Eighth-graders are remarkably receptive.  I use as an enrichment topic in my literature classes the Needs Hierarchy of the psychologist Abraham Maslow.  Students who find this interesting can then evaluate literary characters based on how circumstances fulfill the characters’ needs at different levels of personal development.  As students explore this model, they begin to speculate about the development of characters and the needs they are trying to fulfill.  This speculation deepens their understanding of characters’ motivations.

Many researchers have updated Maslow’s model since his death in 1970.  The following diagram illustrates the kinds of needs people have as they grow.  Generally speaking, as people find one category of needs met, they generate a new set of needs based on a higher phase of growth.

Of course, real-life people inspired Maslow’s framework and his research.  His work gives us insight not only into human potential, but also into the causes of human suffering and tragedy.

In the midst of the unfortunate events in the Ukraine, we can understand from Maslow the profound implications of unfulfilled needs and the brutality that can result.  In this instance, an extremely powerful person has a gross excess of prestige and of material wealth.  Regrettably, this glut does not address his esteem needs, nor does near-absolute power over his own country.  As a result, a simple, common human deficiency results in complications that impel this individual to mobilize enormous resources to pursue extreme ambitions.

And the costs of that pursuit will affect billions of human beings.

The Ukrainian people bear the greatest portion of those costs, as the campaign of a megalomaniac deprives them of needs on the three lowest strata of the Maslovian pyramid:  Families are sundered as mothers and children must flee and fathers remain behind to fight; civilian populations find themselves in peril as tanks run over moving vehicles and rockets devastate apartment blocks; bullets and explosions take the lives of people–sometimes even children–who have perpetrated the simple crime of living in a sovereign country desired by a person whose humanity has been grotesquely disfigured by unprecedented fortune and power.

The innocents of that country must carry on, uncertain of having the things that all human beings reasonably hope and strive for.  They must carry on as a foreign army attacks the very impulses to hope and strive.  This is the very definition of dehumanization.

So often we find ourselves outraged when we see people perpetrate atrocities that seem to have no logical origin.  Maslow’s work enables us to understand that inhumanity results from deficits that are, paradoxically, intensely human.  The better we understand this, the better we can promote and protect the humanity of all.

Diagram courtesy of

2 thoughts on “Needs

  1. It’s always the citizens who suffer the most in war … your lines: “The innocents of that country must carry on, uncertain of having the things that all human beings reasonably hope and strive for.”

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