Is Artificial Intelligence Changing Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs?

Posted by Peter Rudin on 16. July 2021 in Essay

Hierarchy of Needs                                      Credit: Wiki Commons


In 1943, the US psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper titled ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’. In this paper he stated that people have five sets of needs organized in a hierarchical order. As each level of needs is satisfied, the motivation to fulfil the next higher level is activated. He defined the levels as follows: First, we have the basic needs for bodily functioning fulfilled by eating, drinking and sleeping ; Second, there is the desire to be safe and secure in the knowledge that those basic needs will be fulfilled in the future too; Third, there is our need for love, friendship, belonging to a family, intimacy and relations with people of shared interests; Fourth, there is the need for social recognition, self-esteem, confidence as well as status and respect by others; Fifth, the top of the hierarchy, defined by Maslow as ‘self-actualization’. Above all, he considered creative activities as key for satisfying self-fulfillment needs. Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation, now over 80 years old, continues to have a strong influence on business and economic issues. Although the paper was written for psychologists, it has created a significant impact on management theory. According to Douglas Kenrick, Professor at Arizona State University, the appeal of Maslow’s hierarchy can be explained by the fact that it reflects a pattern of growth we observe in children. The theory seems intuitively right although there is little scientific evidence supporting it, which is one reason it continues to be criticized. Unlike psychoanalysts and behaviorists, Maslow was not that interested in mental illness. Instead of finding out what went wrong with people, he wanted to find out what could go right with them, stipulating a humanistic approach to psychology.

Humanistic vs. Behavioral Psychology

Humanistic psychologists believe that an individual’s behavior is connected to his feelings and self-image. Their perspective centers on the view that each person is unique and individual and has the free will to change his or her lives at any time. According to their theory, humans have the innate capacity for self-actualization, which reflects our unique desire to achieve our highest potential as individuals. In fundamental terms humanistic psychology encourages self-awareness and mindfulness. In contrast behavioural psychology or behaviourism, is a theory suggesting that interacting with the environment shapes human behavior. Basically, behavioral psychology is the study and analysis of observable behavior and hence considered a scientific discipline. The humanistic approach maintains the view that objective reality is less important than a person’s subjective perception and subjective understanding of the world. Because of this, Maslow and his supporter and follower Carl Rogers, author of the 1977 book ‘ On Becoming a Person’, placed little value on scientific psychology, especially the use of the scientific labs to investigate human and animal behavior. The behaviourists, on the other hand use their predictions to control the behaviour of both animals and humans. In his 1948 book ‘Walden Two’, B.F. Skinner, psychologist and Harvard Professor, considered to be the founder of behaviourism, describes a society controlled according to scientific principles. He believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. According to this principle, behavior that is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated while behavior followed by unpleasant consequences is avoided.

The Scientific Process

Science is a systematic endeavor that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. In contrast to the mainly empirical approaches of science, the humanities use methods that are primarily critical or speculative with a significant historical element. While the study of science is divided into – a) fundamental science such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology or astronomy and – b) applied science such as engineering, medicine, sociology and psychology – there are academic debates that psychology is not really a science and should be viewed as part of the humanities. Before the twentieth century, science largely used the principles of induction – making discoveries about the world through accurate observations, and formulating theories based on the regularities observed. Newton’s Laws are an example of this.  He observed the behavior of physical objects (e.g., apples and gravity) and produced laws that made sense of what he observed.  Today the scientific process is typically based on a hypothetical-deductive model as proposed by the late Sir Karl Popper, Professor at the London School of Economics and author of the publication ‘The logic of scientific discovery’, first published in German in 1935. Popper suggested that potential theories and laws about the world should be defined first, and  thereafter they should be used to generate hypotheses which could be falsified by observations and experiments. Falsification is the only way to be certain that a hypothesis is correct. As Popper pointed out: “No amount of observations of white swans can allow the conclusion that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion”. Darwin’s theory of evolution is an example of this as well. He formulated the theory and set out to test its propositions by observing animals in nature to prove or disprove it.

