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March 29, 2011

Maslow, your feelings, and the tsunami

It is not easy to get grips on the entire situation unfolding in Japan. In fact, I'd say that it is impossible to fully understand everything that is happening. Yet, we try to. Indeed, that is why we turn on the news isn't it? Today I would like to focus on the dynamics of our own reactions to the devastation and the media coverage of it. To do this, let's first look as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - a useful model for attempting to understand human motivation. Then, we'll use his model to examine the dynamics of our actions and reactions to the tsunami disaster. By the end of the article, I think we will be able to cover some very interesting ground that I hope will be of practical use to us all, even after all of this settles.

First, let's look at Maslow's work. He is most famous for his Hierarchy of Needs:'s_hierarchy_of_needs

5. Self-actualization needs
4. Esteem needs
3. Love/Belonging needs
2. Safety needs
1. Physiological needs

At the bottom of the pyramid we have Physiological needs, our most basic needs to function as animals on this earth -air, food, water, sleep, etc. When these needs are met, we then start engaging more seriously in our Safety needs - protection of body, family, work, resources, etc. When we feel relatively safe, we then spend more time with our Love/Belonging needs - joining clubs, taking up group-based hobbies, having quality family time, dating, etc. Let's think about these three and put them to the test. For example, if you had little air to breathe in a strange place with no food or water, would you be thinking about joining a club or taking someone out on a date? Perhaps if you were delusional by then, yes, but typically speaking, no; you would be hunting for clean air, food and water. You would not be thinking about the higher levels of needs. Similarly, let's focus on the second level now -Safety needs. If you realized that you were unemployed, unhealthy and someone was taking away your resources, you would be focused on getting those back, and not emphasizing higher needs. So, the Hierarchy of Needs, seems to be logical so far.

Now, if your third level (Love/Belonging) needs are being met -by having stable friendships, family and sexual intimacy, then your aspirations go to the fourth level, to Esteem needs -respect for others, respect for yourself. This is very sensible too. Only when you have all of the lower three levels met do you feel confident enough to really feel the need for mutual respect for fellow humans. Then, when all of your other needs are met -you are surrounded by mutual supporters and high-achievers - you may enter the top shelf, the Self-actualization level. In short, you actually fulfill your potential as a "full" human. You become all that you can become. Maslow admitted that very few people actually get to that pinnacle of humanity and it makes sense that most people cannot get there -they need to have utter confidence in their entire foundation and must be in a high-support context conducive of extremely high achievement. In a perfect world, most of us adults should be somewhere between the Esteem level and the Self-actualization level. I don't want to sound overly naive, but I'd say universities and their grad schools should be places conducive of such achievement. Universities should be filled with professors at their Self-actualization level and those profs should be helping their students get there too. What better reason could there be for universities? Having to work part time jobs at restaurants to pay the bills knocks students back down to level 1-2. They (as I was when I was a BA student) are worried about how to get food and not get evicted. This situation makes their pyramid foundation shaky and not conducive of higher level achievement. Universities should therefore seriously consider this and let their students focus keenly on their studies at their optimal levels by not letting them suffer from problems arising from level 1-2 needs. But this is a side rant. Let's return to the main topics.

Japan is experiencing its worst crisis since post-WWII. The rest of the world is appalled at the situation while at the same time applauds the Japanese for being so respectful to each other. This applause stems from knowledge of situations such as the Katrina and Haiti aftermaths. It baffles so many people. How can the Japanese just respectfully stand in line when their cities are now rubble? First of all, let's not bend the truth. It's not like there is no looting or robbery in Japan. If you believed the news, it's as if all of the thieves in Japan somehow disappeared when the quake arrived. Could that be true? The media downplays Japanese looting - a smart thing to do because visuals of looting can easily prompt more looting. The Japanese media is very good at taming potential hysteria ( ). That being said, it is overly naive to believe that no looting exists in Japan. Here is one example of Japanese looting after the tsunami:

I provide this example to keep my analysis here as balanced as possible. The calmness, or shall I say the nonchalance of the looters in that video clip is eerie -almost laughable. The discourse of the interview is interesting, but the quiet looters in the background take the show. Now, even considering this revelation, the Japanese still seem to be showing much more respect for their neighbors then when similar situation arise in other countries/cultures. Why is that? Let's include the Maslow model to make an analysis.

