Foundations of Meaning in Human Life

Universal Human Needs?: After Maslow1

Thomas J. Scheff

The idea that there are human needs that transcend culture and historical era was clearly expressed by Abraham Maslow (1968). This idea could be important to the extent that it states outright our assumptions about human nature, since they are seldom made explicit. Because they lack clear definitions, Maslow’s formulations were only a first step. This essay shows that with some modification, how his ideas can be related to existing theories and research on alienation, attachment, and self-esteem. It also modifies the need for belonging by reframing self-actualization as autonomy. This aspect, because it is the opposite of belonging, becomes a part of the third need. I also include a new category, experiencing the full range of appropriate emotions. Each of these needs is defined, and the relations between them explored. If these definitions have any validity, then not just the poor but also the affluent are not getting most of their basic needs met. (8848 words)

In his 1968 statement, Maslow proposed what he called a "need hierarchy" with five levels.

  1. Physiological needs for survival: nutritious food, shelter, unpolluted air and water, and so on. 

  2. Safety and security.  When physiological needs are met, one needs safety and stability: structure, order, and limits. Most members of sufficiently affluent groups, for example, feel the need for a safe neighborhood, job security, insurance, a retirement plan, and other similar kinds of guarantees.

  3. Love and belonging. When physiological and safety needs are met, a third level emerges: friends, a sweetheart, children, affectionate relationships, community.

  4. Esteem. Maslow described two versions of esteem. One is the need for the respect of others, status, fame, glory, recognition, attention, reputation, appreciation, dignity, or dominance. The other is the need for self-respect, including such feelings as confidence, competence, achievement, mastery, independence, and freedom. Maslow agreed with Adler when he proposed that this need may be at the root of many psychological problems.

  5. "Self-actualization" was the final need that Maslow proposed. By self-actualization he seemed to mean achieving one’s unique potential, whatever it might be. This level is quite different than the others because it is particularistic. Unlike sustenance, safety, belonging, and esteem, the goal of self-actualization is different for each person, and therefore problematic for use in any general theory.

Note that each of these needs is related to the major emphases of four social science disciplines. Physical needs are implied in the model of human motives that underlies economics; safety and security, political science; belonging, sociology: esteem and self-actualization are at least the kind of individual dispositions that are favored by psychology. One immediate implication of the hierarchy of need is that actual human beings are more complicated than the persons envisioned by the separate disciplines. If we intend to understand human reality, the social sciences must work together, as well as separately.

The possible existence of universal needs is an important issue because it is closely related to conceptions of human nature. Assumptions about human nature are implicated in all discussion of motives and behavior, but are seldom made explicit. Even postmodern thought, though it assumes that all behavior is socially and culturally constructed, still carries unstated assumptions about human nature. Explicit models may help to bring such assumptions to light, so they can be thoroughly discussed and if need be, modified or rejected2.

Maslow ranked needs at each level in terms of their immediacy for survival. For example, breathing is more immediate than the need for food: avoiding suffocation takes precedence over the absence of food and water. But immediacy is only one way of ranking needs. Another way would be in terms of long term, rather than moment-by-moment dependency. As will be apparent in the discussion below, in ranking of this kind, there may be virtually no difference in rank between the various levels. For example, in modern societies, one is completely dependent on others to provide sustenance and security for survival, so the level of belonging is just as important as the first two levels.

The majority of the world’s people are involved in a daily struggle for survival, Maslow’s levels 1 and 2. They often lack the minimum sustenance and security for themselves and their loved ones needed to stay alive. For much of his youth, my own father was involved in such a struggle, and it marked him for the rest of his life. Even after he had achieved sufficient income and status to insure survival for himself and his family, he still acted as if the struggle continued.

However, the majority in affluent societies have lives in which Maslow’s first two levels are no longer a real issue. What do humans need when their survival and safety is assured? Maslow’s other three levels, belonging, esteem and self-actualization, were attempts to answer this question. But unlike physical survival, these ideas are extremely complex and ambiguous. It seems to me that Maslow’s representation of them is a step in the right direction; his selection shows considerable insight. But if these ideas are to be useful, the meaning of each of the three higher levels will have to be considerably clearer, and one new need added.

Maslow’s level 3, belonging and love, can be represented the need for being connected with others. The vast literatures on belonging, on the one hand, and on love, on the other, take quite different forms. Although the meaning of belonging is not clearly spelled out, there is considerable agreement that it is probably an elemental human need, quite comparable to the need for sustenance and security. (See the extensive review by Baumeister and Leary 1995).

The literature on love, however, provides neither a clear definition nor any kind of agreement (Scheff, forthcoming). Especially in the English language, love can mean almost any kind of positive orientation. There are various traditions that see love as heavenly, demonic, affliction, madness, merely lust, and so on. The different traditions are in conflict mainly because each focuses on only one facet of the very broad and vague vernacular meaning. They disagree because they are not discussing the same thing. Even in current discussions, there is a stark separation between those who see love as largely physical (attachment and/or sexual attraction), and those who see it as largely cognitive/emotional. I will return to this issue below.

