The Paradox in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


Most of you are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

You’ll notice that safety is near the foundation of the pyramid. This includes security of employment and resources. So it appears Maslow believed the need for safety included economic security. Once we achieve economic security we can more easily build friendships, families, and sexual intimacy after which we can build confidence and achievement, which propels us onward to self-actualization.

But here lies the paradox…

There is no economic security, except to the extent that we continue to provide increasing value to one another.

Our fear of losing our economic safety is what prevents us from taking risks and risk taking is what leads to economic growth which is the foundation for reaching the top of Maslow’s pyramid. Most of us don’t want wealth just to have wealth. We want the secure feeling we think wealth will give us. Once we have that feeling we believe we will spend our time doing things we love rather than worrying about money. But you’ll never get there unless you risk your economic security. You have to act in spite of your fear. It is an undeniable fact that you cannot increase the size of the economic pie without risk. To create more wealth, you must trade in your current habits and actions for ones that will be more productive, but since you can’t predict the future you can’t be sure your plan will work. This is one reason it is easier for you to take an entrepreneurial track younger in life. You generally have less to lose.

The need for economic security appears to be the only need in Maslow’s Hierarchy that is in direct conflict with reaching the next level. Fear of losing what we are prevents us from becoming what we want to be. Brave steps forward lead to growth; fearful clinging leads to atrophy.

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take – Wayne Getzky (HT to Lyman Reed)

Risk taking is not for everyone, and if you choose to take minimal economic risk you will likely have enough fish to eat, but accept that other people will always own the nets and the boat. However, if you choose to take larger risks you should calculate them carefully. You should know the worst case scenario, the most likely scenario, and the best case scenario. No matter the result, be willing to accept it without complaint because it will be your creation.

Let me leave you with something written 25 years ago by some smart teenagers.

Those people who tell you not to take chances
They are all missing on what life is about
You only live once so take hold of the chance
Don’t end up like others the same song and dance
– Metallica, 1982

Don’t miss anything, click and subscribe.

20 thoughts on “The Paradox in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”

  1. Most people will indeed opt for financial security and stay stuck to some degree. You make a good point. On the other hand, however, I’ve seen people put creativity before safety. And there are revolutionaries who put morality before safety. This post really made me think.

  2. “But you’ll never get there unless you risk your economic security. You have to act in spite of your fear.”

    I found myself thinking about the internet while reading your post. Whether real or virtual, we must overcome fear to go forward. I cannot readily think of any instance where, when forward motion was required, standing still achieved results.


  3. Maslow has it upside down on everything (in my humble opinion). It’s all about perception. For example, I now live in one of the best neighborhoods in my city and the emails from the community fly around daily suspecting criminals around them. What do they get, insidious theft?

    On the other hand, I just traveled to San Francisco and walked around in some of the worst neighborhoods and never worried about my safety.

    Life, by and large, is about perception. The same fear that keeps us worrying about economic security, is the fear that makes you clutch your purse in a downtown area when you’re not from a city.

    Hope that makes sense. This was really thought provoking.

    In Spirit,

  4. @Nneka,
    I know you are right. Perception is everything. I have never met people more paranoid that upper middle class suburbanites. Unfortunately alot of it has rubbed off on me these last few years. Christine and I lived in poor or working class neighborhoods our whole lives… until her book business took off… and we needed a new house for the business. In our last house we were quite happy with 900 sq ft.

    The neighborhood we are in is wonderful and our neighbors are great… But I must say as I’ve climbed the economic ladder I’ve discovered, the higher I go the more afraid people seem to be. I’d say there is an underlying current of anxiety everywhere in suburbia. I can’t put my finger on it, but I sense it.

    When Christine and I lived in the ghetto, the kids ran wild and no one was afraid of anything but the police. I had a tip job so I always had some cash on me and when it snowed I used to pay the little kids (7-8) in the neighborhood to help me dig the car out. Man they loved that and they were great little workers. If I gave a strange eight year old kid any money in the suburbs I’d probably get arrested. I’d never do that here without asking the parents first, It’s a whole different world.

