Sunday, February 19, 2006

Man's Search for Meaning

I was checking out a friend’s blog today, when I noticed some interesting posts regarding self-actualization and Maslow’s hierarchy.

For those unfamiliar with this behavioral model, in the 1950’s, Abraham Maslow synthesized a large amount of motivational data from animals and humans into this hierarchy of human needs (Figure). He postulated that a person would only seek to meet the “higher needs” if their “lower needs” were met (i.e. you would not be concerned about gaining esteem from your peers if you were starving to death). At the top of the pyramid, Maslow placed self-actualization which he defined as: to find self-fulfillment and realize one's potential. (He later went on to subdivide self-actualization into 4 different levels: cognitive needs, aesthetic needs, self-actualization, and self-transcendence). Maslow stated that self-actualized individuals were characterized by: 1) being problem-focused; 2) incorporating an ongoing freshness of appreciation of life; 3) a concern about personal growth; and 4) the ability to have peak experiences. Some of the people Maslow considered as self-actualized included Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The following is a comment I wanted to leave on my friend’s blog that got a bit lengthy. I’m sure more intelligent and well-trained people have commented on Maslow’s model, but this is my take on it:

I remember learning about Malsow's pyramid in freshman psychology back in college. At the time, I took his model to be useful in understanding human behavior, but now that I am thinking more critically about human behavior, I have to say that I think Maslow's model misses the mark of describing human behavior at the top of the pyramid.

I really don't see how self-actualization is on the same continuum or dimension as these other needs. The model makes sense to me below self-actualization, because all of these needs from "physiologic" to "esteem" represent the things the people do to serve themselves...Self actualization, on the other hand, seems to be related to how people observe and impact the world around them. If you look at the list of people that Maslow uses to represent self-actualized individuals, these are folks who were able to touch others or able to maintain their values despite the unpopularity of those values. Even the characteristics that Maslow noted characterize ways of relating with other people and the world around them more than how they meet some internal need.

My point is this: According to Maslow's model, people will not engage in self-actualization when their "lower needs" are not met, but I just don't think this is true. Does one really need to be well-fed and feel safe and loved to strive to "find self-fulfillment and realize one's potential"?

Historically, populations of people with unmet needs have often produced many self-actualized people. I am thinking of the civil rights participants of the 50’ and 60's whose safety needs and esteem needs were constantly undermined by a white supremacist culture. I would argue that Martin Luther King, Jr. was highly self-actualized despite living under the threat of violence at all times. Speaking of practitioners of non-violence, Gandhi even starved himself intentionally...He seemed to achieve self-actualization by denying his physical needs.

Perhaps the best example of self-actualization in the midst of unmet "lower" needs is that of Holocaust survivor and psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl. I have recently been re-reading his book, Man's Search for Meaning where Frankl gives a very insightful account of the psychology of the concentration camp inmate. Frankl notes that despite the physical conditions of starvation and bitter cold and the even more overwhelming emotional conditions of Auschwitz, some individuals were still able to maintain their values, and were able to use their suffering to "self-actualize". Frankl comments that this self-actualization was rare (his modesty does not allow him to include himself among those to achieve it), but he notes that it was no more rare than outside of camp life. One could argue that concentration camp life was a crucible that actually tested how "self-actualized" someone really was. Were they merely playing the part of a self-actualized person outwardly to have people respect them (and meet their esteem needs) or were they honestly seeking to reach their own personal potential despite their surroundings and circumstances. One might say that a chivalrous and generous man who degenerates into a self-centered thief at the mere thought of "going without" is not actually so chivalrous or generous at all.

My re-reading of Viktor Frankl’s book has been a very powerful reminder of how powerfully important the human will is. His depiction of the mental life of a concentration camp inmate reveals that these men and women had everything taken away from them that would seem to make life worth living, yet many found a way to maintain their desire to survive. There seemed to be some inner quality that was more important than the horror of the outward circumstances that determined whether people would give up or keep fighting to stay alive. Frankl eloquently describes his main theme, when he says:

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him - mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost.

Condtions and circumstances could not possibly be worse than what they were in these camps, as everything was stripped from these individuals, but the the ability to survive was based on something that even the SS men could not forecable take away: “The last of the human freedoms is to choose one's attitudes”.

Frankl who was trained as a psychiatrist at the time of his interment in the concentration camps used his extreme experiences to develop a new psychoanalytic paradigm. Frankl’s contribution to psychoanalytic theory is that contrary to the Freudian or Adlerian point-of view that man’s most important internal conflicts are related to gratifying sexual desires (Freud’s “Pleasure Principle”) or empowering oneself relative to others is that man’s most important conflict is a need for meaning. His so-called “logotherapy (from the Greek word logos for meaning), outlines a psychotherapeutic strategy that is focused more on future goals and satisfying the will to meaning than other psychoanalytic approaches which often focus on past conflicts and the unalterable circumstances of our surroundings. Frankl’s therapeutic approach is considered existential since it focuses of the freedom of the will and personal responsibility and stoic since it holds that our attitude is more important than our surroundings in determining our well-being. The Stoic Epictetus held that 'Men are not moved by events but by their interpretations'. Even in facing death and suffering, by showing courage we can turn a situation into a supremely meaningful one. Frankl concedes that this therapeutic approach can be rigorous since it places so much responsibility on the patient, but if anyone is in a position to de-emphasize circumstance and past conflicts, a Holocaust survivor surely is.

