Coronavirus  has subjected people to  unfamiliar psychological and existential pressures. Things we’ve taken for granted- easily accessible healthcare, social contact, even food- have abruptly been threatened or curtailed. This can be deeply destabilising.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful lens through which to explore this, and to examine the attitude shifts these altered experiences are driving. 

American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the hierarchy of needs in the 1940s. It’s a model of human motivation.

Maslow suggested there are layers of needs humans strive to meet. The most basic and essential are at the base of the pyramid, and as you meet successive needs you are motivated to move up the pyramid and take care of higher needs, culminating in “self-actualisation”, which is fulfilment of potential and purpose.

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Coronavirus has fuelled a sudden dive down the pyramid, confronting people with the challenge of meeting needs they had long taken for granted.

This can be alarming and unsettling. Recall how you felt seeing images of empty supermarket shelves, or even encountering them in the flesh. When basic needs are suddenly threatened, fear-driven survival instincts kick out in sometimes ugly ways. Panic buying and fights over food and loo rolls. Ukrainians attacking a bus of evacuees arriving back from China with bricks. Racist attacks against Asians. 

People’s livelihoods have been threatened on an unprecedented level. 

Data from Citizens Advice captures this rapid descent down the pyramid. In early March, the UK charity saw a rise in people coming to them about flight and hotel cancellations. Then came a surge in queries about sick pay. Next: advice on redundancy and benefits. Then, towards the end of March, a flood of interest on what to do if you can’t afford to top up your prepayment meter, indicating “people are already worried about spiralling into debt”. Page views for that particular issue leapt more than 4000% year-on-year

This chart from data analytics company Contentsquare encapsulates this shift in priorities through changes in ecommerce traffic since the start of the pandemic. 

It’s Maslow’s pyramid inverted:

Chart courtesy of Contentsquare. (Maslow annotations added by me.)

People have been preoccupied primarily with acquiring basic goods such as food etc, devouring media to meet safety needs, and then putting in place tech and telecoms to meet employment and social needs.

What can we do?

Much is out of our control and the future is uncertain. But there is plenty that we can control. By focusing on these things we can better meet our needs and increase our sense of agency.

Sleep

Sleep is one of the more neglected basic physiological needs. But it’s crucial, especially at a time like this.

Getting sufficient sleep (7-8 hours for most people) facilitates optimum functioning of your immune system. Not getting enough can deplete it.

Insufficient sleep can catalyse anxiety. It elevates levels of the stress hormone cortisol and makes your fight-or-flight response more twitchy. The challenges you are currently facing may seem more overwhelming, and your abilities to tackle them may seem diminished. 

But of course anxiety can also cause sleep deprivation. Regardless of which came first, the two can feed each other. Thankfully there are effective strategies for tackling both simultaneously; exercise, meditation, and limiting news consumption (especially in the late evening) are very effective.

Here’s another sleep-enhancing strategy beyond the usual limit caffeine and screen exposure, cool room etc:

Studies have shown that gratitude can enhance sleep quality because you have more positive (and therefore less disturbing) thoughts floating through your mind when you try to drift off. Take a few minutes to write a gratitude list before bed.

Perceived safety vs Actual safety

Humans are not very good at accurately assessing threats.

There’s often a chasm between perceived safety and actual safety.

There are numerous risk-related cognitive biases at work at the moment.

We tend to exaggerate novel risks and downplay common risks.

We overestimate risks present in situations we can’t control, and underestimate risks we willingly take.

I see these first two biases at work every time someone overtakes me at 120kph on a moped wearing a surgical mask and no helmet. In Thailand (where I live) 43 people have died from coronavirus so far while 22,491 were killed in road traffic accidents in 2018. (It has the second deadliest roads in the world after Libya.)

I’m not saying we should be less concerned by COVID-19. Simply that by understanding these biases we can be more grounded in reality.

