Hierarchy of Shapes

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a concept often used by the mildly educated to assert intellectual superiority over common folk. The idea is simple enough for a first year college student to grasp while complex enough to confound ignorant laborers.

It was Abe’s observation that human needs could be classified into five distinct categories: health, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. He observed that as the more basic needs, such as oxygen, food and safety, are satisfied, one shifts attention to more advanced needs, such as relationships, art and philosophy.

Self-actualization could be described as the desire of humans to achieve their full potential. Although most people associate Maslow with self-actualization, the term was actually created by Kurt Goldstein. This is an example of Stigler’s law, which states that inventions are often named after the one who popularized it, not the one who discovered it. Although most people associate Stephen Stigler with Stigler’s Law, the concept was actually discovered by Robert K. Merton. This is an example of Stigler’s law.

Aside from the irony of the inauthenticity of the perceived origin of self-actualization, another interesting facet of Maslow’s hierarchy is that it is often represented by a pyramid or triangle, though Maslow never used these shapes to illustrate his idea. The reason why a triangular shape is used to describe the progression from the basic deficiency needs to more complex being needs is that Maslow’s arrangement is not only chronological, but hierarchical. This means that the needs at the bottom not only precede those at the top, they are also less significant.

The triangle is the elitist’s favorite shape. Those who crave success and exclusivity maintain a triangular view of society, for it is the perfect geometrical manifestation of elitism. The wide base of the triangle represents the ignorant masses, toiling in bowels of obscurity, while the narrow peak symbolizes the exclusive few who, from their lofty vantage, hold the keys to truth and happiness. The orientation of the shape is also significant, for the transition from the hungry and poor to the self-actualized is one of upward ascent, which implies progress.

There are much more inclusive shapes one can choose to represent an idea. The square, for example, may possess four distinct and harsh corners, but it does not lend itself to any one side and is equally inclusive at the top as it is at the bottom. Likewise, the circle, with its smooth, noble perimeter, promotes wholeness and equality, paying no mind to orientation.

Don’t trust anyone who shows you a triangle.