Proposed in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”, Abraham Maslow’s motivational psychological theory comprises a five-tier model of human needs depicted as levels within a pyramid. From base to peak, the pyramid constitutes physiological needs, safety, belonging/love, esteem, and self-actualization. Basic needs lower down the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to higher psychological needs. Maslow’s theory discusses the correlation between effort and motivation within human behavior and the internal sensation that must be met for an individual to complete their hierarchy and attain the fifth stage: self-actualization.
Maslow recognized that there is little scientific basis to the theory, yet in a time of unfamiliar psychological stressors and instability, it serves as a useful lens through which we can examine the impacts of COVID-19.
For many, the pandemic has inhibited the fulfillment of basic human needs by threatening health, social interactions, and food accessibility. As a society we have been confronted with existential realizations of human vulnerability; inhabitants of the digital age share the anxieties of our prehistoric ancestors.
Sudden threats to needs that we have long taken for granted triggered bewildering reactions. Cast your mind back to the great toilet paper fiasco of last March, or more alarmingly, anti-Asian xenophobia. The coronavirus uprooted the common stability and rationality that are ordinarily safeguarded by 21st-century fulfillment of the lower needs on Maslow’s hierarchy. People became preoccupied with securing basic staples like food, face masks, and yes, toilet paper. Calls for stimulus checks, redundancy benefits, and other economic safety nets accompanied supermarket raids. Underlying this reaction was the instinct of self-preservation and fear for physiological well-being.
For those able to secure basic physiological and safety needs, psychological needs of belonging and esteem were clutched at over Zoom coffee hours, religious live streams, and other forms of virtual socializing. Technology has facilitated these interactions with varying degrees of success. While preferable to total isolation, socializing through a screen rarely measures up to in-person interactions.
The pandemic has provoked a period of introspection, accentuating the importance of interpersonal connections as many eagerly await a return to normalcy. Yet the coronavirus has also presented an opportunity to re-evaluate our lives and consider the fulfillment of Maslow’s needs in the modern day.
With regards to physiological needs, the pandemic has revealed a pressing need to address the insecurities that continue to ravage the world. According to World Bank predictions, upwards of half a billion people live in extreme poverty. By next year, the COVID-19 pandemic will have forced a further 150 million people into this bracket. As the worldwide economic shock waves of COVID-19 continue to spread, experts predict that most countries will feel the effects of the crisis through 2030. Critical action must be taken to safeguard basic needs on a global scale.
Focusing on the United States and the physiological levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, the pandemic has prompted reflection on our communities. Our isolation has compelled us to re-evaluate the quality of our relationships in a pre-COVID era. This pandemic may trigger a step away from modern inhibitions of self-fulfillment such as ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ performatism, digital tribalism, and avoidant attitudes regarding heavier subjects of death and mental health. Dialogue has been stimulated; whether its products will become actualized remains to be seen.
The destruction of the pandemic may have set in motion a reappraisal of our needs and prompted us to find better ways to meet them. In doing so, we may see an upturn in fulfillment of physiological and psychological needs, and more a purposeful avoidance of the pitfalls of modernity in our interpersonal relationships.