The impact of artificial intelligence (AI)

Artificial intelligence (AI) has a long history of hopes and failures in respect to our human perception what intelligent machines could accomplish. Spurred by the development of binary computers from 1945 onwards, the term ‘artificial intelligence’ was first coined in 1956 at a conference at Dartmouth College. AI’s founders were optimistic about the future: Herbert Simon from Carnegie Mellon University predicted, “Machines will be capable, within twenty years of doing any work a man can do.” Marvin Minsky from MIT agreed by stating “within a generation … the problem of creating artificial intelligence will substantially be solved.” These predictions by highly respected professors from elite universities were totally overstated and it took over 50 years before AI regained its original momentum. Artificial Neural Networks and Deep Learning Algorithms, coupled with a massive increase of compute-power, capable of processing huge amounts of data at low cost, have given AI a remarkable boost in certain application-specific areas, such as image recognition or natural language processing (NLP). Hence, the ‘explosion’ of science since the 1940’s, largely fueled by economic incentives, has resulted in an unprecedented expansion of scientific knowledge on an exponential trajectory. However, it has also become apparent that the various algorithmic theories applied, fail to overcome issues of causality or common sense. While traditional AI has become a valuable tool for data analysis in many economic sectors, largely providing pattern recognition as part of digital transformation applications, the shifting focus in applying neuroscience in exploring brain functionality is putting AI on a new trajectory towards real human-level intelligence. This direction includes the observation of brain-activity in correlation with the laws of behavioral psychology. This raises the question how wisdom as the highest form of human intelligence correlates with Maslow’s humanistic theory of self-actualization.

Updating Self-Actualization with Internet Access and the Issue of Intelligence

In contrast to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs towards self-actualization, one can apply an intelligence-focused view, where wisdom represents the highest level of human fulfilment as illustrated by the DIKW (data, information, knowledge, wisdom) hierarchy:

At the time Maslow introduced the pyramid of needs and his concept of self-actualization, artificial intelligence was still in its infancy. Today – supported by global internet connectivity – artificial intelligence increasingly affects everyone’s life. Adding internet access to the needs of Maslow’s hierarchy at the lower level brings his high-level concept of self-actualization back in line with the view of many AI-researchers that creativity represents the main difference between humans’ intellectual capacity and machine generated intelligence.

From Intelligence to Wisdom

Wisdom is one of those qualities difficult to define—because it encompasses so much—but which people generally recognize when they encounter it, for example in the realm of decision-making. Psychologists tend to agree that wisdom involves an integration of knowledge, experience and deep understanding that incorporates tolerance for the uncertainties of life as well as its ups and downs. Only now are researchers beginning to investigate the social, emotional, and cognitive processes that transmute experience into wisdom. Wisdom is different from intelligence. Intelligence seeks knowledge and seeks to eliminate ambiguity. Wisdom, on the other hand, resists automatic thinking, seeks to understand ambiguity better and grasps a deeper meaning of what is known but also comprehends the limits of knowledge. In her 2016 book ‘Journey from Intelligence to Wisdom’ Monika Ardelt, Professor at the University of Florida, defines a 3-dimensional model of wisdom: cognitive, reflective, and affective. The cognitive dimension includes the desire to deeply know and understand things including the limits of our knowing. The reflective dimension represents the capacity for self-reflection and the capacity to see things from many different perspectives.  The affective dimension of wisdom implies empathy and compassion.  Hence, a wise person is one who desires to deeply understand things, who is humble and aware of the limitations of knowing, and who can see things from many perspectives.


The mindset of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the concept of self-actualization remains valid, provided the basic-level needs are expanded with internet connectivity as an additional prerequisite for moving up the hierarchy. The challenge we face is to follow an interdisciplinary approach in exploring the ‘mystery’ of wisdom with psychological, philosophical and scientific expertise. Following this path, AI-technology provides the tools in augmenting human’s intellectual limitations for achieving self-fulfillment vis-à-vis life’s growing complexity while creativity remains the stronghold and driver of human evolution.

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