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.