More on Self-Actualization as Biologically Driven

In a previous post, I summarized a study by Douglas Kenrick, from the University of Arizona, and colleagues that looked at self-actualization as a biological drive.

It’s been about 80 years since Maslow introduced his hierarchy of needs and it is still influential today. However, science has evolved since Maslow’s time, particularly in the newer fields of evolutionary biology and positive psychology. In 2010, Douglas Kenrick from the University of Arizona and his colleagues published a seminal paper revisiting Maslow’s hierarchy of human motives in light of newer scientific advances.

Key Takeaway

Maslow's hierarchy of needs has been revisited through the lens of evolutionary biology. Although self-actualization can be separated from simple physiological needs, under evolutionary biology, "no human need can be meaningfully separated from biology." This in no way "diminishes the phenomenological or psychological importance of self-actualization itself."

Maslow believed that the motives in his hierarchy were probably universal, but psychologists then didn’t think in terms of evolutionary adaptations. Under evolutionary theory, universal behaviours were “likely selected because they increased our ancestors’ reproductive success.” From this perspective, if self-actualization is a universal need, Kenrick et al. suggest that it is not a functionally distinct need at all (in evolutionary psychology, the term “functional” refers to having a survival or reproductive purpose). Although it can be separated from simple physiological needs, under evolutionary biology, “no human need can be meaningfully separated from biology.” He writes that:

“A modern functional analysis demands that one ask what adaptive (i.e., [biological] fitness-related) payoffs might be associated with a motive for self-actualization or, alternatively, whether the capacity to strive for self-actualization might be a nonadaptive consequence of other adaptive mechanisms.”

He admits that:

“there may be fitness-relevant consequences associated with striving for self-actualization. But these consequences may not be specific to self-actualization. The functional benefits associated with self-actualization may be no different from those associated with esteem/status or mating-related needs.”

In fact,

“… human displays of creative and intellectual capacities are directly linked to reproductive success. Talented artists, musicians, or writers frequently show off their creative outputs to others and may receive very high levels of fame, resources, and romantic interests as a result.”

He gives a few examples: Diego Rivera, Duke Ellington, John Lennon, and Pablo Neruda, all of whom converted their actualized talents into “fame, fortune and reproductive opportunities.” From their research, Kenrick et al. posit that:

“self-actualization … can provide an alternative pathway to esteem and social status and, consequently, has indirect implications for successful mating and reproductive fitness.”

By removing it as a separate, higher, need, it doesn’t “diminish the phenomenological or psychological importance of self-actualization itself. But neither phenomenological nor psychological importance is sufficient argument to accord self-actualization the status of a functionally distinct motive or need.”

Although the psychological motives for self-actualization may be conscious, the evolutionary motives would be outside of our conscious awareness. We generally don’t start our quest for self-actualization for the purpose of acquiring tangible rewards or finding a romantic partner.

This open-access paper has generated much interest (it’s been cited in 250 academic papers) and is not without controversy. Nevertheless, regardless of what we believe, it does show how science progresses, how old theories can be revisited using new evidence. It is an illuminating read: The paper also revisits Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from a developmental and proximal level.

  • Would self-actualization be Synonymous with living a “righteous” and perfect life living up to one human potential? Because man has been attempting to do that since before written history.
    Are humans the only life form that seeks to perform at its highest level possible? Is this what Self actualization is?

    • Self-actualization is about fulfilling one’s potential, so it’s not necessarily synonymous with living a “righteous” and perfect life. Picasso, for example, would be considered self-actualized, but he was hardly living a “righteous” or perfect life. I think that perhaps Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow is consist with self-actualization: In the moments when we are in flow, we may be self-actualized. We can also live a life of flow that Csikszentmihalyi calls an autotelic, which I think wculd be synonymous with self-actualized.

  • The controversy in progress is growth our ability to analyze and debate is evolutionary, thank you for the article it nourishes progress

    • Thank you for your comment Kevin. Yes, whether we want to believe that self-actualization is biologically driven or not, we need to be aware of the discussion surrounding evolutionary theory. The debate has also been taken to public health: The Lancet has very recently published a series on the application of evolutionary theory to public health.

    • Thank you Marie Louise. There may be no difference between the two. Both may have emerged as non-adaptive consequences of specific fitness-related behaviours.

  • Thanks Irene. Enjoyed reading the articles u posted . Thanks for sharing . Good learning materials which Meta Coaches in NS people should think more deeply n apply .

    • Thank you, Selina. I realize that this, and my previous post, have created some controversy but old theories, no matter how attached we are to them, do need to be revisited from time to time using new evidence. And rather than taking away from Maslow’s theory, it adds to it: That in addition to the psychological importance of self-actualization, it’s also of phenomenological importance.

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