    I’m not saying the ghetto was better… it wasn’t… it sucked and we wanted nothing more than to get out. But I must say… people in poor and working class neighborhoods don’t seem nearly so uptight and afraid. My theory is that they have less to lose, while middle class people are terrified of appearing to be poor or plebeian in any way. But if you looked at their net worth many of them would be as poor as anyone in the ghetto. Upper middle class debt slaves. One layoff away from bankruptcy.

    It is funny… After several years living where I live I feel anxious in areas I would have been at ease in years ago. Strange how it changes you. I’ll have to work on that. It is only perception… right?

  5. Just my two cents on the topic… the appearance of self is everything to those risen just above the lower bar of middle class. The producers of Desperate Housewives have overused this a bit but I believe that it was their primary inspiration for the show.

    If your kids were brought up with a golden spoon in their mouth, would they have the same fear of loosing everything? Most likely – not.

    “After several years living where I live I feel anxious in areas I would have been at ease in years ago. Strange how it changes you. I’ll have to work on that. It is only perception… right?” – I do not thing that perception is the one to blame. I have the same feeling, and I interpret it like this – “If I get murdered today, I have a lot more to loose compared to being murdered five years ago”. Your accomplishments are hard worked for and you fear loosing what they have brought to you.

    Love your blog, keep up the good work.

  6. That’s why Maslow talked about redefining the idea of profit and cost in his “Eupsychian Management.” Did Maslow write to make money, or did he write to communicate ideas? We need to start thinking about what to do after one person has all the money!

  7. With all due respect Vnuk, accomplishments! Accomplishments are measured by our perception of them. In the grand scheme of things they mean nothing along with the car and the house.

    The thing that we have to lose is pride. Yes, we put a lot of effort into getting where we are. (I lump myself in there because I’ve come a long way too.) However, having gotten to where I was (six-figure job with world travel), taking a look around and realizing that I was more miserable than where I was, I must say that the “accomplishments” amounted to my pride, how I appeared, what my life looked like to the outside world.

    Fear of losing the pride and the appearance was at the root of the misery. Yes, economic security was a part of it, but I’d been economically insecure and I got myself out of it. It was all a perception. Everything is temporary. We are only enjoying it for a moment.

    This underlying anxiety only undercuts our enjoyment. It serves to keep us marginally content. We are kept in our place by our own glass ceiling.

    If I got murdered today I will lose my life. A life that I have finally started living. Thankfully, I will not have any regrets as I am living on my own terms today, as opposed to 5 years ago.

  8. Everything’s political, and there is a political element to what you’re saying. While it’s true that a rising tide raises all boats, so that in a growing economy even the poorest and unskilled will probably find work, and those who are risking more stand a good chance of being rewarded better than those who stay put in their salaried positions, but when the economy goes tits up, who ends up on the street? That’s why most European countries with their social model of making sure that even the poorest have Maslow’s basic needs covered, including adequate health care, have the better idea. Besides, I really don’t see how reaching the top of the heap financially translates into enjoying the benefits of the pyramid. I can be a pauper and still be creative. Haven’t many great artists died penniless?

  9. Ian,
    I understand your point and many people agree. But what creates the increasing wealth neccessary for the social safety net? Risk taking entreprenuers. If the saftey net is too generous/taxes too oppressive it takes away the incentive to take risks which makes everyone poorer and supplies less for the safety net. There are clear empirical studies that show that the more generous and longer term unemployment benefits are the longer people tend to stay unemployed and the higher the unemployment rate.

    But enough about economics. That wasn’t my point.

    My point is that if you can’t let go of you fear of losing your employment, you probably will never climb the pyramid. And I guess that’s okay. But the more people that do reach a point of self-actualization the better off society will be ethically, morally, and economically.