There is also a major split in the discussions of the meaning of belonging. At the collective level, it is referred to as solidarity, and its opposite, alienation. As Maslow suggested, there is a need for community. At the interpersonal level, this need has been represented by the idea of physical attachment, on the one hand, and love as a cognitive/emotional disposition, on the other.

Unlike Maslow’s levels 3 and 4, the literature on self-actualization is small. Perhaps because its meaning is even less clear than belonging and esteem, this idea has not attracted much research. But there has been a vast amount of empirical research on alienation, attachment and self-esteem (I will refer to all three of these areas together as AAS). The meaning of this work is by no means clear, however. Virtually all AAS research has been based on standardized scales, rather than clearly formulated theory and concepts. The scales are the equivalent of operational, rather than conceptual definitions. There are a number of problems with this approach, but for brevity, I will focus on only one, the validity of the scales.

There is little question about the reliability (repeatability of findings) of scales, but are they valid? That is, is it clear what they are measuring? It seems to me that it is not. One core problem is that whatever is being measured, say self-esteem, is always a vernacular word, rather than a clearly defined concept. But vernacular words, especially those dealing with human behavior, are highly ambiguous, and they always carry a huge freight of culturally specific assumptions. Most of the AAS theorists don’t seem to be aware of this problem, nor do the empirical researchers.

AAS theory and research both have two fundamental kinds of confounds: attributes of individuals and attributes of relationships, on the one hand, and cognition as against feeling, on the other. These are not the only ambiguities, but they may be the most significant ones.

Theories of alienation are stated in the vernacular; there seem to be many diffeent meanings attached to the word3. The ideas central to theories of attachment, such as "secure bond," seem initially to be concepts, but are not explicitly defined. Virtually all studies of self-esteem are conducted with standardized scales. There are only a few honorable exceptions. But there are only a handful of theoretical or conceptual discussions, and these are virtually never cited.

All three fields confound cognitive and emotional elements, on the one hand, and individual and relational elements, on the other. One can infer from Seeman’s review (1975) of empirical studies of alienation how both of these dimensions are confounded4. For example, in his meta-analysis of the then existing studies, he found six different meanings:

  1. Powerlessness
  2. Meaninglessness
  3. Normlessness
  4. Cultural estrangement
  5. Self-estrangement
  6. Social isolation: exclusion or rejection.

Each of these categories, in turn, are also somewhat ambiguous. Powerlessness, for example, can mean a relational element, lack of actual power relative to other people, and a dispositional element, the feeling of powerlessness, whether grounded in comparison to others or not. Five of the six means can refer to relational elements, but one, self-estrangment, can not, since it is solely intrapersonal.

Furthermore, two of the six meanings strongly imply emotional components: the exclusion or rejection of social isolation is a correlate of shame, as is the feeling of inadequacy that may accompany powerlessness. Seeman’s study demonstrates both kinds of confounds: dispositional vs. relational, and cognitive vs. emotional.

There seems to be no discussion of the question of cognitive and emotional elements in the literature on attachment, nor the extent to which it is an individual or relational attribute, or both. The same is true of the literature on self-esteem. However, recently there has been a debate that is related to the emotion/cognition distinction, if only indirectly. Since I am most familiar with the self-esteem literature, I will explore this issue in detail. This discussion proposes that self-esteem should be defined in terms of a basic emotion, genuine pride, with cognitive elements only derivative from that feeling.

First it will be necessary to review the vernacular meanings of the word self-esteem. According to dictionaries, self-esteem has both cognitive and affective components.

  1. Pride in one’s self; self-respect. (American Heritage Dictionary. 2000)
  2. Holding a good opinion of one's self; self-complacency. (Webster's Revised Unabridged dictionary.1998)
  3. A feeling of pride in yourself [syn: self-pride] 2: the quality of being worthy of esteem or respect [syn: dignity, self-respect, self-regard] (Princeton University Wordline. 1997)

Two of the three definitions (1 and 3) offer a definition in terms of an emotion, pride. Definitions # 1 and 3 also suggest other synonyms that, if not emotions, are at least mixtures of feelings and thoughts, with feelings predominating: respect, regard and esteem. These two definitions stress the affective components of self-esteem. If we assume that shame is the emotion opposite to pride, then two of the three definitions suggest that high self-esteem involves pride proneness, and low self-esteem, shame proneness.

The implication that the vernacular meaning of self-esteem has a pride/shame component is supported by an empirical study of the relationship between self-esteem scores and affect. Using two self-esteem scales and a scale measuring positive and negative affect, Brown and Marshall (2001) found that pride and shame were the two emotions having the highest correlations with self-esteem scores.

But definition # 2 of self-esteem, above, points to another component: it mentions no emotions or feelings. Instead, it defines self-esteem cognitively, holding a good opinion of self. Self-esteem scales appear to emphasize this second meaning. Self-esteem scales and studies focus on that part of self-concept, self-evaluation, which is verbally described and cognitive, rather than affective and social.

