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With each other, not with things

Gabor Maté is a physician in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he serves people with addictions and mental health concerns. His book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, is one of the best books I have read about the impact of trauma and the lives of people throughout their lifespan.

In a speech at the Bioneers Conference in 2012 ( ) he presents a compelling vision of the impact of the toxicity of our modern culture on human beings, and the need for a model of interdependence to counteract that toxicity. Maté argues that the focus on individuality in western societies is part of the reason those societies have higher rates of obesity, medical and mental health concerns than more collectivist societies.

The developer of the concept of self-actualisation, Abraham Maslow, wrote that “human needs arrange themselves in hierarchies of prepotency, that is to say, the appearance of one need usually rests on the prior satisfaction of another, more prepotent need. . . . Also, no need can be treated as if it were isolated or discrete; every drive is related to the state of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of other needs. Lists of drives will get us nowhere.”1

When Maslow talked about “hierarchies of prepotency” he was not thinking about human needs as a checklist. In fact, he pointedly said that lists of drives will get us nowhere. Charles McDermid, an American psychologist, was the person responsible for creating the visual representation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is this visual model that makes people think that human needs can be thought of as if they were a “one and done” proposition, moving from one need to the next. The very first point of Maslow’s article is that “the integrated wholeness of the organism [person] must be one of the foundation stones of motivation theory. Why did he let the visual model become so popular? In an article in Scientific American, Scott Barry Kaufmann and others postulate that since this model became so widely used in business, and business leaders began to not only embrace Maslow’s theories but also pay him huge sums of money, he went along for the ride.

In what Maté calls a materialistic society, the view of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a list which can be met and then the next need takes precedence gives a false sense of completeness. By telling people their needs are met one by one and that self-actualization is the goal of life, people can be more easily manipulated into believing that the materialistic successes built into our advertising methodologies are indicators of a successful life, indicators that all our needs are met. In this model, we don’t need to focus on cooperation, we need to focus on competition, on climbing the ladder so to speak, and looking out for my needs first and foremost.

While there were many factors that influenced the development of The Matrix of Needs, one of the most important was an article by Bernard Crespi, “The evolution of social behavior in microorganisms.” It turns out that life, at its’ most basic level, has a focus on interdependence and communication. The recognition of interdependence at a cellular level was a profound revelation for me and led to the understanding that the fulfillment of what it means to be human is found in relationships with each other, not with things.

If you have not already watched Maté’s video, do it now. Hopefully it will speak to you as it spoke to me.


1. (Maslow, A (1943) A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychology Review, 50(4) pages 370-371.


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