Maslow (1908 - 1970) Hierarchy of needs. 5 or 7 levels? Useful or useless?
Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist, claimed that living beings prioritise needs. In his paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, published in 1943, he took a rather simplistic view of developmental psychology based on an examination of successful people. The hierarchical theory was fully realised in his 1954 book Motivation and personality where he stripped learning and training back to a hierarchy of basic human needs and desires, in an attempt to understand what motivates people to learn.
Hierarchy of needs
Hierarchy of needs
He created a hierarchy of needs, with five layers:
Deficit or D-needs
The first four are all ‘deficit’ or ‘D-needs’. If they are 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. All of these are survival needs and mostly genetic.
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’ where he looked at high achievers and found that they enjoyed solitude, close relationships with a few rather than many, autonomy and resist social norms. Spontaneity, simplicity and respect for others were other characteristics.
Changed from 5 to 7 levels of needs
What is rarely known is that Maslow in 1970 changed his original model, developed in the 1950s, from 5 to 7 levels of needs. He added 'Know and Understand' and 'Aesthetic'. This upgraded model was largely ignored, as the earlier model had become so embedded in teacher and trainer training courses.
Although hugely influential, 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. Another problem is his slapdash use of evidence. Self-actualised people are selected by him then used as evidence for self-actualisation. As there is no control group, this is simply circular. An even weaker aspect of the theory is its strict 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 crude, as needs are pursued non-hierarchically, often in parallel.
His hierarchy is often hauled into teacher training programmes, without any real understanding of why and whether the theory is indeed correct beyond some simple truisms. Indeed, apart from being fossilised as a component in bad teacher-training and train the trainer courses it is hard to see how it has any real relevance to what teachers, trainers, lecturers or instructors actually do when they teach.
Maslow has been almost omnipresent in education and training. However, it is not clear that his theory has had any real effect in real education and training. This is an 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'. He was right. It isn’t a hierarchy, wasn’t tested and as a theory of human nature it is simplistic and banal. It seems to live on, perhaps because of the colourful triangle that looks great as a PowerPoint slide!
Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.
Maslow, A. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: The Viking Press.
Maslow, A., & Lowery, R. (Ed.). (1998). Toward a psychology of being (3rd ed.). New York: Wiley & Sons.
Wahba, A; Bridgewell, L (1976). "Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on the need hierarchy theory". Organizational Behavior and Human Performance (15): 212–240.