As mentioned, the confound between self-evaluation and self-feeling discussed here has come up indirectly. Baumeister et al (1996) have suggested that a too high self-esteem, which they equate with egotism, can lead to aggression when egotism is threatened. But if self-feeling is defined as the principle component of high self-esteem, genuine pride, the Baumeister paradox wouldn’t arise.

Their discussion ignores the distinctions between genuine pride and false pride (egotism), and between conscious shame and shame that is outside awareness. Self-esteem can be defined conceptually as a feeling resulting from the management of genuine pride and shame/embarrassment. Since positive self-evaluation may be based on egotism and false pride, scales confound egotism, (high cognitive self-evaluation), with high-self esteem (justified pride). Similarly, they also confound self-effacement (high pride, low self-evaluation), with low self-esteem, although this matter has not been discussed in the literature.

Defining solidarity/alienation and attachment

Neither Maslow nor the current literature provide conceptual definitions for his two other components, belonging and self-actualization. The rest of this essay will attempt to provide them, and to suggest needs not named by Maslow. The first concept pair to be considered, solidarity/alienation, is closely related to Maslow’s third level, belonging.

Most discussions of belonging at the collective level employ the dichotomy of solidarity and alienation. Many of them assume that this phenomenon can only occur at the macro level. But there is a fairly large literature on interpersonal relations that seems to involve the same thing written small. The two separated discussion can be used to cast light on each other.

The idea of social integration, the abstract name for the solidarity/alienation continuum, is basic to social science theory. It is particularly prominent in Marx, since it forms the core of his analysis of alienation in capitalist societies. Marx suggested that alienation is a structural feature of capitalism, and that solidarity would be a structural feature of socialism. As with most other uses, Marx never defines the terms alienation and solidarity, allowing his theory to float free of concrete reality. Without even conceptual, let alone operational definitions, Marxian analysis builds castles in the air.

To the present day, there is still no definition of alienation that relates conceptual and empirical indicators. Seeman’s review (1975) of studies of alienation did not establish formal definitions, but instead reported results derived from theory, on the one hand, and from studies using standardized scales, on the other. The link between scales and the concept of alienation remains unclear, just as the link between theory and data is unclear in Marx and other conceptual approaches.

The dimensions of social integration can be inferred in Durkheim's basic study Suicide (l897), and are prominent in virtually all of his work. Although he did not use the term alienation, it is clearly implied in his study of suicide. Durkheim sought to explain the constancy of suicide rates in religious and other groups in terms of the types of social relationships in each group. He showed, for example, that rates of suicide in predominantly Catholic regions in Europe were consistently lower than rates in predominantly Protestant regions. He also considered variations in rates between nations and between occupations. These observations led him to formulate a cultural theory of suicide: differences in culture lead to variations in suicide rates, because culture influences the types of social relationships that prevail in a group.

At the core of Durkheim's theory is the distinction between two kinds of cultures. On the one hand, there are cultures that are suicidogenic because they give too much prominence to individuals (as against the group), characteristic of modern industrial societies. In his formulations, such cultures lead to egoistic or anomic suicide. On the other hand, there are cultures that give too much prominence to the group, such as small traditional societies, that lead to what he called altruistic or fatalistic suicide.

Durkheim sought to explain high suicide rates in traditional groups (too little emphasis on individuals), leading to culturally prescribed suicide (as in hari kari in Japan), and in groups promoting change and innovations (too much emphasis on the individual), like the most ascetic forms of Protestantism. His analysis can be framed by would today be called social integration, of being either too loosely or too tightly bound to the group.

A very similar dichotomy can be found in family systems theory. The founder of this perspective, Murray Bowen (1988), distinguished between two kinds of dysfunctional relationships, just as Durkheim did, but called them by different names: emeshment or fusion when the bond is too tight, and isolation when it is too loose. The idea of engulfment as a form of alienation closes a gap in the social science treatment of alienation. Social scientists usually confound engulfment with solidarity. In engulfed relationships, one or both parties subordinate their own thoughts and feelings to those of the other(s). In solidarity, each party recognizes the sovereignty of the other, but balances respect for the other’s position with respect for one’s own.

Language can be an indicator of the state of the social bond between individuals, particularly I, you, we, and it, and we, us and them (between groups). The disposition of these pronouns within a sentence, and the relative weight accorded them, can be used as cues to three different states of the bond: solidarity and the two opposite forms of alienation, isolation and engulfment.

This use of I and me is quite different than Mead's (l934). His social psychology seems to assume perfect solidarity, without any considering the possibility of alienation. In Mead's scheme, the me is made up of the internalized representation of the roles of others. For example, the citizen utilizing a criminal court is prepared by already knowing the role of the judge, the jury, the policeman, jailer, etc.

Mead didn’t consider the accuracy with which each member of a society knows and identifies with the roles of other members. By ignoring this issue, he evades the issue of imperfect relationships, of alienation. Consider the doctor-patient relationship. Obviously the patient has only a superficial knowledge of the doctor's role, and superficiality of her knowledge can cause impediments to cooperation. For instance, since the patient understands very little of what the doctor knows of the relationship between the patient's illness and medication, the patient might fail to follow the doctor's orders. The relationship is asymmetric in this way.

The relationship is also asymmetric the other way round. Although the patient has never learned the role of the doctor, the doctor should certainly know the role of the patient, since she has been a patient before becoming a doctor, and will continue to be a patient as a doctor. We would expect, therefore, that the doctor would understand patients. But as it turns out, there are impediments to such understanding. As part of their training, and as part of their management of their roles, many doctors seem to "forget" the patient's experience; they do not understand their patients, not because of lack of knowledge, but because of emotional barriers which doctors erect.

This process of forgetting also occurs in the teacher's role. Most teachers call very little upon their own role as students to guide their teaching; rather their teaching seems to conform to the way other teachers teach. Once we have learned a body of knowledge, we seem to repress the difficulties we had in learning it, which erects a wall between us and our students. In the language I will use here, in our role as teachers, we are engulfed with other teachers, and isolated from our students.

This discussion implies a theory of solidarity/alienation. What I have called bi-modal alienation (engulfed within one’s group, isolated from other groups; "us and them") seems to be the most common form of social relationship in the modern world (Scheff and Retzinger, 1991; Scheff, 1994). In this format, both individuals and groups are engulfed within, isolated without, as in sects, cults and academic schools of thought. In the social sciences it has been customary to refer to this system of relationships in terms of ethnocentrism, but this concept is imprecise, individualistic and static.

The approach to social integration most similar to the one outlined here is found in Elias's (Introduction, l987) discussion of the "I-self" (isolation) and the "we-self" (engulfment). Elias discusses the "I-we balance" (solidarity) in a way that is quite similar to my usage, but he doesn't apply it to actual instances. Elias proposed a three-part typology of what he called social figurations: independence (too much social distance), interdependence (a balance between self and other), and dependence (too little social distance). Since this typology grew out Elias’s long-standing commitment to the concept of interdependence, his attention was usually focused on this concept, rather than to the other two components of the typology. In this essay, I give equal theoretical and empirical weight to all three types.

The concept of the I-We balance is oriented largely to the verbal components of interaction, ignoring the non-verbal. My approach is oriented to both verbal and nonverbal elements. The emotions of pride and shame are directly related to the state of social relationships, and can serve as indicators of the nature of that relation from moment to moment. Pride is the emotional cognate of a secure, unalienated bond, and shame signals threat to the bond (Retzinger 1991; 1995; Scheff and Retzinger, 1991.

Elias’s scheme comes closest to what seems to be needed, if we are to connect the micro and macro-worlds. Many other theories are closely related to this scheme, but contain only two of the three types. Durkheim, Doi (1971) and Seeman (1975) considered only the two forms of alienation that I am calling isolation and engulfment, but didn’t relate them to the third, solidarity. Buber’s typology contains isolation and solidarity, but not engulfment, as do Marx and Braithwaite (1989).

All three types of relationships are implied in the work of Satir (1971), who contrasts defensive postures that I would call isolated (blaming, computing) or engulfed (placating, distracting ) with what she calls leveling. By leveling she seems to have meant communication which is direct but respectful. Being direct without being respectful involves isolation, just as being respectful but not direct implies engulfment, as I have used these terms here. Leveling involves balancing the claims of the individual with those of the relationship, an I-We balance.

The classifications described here are closely related to the attachment theory developed by Ainsworth et al (1978). What I am calling isolated corresponds to her avoidant type. What I have called engulfed seems closely related to her anxious-ambivalent type. Finally her secure type is equivalent to what I call solidarity or a secure bond. The advantage of linking my classification with Ainsworth’s is that there is a sizable body of empirical research which utilizes her scheme (Shaver and Clark 1994). The advantage of my scheme for the Ainsworth studies is it can be used to link them both to the microworld of thoughts and feelings, and to the larger institutional and societal structures within which they are embedded.

It would seem that most earlier discussions of social alienation and solidarity and related concepts are misleading, since they ignore one of the three type of relationships described above, or confound one with another. Most classic Western studies that compare Asian and Western societies seem to have valorized Western isolation and individualism by confounding it with solidarity based on rational outcomes (Durkheim’s description of organic solidarity), as Markus and Kitayama (1991) have charged. But it seems likely that Markus and Kitayama have made an equal and opposite error, valorizing Asian (unity-based) societies by confounding engulfment with interdependence. A similar confusion seems to exist in classical studies of autonomy, which feminist scholarship has shown to be male oriented, or in Elias’s terminology, oriented toward independence rather than interdependence. But again, most feminist scholarship may be making the equal and opposite error, confounding engulfment with interdependence or solidarity.

