Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Psychologist Abraham Maslow first published his famous “Hierarchy of Needs” in 1943. He illustrated the way that he believed human motivation moves—from the fulfillment of basic physiological needs to the fulfillment of the self. 

Maslow’s hierarchy gives the appearance that “physiological” needs and “safety” needs make up the foundational and largest set of needs for a person. But this is a great deception. In reality, physiological and safety needs—the things we really need to survive—make up the smallest set of needs that people in modern societies spend their time pursuing. 

There are only so many calories to eat in a day, only so many sexual experiences, only so many different degrees of temperature that are comfortable, only so many styles of roof that can go over a person’s head. When it comes to true needs, we don’t need much. Our first brain is all we need to handle them.

All of the “needs” above the first two levels—belonging and love, self esteem, and the fulfillment of creative activities, or self-fulfillment—belong to the world of desire.

There are a finite number of things a person needs. But there are an infinite number of things to desire. 

Transforming Needs Into Desires

One of the greatest tricks that the corporate world ever played is transforming needs into desires. 

Some people might ask: don’t we also have a ton of choices when it comes to physiological needs and safety? Take food. There are over 200 brands of cold breakfast cereal in the typical grocery store aisle, 50 different kinds of hot sauce at the Bloody Mary bar, and 100 different kinds of sneakers that I can choose from at the shoe store. At this moment, you probably have the option to choose from hundreds of restaurants spanning every major type of cuisine in the world on your phone. All can be delivered to your doorstep within 45 minutes. 

The transposition of basic needs into the world of desires has been going on since the early days of Eddie Bernays’ public relations coup after the first World War. Products used to be advertised based on their “usefulness” or the true need that they served around the house. Throughout the course of the 20’s, there was an explosion of consumer brands that began appealing directly to desire, linking products to identity. 

Paul Meazar, a banker at Lehman Brothers in the 1920’s, told a group of businesses that “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

The U.S. Department of Commerce secretary (later, President Herbert Hoover) told American corporations in 1928, that: “You have taken over the job of creating desire and transforming people into constantly moving happiness machines; machines which have become the key to economic progress.”

If people could be convinced to operate according to the third brain alone, they could be turned into “constantly moving” happiness machines, moving from one desire to the next as different models of desires came into and out of their lives. Mimetic desire would reign.

Because we live in a world where there is less and less need, there is more and more desire. For the first time in human history, we’re not struggling with scarcity but coping with abundance—and that means coping with mimetic desire.

When a person has satisfied all of his basic needs and begins moving up the hierarchy of “needs,” he doesn’t typically narrow in on a limited set of needs that contribute to his fulfillment of self. Instead, he’s sucked into a universe of competing desires that is more likely to make him act schizophrenic than self-actualized. 

My friend who bought BitCoin in 2012 and sold at the top of the bubble didn’t narrow in on fulfilling a personal mission once he cashed out. He bought a kimono, moved into a yurt, adopted a new religion, and became a vegan who held legume-cooking contests with his rich new friends. And when all the best legume recipes had been tested, he moved on to wanting something else. 

A basic look at human experience shows something that looks like almost the opposite of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. 

Lottery winners are more likely to declare bankruptcy within three to five years than the average American. Jack Whittaker, who won $315 million in the West Virginia lottery in 2002, lost his daughter and granddaughter to drug overdoses after winning. His life began to unravel. “I just don’t like Jack Whittaker,” he told Time. “I don’t like the hard heart I’ve got. I don’t like what I’ve become.” 

But why? Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that these people should be moving up the pyramid, one step closer to becoming who they want to be. 

That isn’t what happens.

In order to get a better picture of human needs and desires, we have to invert the pyramid.

After a person has satisfied all of his basic needs, he looks up at a universe of possible things to want. And this universe of desire—the universe of the third brain—is infinite. There is never a point where we have satisfied all of our desires. There is always another model to imitate. 

Desires, unlike biological needs, don’t have a built-in homing mechanism. Instead of looking to physiological signals (the first brain) or logic (the second brain) to make choices, people look to other people