisions. First, the canonical model of the self-interested material payoff-maximizing actor is systematically violated. In all societies studied, UG [Ultimatum Game] offers are strictly positive and often substantially in excess of the expected income-maximizing offer, as are contributions in the public-goods game, while rejections of positive offers in some societies occur at a considerable rate. Second, preferences over economic choices are not exogenous as the canonical model would have it, but rather are shaped by the economic and social interactions of everyday life. This result implies that judgments in welfare economics that assume exogenous preferences are questionable, as are predictions of the effects of changing economic policies and institutions that fail to take account of behavioral change. Finally, the connection between experimental behavior and the structure of everyday economic life should provide an important clue in revising the canonical model of individual choice behavior.” (Henrich 2001:77)

By this logic, one should press the non-deterministic nature of the hierarchy of needs much further. Not just as proof of illogical or irrational human behaviour but as an opportunity and a challenge. The above research did not prove that people are irrational, illogical or unintelligent, merely that their choices are more complex than we would like them to be – definitely too complex for simplistic macroeconomic reasoning to cover it all.

maslow new

The famous Maslow pyramid may need a reinterpretation. Introducing reflexivity and accepting that people’s choices are complex, we should regard the hierarchy of needs as a self-reinforcing cycle, where ‘luxury’ needs do not exist, because their absence can hurt what we regard now as lower needs.

One must wonder whether metamotivational aspirations can be instilled and how.


[1]We have spoken so far as if this hierarchy were a fixed order but actually it is not nearly as rigid as we may have implied. It is true that most of the people with whom we have worked have seemed to have these basic needs in about the order that has been indicated. However, there have been a number of exceptions.” (MASLOW 1943)



5 thoughts on “Where is Freedom in the Hierarchy of Needs?

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