Corona Viewed From Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Why a public health crisis supersedes all else

Posted Mar 19, 2020

PaulBR75 / Pixabay
Source: PaulBR75 / Pixabay

Imagine this: You’re on vacation and are about to take a swim in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of southern Florida. You check your phone right before you head to the water, only to find some pretty upsetting news:

You just received an email from your supervisor indicating that you’ve been passed over for the promotion to Director. Worse, one of your not-so-favorite colleagues, Ted, who has stabbed you in the back every chance he’s gotten for years, apparently got the position. 

You shake your head and put your phone down. What a blow to your self-esteem. Uggh. You cannot believe it!

Well, you’ve paid all this money to come to Florida so you might as well make the most of it. With your tail slightly between your legs, you walk to the water and dive into a nice-sized wave. The water is warm and you’re in. That email, of course, still smarts …

Suddenly, to your surprise, you find yourself smashed by a huge wave. You are actually fully submerged and scared. You can’t seem to touch the ocean bottom and you are having a hard time breathing and, for a moment, you can’t figure out which way is up. This is downright frightening!

After about 20 seconds (which seems like an hour), you find your footing, get your head above the water, and you realize you’re going to be OK. Thank goodness.

But for that 20-second bit of time, you were petrified. And for that whole while, the disappointing news of your having been passed over for the promotion had completely escaped your mind. 

 Maslow / Wikimedia Commons
Source: Maslow / Wikimedia Commons

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In 1943, iconic psychologist Abraham Maslow presented a theory of human motivation that was so elegant that it has, for decades, been met with strong acceptance and praise. The basic idea of Maslow’s model is well-conceptualized if you think of a pyramid with five levels.

The levels represent five categories of needs, with “higher” needs being dependent on the satisfaction of “lower” needs. Thus, based on this model, if your “lower” needs are not met, then you’re not in a position to work on fulfilling your “higher” needs.

These needs, starting with “the highest” on the pyramid, are as follows:

Self-Actualization: The need to become the best version of yourself that you can be.

Esteem: The need to genuinely appreciate and respect oneself.

Love and Belonging: The need to feel fully and unconditionally supported by someone else, and the need to provide such support and love to another.

Safety: The need to feel physically and emotionally safe from harm and genuine threats.

Physiological: Needs that are biologically basic, such as the need for water, food, or air.

In the fictitious example provided above, you went from being someone who was worried about esteem needs (based on that unfortunate email about your not getting the Director position) to suddenly being flooded, literally, with a physiological need: the ability to breathe. As predicted by Maslow’s model, if your primary needs are lower on the pyramid, then you find yourself less focused on needs that are higher on the pyramid. In short: If you’re drowning, you’re not worrying too much about being passed over for a promotion ...

Corona and Maslow’s Hierarchy

If you’re like most readers of Psychology Today, then you likely have most of your physiological needs met. After all, if you’ve got no food or water, what business do you have reading a blog post?

In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy, most normal adults can be thought of as working, generally, on the upper parts of the pyramid. Trying to figure out love needs (such as trying to re-ignite a long-term romantic relationship), taking steps to advance your esteem needs (by, perhaps, applying for leadership positions within your organization), and/or trying to achieve that elusive state of self-actualization (perhaps by meditating, doing yoga, or going on retreats in the mountains, for instance).

But the coronavirus situation, a worldwide pandemic, has knocked many of us, regardless of where we may have been “on the pyramid” just a few weeks ago, to the bottom of the pyramid.

As Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, said in a statement that was released earlier this week:

I understand that this is a burden to businesses. ... There is going to be an impact on the economy, not just here in New York but all across the country, and we're going to have to deal with that crisis, but let's deal with one crisis at a time. Let's deal with the crisis at hand and the crisis at hand is a public health crisis.

Put in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy: While the fiscal fallout of the corona pandemic will be nothing short of enormous, that must take a back seat to the more imminent health crisis that we are facing as a broader community.

We can’t worry about higher-level needs when we’ve got physiological and safety needs that need to be addressed. 

Bottom Line

Look, I’m 50 years old and I’ve seen a good bit in this past half-century. This corona thing is another animal altogether. Worst-case scenarios made by expert epidemiologists around the world are simply not good. 

As a behavioral scientist who works to help people understand everyday implications of the work of our field, I’m regularly trying to translate concepts and research in the behavioral sciences for everyone so that, hopefully, people can better navigate the complexities of their everyday lives.

In thinking this way, it occurred to me that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides a powerful and useful model for understanding the large-scale psychological effects of the coronavirus. For so many of us, if not all of us, the uncertain future of the effects of this virus are weighing heavily on our minds. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you may have gone from working on love needs to safety needs at the drop of a hat. And such an abrupt and unanticipated change in one’s basic needs can, of course, be stressful.

I hope this angle on the current world situation gives people some pause and help in processing what is going on. Be safe. Be well. And don’t forget that we are all in this together. 

References

Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review. 50 (4): 370–96.