Secure Bonds

To understand solidarity at the interpersonal level, it will be necessary to formulate a definition of Bowlby’s phrase (1969), a secure bond. It must have both a strictly physical component, attachment, and a strictly emotional/cognitive one that I will call attunement. The physical component, attachment, will be described first, because it is simpler.

Attachment gives a physical sense of a connection to the other. The most obvious cues to attachment are 1. Missing the other when they are away, and contentment when they return. 2. Loss of the other invokes deep sadness and grief. Another less reliable cue is the sense of having always known a person whom we have just met. This feeling can be intense when it occurs, but it also may be completely absent.

Feelings of attachment or loss are not continuous, but they are much more stable than attunement, which varies from moment to moment. Attachment, like hunger, thirst and sexual desire, is at root a physical reaction.

Attachment involves a sense of urgency, even desperation. Furthermore, attachment is like imprinting in non-human creatures; it occurs very early in infancy, and may last a lifetime. It is attachment that makes loss of a loved one profoundly and unavoidably painful. After such a loss, one may suffer grief for many months or years. Grief is the price that we pay for lost attachment.

When we lose a loved one, we may be in great pain, off and on, for a long period of time. This process is biologically based on genetic inheritance. It cannot be completely avoided. But it can be very long, months or years, or shorter, depending upon the intensity of the attachment and the completeness of mourning. If one completes what Freud called "the grief work," the work of mourning, the amount and duration of pain may be lessened considerably. On the other hand, the pain of lost can go on forever if mourning is absent or incomplete, giving rise to a syndrome knows as "unresolved grief."

Modern societies do not recognize the necessity of mourning at any length, and therefore produce, to a large degree, unresolved grief. Our individualistic ethos maintains that we are all self-contained, not recognizing how dependent we are on others, especially those to whom we are attached. After a loss, a person who cries for any length of time, more than a week or two, may be discouraged by others. Such attitudes interfere with mourning, which is always necessary because attachment is genetically based. The common practice of immediately prescribing drugs is particularly insidious, since they usually numb the very emotions that need to be felt and resolved.

Mourning may involve working through other emotions in addition to grief, such as fear, anger, guilt and shame. But grief is usually the most massive and central of the emotions. For that reason crying is always necessary to complete the mourning process. This idea turns out to be somewhat more complex than it might seem at first, since only a certain type of crying is cathartic (Scheff 1979). That is, cathartic crying requires distance from the grief, and is therefore not entirely painful. One has the sense of being both deeply connected to the pain, but also, at the same time, somewhat detached from it. By the same token, when one is entirely caught up in one’s grief, the crying one does is extremely painful, and may not help with the mourning process.

These niceties about crying, however, are lost on most people in our society, who think of any kind of crying as unseemly, and to a large extent, unnecessary for adults. This reaction is particularly strong for men. Most children are socialized to view crying as unmanly, rather than a natural and necessary response to loss. By the time a boy is seven or eight, he has suppressed tears to the extent that they are usually not available to him.

Both men and women in Western societies develop routines for automatically suppressing emotion, but these routines are more widespread and automatic in men. Most of these routines involve following the example of one’s father, unthinkingly. But boys also quickly learn that indications of fear are apt to be seen as cowardly, embarrassment/shame and grief as signs of weakness. These emotions rapidly disappear from one’s repertory of feeling. A boy who cries easily risks embarrassing his parents and being ostracized by other boys.

In modern societies, the whole attachment system is therefore disrupted, especially for men, and to an only slightly less extent, for women also. By early or mid adulthood, the majority of people in Western societies may be suffering, to varying degrees, from unresolved grief.


An emotional/cognitive component of secure bonds has been suggested by the philosopher Robert Solomon in his discussion of love. He proposes that a central feature of love is shared identity (Solomon 1981,; 1994, p.235): " …love [is] shared identity, a redefinition of self which no amount of sex or fun or time together will add up to….Two people in a society with an extraordinary sense of individual identity mutually fantasize, verbalize and act their way into a relationship that can no longer be understood as a mere conjunction of the two but only as a complex ONE. "

Solomon’s formulation of the nature of love is a huge step toward a clear definition of love, and for my purposes, a secure bond. But it will need to be supplemented. First, in his conception of love, there is no mention of physical component, such as attachment. Secondly, his definition doesn’t clearly suggest that a secure bond requires not only shared identity, but also shared awareness (attunement). The understanding between those connected by a secure bond is not only "mutually fantasizing", as Solomon seems to suggest, but also, to some degree, mutually understanding.

Solomon’s idea that genuine love involves a union between the lovers is not new. It is found, as he suggests, in Plato and Aristotle. It also appears in one of Shakespeare’s riddling poems about love, The Phoenix and the Turtle, as in this stanza:

Property was thus appall'd,

That the self was not the same;

Single nature's double name

Neither two nor one was call'd.

The idea of unity is also alluded to in the first dictionary definition, quoted above, as "a sense of oneness," and in many other conceptions of the nature of love. In current discussion, the idea of unity is referred to as connectedness, shared awareness, intersubjectivity, or the term that I will use, attunement. This idea can be used to provide a conceptual foundation for theories of alienation/solidiarity.

