The double-edged sword of self-actualization

Scott Barry Kaufman, who is one of my favourite psychologists, deals with self-actualization in his latest book Transcend The New Science of Self-Actualization. This is a highly important topic in a world in which material success is often too much in the foreground and our ancient evolutionary instincts like deep connectedness in our communities are neglected. Self-actualized people live in harmony with themselves and are at the same time highly individualistic and altruistic (think of Bill Gates).

Not all people strive for self-actualization. In fact, the majority of people are content with an average life, a job, a house in the suburbs and a family. So, what’s the fuss all about? I agree with SBK in so far as self-actualization should be fostered in schools rather than filter out certain personality types through standardised testing, i.e. those types who find it easiest to conform to our school system and that hardly leaves any room for independent problem solving and creativity. Morality and lack of prejudice are all undervalued and people who acknowledge the human rights of refugees are called “libtards”.

One thing SBK doesn’t do, however, is pointing out the negative aspects of self-actualization and he lacks an evolutionary perspective of the phenomenon.

If we have a look at Maslow’s pyramid (which was never meant to be a hierarchy, as SBK points out), it should be clear that the first four levels of human needs helped our ancestors survive and reproduce: food kept us alive, seeking safety prevented us from becoming prey, friendship and sexual intimacy helped us rear our children and esteem helped us not become outcasts and obtain a desirable mate.

So, where does self-actualization come in? It isn’t important for any other species, nor was it important for homo sapiens for the most part of our history. Imagine a caveman who decided to become a comedian or a drag queen rather than a hunter-gatherer. Makes you wonder how long he would have survived. In fact, self-actualization often goes against other human needs:

Physiological : George Lucas, the director of Star Wars, subsisted on the school’s vending machine (soda, chocolate bars) while making his first movies in films school and while I am sure he did breathe and go to the toilet, sex wasn’t on his agenda. In fact, he hasn’t got any biological children to this day.

Safety : Jumping from the stratosphere, to name just one. So far Felix Baumgartner’s courageous act hasn’t procured him any offspring.

Sex : priests and monks often lead celibate lives. This completely contradicts any evolutionary logic. While many people nowadays wouldn’t give up sex for self-actualization, they do give up having children. It seems that there are more evolutionary psychologists who don’t have children (they should have at least two to pass on their genes) than evolutionary psychologists who do.

Love/Belonging : self-actualization is probably one of the main causes for couples to split up nowadays. Nikola Tesla died lonely, poor and childless (most likely a virgin).

Esteem : Giordano Bruno died for his beliefs at the stake; he didn’t earn a lot of esteem for them until much later. Vincent van Gogh only sold a single painting during his lifetime. Neither of them was likely to have had any children. Going against the tide usually does not earn people much esteem, at least not during their lifetimes.

From an evolutionary point of view, self-actualization therefore often seems downright counterproductive. Why do people often leave safe career paths, say of a doctor or lawyer (not that these can’t be objective of self-actualization) and become writers or scientists instead, professions in which they have a much higher risk of failing? In fact, self-actualization if tightly connected to potential failure. Failure is celebrated nowadays, but in our evolutionary past failure often wasn’t an option, which is the very reason why people are afraid of it.

In The Mating Mind evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller points out that there are many successful strategies to reproduction and that being good with words (a poet) or singing can be an equally successful strategy as showing off material wealth (conspicuous consumption). While basically correct, his theory does not explain cases like this one:

Sir Cliff Richard [one of Britain’s most successful musicians] has admitted that he never wanted children because starting a family would have got in the way of his career. ( )

Why do some people feel the need to self-actualize whereas the majority doesn’t? Let’s assume all people follow their evolutionary programme. I have argued before that differences in human personality are derived from our ancestral modes of subsistence: hunting-gathering, farming and herding. A simplified version of each type’s evolutionary programme for social and sexual selection could be:

Farmers : achieving impact on the community via hard work, accumulation of wealth and status and community service.

Herders : achieving impact on the community via the display of fitness signals, “sexiness” and generosity.

Hunter-gatherers : achieving impact via the display of mastery (e.g. excellence at hunting) and morality (egalitarian values, kindness)

The majority of people are farmer types and would, therefore, be happy with a safe career, such as being a physician, businessman or lawyer. They would therefore not feel the need to, say, make a breakthrough discovery in medicine or physics.

As we basically live in a “farmer society” of 9–5 routine jobs, herders find it harder to be successful in typical farmer jobs, such as management. They often excel at sports, crafts or entertainment, however. Occasionally they go to extremes, such as sky-diving from the stratosphere.

As hunter-gatherers are typical out-group social (they move between bands without prejudice of others) they are less interested in making an impact on their immediate community than making an impact in the world, say, making lives better for women, making new scientific discoveries or writing stories that will delight generation to come.

By now it should be clear that it is the last group, the hunter-gatherer neurotribe who have the highest interest in what is called self-actualization. In a world of farmers/herders, they have a different evolutionary programme to fulfil, not seeking status or fame, but changing the world so that it is more in accordance with their evolutionary programme. This explains why people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King risked their own safety and well-being for the sake of their ideals.

Self-actualization is a risky strategy. It is not a strategy that has evolved through natural selection, it is rather a strategy that has arisen by putting hunter-gatherer minds into a farmer society and much more like an act of desperation and rebellion. Therefore, self-actualization shouldn’t be older than the advent of farming and the subjugation of hunter-gatherers in farmer societies.

Originally published at on July 17, 2020.