Humans are also more distressed by risks driven by human intention. That’s one of the reasons we are more worried by terrorism than influenza, which kills thousands of times more people. And that’s why conspiracy theories about coronavirus being deliberately created in government labs, or being spread by 5G networks can be so alarming and attention grabbing.

As the WHO director-general said, “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”

This Buzzfeed story about how a small town in Ukraine was ravaged by two days of riots due to misinformation on social media illustrates the point perfectly. There was no coronavirus but a lot of destruction.

It’s natural for humans to seek safety through information. But if we’re not selective, we make ourselves feel far less safe than we need to. We might feel like our safety needs are more threatened than they really are, and that brings with it a slew of psychological and physiological consequences.

Re-evaluating needs

Such a dramatic upheaval inevitably sparks reflection. The importance of some needs have been highlighted by the pain of their absence. Isolation has, for many, underscored the importance of connection, a lesson that can be carried forth when normal life resumes.

But the drive to compensate for a lack of face-to-face connection is in some cases reaping surprising benefits. I know people who have at times felt socially closer during this time of social distancing,taking the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and deepen connections with family. Recovery communities have been industrious and creative in setting up 24/7 marathon meetings.

40% of Brits have felt a stronger sense of community during lockdown, and 39% feel more in touch with friends and family, according to a survey conducted by YouGov for the Royal Society of Arts. 

Spending more time with your family is an opportunity to reappraise their importance in your life. “Mommy, I Like Coronavirus’, reads one WSJ headline, referring to a toddler getting to spend more time with her parents. (Obviously this is not everyone’s experience, and it’s important not to airbrush out the fact that lockdown has been horrendous for many, with domestic abuse jumping.)

In fact, “Parenting” replaces “Self-actualisation” at the top of the hierarchy of needs in a recent overhaul of Maslow’s model. 

A group of evolutionary psychologists (who look at the mind from a Darwinian perspective) have (somewhat contentiously) asserted that raising offspring is the most fundamental human drive. Self-actualisation is relegated to a footnote in “Status/Esteem” needs.

This revamp of the pyramid shifts the focus of human existence from individualistic self-fulfilment to family nurturing.

Similarly the coronavirus lockdown might have set in motion a reappraisal of our needs and provided the logistical evidence that we can better meet them. It’s harder for an employer to insist on rigid, family-time-curtailing office hours when lockdown has proved flexibility is possible.

Self-transcendence

Just before he died in 1970, Maslow posited the addition of another layer at the apex of the pyramid: self-transcendence.

Whereas self-actualisation is about fulfilling your own potential, self-transcendence is about setting your own needs aside and serving something greater than yourself. It can be achieved through altruism. It is a concept that has been explored through the lens of nursing and environmental conservation.

And amidst all the strife and pain of Covid-19, there have been some glimmers of hope, which often touch on self-transcendence.

There’s the surge of 750,000 NHS volunteers, and the homage paid to health workers globally.

A 99-year-old war veteran set out to raise £1,000 for the NHS by walking 100 lengths of his garden before his hundredth birthday. He has raised more than £20m.

Volunteers have created through Folding@Home the world’s fastest supercomputer to help model proteins related to Covid-19. Millions of people have volunteered processing power to create a supercomputer more powerful than the top 500 supercomputers combined.

The outlook is still uncertain, there is more suffering and sickness to come, and, even with beefy state interventions there is potentially further economic hardship on the cards. But by understanding and even re-examining our needs we can channel lessons from an extraordinarily challenging situation.

And evidence is already emerging that this crisis has sparked a re-assessment of how we want to live.

Only 9% of Brits want a total return to “normal” after lockdown, according to the RSA/YouGov poll.

“This data shows there is a real appetite for change, and for the nation to learn from this crisis. People are trying new things and noticing differences, at home, in their work and in communities,” said Professor Tom MacMillan, research lead for the RSA’s Commission.

“Alongside the emergency response, it is important to keep track of these changes in what we’re doing and our collective mood, to help shape the kind of country we want to be.”