    Back to your point:

    If a higher percentage of people get to the top of the pyramid the less need we would have for a social safety net.

  10. Ian,

    Besides, I really don’t see how reaching the top of the heap financially translates into enjoying the benefits of the pyramid. I can be a pauper and still be creative. Haven’t many great artists died penniless?

    I completely agree with you here. If you can be self-actualized and homeless and penniless? great.

    But the truth is… most of us can’t.

    I like what Wallace D Wattles says –

    I do not say that you should be hard hearted or unkind, and refuse to hear the cry of need; but you must not try to eradicate poverty in any of the conventional ways. Put poverty behind you, and put all that pertains to it behind you, and “make good.”

    Get rich; that is the best way you can help the poor.

    And you cannot hold the mental image which is to make you rich if you fill your mind with pictures of poverty. Do not read books or papers which give circumstantial accounts of the wretchedness of the tenement dwellers, of the horrors of child labor, and so on. Do not read anything which fills your mind with gloomy images of want and suffering.

    You cannot help the poor in the least by knowing about these things; and the wide-spread knowledge of them does not tend at all to do away with poverty.

    What tends to do away with poverty is not the getting of pictures of poverty into your mind, but getting pictures of wealth into the minds of the poor.

    You are not deserting the poor in their misery when you refuse to allow your mind to be filled with pictures of that misery.

    Poverty can be done away with, not by increasing the number of well to do people who think about poverty, but by increasing the number of poor people who purpose with faith to get rich.

    The poor do not need charity; they need inspiration. Charity only sends them a loaf of bread to keep them alive in their wretchedness, or gives them an entertainment to make them forget for an hour or two; but inspiration will cause them to rise out of their misery. If you want to help the poor, demonstrate to them that they can become rich; prove it by getting rich yourself.

    The only way in which poverty will ever be banished from this world is by getting a large and constantly increasing number of people to practice the teachings of this book.

    People must be taught to become rich by creation, not by competition.

    Every man who becomes rich by competition throws down behind him the ladder by which he rises, and keeps others down; but every man who gets rich by creation opens a way for thousands to follow him, and inspires them to do so.

    You are not showing hardness of heart or an unfeeling disposition when you refuse to pity poverty, see poverty, read about poverty, or think or talk about it, or to listen to those who do talk about it. Use your will power to keep your mind OFF the subject of poverty, and to keep it fixed with faith and purpose ON the vision of what you want.

  11. Hi, i don’t see your chain of reasoning to all extent here. You’ve stated “economic growth [..] is the foundation for reaching the top of Maslows pyramid”. Some other website states that “It’s time to discard the outdated notion that more economic growth automatically equals greater wellbeing.” and I think this is what the hierarchy says, too. Once your safety needs are fulfilled, you can care about other, higher things. What’s wrong with eating fish, without owning the boats? Haven’t you heard that the citizens of bangladesh are among the most happy in the world? They own shit, for all I know. The hierarchy of needs shouldn’t be confused with liberal ideas of “rich equals happy” or something, on the contrary.

    But thanks for pitching in this new perspective.


  12. Steve,
    Been away on holidays, but back to your comment: If a higher percentage of people get to the top of the pyramid the less need we would have for a social safety net.
    The top of the pyramid is by definition a narrow place, which only a few will attain. In a rat-race dog-eat-dog world, those who don’t attain the top of the pyramid will get trampled upon. Like I said, it’s all political. I would rather live in Europe and make less money, knowing my higher taxes are going toward a more just society. It’s simply a more humane way to live.

  13. Ian,
    The top of the pyramid I was referring to isn’t necessarily the economic pyramid. I was referring to Maslow’s Pyramid in the graphic used in my post. It is defined as “Morality, spontaneity, creativity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, and acceptance.”

    I am happy for you folks in Europe. But it still takes a massive amount of productivity from those at the top of the economic heap to create the security for those at the bottom. So far so good in some Western European democracies. I love the way you care for each other and I hope it works out well for you in the long run, but I’m afraid it is just wishful thinking.

