Pyramid scam? – Evolutionary psychologists take on the Hierarchy of Needs

raiders of the lost maslow by Laurence Simon (isfullofcrap)

“raiders of the lost maslow” by Laurence Simon (isfullofcrap) —

Abraham Maslow must be turning in his grave. In a recent paper, a group of evolutionary psychologists has set out to replace his famous humanistic theory of motivation with something a lot less … human.

You have probably heard of the Hierarchy of Needs. It looks like a pyramid, and it’s one of the most popular images to come out of modern psychology.

But recently, a group of evolutionary psychologists has sought to overhaul the model. Or as they put it, to “renovate the pyramid”.

The result is a perfect illustration of the fundamental division within psychology itself.

Malsow’s model

The Hierarchy of Needs was the brainchild of American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970). [If you’re not familiar with it, check out my summary article: The Hierarchy of Human Needs: Maslow’s Model of Motivation.]

Maslow's pyramid - the Hierarchy of NeedsIt’s basically a pyramid-shaped model showing that human beings are propelled into action by different motivating factors at different times.

There are six different levels of motivation (needs), with physical survival and safety needs at the bottom, then rising up through layers of social needs (affiliation, personal esteem), then on to the higher needs known as self-actualization and self-transcendence. Unfulfilled lower needs take precedence over higher needs. The lowest levels predominate in our earlier years, the higher levels only come into focus in our mature years.

Most people seem to find the model intuitively satisfying. It makes a kind of sense.

For Maslow, the father of humanistic psychology, the model was a way of showing that human beings are not simply biological machines doomed to a meaningless existence as earlier psychological theories had assumed. As we mature and become more aware of ourselves, we are increasingly driven by — and thrive on — a sense of meaning and purpose.

Still, not everyone agrees with Maslow.

Overthrowing the hierarchy

Recently, a group of evolutionary psychologists took the bold step of trying to overhaul the famous Hierarchy of Needs. Talk about stirring up a hornets’ nest!

But first, what is evolutionary psychology?

Essentially, it is an approach to explaining the human mind and human behaviour in terms of our prehistoric heritage. Evolutionary psychologists look at the mind in the same way that evolutionary biologists looks at the body — by assuming that all the bits and pieces must have evolved over millions of years through natural selection. Everything in human nature is in our genes, the argument goes, and anything in our genes can only be there if it helped our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors to hunt, gather, survive and reproduce. So if a psychological trait shows up throughout the species, such as a fear of spiders, it must be because of natural selection.

And not a week goes by without yet another everyday human trait being attributed to our hominid origins, with headlines like Evolution Might Be The Reason Your Boss Is A Jerk and Kissing Evolved To Spread Germs, Not Feelings.

This July, an academic paper entitled Renovating the Pyramid of Needs appeared in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. [It is available to download on the University of Minnesota website: 144040.pdf.]

The paper is an attempt to replace Maslow’s original model with one based entirely on evolutionary psychology and biology. The main author is Doug Kenrick, a psychology professor at Arizona State University.

Biological tasks over the life span

The authors’ chief inspiration is something called life-history theory. This is the idea that over the course of its life-span, an organism will naturally go through different stages, and in those stages it will devote its energy to different life tasks — growing, surviving, mating, rearing offspring. And different species will evolve to have very different life-history patterns. For example, in some species the offspring quickly reach maturity while in others they remain dependent upon their parents for many years.

Life-history theory suggests that biological tasks have a natural order of priority. The foundation must be individual survival. (You can’t pass on your genes if you don’t stick around long enough.) Then, once you reach the right age, there is a new task: to reproduce. (You can’t pass on your genes if you don’t have sex.) Finally, once offspring are born, there is the task of parenting — looking after offspring until they can take care of themselves. (You can’t pass on your genes if none of your kids survive.)

In Renovating the Pyramid of Needs, it is assumed that the same applies to human beings. Each stage of life serves a biological function. And there is nothing else.

In other words, according to Kenrick and co., Maslow was wrong to think that there are human motives which stand above or go beyond the basic need to survive and reproduce. As Kenrick puts it, “We wouldn’t be here if our ancestors spent most of their time rising ‘above’ their biological needs.”

A new model

Their proposed new version of the hierarchy looks like this:
Evolutionary psychologists' revised hierarchy of needs

You may recall that Maslow’s hierarchy was founded on basic physical needs (survival, reproduction), but higher needs emerged as these needs became satisfied. Here, the whole notion of higher needs is rejected. What these authors have done, in effect, is to subsume everything under the biological level and to eliminate anything that isn’t somehow to do with passing on genes.

Once we have our individual survival needs sorted, life is then all about finding a mate and raising kids. End of story.

Affiliation needs? Esteem needs? They’re all to do with survival and mating.

