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Maslow Revisited: The hierarchy is an illusion

Drawing of mountains

Bite the bullets

  • We have a running meter of needs we need to balance every single day
  • These needs are unavoidable and unignorable
  • These needs, unlike Maslow’s Hierarchy, do not need working from bottom to top, rather in the order they deplete
  • The primary categories of these needs are physiology, security, relationships, cognition, and tranquility
  • Subcategories are:  Tranquility – comfort, gratitude and mindfulness; Cognition – Interest and stimulation; Relationships – Challenges and face time; Security – physical and financial; Physiology – exercise, water, food and sleep
  • If we ignore these needs, they will affect our behavior in dramatic ways decreasing the amount of control we have over ourselves and our lives
  • You can build habits around these needs and achieve compounding positive effects

Hungry judges are more severe

Have you ever been hangry? If you haven’t heard the term, it means what it sounds like: hungry + angry = hangry. When some people don’t eat for a while, they get grumpy, snippy and even confrontational. In other words, they get hangry. While most of the time it’s reserved for couples who get into quibbles when they can’t decide what to eat, it’s always been interesting to me.

It’s an example of when our body’s physiology directly affects our behavior in a noticeable way. The strange thing is that this thinking doesn’t often extend out to other categories. We know in our heads that we act differently when we’re tired, but a lot of the times people don’t change anything in their day to reflect that. There is an extreme example of this that’s often cited in psychology articles.

A study from Jonathan Levav of Columbia Business School, conducted in Israeli prisons in 2011, found that judges were more likely to dispense unfavorable sentences in parole hearings (I.e. denying parole) the closer they got to a meal break. This has been a controversial study for a few reasons. The authors stick to their original findings that the hungrier the judges became, the more likely they were to drift towards an easier decision of saying ”no” rather than weighing the harder option of granting parole.

Deciding what to eat and getting into a fight with your significant other is an uncomfortable experience, but imagine having to decide the fate of a person standing before you while on an empty stomach. The weight of the decision is much higher. Whether we think about the time we snapped at a friend, or a judge doling out justice, there is an arrow pointing to a fact of our existence: our basic needs affect our behavior.

Maslow’s Hierarchy

The concept that we have needs that change how we act is actually pretty old. If you’ve taken an intro to psych class, you’ve no doubt run into good old Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s sounds so formal, but it’s a simple concept.

The idea is we have needs stacked like a pyramid that we need to fulfill from bottom to top in order to reach a state that Maslow described as “self-actualization.” Self-actualized people, like Einstein, go on to do great things with their lives. There are some glaring flaws in this model—which I’ll get into in a second—but before I do, let’s walk through the pyramid:

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
The original pyramid derived from Maslow’s published theory of motivation.

As you can see, you’ve got physiology at the bottom, those are things that you need because your body needs them: food, water, sleep, sex, a thing called “homeostasis” (the body’s natural chemical balancing forces) and excretion. Once those basal needs are met according to the original publication “there then emerges a new set of needs,” which is the need for security; essentially a safe place where you won’t get sick or hurt. Next is love, which encapsulates our relationships and need for affection. After that is “esteem,” which is a need to prove one’s self, both socially and to themselves (e.g. achieving self-confidence). Finally is the fabled “self-actualization,” originally described as a “a new discontent and restlessness” to “become everything one is capable of becoming.”

So these ideas sound great. You work your way up the pyramid and then you reach the top and presto, you are creating the next Mona Lisa. But we all know that doesn’t seem to happen a lot. Tom Cruise would be self actualized by these standards, but the media doesn’t shy away from how hard his personal relationships have been. This is true for a lot of celebrities. On the other hand, we’ve all met someone who is content with a simple life, unburdened by a “restlessness” to be everything they can be. It’s really easy to criticize this model and there is a reason for that.

These ideas were originally published in Psychological Review in 1943 in a paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation.” That’s right. Motivation. Not a theory of greatness. Not a theory of behavior. In the work, Maslow says directly that this is a model to guide future research, not a research study itself. It was a skeleton to develop further understanding of what motivates people. It was never intended as a way to live life. On top of that, the pyramid visualization that has become synonymous with the hierarchy of needs didn’t show up until much later. We can do better!

Sophonaut’s Power Levels

Like Maslow in his original paper, I’m going to disclaim that what I’m about to present is not really supported by concrete research, but is a mental model to guide thinking. It works well for me, and you can test it yourself. It’s not a theory of motivation as much as a theory of well-being. But there is a strong case for the idea that when you’re well, you’re more motivated.