    Have you ever read Johan Norberg the Swedish economist?
    I love him… You should watch this video.

  14. There is no paradox in Maslow’s hierarchy. Maslow’s hierarchy are the transitions in a cycle. You ascend the hierarchy as part of the induction into a state of transcendence and you descend the hierarchy as part of the deduction of a new state. In otherwords Maslow’s hierarchy is not about a single ascent but a series of incremental ascents.

  15. excuse me, but , maybe the problem is the nature of the way we do
    and the nature of the resulting process of acquiring those basic
    needs .
    Maybe getting rid of the risk-takers would get rid of the risks.?
    I mean , employment; (trading our labor for other things we need),
    has in its present incarnation, the necessity of giving most of the produce
    of that labor to a risk-taking entrpreneur , more likely a collective corporate “person”.
    I say screw them , the workers should own the company .
    Not only does that risk-taker extraordinaire take that
    portion of your labor , but then ,his psycho-pathological twin extorts a
    little more ‘profit ‘ from you every time that you go to trade that labor equivalant (money)
    for those basic need items .
    And the big ticket items like a house or a car or an education is where any real hope of a
    peaceful sense of security gets shot permanently all to hell.
    I say socialise our banking system , cause if there is such a thing as natural
    interest, it’s a common property sort
    of thing and should be collectively applied to providing basic needs to the owners of the money (the worker).
    Screw the bankers and be free, I say.
    The topic of risk-takers and the romanticising of this is something that irks me cuz
    most risk-takers lose their ass , but if you allow them to play in your economic
    game One of the stupid bastards will
    always win the biggest prise cuz thats the only thing they want to win – Just look at our president –
    What could exemplify a risk-taker more than someone from the oil industry.
    Ya spend a $million or so to find out if there is oil a mile beneath the ground over here and then over there ,Wasnt none, Oh well, wasnt my money anyway!
    There are political things we could do to make lifes acquisition process of the
    basic needs items an easier task.
    We could make it impossible for large corporations to monopolise the land that
    people need for homes , crops , businesses.
    We could subsidise farm tractors so that poor people could farm instead of paying farmers not
    to grow stuff.
    there has got to be a million things we could do to make the citizenry more
    happy, content , civilised and actualised
    but our Elite risk-takers billionaires club that runs this country wants
    that surplus population that Marx talked about .
    Thats why they want to let the poor mexicans in -they need poor unactualised people .
    And there is a way to maintain your economic security – just dont give so much of the produce of your labor to Mr. Moneybags or his govt.
    Has halliburton been actualised ? how about exxon ? the carlyle group?
    I rest my case !

  16. After 30 years of business consulting and having worked with Non-Linear system in the ’60’s where Maslow did his early corporate work, I have found that Maslow offers some of the simplest and most rational approachs to behavior. However, the Republicans have tried to take advantage of lack of economic security for Americans in order to control though intimidaton. From Nixon to Reagan to Bush to Bush, the republican model has been one of being afraid of everything. Paranoia has made Bush/Hassert/Cheney/ etc. very rich and they have Rush and O’reilly to keep feeding it.
    Wake up America.

  17. To all, i beleive that Maslow had a large quanitity of knowledge on the topic of human needs. But as a human, don’t we all? We are aware of what satisfies us. Maslow created the hierarchy to remind us, why we are on Earth and what is required for our satisfaction. To all who mentioned politics in this discussion, i do believe that it is the individual who must interpret the hierarchy in which ever way their character leads them to interpret it. If economics and politics is what comes to your mind, then one could assume that you are satisfied by the representation of economics and politics in every aspect of life. Personally i believe that satisfaction is acquired by pure goodness and pure charm, not by the way an economic plan unfolds or what deals are made. My opinion, of course. But I do believe Maslow was a man of ideas, and this idea was to allow humans to be rational, and evaluate their life i hopes of finding true happiness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *