Monday, March 05, 2007

Maslow – who needs him!

Trite training of trainers
‘Train the trainer’ courses love their dose of Maslow, who claimed to have found the secret of learning and training through his hierarchy of needs. yet it is hauled in without any reflection on it being correct, validated or even relevant. I never did find this theory remotely interesting but as it surfaced in recent conversation at a learning conference I delved a little further.

Trainers love these neat slides. I think it's the pyramid - it's easy to explain. Yet its actual relevance to learning is non-existant. Even as an explanation of human nature or behaviour it's trite.

Hierarchy of needs - let's take a look


Physiological needs
Thirst, food, sleep, warmth, activity, avoiding pain, and sex

Safety and security needs
Shelter, stability, protection, salary, pension.

Love and belonging needs
Friends, partner, children, relationships and community

Esteem needs
Respect, status, reputation, dignity. Self-respect, confidence and achievement.

Self-actualization
Aspirational need, the desire to fulfil your potential.

The first four are all ‘deficit’ or ‘D-needs’. If not present, you’ll feel their absence and yearn for them. When each is satisfied you reach a state of homeostasis where the yearning stops. How’s that for stating the obvious?

The last, self-actualisation, does not involve homeostasis, but once felt is always there. Maslow saw this as applying to a tiny number of people, whose basic four levels are satisfied leaving them free to look beyond their deficit needs. He used a qualitative technique called ‘biographical analysis’, looked at high achievers and found that they enjoyed solitude, close relationships with a few rather than many, autonomy and resist social norms.

It ain’t a hierarchy, it wasn’t tested and it’s wrong
Although massively influential in training, his work was never tested experimentally and his ‘biographical analysis’ was armchair research. The self-actualisation theory is now regarded as of no real relevance. An ever weaker aspect of the theory is its hierarchy. It is not at all clear that the higher needs cannot be fulfilled until the lower needs are satisfied. There are many counter-examples and indeed, creativity can atrophy and die on the back of success. In short, subsequent research has shown that his hierarchy is bogus, as needs are pursued non-hierarchically. In other words his periodic table for human qualities is yet another dead and over-simplistic theory hanging around in dated training courses.

If you're still not convinced, read this entry from maslow's own journal in 1962, 'My motivation theory was published 20 years ago, & in all that time nobody repeated it, or tested it, or really analyzed it or criticized it. They just used it, swallowed it whole with only the most minor modifications'. Enough said.

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16 Comments:

Blogger Martin M-B said...

Donald,
I enjoyed your latest polemic on a 'dead academic', but I need to have a better look at Maslow before deciding whether to enter this debate. For now, however, three observations and one question:
Observation 1: A scan of Wikipedia shows a link to an article (http://www.xenodochy.org/ex/lists/maslow.html) that emphasises that in 1970 Maslow revised his original mid-1950s model of 5 levels of needs to 7, adding 'Know and Understand' and 'Aesthetic'. Now, I'm not trying to catch anyone out here, or to be 'cleverclever', but the picture may not be complete until these aditional levels are included.
Observation 2: It seems to me, at first glance, that Maslow's needs express a valid view of human nature and have interesting political and sociological connotations. One journal abstract (http://www.springerlink.com/content/k80648k4uk364638/) suggests that 'Maslow's hierarchy-of-needs theory is used to predict development of Quality of Life (QOL) in countries over time'.
Observation 3: A further article referenced in Wikipedia (http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/maslow.html) offers some considered views of Maslow's theories: 'The most common criticism concerns his methodology: Picking a small number of people that he himself declared self-actualizing, then reading about them or talking with them, and coming to conclusions about what self-actualization is in the first place does not sound like good science to many people.
In his defense, I should point out that he understood this, and thought of his work as simply pointing the way. He hoped that others would take up the cause and complete what he had begun in a more rigorous fashion. It is a curiosity that Maslow, the “father” of American humanism, began his career as a behaviorist with a strong physiological bent. He did indeed believe in science, and often grounded his ideas in biology. He only meant to broaden psychology to include the best in us, as well as the pathological! '.
And so to the question which, I suspect, is the part of this ramble most relevant to your post: How/Why on earth has Maslow come to be so powerful in training? Am I being naive? Or has he been hijacked...?
Martin Mackain-Bremner
Defence Academy
Shrivenham

1:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

True, he lobbed another two on top, but the slide that pops up all the time in the cut and paste world of training seems to be the old 5 level model.

I thought he had been dropped some time ago but he still pops up all too frequently, usually in some banal article. Here's an example from Learning Technologies:

"It may appear hackneyed in the modern age, but Maslow’s conclusions are of particular importance to trainers. If we are hungry, we may wander from the text of the novel we are reading and first deal with what is in the fridge! Of course we can read, eat and socialise all at once, but the point is that a basic need cannot be denied, and will become more and more insistent until it blocks out all higher considerations."

Donald's right. It's that bad folks.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

"It may appear hackneyed in the modern age, but Maslow’s conclusions are of particular importance to trainers. If we are hungry, we may wander from the text of the novel we are reading and first deal with what is in the fridge! Of course we can read, eat and socialise all at once, but the point is that a basic need cannot be denied, and will become more and more insistent until it blocks out all higher considerations."

Why is that bad? The Maslow heirarchy makes an obvious point vividly - if you are hungry, want a pee, wondering if your wife is going to leave you, etc then you are unlikely to be learning much. It is not subtle and hardly counts as psychology - but like many obvious things it gets ignored in practice. I use it all the time for instructor training. It is all too easy when you are teaching to forget that some of your students may have more fundamental things on their minds. I would hope that anyone implementing self-study/e-learning is thinking about it as well.

The mistake is to get too academic about it. It is not much more than a graphical check list - but it is a useful one. It takes 5 minutes to explain its significance. After that you only have to show the picture and the point is made.

3:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hold on a minute. "if you are hungry, want a pee, wondering if your wife is going to leave you, etc then you are unlikely to be learning much"

You have to 'train' people to get this? It may not be subtle or psychology - it's painfully obvious.

Donald's point was that Maslow did get academic about it - unfortunately, he was wrong.

3:48 PM  
Blogger jay said...

Donald, I love your debunking series, but... Having recently come under the spell of Appreciative Inquiry, I'm trying to build on strengths rather than dwell on weaknesses. Who do you like these days? Who's genuine? Inspirational? Worth a damn?

jay

5:13 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...


Hold on a minute. "if you are hungry, want a pee, wondering if your wife is going to leave you, etc then you are unlikely to be learning much"

You have to 'train' people to get this? It may not be subtle or psychology - it's painfully obvious.


It may be obvious but there are plenty of instructors and other training professionals who forget to take account of it. There is a difference between telling people that it is true (which is trivial) and training them to use that knowledge. A powerfully, commonly recognised graphic like Maslow's pyramid is an excellent tool to help make that transition.


Donald's point was that Maslow did get academic about it - unfortunately, he was wrong.


I think Donald was claiming more than that. He wrote:

"it is hauled in without any reflection on it being correct, validated or even relevant."

"Trainers love these neat slides. I think it's the pyramid - it's easy to explain. Yet its actual relevance to learning is non-existant."

I spend quite a lot of time training trainers - rather successfully I believe. I try to minimise the meaningless theory. For about a year I didn't bother with Maslow because I thought it was "obvious". But recently I brought it back and don't regret it for a moment.

7:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The point, surely, was that the Maslow pyramid was never subject to any form of rigourous research and subsequent research has shown it to be wrong.

We can't simply say, it's wrong but useful. There must be right theory that will be more useful.

Maslow is not taken seriously in serious academic discussions and theories of human nature. He's one of those people who only exist in the PowerPoint slides of trainers and fuzzy management theorists.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Clive Shepherd said...

I may be one of the few learning and development professionals that has actually read Maslow rather than receiving it second-hand, although this was 25 years ago. I understand that the hierarchical basis of Maslow's model hasn't proved valid, but there's no doubt that his categorisation of needs, or even the simple listing, has proved valuable to many as an insight into motivation.

10:50 AM  
Blogger JimT1081 said...

So I'm doing a project on Maslow's theories and i was told that there was a experiment done to test it out. It goes something like this; An experiment was set up using a chicken. Two buttons were placed infront of the chicken allowing for two different responses. One when pressed would drop food. The other would stimulate the bird to have an orgasmic sensation. The test supposedly revealed that the bird dies of starvation and that Maslow's theory was wrong. Here's the trouble I am having. I don't think that was a real experiment and if it is I can't seem to find any information on that. Can anyone please help? It would be a great addition to my project. Thanks in advance.