And as for self-actualization, don’t get Kenrick started. In a recent blog post (Self-actualization dethroned: Did we murder Maslow’s sacred cow?) he writes:

Maslow’s favorite examples of self-actualization involved poets and artists and musicians striving for perfection. Such strivings can be neatly folded into the desire for esteem and status. I realize that to many humanists that is the equivalent of saying there is no Santa Claus, but the fact of the matter is, although gifts do arrive under the Christmas tree, they were delivered there by a very non-mystical process, one involving a less jolly mortal driving a station wagon to Toys ‘R Us, with a credit card at the ready. Likewise, the motive to self-actualize is, in fact, based in more mundane strivings. There is, for example, solid research evidence that creative strivings can make one attractive to the opposite sex, thereby increasing one’s reproductive success…

In the actual paper, the authors put it rather more soberly:

By removing self-actualization from the pyramid, we simply recognize that its privileged position cannot be compelled nor justified by the functional logic of human evolutionary biology.

In other words, if there is no biological reason for people to seek the joy of self-fulfilment, then there is no such motive in human nature.

It may well be a good idea to highlight mating and parenting as distinct biological tasks or functions — but are they really the top of the pyramid in human motivation?  Well, only if you insist from the outset that everything in the pyramid — every human motive — has to be a biological task. That’s an assumption, not a pre-given fact.

So there’s a bit of a circular argument going on here — let’s see if biology can explain human motivation, but let’s first of all disqualify anything that doesn’t serve a biological function.

Nothing but a gene machine?

Are we really nothing but biological machines for spreading genes?

There are some fundamentally different ways of viewing human nature — “more than” or “less than”. There is the view that we are more than our biological makeup — as so many of us feel, or believe, or even know — and there is the view that we are nothing but our biologocial makeup, that we are less than we think.

Psychologists generally fall into one camp or the other, though there is also some overlap.

Some, like William James and Abraham Maslow, assume that we are conscious beings capable of making deliberate choices in life, and that there really are higher levels of meaning, purpose and value to be found and lived.

Others, like Sigmund Freud and B. F. Skinner, assume that we are nothing but our biology, and regard people as arrogant and deluded for believing otherwise. They seek to reduce all psychology to biology, to reduce all conscious phenomena to mindless physical processes, to explain away our loftiest experiences, aspirations and achievements as nothing but this or that blind mechanism. From this perspective, we are simply glorified lab rats driven by unconscious forces and automatic processes.

Clearly, evolutionary psychology is another example of this approach.

The farther reaches of human nature

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that Kenrick and his co-authors are missing something. They presume that Maslow’s self-actualization level is not real, and they don’t appear to have even heard of the self-transcendence level.

It is this blindness to what Maslow called the farther reaches of human nature that really disturbs me about certain psychologists.

There is nothing inherently wrong with evolutionary psychology per se, or with looking for explanations for human behaviour in our ancient past or biological functioning. But it seems to me that many evolutionary psychologists are currently falling into the same trap into which the Freudians, behaviourists, sociobiologists and others have fallen before them — namely, the trap of thinking: “This explains everything.”

To be fair, there are some good ideas in the paper. The hierarchy which Kenrick et al. have come up with looks to me like a valid way to understand most non-human animals.

And yes, human beings are animals too. But that is not the whole story. Human beings are also conscious beings…

Conscious of our existence as individuals in time and space.

Conscious of our capabilities and limitations, our fragility and our mortality.

Conscious of beauty, love and truth.

And we are becoming more conscious all the time. More conscious of our collective impact on the planet. More conscious of our ability to transcend the past and create the future. More conscious of our ability to act consciously.

This is what we are all about.

Evolution isn’t something that happened a million years ago. Evolution is happening right now at a whole new level — in human individuals, in human culture, in human consciousness, moment-by-moment.

Life isn’t just about passing on genes. Through humanity, life itself is growing in consciousness.

Psychologists above all really ought to understand this.


Kenrick, D.T., Griskevicius, V., Neuberg, S.L., & Schaller, M. (2010). Renovating the pyramid of needs: Contemporary extensions built upon ancient foundations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 292–314. Online: 144040.pdf.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.

Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking.

12 thoughts on “Pyramid scam? – Evolutionary psychologists take on the Hierarchy of Needs

  1. According to the new pyramid, humans reach the pinnacle of development after they’ve raised kids. If this is so, parents should die as soon as the last kid is out of the house.

    In fact, parents generally live long enough to become a physical and mental burden on their youngsters, so what’s that all about? What biological advantage is obtained by having middle-aged parents live another twenty or thirty years after they’ve achieved the biological purpose of their existence?

    The pyramid doesn’t even acknowledge the influence of religion. This is a gross oversight, considering that religion is probably at the foundation of the most serious world conflicts today. What biological advantage obtains from religious wars? Population control? There are more efficient ways.

    The idea of biological determination is correct only in that biology is the vehicle by which our humanity is expressed— obviously. The human experience is evolving, as you point out. Consciousness itself is evolving, yet it is still not fully understood scientifically.

    Even something as fundamental as the inherent and self-regulating mechanism for cell growth and cell death is still a mystery.

