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