Most of us know about Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The model posits that human thoughts and actions are motivated to fulfill clusters of needs and desires. He named these clusters: Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Self-Esteem, and Self-Actualization. Maslow adopted the idea of a hierarchy to reflect his belief that humans focus on satisfying “lower” level needs before seeking to fulfill “higher” ones.
What does the model of The Elephant and The Rider have to say about Maslow’s insights?
First, we know The Elephant is that portion of our cognitive system that is continuously processing bodily and environmental stimuli. That’s what makes up those 11 million bits/second of information that our brain constantly monitors. The Elephant does this to fulfill its primary responsibility: enabling our Survival. It is vigilantly on the lookout for anything that might threaten us, whether that’s the smell of smoke, the sound of approaching sirens, or the sudden appearance of a “funny-looking” shade of light. Meeting our Physiological requirements for living, and assuring our Safety are pivotal to The Elephant enabling our Survival.
We then move to Maslow’s third level, Love/Belonging. It’s important to remember that The Elephant is not managing need satisfaction via a checklist. It’s not that we primarily focus on physiological and safety factors when we are going through our day. It is only when physiological needs are unfulfilled for a prolonged period, or emergencies threaten our safety that we zero in on them. The Elephant experiences the world holistically and shifts its focus among areas that raise concerns.
That means that even when we’re thirsty, for example, The Elephant is still evaluating other aspects of its world. Being a social creature, The Elephant is sharply attentive to the ways others behave when we’re with them; we pre-reflectively “know,” (or, more accurately, “sense”)…almost instinctively… when another person “doesn’t like me,” or “perks up when I walk in the room.” This social perceptiveness is the mechanism through which The Elephant fulfills its need to be with others with whom it experiences acceptance, belonging, prestige, love. Being astute at this kind of perceptiveness significantly improves The Elephant’s chances of both Survival and Reproduction.
Note that at any moment The Elephant may enlist The Rider’s 40 bits of conscious attention to help meet their mutual needs. For instance, if The Elephant’s monitoring of its hydration level becomes critical, The Rider is “summoned” via a moment of sharpened awareness: “wow, all of a sudden I’m really thirsty!” The same holds true for moments that The Elephant signals The Rider to register as fearful: “hey, it’s getting scary in here…”.
The Rider plays a leading role in selecting social groups that will best meet its needs for belonging and love. We hang out with people we like and who are likely to like us. Those social settings are places in which we get to experience the kind of positive reactions to our behavior that lead to us feeling good about ourselves. Self-Esteem is largely a function of our evaluation of others’ reactions to the things we say and do. Being positively viewed by others and developing enhanced feelings of self-worth significantly improve the chances of meeting The Elephant’s other main function: Reproduction.
It’s important here to remember that 21st century Survival and Reproduction extend well beyond bodily considerations. Social evolution has progressed to a point where “survival” is defined as much in social terms as in physical ones. Likewise, the idea of “reproduction” is not limited to producing progeny, now having expanded to include a new dimension: “influence.”
Today, The Elephant and The Rider are as sensitive to social factors affecting role and status as they are to levels of hydration and extreme temperatures. In a meeting, for example, The Elephant (“out of the corner of my eye…”) processes a colleague’s offhanded snort/smirk reaction to something it says as a potential threat. It alerts The Rider to focus more attention on that colleague and the room’s overall mood, and to monitor a potential shift in the group’s status hierarchy, a potential threat to both its Survival and Reproduction.
Finally, Maslow saw Self-Actualization as:
“self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for the individual to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”
This “tendency” is extremely rare, in Maslow’s view. He said: “self-actualization…rarely happens…certainly in less than 1% of the adult population.”
I think of self-actualization more broadly as an experience of fulfillment of one’s potential. I use the word “experience” here because self-actualization is just that…awareness of a moment of complete unity with an activity that uses one’s natural gifts to their greatest extent. I think of it as episodic or transitory, akin to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow”: when “a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
In other words, self-actualization is less a state of being than a (often retrospective) recognition of having been deeply engaged in an activity to the limits of one’s ability. That match between a self-actualizing activity and my personal capability is highly individualized…even idiosyncratic. This helps us understand one of Maslow’s comments about the variety of situations that give rise to moments of self-actualization: producing “a first-rate soup is more creative than a second-rate painting…” Of course, this kind of self-reflection is squarely in The Rider’s domain.
We see that the first two levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy are right up The Elephant’s alley. Its perceptual and world-processing mechanisms have evolved to assure Survival through evaluating both physiological and safety considerations. Social evolution later enabled The Elephant to read (intuit?) the tenor of interpersonal relationships and nudge The Rider toward being with others who will positively reinforce its behaviors. After that, it’s the Rider’s game. Self-Esteem and Self-Actualization are outgrowths of our immersion in the rules and values of social systems and incorporation of those values into our behavior.
Together, The Elephant and The Rider monitor our current and aspirational levels of fulfillment of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. These needs motivate us to behave in ways that will keep them satisfied. The Elephant/Rider’s combined dynamic presence yields the continuous, looping, process of perception, judgment/decision-making, and action that makes up the fabric of our daily lives.
Over the course of our evolutionary history, we’ve developed a repertoire of cognitive/emotional/behavioral shortcuts that help The Elephant and The Rider meet the demands of Survival and Reproduction. We call those shortcuts heuristics and biases. More about them next time.
Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.
MidJourney images by author.