Friday, 24 April 2015

From metamotivation to the mass media - an appraisal of Abraham Maslow

I have been re-reading the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) - who I regard as a sympathetic and insightful writer.

Maslow studied psychologically-healthy people, in a reaction against the focus on psychopathology of Freud, Adler, Jung and the like; and developed an 'optimistic' psychology which regarded Man as having a variety of higher and distinctively human instincts that demanded expression in the same fashion as our lower and animal instincts.

Maslow's basic thesis was therefore that when Man's survival needs have been satisfied; then - quite spontaneously and inevitably - higher meta-needs lead to the emergence and dominance of meta-motivations - in particular meta-motivations towards spirituality, creativity, artistic appreciation and the life. This seemed obviously true back in the nineteen-fifties and early sixties; but it does not seem obviously true since. It is not at all obvious that well-fed, comfortable, safe people are spontaneously reaching for higher things - indeed, quite the opposite.


It is hard, now, to imagine a world in which an earnest, exploratory, uncompromising idealist like Maslow could be elected President of the American Psychological Association, and become an international figure.

It is also clear that when people, en masse, have been given the conditions in which they might express meta-motivations; they instead spend many hours per day engaged in futile, undirected, cyclical self-distraction and auto-stimulation via the mass media. This sheer, deliberate wasting of time had already begun during Maslow's life, with people spending many hours per day watching TV - but has now reached unprecedented levels with smart-phones providing 24/7 portability and choice.

The question is whether Maslow was wrong about the emergence of meta-needs and -motivations; or whether there are indeed such needs but they have simply been buried beneath the more powerful and  immediate fake needs and motivations, provided on a moment-by-moment basis by the mass media.


My feeling is that there is a bit of both - Maslow's thesis of emerging higher needs was probably applicable to only a minority of the population; but also this minority have been corrupted, addicted and enslaved by the growth of mass media power and reach.

This has reached an extremity of incomprehension, where each person's awareness of their own addiction and slavery has been lost; and they would be shocked at the suggestion that they lacked any significant appreciation or desire for higher things.

The high-end media flatters each person (especially including those who produce the media) that they are already refined, creative, heroic, altruistic, truth-seeking, loving and compassionate individuals - a state apparently achieved merely by their passive absorption of media-generated material.


Maslow, for all his worth and achievement, intrinsically undercut his own thesis by his rejection of religion. He assumed that it would suffice to base human life upon an assertion of the biological reality of a higher instinctive world, and that Men would be motivated by the circular reasoning of telling them about their intrinsic motivations.

Maslow hoped that telling people that their highest goals were instincts, part of human nature, would strengthen these higher goals, and make them more socially-dominant.

In fact, it did the opposite. Maslow's psychology ends-up being self-destroying and self-refuting.


Once Men really believe that their highest motivations are simply a product of their innate biological nature, as Maslow taught; then these motivations lose imperative force. Human nature is then seen as an accident of evolution, and something always changing in response to society, natural selection, drugs, sickness.

Everything is seen as contingent, hence imperatives are illusory; therefore a life of psychological passivity and self-manipulation - a life of mass media addiction with individuality expressed as within-media choices - becomes not just reasonable but somehow inevitable.


As so often with recent thinkers, Maslow was strong on diagnosis and strong on aspirations; but weak on prescription. And as so often, this was because of his atheism - and the fact that he was trying to build the self and society on foundations of nihilism.

However, if we reintroduce religion as the proper basis of Maslow's ideas; then they become more accurate, coherent, viable and indeed motivating.

So Abraham Maslow can be recognised as a worthwhile thinker, and one we can continue to learn from.



David Balfour said...

I have always found the humanistic psychologists including Maslow and Rogers inspirational and intuitive with regards to the possibilities of encouraging personal growth and development in a therapeutic context. Maslow for a focus on growth and Rogers for modelling the core conditions of a 'nurturing' relationship (my reservations about a completely 'non-judgemental' stance are that it is not possible and potentially harmful). As a former atheist this seemed like the best possible approach to take the good/desirable bits from something like a pastoral spiritual role and secularised it. It held great appeal for me for a while. As you point out though, it doesn't work when amputated from the source. I understand Rogers was consciously adopting a secular stance from a personal family history in a Christian tradition when he tried to do this. As Christian now I see the humanists as misguided in denying the real source of their intellectual achievements. It seems rather like taking a juicy apple and insisting it never grew from a tree. Even worse, nowadays, the evidence based therapy cartel deny any validity to it at all due to 'lack of evidence' and so even the apple is regarded as extremely suspicious and the tree must not be mentioned directly at all or the Gods of CBT and EBM will not tolerate it. I say be a Christian and all the theoretical problems disappear.

With regards to Media addiction as other element of this post. It occurs to me Bruce that perhaps the other major problem is a deliberate prevention of people from having unstructured leisure time at all. I do not use media except bare minimum for spiritual or wholesome activities but I am kept so busy with long hours at work, chores and overtime that I cannot find the time to reach the dizzy heights of self-actualization or development. I have been trying to finish book 3 of Harry Potter for months and can usually only find 5-10 min here or there to dip in before bedtime and when the dishes are done and lunch made. I am always amazed and slightly envious that you seem to be so avid a reader and connoisseur of literature. Goodness knows I'm not sure how to find the time. I agree that media addiction will waste your time but it is also a v scarce commodity. My ongoing project to learn to play 'recuerdos del alhambra' on the guitar for example, seems to be constantly thwarted by mowing the lawn and making dinner for my partner (for example). I would like to think retirement might offer some self-actualization time but I fear my mental faculties and manual dexterity may have dulled somewhat in 30-40 years time (anticipated retirement). Work - life balance is very elusive it seems.

