A group of evolutionary psychologists is proposing a revision to Abraham H. Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs pyramid, replacing self-actualization at the top with parenting. They will continue, quite sensibly, to be put physical needs at the base of the pyramid, reflecting Maslow’s insight that when these are not met, human beings tend to think about little else.
The revisionists want to place parenting at the top because they see no evolutionary purpose to self-actualization. There is a better reason to be dubious of a psychology theory that tries to assign scientific validation or superiority to self-actualization or any other subjective values concerning how people should live.
The best sense I can give of how influential Maslow was in psychology in the 1960s and 1970s is that the eminent George Albee ran against him in 1968 for American Psychological Association president and lost by a landslide, leading George to say “My wife and mother voted for Maslow”. Maslow was influential because he was very smart, wrote well, and had many good ideas. But he was also influential because his theory told many of the cultural elites of the era that they were objectively more mental healthy and more psychologically developed than were their opponents. Flattering poppycock, and also dangerously undemocratic.
I worked with a Maslow student very early in my career, and so with trembling hands was able to read my mentor’s copy of Motivation and Personality, which was autographed by the great man himself. It still reads very well today, but when it comes to discussing self-actualization, it’s simply wrong. Maslow did what Kolhberg did in his theory of moral development and Rollo May and all the existentialist psychiatrists did in their theories: He asserted that the objectively highest state of human development was to be like him and like people he admired.
Maslow admired many people I admire, Abraham Lincoln for example. But he and I can’t admire Lincoln through some objective lens as psychologists or scientists. We can only say we admire Lincoln with the same level of objectivity that someone else might admire Jefferson Davis. Maslow wanted to give a scientific validation that, for example, the Viet Nam war protester was objectively superior to the Viet Nam war general, the environmentalist was objectively superior to the captain of industry etc. Many cultural elites ate it up, just as Soviet elites ate it up when their psychiatrists said that anyone who didn’t love the government was mentally ill and needed electroshock treatment post-haste.
Psychologists and social scientists generally still venture repeatedly today into the territory of human values and attempt to claim the ability to make objective judgments about which are the most healthy or scientifically validated. They don’t ever seem to learn that they are often just trying to rationalize cultural fashions: In the 1940s the “mentally healthy” person was one who respected tradition, but he morphed into the to-be-pitied “organization man” in the 1950s. Many psychologists valorized divorce as the “authentic, mentally healthy choice” for those who were not “growing” in the 1970s, whereas today they tend to say that it’s better to stick it out and stop complaining so much. Maybe humility should go at the top of the pyramid of psychological development for psychologists. In a democracy, social scientists and health experts should not cast themselves as able to render objective judgments on how everyone else should live.