I am half Japanese and have lived most of my life in Japan. Socially, perhaps I am more Japanese than I am American. So, read these words as if they are coming from a Japanese person. From my Japanese perspective, I can say that most Japanese that I have come in contact with over my entire lifetime seem to agree that Japan is currently practically "classless". That is to say that most Japanese tend to believe that most of us here in Japan belong to some sort of a middle class and that we all have similar values -hence practically "classless". The Japanese differentiate with age far, far more commonly than they do with class levels. This stems from the Tokugawa Shogunate when the warring regions of Japan were deliberately unified by Tokugawa's version of confucianism. This neo-confucianism, and namely it's filial piety (respect for elders, etc.), has become an integral part of the Japanese mentality. Now combine this with the fact that if you look at Japanese history since as far back as 1000 AD, Japan has been at war and/or was a dominant Empire for most of this time. Japan's social and educational systems are therefore necessarily traditionally heavily militaristic at the core. Look no further than the public school systems. The uniforms that they wear to this day are still often military uniforms aren't they? Tradition and obedience is still favored over creativity and individuality isn't it? As many Japanese people (such as me) will admit if given a chance, Japan is not a real democracy (which was an ideology forced on Japan, post WWII by the US). At the core of its traditional values, Japan is still more of a socialist-militaristic state that has been whimpering ever since it has been castrated and has had its teeth plucked out by the US after the war. Why am I bringing this up? Whether you like it or not, this toothless and castrated whimpering socialist-militaristic country has convinced its population that we have enough in life just by living here. All we have to do is listen to the government, be obedient, and ganbaru (roughly, do your best ) and the rest will be taken care of. Oddly enough, that puts a significant portion of the Japanese population at level 4 in Maslow's pyramid. It lets the Japanese people feel confident enough to pursue mutual respect. I feel this roughly explains the psychology behind the so-called social obedience of the Japanese. Tokugawa profoundly affected the Japanese back then, and is still affecting them now even after all these years. So, quasi-democratic/pseudo-socialist societies may have their benefits. But will those benefits continue through this current tragedy?

In Haiti and after Katrina, there were extreme cases of looting. From what I have gathered, it seems that much of the looting was started by people who were living their lives in or around the poverty level. On Maslow's pyramid, they would be living at level 1-2. Some may have been at level 3. This is interesting. Remember that Esteem is at level 4. When faced with a dire situation, people who are already living with level 1-2 problems do not jump up to level 4's Esteem needs. Why should they? Now, let's consider Japan, where we all are convinced that we are all living at level 4 (or perhaps 5). We actually believe that most of us have mutual respect. In fact, our culture expects this from us. (From the outside, this may be deemed circular. We are at level 4 because we believe we are at level 4. However, for the most part, it seems to be working). We have lived this way for so long in our adult lives that most of our mental circuits upstairs have been developed within and by this context. Simplistically speaking, most Japanese adult brains are naturally formed to function at level 4 -as opposed to a poverty-stricken person (level 1-2). This, albeit simplistically, explains why a wallet dropped on the streets of Tokyo can often get recovered at the local Police station, while the rest of the world gasps at the notion. In other words, there seem to be so many people outside of Japan that are living at levels 1-2 that the social norms of their societies are being significantly pulled down by them, instead of being significantly pulled up by the level 4-5 people. This is a shame. Perhaps we should do something about this. But to answer my own question about whether this will continue in Japan, I have a negative response.

What is neuroplasticity? In short, it is how the brain learns. The brain is not really very book-like nor is is very computer-like. Our neurons connect to form massive networks in the brain for the purpose of deep analyzation of our world. Those networks constantly change -depending upon the immediate context. They need to change to the context or else they wouldn't serve much purpose, would they? If you have ever felt culture-shock and then gotten over it, that's neuroplasticity at work. The first shock comes when your currently existing networks are not capable of interpreting and comprehending the massively different input that they are receiving from the new cultural context. You slowly get over it because your brain rewires itself to get better and better at analyzing the newer contexts. The very odd "reverse culture-shock" phenomenon happens because by the time you return to your original cultural context, your brain has been rewired significantly by that second culture -your first culture now seems out of whack!