Frankl’s unique training and profoundly intense experience with human suffering and deprivation shed light onto Maslow’s model of hierarchical needs. The model just does not seem to fit the observations we have of highly self-actualized individuals. While some people might not be able to spend any of their energy "self-actualizing" when their “lower needs” are not being met, others have proven to be able to self-actualize in spite of or even because of unmet need. As MLK pointed out, suffering can be redemptive. I would hate to think that my potential for self-fulfillment could only be realized if I was physically and emotionally comfortable, because this is a state that cannot be controlled. Disease, loss of loved ones, financial trouble, and every other type of human suffering is bound to come knocking. I hope that like Frankl, I can find meaning in that suffering when I answer the door.

Yours in getting to the top of the pyramid,

"When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."
~Victor Frankl


At Mon Feb 20, 09:44:00 PM, Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

Both psychological perspectives seem compatible. I haven't read the book, but it seems like Frankl's observations of people in camps is not mutually exclusive with Maslow's hierarchy. Frankl makes the point that the camps were a test of will. In other words, a test of those who were self-actualized. People who were self-actualized were probably more likely to survive the stress than those who were not.

It seems to me that the self-actualized person, once he/she crosses the plateau into the final stage, can disregard the lower stages to a certain extent. Once you worry about money and then get it, you realize your own ability to live without it. Someone who is self-actualized no longer concerns herself with the opinions of others, although the positive feedback of others over a sustained period is probably what assisted in attaining self-actualization. It sounds circular, but it is not.

At Thu Mar 02, 02:02:00 AM, Blogger Abe said...

Interesting post and comment.

At Mon Mar 13, 08:20:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sending this one to me. I had forgotten about Maslow. I’m sure I’d stored him away with the other psychological theories that are now considered defunct and oversimplified. You know the ones, those they teach in freshman psych courses. Still, it’s always good to revisit them from time to time because they do provide insight into the foundational components that comprise modern psychological theory. As with many disciplines, you sometimes have to combine the earlier and simpler theories in order to build a model that can be applied to human behavior, and even then, there will be outliers.

Maslow might consider a starving child in Niger or the Sudan and hypothesize that the child will never reach a state of self-actualization because of his physical circumstance. Yet, any one of those children might become the Mandela of their generation. That’s where we see his theory fails. Maslow fails to take into account that adversity can build extraordinary character. In other words, you can “reach your potential” or become self-actualized as a direct consequence of the adversity in your life. Of course, that’s not anything new. Even Christians subscribe to that philosophy. Frankl makes a similar argument in his book. Some in the camps were strengthened as a result of their struggle to survive, while others were strong enough when they arrived to maintain their perspective.

I’m convinced that who we become as adults is an amalgam of different theories, but I lean more toward the cognitive discipline. I believe that personality is roughly 50% inherited and that your early pre-adult experiences will greatly shape your systems of attribution, reaction, motivation, and self-estimation. I equally believe that we continue to be shaped by experiences throughout adulthood, but usually to a lesser degree, excluding traumatic or life altering events.

It is my personal philosophy that despite the complex models and theories, at a fundamental level, life is cause-effect or choice-consequence. Each event or cause in our lives brings about an effect, and each choice we make brings about a consequence. We learn and adapt, each in our own way, and we become the sum of these experiences as we go forward in life. I’ve found that I can explain most things in life according to that basic philosophy, including biological factors. Even your Jan. 31 blog proves the point. Regardless of whether you were aware of it, you chose to react to him a certain way and the conflict was the consequence. Your choice of thinking and the resulting conflict brought about the emotional effect you experienced, from which you adapted to an altered way of thinking which resolved the conflict. You chose to change your thinking in order to bring about a new consequence. Hopefully you’ve internalized the experience and will behave accordingly as you go on, or you may go through similar events several times in your life before making a choice to change your thinking permanently. You could easily apply the same principles to Frankl’s example of Jewish prisoners in the camps. In either case, the first key is realizing that you have a choice.

Anyway, thanks for getting the juices flowing!


At Mon Mar 20, 02:44:00 PM, Blogger mrsleep said...

Nothing to add aside from the fact, thanks for a heads up on a good book to read.

At Sun Apr 23, 09:51:00 AM, Blogger Gandhi said...

Thanks, thats a very good post.

At Wed Jul 26, 04:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

then when will you update? hey come on .

At Sun Dec 17, 02:15:00 PM, Anonymous Simone said...

I really enjoyed your post. It gives me a lot to think about in terms of how I've been living my own life and I look forward to reading Frankl's book.

At Fri Nov 23, 04:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your entry today, this is actually my first visit to your veb site. I was looking for informatin on Frankl. I know that this is a little off the subject, but I am writing a argumentative paper on technostress and I belive that Frankl quote of " “If you’re struggling with stress, it’s helpful to remember that even though no one can control everything that happens in the “outside” world, you do have control over how you choose to respond to whatever is happening in your life, even in the most dire situations.” Victor Frankl, who was the inspiring Jewish psychiatrist who survived the horror of the Nazi concentration camps, wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. (Man’s Search for Meaning, pg 67)” it right on, in my opinion with people in dealing with technology and the stress they feel it causes. In your professional opinion, do we have an issue with technostress, is it a real disease or just the way we look at making our decisions and how we approach technology.

At Sun Nov 15, 12:29:00 AM, Anonymous michelle bateman said...

I am currently studying psychology and was online looking for examples of famous people who are considered to be “self-actualized”. I was having difficulty because based on the definitions put out by Rogers and Maslow I find it impossible for anyone to be “self-actualized”. Our instructor wants us to describe why we feel the person we chose is “self-actualized”, as I couldn’t think of anyone who met the definitions presented I started a Google search and came across your blog. I am in full agreement of your questions regarding hierarchy. I think that those people who I would feel to be “self-actualized” are so in spite of needs not met, not because all of their needs have been met.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I am not sure my instructor will like what I have to write, but I can’t write what I don’t believe, thank you again for your sharing and openness to go against the grain.
Tulsa, Oklahoma


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