First, I want to wholly dismiss the idea that you need to work through a static pyramid from the bottom to the top. Human needs don’t work that way. We need to drink water every hour. We need to eat a few times a day. We need enough sleep every day. We need social contact at least a few times a week. We need to pay our rent or mortgage every month. The point is that our needs can’t be solved one time, they need to be maintained for your whole life. Not only that, they each have different rates for resetting.

Here I present these needs as “power levels” that contribute to your overall well-being. It’s not just well-being, though. If they are not met, your ability to make decisions, to learn, to be a good friend or significant other is lowered.

I modified the concepts in Maslow’s hierarchy supplemented by more up to date science and flattened the pyramid to look like this:

As you can see, the basic ideas of a hierarchy are hidden in there, but these are hopefully more useful in a day-to-day sense. Now let’s flip it on it’s side:

The way this works is: there are five high level categories broken into fourteen sub-categories. Each sub-category contributes to the overall level in its parent category, and each category contributes to the overall level that is you; your sense of well-being. Here’s the kicker: these need attention in a dynamic way: because they deplete at different levels, the priorities of each category (and even subcategory) change over time. That means you need to pay attention to each of your own levels to stay happy.

They deplete like so on each of their respective timelines:

I want to highlight one major modification before digging in. I’m going to ask you to buy into an assumption. Transcendence and self actualization have been replaced by a more humble term: tranquility.

Tranquility is a concept stolen from a stoic philosophy; you can think of it as an overall chill-ness with whatever is happening. I’ve found this is a great ideal to strive for, because it is attainable both when happy and sad. It’s also much more maintainable than just trying to be happy 100% of the time. The world hits you with good stuff and bad stuff, it’s better to be tranquil and still feel what emotion you naturally feel. In short: Shoot for happiness, miss it for contentment and settle for tranquility.

As I mentioned before, you go through life and the “levels” in each of the subcategories deplete over time or based on events that happen in your life. The good news is you’re probably already taking care of a lot of these things. When you get hungry, you eat; thirsty, you drink. But then problems arise, or maybe you are having trouble getting something that you say you want. What gives? Below is a breakdown of each category and sub-category. I’m going to skip ones that are self explanatory.

Really important note: rather than focusing on working your way from most basic to complex, this is a dynamic model. That means the order of importance of each of these is based entirely on their level. For instance, you might be having a rough time financially, and need to solve difficult problems to fix that. It might seem counterintuitive, but if you have been neglecting your friends to focus on this problem it’s probably time recharge that level. What will surprise you is that you’ll probably have a clearer head when you come back to it.

If the breakdown of each subcategory is overwhelming, just remember that the top level categories deplete over time and that you need to watch how that process happens:


  • Sleep
    • Affects mood, cognitive clarity and decision making.
    • Depletes: daily
  • Sex
    • Varies by person. Lack can cause irritability.
    • Depletes: varies by libido
  • Food
    • Low blood sugar affects mood and mental clarity.
    • Depletes: every few hours
  • Water
    • Even mild dehydration can impair cognitive function and decrease mental performance.
    • Depletes: hourly
  • Exercise
    • Regular exercise improves memory, mood and thinking skills.
    • Depletes: daily


  • Physical
    • Having a physically safe place to live decreases stress
    • Depletes: depends on geographic location
  • Financial
    • Obsessing about money (or a lack of money) causes stress. Can also affect entire physiology category if you can’t afford food.
    • Depletes: weekly/monthly


  • Interactions/ face time
    • Every person needs some amount of social interaction. This has less measurable but important effects on thinking and mood.
    • Depletes: varies by person
  • Challenges
    • When you have a conflict in a relationship it affects other aspects of life.
    • Depletes: based on conflicts in relationships
  • Cognition
    • Interest (in whatever you’re doing)
    • Disinterest in whatever your task at hand will mean that you need to exert more effort into whatever you’re doing at any given time. This can take away focus and effort from other parts of life.
    • Depletes: based on what you’re spending your time on
  • Stimulation
    • We need a certain amount of mental stimulation in our week. The type of mental stimulation goes hand in hand with interests.
    • Depletes: weekly


  • Mindfulness
    • Mindfulness has a ton of benefits. They range from better mental performance to lower blood pressure.
    • Depletes: daily
  • Gratitude
    • Gratitude is the antidote to anger.
    • Depletes: daily
  • Comfort
    • Important to manage but not over optimize.
    • Depletes: based on situation

Each one of these categories deserves its own article.The take-home overall is to remember: in order to maintain total well-being, you need to constantly prioritize and re-prioritize what needs attention. It’s easier to think of each of these as a part of a whole. It takes a lot of patience and practice to master when to re-prioritize, and even more time to master them. If all these subcategories are overwhelming, just remember they contribute to the high level categories. You need to ruthlessly prioritize whatever needs your attention. We’ll cover strategies on this over the next few weeks.

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