If you have ever seen the movie TRADING PLACES (1983) with Dan Akroyd and Eddie Murphy, you may recall that when a rich man's and a poor man's lives are exchanged, although it took some time, eventually, the originally rich, now poor man begins stealing things and the originally poor, now rich man develops great esteem and makes humane decisions. Their neuroplasticity is what let them change so significantly. Of course that was a piece of fiction, but the story works very well for what I am about to say. What we bring to the table does not stay significant forever; our immediate context has a huge affect on us. Current research now tells us that our context and our behavior within contexts even affects the roles our genes play. So although so many Japanese adults may be currently wired at the Esteem level, if their context remains at the dire level 1-2 for extend periods, we are going to see a significant change in those peoples' attitudes. Don't blame them when this happens.

And finally, I would like to add that we, the English speaking community in Japan, have witnessed an interesting gradation of our own emotions, actions, and reactions. In the beginning it was mostly shock and "What can I do about this?". Nobody really cared about the intensity of language being used by CNN and other non-Japanese news agencies at that time. But by around the 5-7 day mark, post-tsunami, a significant number of foreigners in Japan began voicing strong opposition to the strong language. The attitude from many people in the foreign community in Japan was, "Hey! Will you stop with the never-ending CRISIS announcements! WE ARE OK!". Let's take one final look at Maslow's pyramid. For us in the foreign community, we were all scared and not sure of our safety -all of us were at level 1-2, if only briefly, and if only in our heads. Then, it took several days for us to reestablish our networks and make sure our loved ones, friends, etc., were all ok. Most of us were back up to level 3 meaning that level 4 (Esteem) was close to being in reach -but every time CNN cried, "CRISIS IN JAPAN!!", it shook our foundations and smothered our hopes to get back our esteem. This frustration compounded and angered many of us (along with those incessant AC ads on the local channels). We publicly announced our anger. We made videos and uploaded them to YouTube pleading the foreign news agencies to stop exaggerating. They were robbing us of our esteem -how dare they! … but now the Japanese government is slowly letting us know that the situation is a lot worse than they had originally (and cleverly) led us to believe. That put some of us are back down to levels 1-2. Some of us actually never left those levels. But those cries to CNN have mostly died down, haven't they? However, soon we may begin voicing more anger toward the government and TEPCO. Soon we may become more irrational and erupt with anger at anything in our paths. Think of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs when you see this happening.

In conclusion, I want to say that Maslow was a wise man but his work is not without criticism. Just google his hierarchy and you'll have all the information at your fingertips. There is criticism because his pyramid does not explain all human motivation in all circumstances. It is also criticized because he's American, so the pyramid works best for Americans and may not suit people from other cultures. To the criticisms, I somewhat agree. There is no 'perfect' model that explains human motivation in all situations -but his work is commendable and is useful because it makes our motivation something tangible. We can talk about motivation and their levels because of his model. We can also provide better care for those in need with this model. It is therefore used in hospitals by doctors and nurses to gauge the needs of children and lone patients, to cite a couple of examples. In short, although it may not be perfect, it fills an important need. It has helped me work out my feelings many times, and has helped me help my own students with their problems from time to time. I have brought this up today hoping that it may help us all make sense of our current situation in Japan, and allow us to better understand the psychological states that we experience and the motivations behind them.

If you try using Maslow in your classrooms, or at home, please let me know. I'd love to hear your stories! (comment below or send me a direct email:

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An excellent piece Robert! This has inspired me to present Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to my students next term as a possible self-regulatory tool, to become more aware of what level they are processing at, and indeed think of how they might struggle to get to higher levels and realize how media news sometimes drags them down a notch or two. Enjoyed the historical perspective too. Keep up the good work. Tim Murphey

Thank you for the compliments Tim! I am honored to hear that the article has inspired lessons for your students. From my experience, students grasp the ideas relatively quickly and enjoy the metacognition that follows. Please let me in on how it goes with your students!


Very useful, Robert. Thanks.

Curtis Kelly and I both connect Maslow to what we do in a Think Tank column a couple years ago. Curtis looked at "3L" students (Low motivation, Low ability, Low confidence). I looked at ways of supporting part-time teachers.

The column is at:

Hi Marc!

Thanks for the warm comments. That was a nice think tank back in 2009. Indeed MOTIVATION is a concept that entails all aspects of our professional and personal lives. I'll be writing more about motivation quite frequently in this column, albeit typically more from the neuroscience side.


Thank you Robert. One of the clearest articles I've read on the whole situation and a brilliant use of Maslow's model to help clarify events and responses.

Thanks Richard for the glowing comments!
Come back soon -better articles are on their way.


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