Friday, August 26, 2005

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who came to prominence in the 1940's. He is perhaps best known for his "Hierarchy of Needs," five basic human needs that all people strive to satisfy. According to Maslow, much of human behavior can be ascribed to the struggle to fulfill these needs. The hierarchy is, in order:

  • Self Actualization Needs (full potential)
  • Ego Needs (self respect, personal worth, autonomy)
  • Social Needs (love, friendship, comradeship)
  • Security Needs (protection from danger)
  • Physiological Needs (warmth, shelter, food)

The kicker is that until the lower-level needs are satisfied (starting with physiological needs), it is extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to satisfy the higher-level needs. I experience this all the time (in fact, I experienced just a few minutes ago). When I'm hungry, I literally have a hard time thinking about anything else. I was trying to teach our new distance education specialist how to do some of the activities I've written, but inside I was having a hard time thinking anything but "Food! Food! FOOD!!!"

It is interesting to ask what needs writing fulfills. There are two different perspectives on this. First, what needs does writing fill for the author, and second what needs does it fill for the reader? If all human behavior can be explained based upon this hierarchy, why does anyone read or write fiction? In my case, and I think this holds true for many writers, I write to fulfill the 4th level: ego needs. I'm looking for the validation that I am a talented, capable individual who has something worthwhile to say. According to Maslow's theory, then, that means that in order to write, I need to feel sheltered and fed, not in any personal danger (rarely a worry, though I will confess writing was pretty far from my mind during the events of the flying story I posted a while back). I also need to feel accepted by friends and/or family (again, according to Maslow) before I can start to write. Writing is, in general, a solitary pursuit. Even in co-authored works, much of the actual writing takes place alone. In order to write well, though, I need to have a feeling of camraderie. I think this may be one reason why Clarion is so popular: There are few other situations in which writing becomes a group-supported activity. The ability to fulfill this 3rd need through writing, is a powerful inducement. Maslow would predict that I can't write well when I'm hungry, and as I indicated, that's certianly the case.

What about readers? What needs does writing fill for them? That's a much tougher question. In an odd way, I think a good fiction story can fulfill the 3rd level, social needs. A good story draws you into the book and makes you feel as though the characters are people you know -- your friends. You look forward to seeing them in the next book. It's an interesting thing to think about.

You can also use Maslow's hierarchy to round out your characters as well. If they are hungry or in danger, they aren't likely achieve self-actualization. It's reasonable to assume that a person (fictional or not) can make small inroads into the next level if their current level hasn't been fully satisfied, but it will be difficult, a struggle at best -- and this leads to good conflict that can drive the story. Writing is fundamentally about exploring the human condition. Psychology is, in my opinion, a much under-used resource in our business. We might all benefit from a careful study of its application to writing.

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