2:50 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Chickens? This is not life as we know it Jim. Forget Maslow, he made no attempt to validate his crackpot theories through science, so why bother?

9:26 AM  
Blogger Don said...

My experience is that fear is the greatest motivator and therefor teacher. Fear of not having a job, not having food or someone hurting me. I also believe in the proven psychological de-motivator: fat, dumb and happy. Ultimately, motivators and de-motivators have a small influence on how much drive people have and if the direction is positive or negative.

6:48 PM  
Anonymous judy said...

"In short, subsequent research has shown that his hierarchy is bogus, as needs are pursued non-hierarchically."
Care to provide some citations so that I may go look for myself? I am a grad student with over 20years experience in the counseling field and have used Maslow extensively in a variety of professional settings-the last with recovering drug addicts and self care goal setting around Maslows levels of needs. In application it appears to work just fine!
But I am genuinely interested in the research you mention that proves his work wrong.

2:45 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Wahba, A; Bridgewell, L (1976). "Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on the need hierarchy theory". Organizational Behavior and Human Performance (15): 212–240.

A good start - there's lots more. It's a wholly inadequate and simplistic theory of human nature with no real academic basis.

3:04 AM  
Blogger Mr. B.Nain said...

I have similar view about the incorrectness of maslow & erg hierarchy of needs.

See Nain, Bhavya, Nain's Hierarchy of Needs: An Alternative to Maslow's & ERG's Hierarchy of Needs (June 14, 2013). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2279375

4:28 PM  
Blogger Shelly said...

Interesting thoughts, but I'm not clear on how these disputes are more relevant or scientific than Maslow's original theory. In fact, Maslow concedes in his original writing that human's, their lives and their strivings are dynamic and may fluctuate through these needs as conditions change. Despite Mr. Nain's fourteenth assertion, Maslow isn't placing these restraints on man, he is only recognizing a pattern.

Would you dispute that humans tend to place their focus on basic needs, first? That a starving society's people will spend more time hunting and gathering than contemplating things like whether or not Maslow was correct? Or that people suffering from physical addictions or extreme hunger will not sacrifice safety by engaging in theft or prostitution to meet those needs? Or that a man may lose his sense of Love and Belonging through divorce, the loss of his family and "tribe," and his Self-Esteem comes crumbling down, once he is no longer supported?

I am in management and have watched over the last year as my team's verbalized complaints went from, "We need to feel like we are respected professionals," (Self-Esteem need) to, "I'm glad I'll get a check on Friday" (Safety need), when the economy changed.

These aren't permanent or exclusive changes... I have no doubt my team still wants to feel respected, but the primary focus has shifted, as the security of their jobs in a new market became an issue. This, I believe, is what Maslow is highlighting.

Daniel Pink discusses this concept in his book, "Drive," when he speaks of how our society has now evolved to a point where our workforce no longer (by and large) has the Basic or Safety needs described by St. Clair's "The Jungle," and now demands to have creative, Self-Esteem building days offered by employers, the way Google and 3M have done, or opportunities to begin to dabble in Self-Actualization behaviors through organized charitable contribution, for example.

It seems to me that not only do individuals live through, "I want," and then, "I want more," as a part of their humanness, but so do entire societies.

The business of humans is to think we need more of everything. More money, for example... but we know from watching (if not from a scientific experiment) that more money (Security) doesn't make one happy... we have to move up the pyramid. And love of a mother is not enough. Once we have that, we now want Self Esteem. And Self Esteem breeds the ability to Self-Actualize, chasing our dreams, our best view of life... Have you ever known a man who loathes himself or is starving, but still has the Self-Actualization qualities of gratitude and magnanimity? I have not. More to the point, I have not seen whole groups of average men or societies who behave in this way.

Banal? No more than saying, "The sky is blue," is banal... sure, it's a simple viewpoint, the sky has more shades than that, and it may be more true in some snapshots than others, but yep. It's blue alright.

1:05 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

I have a fuller account here: http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/maslow-1908-1970-hierarchy-of-needs-5.html
Thanks for the feedback. My positionremains unchanged. I think, as a theory of human nature, it is not only banal, but wrong. Human nature is not stricktly hierarchical and much subtler than Maslow allows.

10:13 AM  

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