    Perhaps the theorists behind the new pyramid are correct for a specific population of human beings, themselves included, who actually do not have the capacity to move beyond the mid-range of Maslow’s model. That incapacity would be biologically determined, of course.

  2. Is Kenrick part of the pro-life movement? There are many of us without the intention of having children, but wish to leave a legacy in our area of choice (brainchildren).

    Based on this post, isn’t “parenting” just a new tag for self-realization or self-transcendence? It still gives the idea that we will “live on”

    • Hi Peter

      Prof. Kenrick is an evolutionary psychologist, so presumably a physical reductionist and not at all associated with the pro-life movement. The way he describes self-realization (and by extension self-transcendence) reminds me of how Freud described art and religion – as nothing but the “sublimation” of our animal instincts (sex, aggression) into more abstract and socially acceptable forms of behaviour. In other words, in Kenrick’s view, our drives for self-esteem and self-realization, and to leave a legacy or a positive contribution, are nothing but distorted forms of our urge to reproduce.

    • Hi Barry,

      You are right, reducing everything to our need to reproduce turns us into spawning appliances. What caught my attention were the words that he chose: finding mates and parenting only describes those who decided to have children.

      Thank you for a good read and for taking the time to respond.

  3. I believe strongly in Evolutionary Psychology but I’m not very keen on the new model presented here.

    It it more a list of random sub-motivations that contribute towards survival and reproduction that don’t belong in that order if on the pyramid at all. People have one night stands with no intention of “parenting” the offspring. If one parent works they wont spend much time parenting at all. People chose not to retain their mate and get divorced so we aren’t always motivated to retain our mate. Also putting it in a hierarchy suggests that you would stop parenting to work on a lower motivation if it was threatened?

    Other parts I don’t agree with is the structure doesn’t show which levels relate to survival and which relate to reproduction. Lastly there are lots of sub-motivations that make up the motivations on the pyramid like affiliation includes sub-motives like avoiding embarrassment and socialising. Not sure why some make it on there and others don’t. For instance mating could be together as one and affiliation could be represented as various motives the same way maiting has been.

    • Actually, I just came across an Evolutionary Psychology paper that made me laugh, it is so ridiculous. On the assumption that human behaviours have evolved to serve survival and reproduction, the authors wonder why cunnilingus exists. Their answer: in the prehistoric past, a man could taste his mate’s vagina to check if she had had sex with another man. Thus he would know that he had an unfaithful wife. I’m not sure (having only read the abstract) but I don’t think they even considered the possibility that it’s to do with consciously giving and receiving erotic pleasure.
      [Source: ‘Oral sex as infidelity-detection’, by M.N. Pham & T.K. Shackelford, in Personality and Individual Differences, in press.]

  4. Unfortunately evolutionary psychology is widely misunderstood and misrepresented. Not least by those who pretend to use it to create new theories. There is plenty of bad evolutionary psychology. But just noting the existence of ridiculous theories dressed up as fashionable evolutionary psychology does not make evolutionary psychology itself any less powerful as a tool for understanding human nature.
    The simplistic arguments that I have read here suggest a total failure to understand the profound insights that evolutionary thinking offers.

  5. I would say that I do appreciate the particular contribution of evolutionary psychology, and have no objection to it per se. It is the zeal of those who aspire to collapse all other aspects of psychology into that single explanatory model that I find myself reacting against.

  6. How fascinating. Another baby soul’s view of humanity. Indeed, as a fourth level old artisan soul with a chief obstacle of self-deprecation, the only reason why I chose my profession as a freelance performing musician and teacher is because I wanted to make myself more attractive to mates by gaining status and fame. Ha ha ha!

    I adore this website and your writing. You are the pinnacle model of a self-atualized, self-transcending soul in my opinion. But nobody cares about my opinion anyways. (Hey look, I made another sel-dep “funny” :-)!

    Keep it coming, please! You are fantastic!

  7. CS Lewis and others made the argument about our desire for something providing evidence that it exists. I believe that refutes the reductionism of the evolutionary psychologists. When you think about it; including esteem, actualization, and transcendence is actually a simpler explanation.

    If survival, mating, and passing on our genes really was everything, how would repression be possible? We know that people can repress their physiological needs out of a desire for esteem (e.g. anorexia is the repression of the physiological need to eat out of a need to be esteemed as thin). Also, you get starving artists and reclusive scientists who go without food and sex because of their devotion to their work (self-actualization repressing the lower needs). Monks and nuns meditating in caves for years on end (self-transcendence repressing the lower needs). That just doesn’t fit at all with the idea of passing on genes being everything.

    The reductionist idea isn’t actually scientific. It is the result of trying to shoehorn everything into a materialist worldview rather than looking at the facts (people do a lot of things which are not related to survival and reproduction) and forming a sensible theory.

  8. I feel that these evolutionary psychologists have (as referred to in the article) just retold what Freudians and behaviourists thought to be right. Essentially they moved backwards: de-evolution.

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