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Self-actualization Dethroned: Did We Murder Maslow’s Sacred Cow?

Self-actualization is a lot like Santa Claus.

I was pleased that the New York Times editors selected a recent paper of mine for it’s “idea of the day.” But when I read the readers’ comments there, and on a much more thorough online article in Miller-McCune, I was a bit dismayed at the continuing tendencies to: 1) judge the field of evolutionary psychology, which has now generated an immense body of discoveries, on the basis of reading a paragraph in the media, and 2) the mistaken conclusions about our revision of Maslow to which (presumably well-educated) readers jumped, without so much as taking some time to do a bit of reading, and understand the arguments they were attacking.

What got people most upset is the fact that my colleagues and I displaced the hallowed “self-actualization” from the top of the top of the hierarchy (Kenrick, Griskevicius, Neuberg, & Schaller, 2010). We were NOT saying people don’t experience all those “higher” strivings, NOR were we saying that those thoughts are accompanied by strategic ruminations about how showing off our brilliance will attract the opposite sex. But we were saying this: Maslow’s favorite examples of self-actualization involved poets and artists and musicians striving for perfection. Such strivings can be neatly folded into the desire for esteem and status. I realize that to many humanists that is the equivalent of saying there is no Santa Claus, but the fact of the matter is, although gifts do arrive under the Christmas tree, they were delivered there by a very non-mystical process, one involving a less jolly mortal driving a station wagon to Toys ‘R Us, with a credit card at the ready. Likewise, the motive to self-actualize is, in fact, based in more mundane strivings. There is, for example, solid research evidence that creative strivings can make one attractive to the opposite sex, thereby increasing one’s reproductive success (Griskevicius, Cialdini, & Kenrick, 2006; Miller, 2000).

Self-actualization is "demoted" to status/esteem

The Importance of Levels of Analysis – or What Happened in Whoville?

Part of what gets people confused is the same set of issues that also gets scientists involved in unnecessarily heated arguments. Scientific explanations can refer to different levels of analysis. Why do women nurse their babies? At a proximate level, they do so because their cute little baby is crying and this releases a rush of oxytocin, a release of milk, and a conscious feeling of nurturant love. At a development level, they do so because they have passed puberty (during which their mammary glands developed), gotten pregnant, and gone through a series of physiological changes that prepared them to nurse. At an evolutionary level, they do so because they are descended from countless generations of mammalian females whose capacity and inclination to nurse facilitated the survival and reproductive success of their offspring. Ultimate evolutionary causes are not conscious —either in humans, or in other animals. A woman nursing her baby is thinking about love, not about her inclusive fitness.

Birds migrate at certain times of the year because, by doing so, their ancestors increased their chances of surviving and reproducing, but the descendants’ little brains only process the fact that the days are getting shorter. As Geoffrey Miller amply documents in his book The Mating Mind, human beings display their artistic brilliance and cleverness because their ancestors who did so reproduced more successfully, but our slightly larger brains only process that it feels good to paint something beautiful or make people laugh with a clever argument or turn of phrase. Maslow liked to argue that those self-actualizing poets, artists, and musicians, when they were at their best, had mostly risen above all their less exalted concerns over food, safety, friendship, and esteem. But again, at the risk of saying Grinch-like things about Santa Claus, it ain’t quite like that down in Who-Ville.

But you are saying humans are (just) animals!?

I AM saying that all recurrent human behaviors, and our higher thoughts and aspirations, are the products of natural mechanisms, and thereby subject to the laws of natural selection. We wouldn’t be here if our ancestors spent most of their time rising “above” their biological needs. But does this reduce us to generalized animals? No, there is much that is unique to our species, but there’s also a lot that is unique about bats, giraffes, and dolphins. We can better understand our own species by thinking about our connections with the rest of nature, and how our unique features served adaptive functions for our ancestors.

I’m also not saying all nature reduces to sex and selfish competition. Although an evolutionary perspective recognizes sexual and competitive motivations as undeniable aspects of human nature, it also emphasizes the importance of cooperation, love, and parental concern for survival in human groups. A key point is this: sex is only a small part of human reproduction. We human beings devote immense effort to lengthy courtship periods, which even for the sexiest among us usually involve more hours spent in platonic activities than in copulation. Beyond initial courtship, humans, both males and females, devote a great deal of energy to maintaining their bond and to raising their children. And for the last few decades of their lives, human beings may devote great quantities of energy to helping their grandchildren.

From an evolutionary perspective, reproductive goals are the ultimate driving force behind much that is positive in human nature—creating music and poetry, devoting oneself to charitable endeavors, or working to improve the world for the next generation. Research on social development suggests that as people age, they tend to become increasingly concerned with the welfare of other people (e.g. . But on our view, self-actualization (which often involves pursuing what gives you personal pleasure) is just a self-centered step on the way to a much higher goal—taking care of other people.

An alternative view

All that said, readers should also consider an alternative perspective, offered by the clever website Jezebel, which suggests that my colleagues and I need to tweak our revision of Maslow’s hierarchy, by adding more fundamental needs such as the desire for an espresso maker. And one of her readers did raise an argument that I must admit leaves me without a solid logical response:

Evolutionary psychology is so freaking stupid it makes me want to stab people. Where does THAT drive fit on your revised pyramid, "scientists"?!


Kenrick, D.T., Griskevicius, V., Neuberg, S.L., & Schaller, M. (2010). Renovating the pyramid of needs: Contemporary extensions built upon ancient foundations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 292–314.

Miller, G.F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. New York: Doubleday.

Schaller, M., Neuberg, S.L., Griskevicius, V., & Kenrick, D.T. (2010). Pyramid power. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 335–337.

Van Lange, P. A. M., Otten, W., DeBruin, E.M. N., & Joireman, J. A. (1997b). Development of prosocial, individualistic, and competitive orientations: Theory and preliminary evidence. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 73, 733–746.

Related links:

Rebuilding Maslow’s pyramid on an evolutionary foundation. (my discussion)

Miller-McCune article (on which Times based it’s coverage)

New York Times ‘Idea of the Day’

Jezebel’s revised hierarchy, incorporating the basic need for an espresso maker.

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