Ainsley Harmsen, Senior School Psychologist at All Saints College: During challenging times as parents, we have perhaps all drawn from our own personal experiences of being parented to help guide us in our actions or in our explanation of certain life events that may be confusing or upsetting for our children. Recently, however, like me you have possibly found yourself in the unique situation of not knowing what to say to reassure your child during the current global uncertainty with the conflicting, inconsistent or rapidly changing information and advice that continue to bombard us from all avenues (if we allow it) and can make us feel vulnerable and overwhelmed. I thought it might be timely to share a few things now…
Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist best known for a 1943 journal article in Psychological Review entitled, “A Theory of Motivation”, introduced us to “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”. This was a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in order of their priority, culminating in self-actualisation and, as he later added, self-transcendence. Throughout his career Maslow continued to stress that psychology should be focussed on the positive qualities in people, as opposed to treating them as a “bag of symptoms”. According to Maslow, a person displaying psychological symptoms was simply someone who was still on the road to reaching self-actualisation.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid, with the largest, most fundamental needs at the bottom, forming a strong platform from which individuals can launch themselves and strive to fulfil more complex psychological needs, all the way through to self-actualisation and transcendence at the top. In other words, the theory claims that an individual’s most basic physical needs must be met before they become motivated to achieve higher level needs of humanness.
If the most basic and fundamental four layers of the pyramid’s needs are not met, Maslow argued, there may not be a physical indication, but the individual will feel anxious and tense. Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic levels of need must be met before the individual will strongly desire or be able to focus their motivation upon the secondary or higher-level needs.
Physiological needs are a basic requirement for human survival. This means that physiological needs are universal human needs. These needs, including food, water, shelter, rest, and health, are considered the basic foundation to internal motivation, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The theory claims that humans are compelled to fulfil these physiological needs first in order to pursue intrinsic satisfaction at a higher level. If these needs are not able to be met, it leads to an increase in displeasure within the individual, and their motivation to meet these needs increases proportionately. This means that a person struggling to meet their physiological needs is unlikely to intrinsically pursue safety, belongingness, esteem, and self-actualisation. Take, for example, the panic buying some people are currently engaged in. People seem surprised that this is happening, but if you consider Maslow’s theory, it makes perfect sense. It doesn’t necessarily make it right; it just means that people are highly motivated to meet their most basic physiological needs before they can focus on the next step – safety and security. This does not mean that all tiers need to be fully achieved before a person can move onto the next tier. It is more of a guide as to what circumstances and goals can contribute to and explain a person’s behaviour.
Once a person’s physiological needs are relatively satisfied, their safety needs take priority and thus are the strongest motivator of behaviour. In the absence of physical safety – due to war, natural disaster, pandemic, family violence, childhood abuse, institutional racism and so on – people may experience stress, fear and anxiety. In a global pandemic, such as the one we currently face, the need for safety may manifest itself in such ways as a preference to remain healthy, perhaps by stockpiling food, protective face masks and medical supplies in order to remain at home, where one traditionally feels ‘safer’. Safety and security needs are about keeping ourselves safe from harm. These include shelter, job security, health, and safe environments. If a person does not feel safe in an environment, they will seek to find safety before they attempt to meet any higher level of psychological need.
Belongingness and love needs
These needs are met through the development and maintenance of meaningful relationships in life. Such relationships are most often first built with family members, before we venture out into establishing meaningful relationships with friends, peers, classmates, teachers, work colleagues, intimate relationships and so on. Meaningful relationships imply acceptance by others. Having satisfied their physiological and security needs, people can venture out and seek relationships in which their need for love and belonging can be met.
Maslow classified esteem needs into two categories :-
- Esteem for oneself, which includes things such as dignity, achievement, mastery, independence and;
- The desire for reputation or respect from others – status and/ or prestige
Maslow believed that the need for respect or reputation is most important for children and adolescents, and precedes “real” self-esteem or dignity which tend to develop later in most people.
Self-actualisation, according to Maslow, represents the growth of an individual toward the fulfillment of their highest needs—meaning in life, or finding one’s why. He contended that self-actualisers are highly creative and psychologically robust individuals who fulfil their “being” needs related to creative self-growth, thus reaching their potential.
Later in his career, following feedback on his earlier work, Maslow added a sixth tier to his pyramid: that of self-transcendence. This can be described as an individual’s ability to see themselves as part of a much bigger landscape, to see beyond their own individual well-being and consider the needs of all. Perhaps a desire to feel connected to something bigger than themselves gives people motivation to come together as a global community and work on finding solutions to issues such as climate change, water shortage, poverty, hunger and, currently, a world pandemic.
If we consider all of the above in the context of Coronavirus, it is no wonder people have been panic buying and stockpiling basic supplies of food and medical supplies for their own use or even “just in case” they might need it. It may not be in line with self-transcendence, but it can explain why it is happening. It is easy to understand some people’s need to first satisfy their physiological needs and those of safety and security, especially as the health crisis further leads to economic uncertainty and mass job loss, which contributes to additional feelings of vulnerability, insecurity and acute stress.
No matter which way you flip it, when you consider a global health pandemic combined with major economic instability, it is not a “one size fits all” situation we are facing. Each person will be impacted differently, either because they are working from different tiers of Maslow’s heirarchy to begin with, hence the growing frustration for those who have stockpiled, or circumstances beyond their control place them in a more highly vulnerable category, such as immune-suppressed or having elderly family members who rely on them to get their basic needs met. Or perhaps they have just been told they no longer have a job, which has ejected them into another tier of Maslow’s hierarchy overnight.
One thing is for sure, however: negative judgement of others at this time does not help anyone, nor does it improve the situation. People make the best decisions they can for their own circumstances using the information and resources they have available to them at the time. It is probably natural to assume that most are feeling anxious at the moment due to certain needs not being met. Patience, understanding and kindness, however, are the way forward, as we are considerate of others, pay attention to specialist advice and act as we are asked to by physically distancing ourselves from each other. This does not mean social distancing, as we are lucky enough to have multiple avenues to keep in touch via technology with our loved ones during this crisis.
We are a truly blessed generation who has had the lengthy luxury of being able to take health for granted for the most part, and we are used to a quick fix for almost everything due to gigantic leaps in medical research. What is happening in the world right now is almost unfathomable. Why is there not a quick fix? We must get on with things. We don’t want this inconvenient interruption to our otherwise over-packed lives. We have forgotten how to be patient. We have grown up with an abundance of everything. Opportunity, resources, technological advances have all been at our finger tips and our lives have grown increasingly busy. So, when people are asked to put their lives on pause momentarily for the greater good of all, some find this more inconvenient than others.
If we all act kindly toward each other and work to actively acknowledge the fear and panic surrounding the current situation, these feelings of anxiety become less oppressive and can be dealt with openly. People will begin to feel safer in their external environment, thus fostering healthy relationships, and understanding and meeting self-esteem needs. Self-actualization will follow and with a greater sense of purpose, and self-transcendence can be achieved more effectively. It is our only hope to conquer this and future pandemics. To move through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we must utilise our evolved intelligence to be kind to each other, more selfless and less selfish, releasing the “free-for-all” or “me” mentality we have developed. We must support each other and become “us”. And we must be brave.