On Maslow – Rory Miller



In 1943 Abraham Maslow published his famous hierarchy of needs.

The idea was simple.  If you are in danger of dying—starving, thirsty, sick or about to be killed and eaten– that is your highest priority.  Until you have taken care of your immediate survival needs you don’t give a damn, and you don’t waste resources, on anything else.

Once your immediate physical needs are taken care of, you can start thinking about your physical security.  How do you arrange to have food and water tomorrow and next week?  How do you get shelter to protect you from the elements and from predators?

The next stage is the awkwardly titled “Belongingness” need.  Humans in the wild are poorly adapted to live alone.  Providing all of the physical security needs is easier with a group, with tasks divided among several people.  This is compounded by the fact that human children cannot survive alone.  We are born into a family group of some sort and spend the rest of our lives in groups.  Not only are few humans fit to survive alone, most can’t even truly imagine being alone for any length of time.  I can guarantee you that the most profound introvert you know reads or listens to music every day.  Just because someone has trouble with the stress of interaction does not mean that they don’t need the connection.

Almost as important as being in a group is knowing your place within that group.  Maslow linked this to status in the group, being loved and respected.  That’s nice, but the need is deeper and less logical than that.  Even being low status, a pariah, is less stressful than being unsure of your status.  Most people have felt this uncertainty joining a new job or new team or a new school.  You’re on board, maybe even have a title and official status… but you need to see where you fit with the social groups, the unofficial status hierarchy.  Again, fitting in somewhere is far more important than where you fit in.

Lastly, according to Maslow, if all of these needs are fulfilled an individual can self-actualize.  You can live your dreams.  Follow your heart.  Write poetry or sculpt or do philanthropic charity work.  Or you can live out your serial killer fantasies.

That’s important.  Not everyone shares your dreams.  Not all humans draw joy from the same things.  The pattern of Maslow’s hierarchy are nearly universal.  Their expression, however, can run the entire spectrum of human thought and feeling.  If you give a man everything he needs, he will start looking for what he wants.  What he (or she, men have no monopoly on this) wants may be to dominate or to destroy.  You cannot simultaneously ignore this fact and deal with it.

Maslow’s model make sit easier to understand that there are different types of violence.  We all have extensive experience with conflict stemming from “Belongingness” and “Esteem” needs.  Every stupid Monkey Dance, every bar fight, your family arguments, people starting gossip campaigns at work—they all were motivate by this level.  And immense experience with this is worthless when the threat is motivated by any other level.

The survival level?  Have you ever had to fight someone under a bad meth or PCP reaction, or tried to rescue someone drowning?  It’s like trying to fight a cornered rat who is as big as you are.  Sometimes superhumanly fast and strong, they don’t communicate, they don’t respond normally to pain, they have no social controls on their level of violence.  Sometimes most tragically, they do not know how to surrender or quit and will fight to heart attack.  Nothing like a sparring match or throwing a drunk out of a bar.

The security level?  Back in the old days, this was what we did for food.  We hunted. We didn’t fight or argue or challenge, we used surprise, plans, numbers and overwhelming force to get meat.  Bad guys use these same techniques and this same mentality for drug money. They don’t square off, they don’t give warning (unless you know what to look for) and they don’t give you a chance.  Almost everything you know from social levels of violence, whether competition or bar brawling will backfire here.

And, lastly, the self actualized level.  This is someone who hurts people for fun and has no hang-ups about it.  Not only will your social skills backfire, they will be consciously used against you.  This is a threat who hunts (or tortures, physically or emotionally) for sport, not for meat.

To prepare your students, they must know what type of threat they are facing and have the skills to switch to the appropriate level of response.

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