Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Updated for the 21st century

Rather than trekking up a mountain, a more accurate metaphor for human development involves navigating the waters of a choppy sea.

SCOTT BARRY KAUFMAN: People get a lot of things wrong about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. First of all, Maslow never even drew a pyramid. A lot of people might not know that as you're probably very used to seeing a diagram on Facebook or in your introductory psychology class or management class. So you see this pyramid with self-actualization at the top and different needs. I looked through Maslow's writings, and he never actually drew a pyramid to represent his theory. He actually viewed human – it was very clear to Maslow that life is not a video game. It's not as though you reach some level in life like safety needs and then you reach the safety needs and you get a certain number of that and then some voice from above is like congrats, you've unlocked connection. And then you go do, do, do, do, do and you move up to connection. It's not how life works. And Maslow is very clear about that. In a lot of ways Maslow was a developmental psychologist at heart. He really believed that human development was constantly this two steps forward, one step back dynamic.

We're constantly choosing the growth option, and then we're failing in some way or we have some struggle which is an inevitable part of life. And then we continue forward. Life is not some trek up a mountain and then you reach self-actualization as though you've achieved self-actualization and the final credits come on. Again, continuing the video game metaphor. Life is not like that. Self-development is a process. It's constantly in a form of development and we are constantly becoming, our being in the world is constantly becoming. And Maslow is very clear about that.

Abraham Maslow made it very clear that self-actualization is not the same as achievement. A lot of people in fact may achieve quite a bit in their lives and may be on the cover of magazines, may have all the awards, the whole trophy shelf of their house that they show off and still feel deeply, deeply unfulfilled. We feel much more fulfilled when we actualize our potentialities, our deepest potentials, the things that make us unique, the things that we can uniquely contribute to the world in ways that have a positive impact on the world. Just realizing your talents without the context of the meaning behind it is a recipe for a lot of talented people to live a very unfulfilled life.

So, Maslow defines self-actualization as becoming everything that you're capable of becoming and that you're most uniquely capable of becoming. So we have a lot of things, a lot of potentials that we share with other humans. We have the need for safety. We have the need for connection. We have the need for respect and a certain level of feeling worthy or self-esteem. We share that with others, but Maslow thought of self-actualization as those potentialities within you that, if grown to full heights, will have the biggest impact on the world uniquely. What do you most uniquely have to contribute to this world? I think that's how Maslow really thought about self-actualization. That's how I tend to think about self-actualization, as well.

So, I've revised Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs for the twenty-first century building it on a solid scientific foundation. My revised integrated hierarchy of needs views human development as in a process of higher and higher levels of integration. Instead of some trek up a mountain, we're actually a whole vehicle. We're an integrated set of parts. Our whole can become greater than the sum of its parts. But how we integrate those parts is really important for fulfillment in life and ultimately transcendence. Many people may not realize but towards the latter years of Abraham Maslow's life, he was working on a new theory of transcendence arguing that our highest motivation in life wasn't self-actualization but it was actually transcendence. What is good at the highest level of human development, the highest level of human motivation transcendence, what is good for oneself is automatically good for others. The notion of selfishness breaks down. In fact at the highest level of consciousness, we have a lot of dichotomy transcendence as Maslow put it.

Things such as evil versus good no longer makes any sense. We're all part of an integrated whole. Selfishness, unselfishness doesn't make sense because, what does it mean to be selfish when what is good for you is simultaneously good for society? What does that even mean anymore? So in my revised hierarchy of needs I argue that a better metaphor than a static pyramid is a sailboat. With a sailboat we absolutely need to have a boat that is safe and secure or else we don't go anywhere. If you have a huge leak in your boat you're not going very far in life or in the ocean. But being safe and secure and having a secure boat is not enough or else we won't go anywhere. What we need to do is we need to open up our sail, as well. And when we open up our sail, when we feel very comfortable and safe enough to open up our sail we can really move through the ocean in the direction that we want, usually it's in a purposeful direction. We have some sort of meaning or purpose in life.

But as we're moving, we're still moving in the vast unknown of the sea and the truth is we're all in this together. We're all in our own boats going in our own direction but we're all in the sea. We're all in the vast and unknown of the sea. Especially in this time that we're living in right now. We all see quite clearly how choppy these waters are. But it's important that we recognize that while safety is important in these unknown times we must not neglect our higher possibilities in life. They're just as important.

  • When we imagine Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs, we visualize a pyramid. This is all wrong, says humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman.
  • This is because life isn't a video game, where you unlock new levels until you reach the final prize of self-actualization. In fact, Maslow viewed human development as a two steps forward, one step back dynamic.
  • Kaufman rebuilt Maslow's hierarchy of needs, updating it for the 21st century with a solid scientific foundation. And a better metaphor for this is a sailboat.


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Image source: NASA/Big Think
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The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Oort cloud

Oort Cloud graphic

Image source: NASA

Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.

Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)

No object in the Oort cloud has been directly observed, though Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons, and Pioneer 10 and 11 are all en route. (The cloud is so far away that all five of the craft will be dead by the time they get there.) To derive a clearer view of the Oort cloud absent actually imagery, scientists utilize computer models based on planetary orbits, solar-system formation simulations, and comet trajectories.

It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."

"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."

Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."

Planet 9

rendering of a planet in space

Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA

The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.

"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."

The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."

Missing in action

Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."

So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."

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