Any theory of social integration, like attachment theory, assumes that humanness requires being connected to others. Love is one form of belonging, friendship and community are two other forms. But in modern societies these kinds of needs are difficult to fulfill. Infatuation, heartbreak, and on a larger scale, blind patriotism offer a substitute: imagining and longing for an ideal person or group instead of connecting with a real one. (In his treatise on the psychological bases of nationalism, Anderson [1991] calls the nation "an imagined community.")

One complication involved with the idea of the need for connectedness is that humans, unlike other mammals, also have a strong need for individual and group autonomy. These two needs are equal and opposite. The clash between needs for both connection and autonomy form the backdrop for cooperation and conflict between individuals and groups. I will return to the issue of autonomy in the discussion of micro-solidarity and micro-alienation below, and also in the discussion of self-actualization.

The idea of a connection between two persons is difficult to make explicit in Western societies because of the strong focus on individuals, rather than relationships or connectedness between persons. The idea of connectedness implies that humans, unlike other creatures, can share the experience of another. That is, that a part of individual consciousness is not only subjective, but also intersubjective.

The idea of an intersubjective component in consciousness has come up many times in the history of philosophy, but the implications are seldom explored. Cooley (1895) argued that intersubjectivity is so much a part of the humanness of human nature that most of us take it completely for granted, to the point of invisibility.

Cooley’s idea that we "live in the minds of others without knowing it" is profoundly significant for understanding the emotional/cognitive component of secure bonds. Intersubjectivity is so built into our humanness that we can’t see it, even when its happening. It follows that we should expect most people have learned to ignore clues that point toward intersubjectivity. This element is what Stern (1977) has called attunement (deep mutual understanding). John Dewey proposed that attunement formed the core of communication:

Shared experience is the greatest of human goods. In communication, such conjunction and contact as is characteristic of animals become endearments capable of infinite idealization; they become symbols of the very culmination of nature (Dewey 1925, p.202)

In ordinary language, attunement involves connectedness between people, deep and seemingly effortless understanding, and understanding that one is understood. As already indicated, this idea is hinted at in that part of the dictionary definition about "a sense of oneness."

In order to visualize intersubjectivity, it may be necessary to take this idea a step further than Cooley did, by thinking of it more concretely. How does it actually work in dialogue? One recent suggestion that may be helpful is the idea of "pendulation," that interacting with others, we swing back and forth between our own point of view, and that of the other (Levine 1997). It is this back and forth movement between subjective and intersubjective consciousness that allows mutual understanding.

The infinite ambiguity of ordinary human language makes attunement necessary even for simple communication. The signs and gestures used by non-human creatures are completely unambiguous. For example, bees can instantly detect the smell of strange bees: it signals enemy. But humans can easily hide their feelings and intentions under deceitful or ambiguous messages. Even with the best intentions, communications in ordinary language are inherently ambiguous, because all ordinary words are allowed many meanings, depending on the context. Understanding even fairly simple messages requires mutual role-taking (attunement) because the meaning of messages is dependent on the context.

Changes in context change the meaning of any message. To understand the meaning of messages in context, we have all become adroit at pendulation: seeing the message from the point of view of the other as well as our own.

Independently of meanings, swinging back and forth between self and other viewpoint also has a great advantage in the realm of emotions. In this process, one is able to access otherwise occluded emotions. One can experience one’s feeling from the point of view of the other, which may be less painful than feeling them as one’s self. The state of balance, which I referred to in an earlier work (1979) as "optimal distance," suggests how solidarity and love benefit close relationships whether in families, psychotherapy or groups.

Mutual understanding often fails to occur, of course. But if a society is to survive it must occur most of the time. When we find that our friend with whom we made a dinner date shows up at the right time and place, we realize that he was not joking or lying. Driving an automobile safely requires taking the role of other drivers. In making a loan, a bank must usually accurately understand the intention of the customer to repay. In fact, our whole civilization is possible only to the extent that mutual understanding usually occurs.

It may help to understand this process by also considering contexts where mutual understanding breaks down. There is a debating tactic that is sometimes used in conversation such that one or both of the speakers doesn’t actually hear the other person out. In the quarrel mode, this practice takes the form of interrupting the other person mid-sentence. But there is also a subtle mode, where one party listens to only the beginning of the other’s comments. Instead of continuing to listen until the other is finished, the "listener" instead begins to construct his own retort, based only on the first few sentences that the other has uttered. This practice is difficult to detect, and has probably never been studied empirically. But it represents one source for the breakdown of pendulation, and therefore of attunement.

Certain types of personality also tend toward lack of mutual understanding. Narcissism, for example, is a tendency to see the world only from one’s own viewpoint. There may also be a personality type with the opposite difficulty, balancing one’s own point of view against the others. Perhaps there is a passive or dependent personality type whose penchant is to stay in the other person’s viewpoint, rather than balancing it against one’s own. I have known professional actors and politicians who had no secure bond because they seemed not to have a point of view of their own.

