Low Grumbles, High Grumbles, and Metagrumbles

This edition of Mentor Online is adapted from material by Dr. Herbert Maslow.

Dr. Herbert Maslow in 1971 wrote about what he termed “Low Grumbles, High Grumbles, and Metagrumbles,” all part of the human condition and tied to our never-ending desires for MORE – no matter how much we already have (even if that includes good health).

Because a satisfied need ceases to be a motivator of behavior, Dr. Maslow, speaking about gratified basic needs such as hunger, sex, safety and shelter (among many others), said that “All the basic needs which have been fully gratified tend to be forgotten by the individual and to disappear from consciousness.” What does this mean? That for awhile, until the previously satisfied need begins to press on us to satisfy it again, “what the person is craving and wanting and wishing for tends to be that which is just out ahead of him in the motivational hierarchy. Focusing on this particular need indicates that all the lower needs have been satisfied, and it indicates that the needs which are still higher and beyond what the person is craving for [self-esteem, recognition, appreciation, self-actualization] have not yet come into the realm of possibility for him,” so we don’t even think about them when our lower level or “deficiency” needs seem paramount and pressing in our consciousness or biology.

“In an authoritarian, industrial situation,” Maslow writes, “lower-level complaint means complaints about cold and wet and danger to life and fatigue and poor shelter and all of these basic biological necessities.” On the positive side, Maslow indicates that “these complaints represent a wish or craving out ahead of what is currently available.” Being fired arbitrarily, for example, fits here.

So, what are low grumbles? “I think we can call low grumbles those grumbles which come at the biological and at the safety level,” Maslow points out, “perhaps, also, at the level of gregariousness and belonging to the informal, sociable group.”

The higher-need levels would be “mostly at the level of esteem and self-esteem, where questions would be involved of dignity, of autonomy, of self-respect,, of respect from the other; feelings of worth, of getting praise and rewards and credits for one’s accomplishments and the like.”

The metagrumbles “are the metamotivations which hold in the self-actualizing life.” These, Maslow says, “might be complaints about not being given the full truth, blocks in the free flow of communication, complaints about inefficiency and imperfections, etc.” What’s intriguing about complaints or grumbles at this leve is that people who have the luxury of complaining about certain systems in place at work, injustice, grumbles about not being rewarded for the time one has spent on a project, about villainy being rewarded, is this: these are much higher levels of grumbles than those we expect to hear from a person who is anxious about their safety and survival.

What this indicates, Maslow writes, is that “human beings will always complain. As soon as we get used to our blessings, after initial delight, we forget about them and start reaching out into the future for still higher blessings, as we restlessly perceive how things could be even more perfect than they are at this moment.”

Which brings up an interesting point. We’ve heard over and over that we ought to count our blessings, but once we’ve counted them we tend to lose interest in what we now know and will likely move on to higher and higher levels of discontent – reaching for what is out ahead of us, what we have not yet attained yet desire.

This is why those who advocate the philosophy of what Maslow calls “enlightened management” are often disillusioned and disappointed as the complaint level rises when better conditions come in. “Disappointed by the lack of gratitude, by the continuation of complaints, their anger seemed justified in light of the money and efforts that went into making improvements in the work conditions.”

“I assumed that there were hierarchies of frustration and that moving from a low-frustration to a high frustration level is a sign of blessedness, of good fortune, of good social conditions,” Maslow writes. “To complain about the garden programs in the city where I live…indicates the height of life at which the complainers are living. To complain about rose gardens means that your belly is full, that you have a good roof over your head, that your furnace is working, that you’re not afraid of bubonic plague, that you’re not afraid of assassination, that the police and fire departments work well…and many other preconditions that are already satisfied.”

This brings us to Maslow’s key point: “The high-level complaint is not to be taken as simply like any other complaint: it must be used to indicate all the preconditions which have been satisfied to make the height of this complaint theoretically possible.”

Maslow claims that an enlightened management “will expect that improvement in conditions would raise the complaint level and raise the frustration level as outlined above, rather than expecting that improved conditions will make all complaints disappear.” What we must look for in any setting, he indicates, is “Have these complaints gone up in motivational level?” In other words, from low grumbles, to middle grumbles, to metagrumbles? Money, it appears, can mean practically anything in the motivational hierarchy; it can mean low or middle or high values or metavalues as well, depending on the level of dissatisfaction or satisfaction/contentment with which a person is living his or her life.

Here are some examples of really bad conditions: prisoner-of-war camps, concentration camps, poorly managed companies, and frankly all too often, our public school system, nursing home systems that warehouse the elderly rather than honor, value, and respect them. Maslow cites the example of an upholsterer who was always upset because his boss whistled for him instead of calling him by name. A complication of good conditions, we should note, is that they do have a positive effect on some people, a bad and catastrophic effect on others – especially authoritarians who cannot handle freedom and trust.

“Don’t think good conditions invariably make all human beings into growing, self-actualizers,” Maslow writes. For example, some people repress their desire to steal until the bank goes liberal, removes guards, and institutes trust. “The honor system still cannot be used generally in situations where the temptations are too great, where the stakes are too great.”

Maslow even observes that “The same thing is true for a marriage and might even turn out to be a way of judging the goodness of the marriage,” as, for instance, when a wife is complaining about her husband forgetting to bring her flowers, putting too much sugar in his coffee, etc. This type of complaint is at a different level from the wife who complains that her husband broke her nose or knocked her teeth out. “The one thing to remember is that no matter how good the marriage or the college or the school or the parents, there will be perceived ways of improving the situation, i.e., there will be complaints and grumbles.” This, while we may not want to admit it, is the essence of human growth and improvement.

“…there will be very quick and sharp complaints about any more basic gratifications which are taken away or threatened or jeopardized even though the person doesn’t notice these gratifications or takes them for granted entirely when they are easily available.” An example of this is that “If you ask a person what’s good about his place, he won’t think to tell you that his feet don’t get wet because the floors aren’t flooded, or that he is protected against lice and cockroaches in his office, or the like. He will simply take all of these for granted and won’t put them down as pluses. But if any of these taken-for-granted conditions disappears, then of course you’ll hear a big howl. To say it another way, these gratifications do not bring appreciation or gratitude, even though they do bring violent complaints when they are taken away.” Positive grumbles, by contrast, “are generally comments about what is just higher in the hierarchy of motivation, what is just out ahead, what is the next wish wished for.”

In collecting examples of bad conditions in the extreme, Maslow suggests that “collecting this sort of treatment…might be the basis for making up a checklist in order to make…workers more aware of their blessings (which normally they won’t even notice, which they will take for granted as normal). That is, instead of asking them to volunteer complaints, it might be desirable to have a checklist of really bad conditions and ask them if any of these things happen; for instance, if there are any bugs or if it’s too cold, or too hot or too noisy or too dangerous or if corrosive chemicals spatter on them or if they are physically hurt or attacked by anybody or if there are no safety precautions on dangerous machines, etc….Any man presented with a check list of two hundred such items could then realize that the absence of all these two hundred bad conditions was itself a positive good.”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Need (Pyramid)

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