Nicholas Fulford said...

Functionally Maslow has a fair bit to offer, but there are also a few problems. He failed to consider addictive feedback loops as mechanisms for stopping aspirations towards higher goals in the hierarchy.

Such things as video games, and twitter, Facebook, et cetera, lead to a giant stop sign for many people. The social level has been subverted by endogenous neural chemical induction by the process. Hence video game addiction is drug addiction, as are other types of digital media addictions. Those addictions stop progress.


Bruce Charlton said...

@DB - I'm afraid that my position is (and has been for a long time) that I don't really regard psychotherapy as a valid 'job'; indeed I am sure it does considerably more harm than good.

Like any drug, there are always side effects from psychotherapeutic 'treatment' - and when the treatment is as ineffective as psychotherapy, that means the harm nearly always outweighs the benefit.

Which is probably not what you are wanting to hear!

Anyway, as regards to finding time to do the things (and live in the way) that makes life worthwhile - I can only suggest that you take the Thoreauvian approach of cutting down your 'needs' so that you don't need to work so many hours, so you have more time.

David Balfour said...

@Bruce - what one wants to hear is not as important as what one needs to hear, and so, I appreciate your honesty. Finding a valid 'job' is something which has thus far eluded me and I am still searching for one. I did have an opportunity to do such a job at one point in my life when I was young and foolish. Sadly I squandered that opportunity and I seek repentance for that every wasted opportunity every day. I hope time will allow a new and better path with my remaining mortal days. The Thoreauvian approach is a good possibility. I am now trying to find a break even point that will allows me enough money amd resources to marry my girlfriend, have a family and still find some time for enriching leisure activities and ideally belonging to a wholesome community of some kind. Finding the LDS church has certainly changed my perspective profoundly.

JP said...

they would be shocked at the suggestion that they lacked any significant appreciation or desire for higher things

They would say that "appreciating higher things" is just another lifestyle choice, no more valid than any other. They might well even deny that there are any "higher things" to appreciate.

Nathaniel said...

Please delete if off topic, but there are some interesting blogs on the internet ("Early Retirement Extreme" is one), where groups of moderns follow Thoreau's approach. Believe-it-or-not Jacob at ERE has been living off 7k for a number of years now and "retired" (that is, achieved financial independence) at 33. I'm doing something similar myself, though the "movement" tends to be secular and liberal.

knifecatcher said...

"Thoreauvian approach of cutting down your 'needs'"

Epictetus 100 AD:

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”

“Most of what passes for legitimate entertainment is inferior or foolish and only caters to or exploits people's weaknesses. Avoid being one of the mob who indulges in such pastimes."

Bruce Charlton said...

@BD - I would not worry about whether or not you have a 'valid' job (collaborating tax collectors and publicans were regarded as OK); what is important seems to be honesty, honest dealings, especially honesty with oneself.

JP said...

Does Jacob have children? I suspect he is childless like that tiresome Leftist troublemaker Thoreau. Women and children are probably among the "wants" Jacob has eliminated, since few of them want to live "simply" in the woods. It goes without saying that we cannot perpetuate or enlarge Christian civilization without reproducing.

In short this sounds like another brand of narcissism and nihilism.

David Balfour said...

@Bruce - A late after thought to this post: with reference to your comments in relation to 'valid' jobs and your evaluation that psychotherapy is harmful. Am I to presume that implies that your evaluation of your own former field of Psychiatry or related fields such as Clinical Psychology or Mental Health Nursing are also not 'good' jobs and arguably intrinsically harmful? Insofar as these professions *can* create an opportunity to serve others, alleviate emotional and mental distress, etc they seem to offer aspects of a potentially noble and valuable vocation (A reason I was first attracted to them). However, I worry increasingly that if the work of these fields are explicitly and implicitly secular and that any consideration of spiritual wellbeing is excluded de facto from these roles, then, at best, their purpose is merely to get patients to become comfortable with and a docile compliant *believer* that if they follow a self - help regime with faith then all of the deepest problems of life will somehow evaporate or indeed may never have been admitted to exist at all! I find this particularly troubling because the more I critically evaluate the field in which I work the more I see it playing perfectly into the hands of Screwtape (as per your later post). It seems the disconnection of what is important from secular life is so deep and pervasive there is little opportunity to find a work role that is not complicit with a campaign of long - term destruction. At the moment my feeling that I am taking part in this is so upsetting I am seriously considering opting out and finding another way of making a living. If that is possible, but at times it seems not. My best idea at present is something fairly benign like running a BnB someday or retraining as an engineer or tradesman, but, like you say if Tax collectors are ok perhaps I am giving this issue unwarranted focus.

Bruce Charlton said...

@DB - I have no constructive advice on this matter, certainly nothing coherent and generally applicable. I suppose that one can only draw a line when a line must be drawn, and take the consequences - if there are any. It's mainly a negative perspective.

David said...

A late afterthought to this post. On reflection it seems to me that being a caring mental health professional is a very valid job to do. The current health care systems may attenuate or deaden the influence of individuals working within it (which is a real despair inducing challenge) but supporting those in mental distress and anguish is still a noble cause. Perhaps counselling is a more effective modality of therapy if applied with love?! There will always be a need for this kind of support to help others to deal with the hardships and trials of life such as horrific trauma and loss as in the video post. So perhaps it is more how you do what you do for a living,and the spirit with which you do it, than what you do that is the crucial element. Either way I need to find solace and hope where I can otherwise the stream of seemingily senseless suffering in other peoples lives becomes unbearable to witness and makes one feel futile beyond offering kindness and time to unburden a heavy heart.