In struggling to define what is meant by a sexual perversion, the philosopher Thomas Nagel (1978) came very near to defining normal, or at least non-perverse sex in terms of attunement5. Although he doesn’t use that term, or any of the others I have used, such as intersubjectivity, his definition of non-perverse sex in terms of each knowing that the other knows they desire and are desired certainly implies it:

These [sexual] reactions are perceived, and the perception of them is perceived; at each step the domination of the person by his body is reinforced, and the sexual partner becomes more possessible by physical contact, penetration, and envelopment. (p. 48).

In another passage, he invokes the idea of unity and oneness. He goes on to propose that sex between two persons is perverse if it lacks this kind of self and mutual awareness. He points out that this definition inevitably broadens the definition of perversion; ordinarily one doesn’t consider it perverse if one or both of the partners is imagining being with someone else other than the person they are having sex with. Sexual love, a secure bond, is based not only on sexual attraction and attachment, but also on attunement.

States of attunement, unlike attachment, vary from moment to moment. There is a dialectic of closeness and distance, reaffirming not only the union, but also the individuality of each member of the pair. The idea of the love bond as involving both continuous attachment and a balance between self and other solves a critical problem in the meaning of love. The bestseller Women Who Love Too Much (1985) describes continuing relationships with husbands who are abusive of wife or children, or both.

The women profess that they can’t leave these men because they love them too much. Since the word love is used so broadly in vernacular English, this usage is perfectly proper. But these kinds of relationships fail the test in terms of the way love is being defined here, because they lack balance between self and other. The husband is overvalued; the wife undervalues herself and/or the children. The wives are engulfed with their husbands. In these cases, the word love serves as denial of pathological dependency and/or passivity.

In terms of the idea presented here, these wives are at least attached to their husbands, and may also be sexually attracted to them. But it is clear that they are not attuned, in the sense of equally representing self and husband in their thinking and feeling. The husband counts too much, the wife too little. If, as proposed here, genuine romantic love involves a combination of attachment, sexual attraction, and attunement (equality of mutual identification), a relationship in which the wife is dependent on the husband in this way clearly fails the test.

From the point of view presented here, a definition of secure bonds requires two separate components: attachment, on the one hand, and attunement, on the other. Bonds are secure to the degree that there is attachment between two or more persons, and to the degree that there is shared identity/awareness. The attachment requirement is straightforward and simple, the attunement requirement is subtle and complex. Attunement must imply a balance between self and other: one identifies and shares awareness with the other(s) as much as with self, no less and no more. In his attempt to define genuine love, the social psychiatrist H. S. Sullivan (1945) suggested this idea also, that love involves valuing the other as much as self, but no more or less. But Sullivan evokes this idea only in passing. However, it is clearly and explicitly stated in Solomon (1983, p. 338-339). Gaylin (1988, pp. 41-62) urges the idea of union in genuine love, as against the Western myth of the self-reliant, isolated individual. However, there is no warning in his discussion that too much union destroys individual autonomy.

If one places more emphasis on self, the bond is not secure; one is isolated, to varying degrees from the other(s). The Western, and especially the Anglophone emphasis on the self-sufficient individual is a cultural bias toward isolated, rather than secure bonds. If one places more emphasis on the other(s), the bond is also not secure; one is engulfed with the other(s). The emphasis on other and the group in traditional societies is a cultural bias toward engulfed bonds.

Self-actualization as autonomy, and emotional needs

The definition of the need for belonging as a combination of attachment and attunement, along with the definition of self-esteem outlined earlier, affords two steps for developing a general theory of human needs. Two additional steps seem to be needed: reframing self-actualization as individual autonomy, and filling in what is missing from Maslow, the idea of emotional needs.

The idea of self-actualization, although seeming to refer to a need unique to each individual, may also be referring, indirectly, to a general need. For purposes of discussion, I will call it autonomy. I agree with Maslow that human beings are so evolved and complex that each is unique, and probably has a unique potential that could be actualized.

But it seems to me preferable to classify this need in general, rather than particular terms. The ability to be autonomous surely would be needed to meet one’s unique potential. What Maslow doesn’t say is that most people, most of their adult lives, are more or less locked into social and personal routines. Social and personal habits are not wholly undesirable, since they are often efficient and labor saving. They become obstacles to self-discovery and realization only when they take over, as they may do.

The ability to escape, if only occasionally, from routine and convention allows one to become a unique person. Perhaps this ability would be best conceptualized as individual autonomy. This traits, even thought it leads to self-actualization, is not unique, and can therefore be a part of a general theory, unlike uniqueness itself. Autonomy is probably closely related to creativity, moment by moment spontaneity and playfulness. There doesn’t seem to be large literatures on spontaneity and playfulness, but there has been considerable discussion and research on creativity.

The autonomy component is closely related to belonging, as polar opposite. The tension between autonomy and union is a crucial aspect of human experience. As indicated in the earlier discussion in a secure bond, one is able to move back and forth between self and other, autonomy and belonging. The need for belonging and for autonomy can be combined into a single need: finding a viable balance between the two extremes.

