Maslow’s Hierarchy, Mutated


Most everyone is familiar with or has at least heard of Maslow and his triangle of human needs.

After spending some time with humans though, a tweaked version has begun growing in my head: Maslow’s Spectrum.

First, instead of a clean triangle, I see a smudgy ladder. The needs listed are just what we can perceive right now with our meager understanding of ourselves. Think of the light spectrum with invisible infrared and ultraviolet light on either side of the visible colors. In the same way, I’m guessing there are “invisible” needs on either side of Maslow’s list we can’t yet comprehend because we are too embedded in the human experience. Remember, scientists still have no idea what consciousness is. Until that human fundamental is unraveled it’s not possible to know everything a conscious human being needs.

What could come before? A need for self-awareness? A need for consciousness?

What could come after? I have no idea.

What I do know is cavemen weren’t discussing self-actualization when they could barely feed and clothe themselves. They didn’t know there was anything more out there than food, sex, and a warm cave but technology like agriculture allowed them to meet those lower needs and consider needs higher up the ladder. Fast forward to the modern day and huge technologies continue to sweep in. No one knows what human needs these new advances will reveal but it’s fun to guess.

Second, just as light is the common thread that runs through the light spectrum, control is the common thread that winds through Maslow’s Spectrum.

Control of our environment. Control of our bodies. Control of our relationships. Control of our future.

We think needing control is some negative trait other annoying humans struggle with (not us) but let’s grab a different lens to peer through. Isn’t “You’re so controlling” just a murky way of saying “I don’t have enough control”? It’s like screaming “You’re so hungry!” at whoever took the last piece of pizza. We wouldn’t be critical of others craving control if we weren’t also grasping at it for ourselves. Needing control isn’t a character flaw, it’s a basic human need.

While working as a nurse my users (patients) were catapulted into situations where everyone but them was in charge. However, the creativity they used to wrangle back even the tiniest shard of control always amazed me. A perennial favorite was turning the request for a simple glass of water into a Starbucks worthy drink order.  “Nurse, get me half a cup of water, no ice, not from the tap”. “Nurse, I want 1/3 ice, filled up to here with water, but in a new cup…and make sure it’s the GOOD ice.” A new glass of water sitting in an air-conditioned room for 60 minutes became “hot” and was unfit to drink. Countless times I was ordered to dump out and “refresh” cups of water that were fresh enough to still have ice floating in them.

Did I somehow only get the diva patients day after day? Or the eccentrics who created weird H2O cocktails every time they were thirsty? No, these were normal people trying to meet a human need the healthcare system had failed to address. My patients were in pain, hungry, sick, upset, terrified of the future, sometimes even struggling to breathe and yet what were they reaching for first? Control. The basement human need, the one that underlines all other needs.


Humans have been seeking immortality for centuries. If we found a way to achieve that with technology would it find its way onto Maslow’s list?

Does a human need only exist once we have the technology to meet it? Or does it exist before we can achieve it?

Is “Interactive Experience” just another way of saying “an experience where the user has lots of control”?

How can control be included along with things like humor and surprise to add irresistible human appeal to the products I design?

Does it make a difference if the product offers actual control or just perceived control?