Universal needs?

Stony Faced by floato

Graham was happy when he finally found an adequate way to satisfy his need for security

What are the fundamental human needs?

What things, if we get them, will make us happy human beings?

Are there such things as universal human needs, that everyone in every society would identify with, or does it depend on your personality and cultural background?

In an earlier post on Maslow’s classic hierarchy of needs, I mentioned that it had been criticised (Hofstede, 1984)  for being based on Western sensibilities. In defence of his criticism Hofstede cited a research study by Haire et al. (1966) in which managers from 14 different countries were asked to rate the importance of various needs (security, social, esteem, autonomy, self-actualisation) as well as indicating their level of satisfaction and fulfilment of those needs.

In this study, only the managers from the US ranked the needs in the order proposed by Maslow.

So does that mean that Maslow’s needs are not universal?

A more recent study by Tay & Diener (2011) was based on data gathered by the Gallup World Poll, conducted across 123 countries between 2005 and 2010, which asked questions about:

  • Subjective well-being (SWB). This included three measures – life evaluation (rating your life on a scale of ‘worst possible’ to ‘best possible’), positive and negative feelings (measured by asking whether people had experienced a lot of laughing, enjoyment, worry, sadness, anger, etc., in the previous day).
  • Needs similar to Maslow’s were assessed by asking what they had experienced in the last 12 months
    • Basic – had they had enough money for shelter or had they gone hungry
    • Safety – did they feel safe walking alone or had they been robbed
    • Social – had they experienced love or do they have people who will help them
    • Respect – had they been treated with respect or had felt proud of something
    • Mastery – experience of learning or using a favoured skill at work
    • Autonomy – could they choose how they spent their time or did they experience freedom

Tay & Diener analysed the various responses to these questions and identified various relationships.

They found that not having these needs met consistently led to a low life evaluation. However, having all the needs met did not guarantee that you would evaluate your life highly.

They found that the fulfilment of each need had a reasonably independent effect on well-being. This means, for example, that the impact of Social needs was not dependent on whether more Basic needs had been completely fulfilled. This somewhat contradicts one of the assumptions of Maslow’s hierarchy, that more basic needs must be fulfilled before higher needs have relevance.

However, Tay & Diener conducted another analysis to try and identify the order in which needs emerged by looking at which need shows up as important after basic needs are fulfilled. Although the results were not conclusive, there was some evidence that the needs emerged in a similar (but not identical) order to that proposed by Maslow.

Another thing they found was that different needs were linked to different types of well-being.

  • Basic needs fulfilment was linked to increased life evaluations and to a reduction in negative feelings.
  • Social and respect needs fulfilment were linked to increased positive feelings.
  • Basic, respect and autonomy needs fulfilment were linked to a reduction in negative feelings.

Yet another thing was that, when needs fulfilment was taken into account, income didn’t significantly contribute to increased well-being.

Finally, all of the relationships they found were reasonably consistent across different countries.

So, maybe different cultures have become more similar between 1966 and 2005, or perhaps it’s just managers who differ in different cultures.

Further reading

  • Haire, M., Ghiselli, E.E. & Porter, L.W. (1966) Managerial Thinking: An International Study. New York: Wiley.
  • Hofstede, G. (1984) The cultural relativity of the quality of life conceptAcademy of Management Review 9(3), 389-398. DOI: 10.5465/AMR.1984.4279653
  • Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review50(4), 370–396.
  • Maslow, A. (1970).  Motivation and Personality (2nd ed.). New York:  Harper & Row.
  • Maslow, A. (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York:  McGraw-Hill.
  • Tay, L. & Diener, E. (2011). Needs and subjective well-being around the world. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 354-365. DOI: 10.1037/a0023779

Other posts: Cultural or universal?

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