Finally there is the issue of emotional needs. Maslow’s idea of human needs has little to say about the vast universe of emotions and feelings. He mentions only one emotion directly, love. His inclusion of esteem can be considered to be an indirect reference to an emotion, since it implies genuine pride. As already indicated, his discussion of love and belonging also implicates the emotion of grief over loss, but only distantly.

How might a rich and full emotional life be described? The literature on emotions deals with the issue of a full emotional life by its opposite: either the lack of emotional experience, or an overabundance of a single emotion. In the first category, here is a growing literature on a new diagnostic category, alexithymia, the absence of feeling (Krystal 1988; Taylor et al, 1997). Similarly, one of the key signals of depression is the lack of feeling, emptiness or blankness.

There is also another kind of depression that involves too much grief (sadness), particularly grief that doesn’t seem related to loss. Similarly, there is an extensive literature on phobia, too much fear. The problem of persons who are usually and/or excessively angry also has its own literature. There are also studies of excessive blushing, embarrassment or shame. Finally, although I know of no studies, there are surely those who give too much emphasis to other single emotions, such as contempt, disgust, interest, and so on, to the extent that they suppress other feelings.

The lack of a full and rich life of feeling can be either no feeling at all, as in alexithymia and the blankness of depression, or in overemphasis on a single emotion, be it grief, fear, anger, or shame/embarrassment. By this token, perhaps a complete emotional life would involve the full range of emotions, experienced to the degree that they are appropriate to each situation one encounters.

Although this issue has not received enough attention, it would appear that excessive experience of one emotion, especially when much of that experience is not actually appropriate, would tend to drown out other feelings and emotions. There is some evidence that this is true for anger. Excessive and/or inappropriate anger seems to serve as a mask for other emotions, particularly fear, grief, shame and embarrassment (Lewis 1971; Retzinger 1991; Scheff 2003). The literatures on depression, phobia, and shame also imply this pattern, although it is seldom made explicit.

The full range of appropriate feelings and emotions is crucially important for human life in many ways. The three most important seem to be: First, emotions provide an automatic compass: one need not calculate all of one’s thoughts and actions because appropriate feelings provide instantaneous practical, moral and aesthetic guidance for one’s choices. Secondly, it is appropriate feelings that give intensity, and therefore meaning to human experience. Without access to feelings of joy, interest, excitement, fear, anger, grief, shame, and so one, all experiences would have much the same value. Without appropriate feeling, life becomes "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing." Finally, there is a possibility that a rich emotional life, along with a sense of belonging, leads to creativity. In an earlier essay, I gathered biographical instances suggesting that highly creative genius occurs against a background of a full life of emotional experience (Scheff 1990, Ch. 9). A full range of appropriate feeling may be at least as important in the human universe as thought and behavior.


This essay has reviewed, clarified, and extended the list of universal human needs that Maslow first proposed. The next step would be to find first valid, then reliable ways of testing the hypothesis that each of these needs is indeed universal and invariant in different cultures and historical eras.

If such tests supported, even partially, the universality of these needs, the next step would be to investigate the extent to which societies allow their fulfillment If my definitions of solidarity, esteem, creativity, and emotional experience are valid, it would seem that most of these needs are not fulfilled for most people, even the most affluent.

It appears, for example, that connectedness and a sense of belonging are problematic in Western societies. That is, by my definitions, both collective and interpersonal solidarity are rare. The requirement of balance in identifying with, and awareness of self and other, us and them, suggests that most bonds are alienated in either the isolated or engulfed form. At the level both of families and large groups, what I have called bimodal alienation (engulfment within the group, isolation from other groups) seems to be the norm, rather than the exception. Since the degree and type of relationships may be crucial for not only for individuals but also for groups, these issues call out for considerably more discussion and research.


  1. I am indebted to Suzanne Retxinger for an idea that plays a crucial part in this paper, "experiencing the full range of emotions." (See page 14, below). Although most parts of this paper are new, some of the text is based on material from a book in progress on human bons, and on Chapter 4 of my 1997 book.
  2. Maslow (1965) suggested that attempts to be objective do not eliminate underlying images of human nature: “Every psychologist…has a full-blown philosophy of human nature hidden away within him (sic)…guided himself by a half-known map, which he disavows and denies, and which is therefore immune to intrusion and correction...” My only hesitation would be that this propensity is not limited to psychologists. For a detailed exploration of this issue, see Wrightsman 1992.
  3. Geyer (1996), in his essay, The Sociology of Alienation, calls alienation an“umbrella” concept.
  4. Heinz (1992) also criticizes existing studies for confounding individual and relational elements, but doesn’t note the emotion/cognition confound. Gergen (1996) has proposed giving more emphasis to the relational aspect of alienation, in line with his more general interest in bring relational elements into individual psychology.
  5. Ronald de Sousa called this essay to my attention.


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