Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been an omnipresent feature in education, training and management courses for over 70 years. Few question its validity, yet it may owe its popularity to nothing more than the fact that a coloured pyramid looks good in PowerPoint. First up - Maslow never represented his hierarchy as a pyramid. that was a later invention. More worryingly, his research was woeful and the model is fatally flawed. Could we have been that gullible?
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
This is his 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. It's simple and has an intuitive appeal.
The last, self-actualisation, does not involve homeostasis, but once felt is always there. Maslow saw this as applying to only a few people, whose basic four levels are satisfied, leaving them free to look beyond their deficit needs. He claimed to have 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.
1. 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 need. He added 'Know and Understand' and 'Aesthetic'. This upgraded model was largely ignored, as the earlier model had become so deeply embedded in teacher and trainer training courses. Anyone familiar with epistemology and aesthetics will immediately see the problem. Both are notoriously difficult to define.
2. No evidence
Although hugely influential, his work was never tested experimentally at the time and when it was, from the 70s onwards, was found wanting. Empirical evidence showed no real evidence in terms of a strict hierarchy, nor the categories, as defined by Maslow. Where evidence was provided, it was scant. For example, he only inlcuded two women in his list of self-actualised people - Elanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa. It is hard to imagine that a full theory of human nature could be built upon such limited and extreme examples.
3. Circular arguments
3. Circular arguments
The self-actualisation theory is now regarded as having no real value as it is wholly subjective. The problem is his slapdash use of evidence. Self-actualised people are selected by him then used as evidence for self-actualisation. His ‘biographical analysis’ was armchair research. based on a self-selected group of just 18 people and in itself is defined in terms of a set of subjective criteria. As there is no control group, this is simply circular. His list of 18 self-actualized people included Einstein, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Beethoven, Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt and, of course - Abraham Maslow! Kenrick et al. (2010) found huge variance in Maslow's so-called self-actualised people, showing divergence rather than convergence.
4. Hierarchy doesn’t hold
An even weaker aspect of the theory is its strict hierarchy. It is clear that the higher needs can be fulfilled before the lower needs are satisfied, so the theory has been repeatedly falsified. There are many counter-examples and indeed, creativity can atrophy and die on the back of success. Maslow himself, felt that the lines were not that clear. In short, subsequent research has shown that his hierarchy is crude, as needs are pursued non-hierarchically, often in parallel. A different set of people could be chosen to prove that self-actualisation was the result of, say, trauma or poverty (Van Gogh etc.). The main problem is the reductive nature of the analysis ignores the much messier nature of motivation. In general, the whole idea has been abandoned in modern motivational theory. Typical of the many studies that show the irrelevance of the hierarchy is Tay and Diener (2011), where 60865 people from 123 countries were questioned on Maslow's needs. It showed that the hierarchy was quite simply wrong.
5. Ignores social assumptions
Subsequent research shows that real needs and motivations do not fall into this neat pyramid or hierarchy. For example Rutledge (2011) claims that complex social connections are needed for all of the assumed levels in the hierarchy and that it falls apart when this is taken into account.
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. It's appeal seems to lie in the endless repetition of a clear and simply coloured pyramid, rather than any evidence or sophistication in terms of human nature.
One thing that helped Maslow become the guru of motivation was that his books were very popular and he was part of a sixties movement that helped promote his views. He was friends with people like Timothy Leary (Maslow’s daughter Ellen was Leary’s research assistant). Linda Sargent Wood writes in A More Perfect Union about the rise of these holistic, utopian visions for humanity. She shows that these were largely populist, and not research or evidence-based movements. This was to be their downfall.
7. Lacks practical application
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. It is clear that having somewhere to live, food to eat, friends, and feeling safe are important but not in the hierarchical or developmental way they are presented. As a teacher, or manager, one can recognize the basic needs of a person without recourse to the structure at all. Indeed, it may be misleading. Most sets of indicators for the well being of children are more complex, sophisticated and do not fall into a simple hierarchy. There are many such schemas at international (UNICEF) and national levels. They rarely bear much resemblance to Maslow’s hierarchy.
Maslow has been almost omnipresent in education and training. However, it is not clear that his theory has had any real effect other than encouraging people to look at others as human beings, rather than subject to some instrumental manipulation. 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. To argue that the theory, although wrong, is useful, as it promotes a holistic view of learners, employees, managers etc. is to open the door to any old theory that fits a prejudice. It seems to live on, when it should have been replaced by better theory, 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.
Kenrick, D. T., Neuberg, S. L., Griskevicius, V., Becker, D. V., & Schaller, M. (2010). Goal-Driven Cognition and Functional Behavior The Fundamental-Motives Framework. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 63-67.
Rutledge P. (2011) SocialNetworks: What Maslow Misses. Psychology Today
Tay, L., & Diener, E. (2011). Needs and subjective well-being around the world. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 354.
Wahba, A; Bridgewell, L (1976). "Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on the need hierarchy theory". Organizational Behavior and Human Performance (15): 212–240.
Wood L.S. (2010) A More Perfect Union. Oxford University press.
I think perhaps Maslow's greatest contribution was rather than looking at psychology as strictly the study of the mentally ill, his theory was based upon healthy persons. And being one of the first humanistic ones, it has its share of flaws.
I have always looked at his needs theory as a good rule of thumb - it generally works but breaks down in the details. Sort of like Newton's law of physics that fell apart once we were able to drill down to the atomic level.
In addition, the pyramid was added by others, see the first comment in "What Maslow Missed" - http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2012/03/29/what-maslow-missed/
Got to say, though: that first description of the 'self-actualisation' crew sounds scarily familiar...
Maslow’s deficiency needs (which happen to correlate perfectly with the dopamine-induced survival needs we share with chimpanzees) are extremely useful.
In fact, they can be used to demonstrate why you took the time to add this post to your blog. I.e. to trigger dopamine by attempting to win peer approval and/or elevate your esteem.
Now that's about as stupid a causal argument as I've heard in a long time. I've added your post to show how easily reductionists can be duped into thinking they understand human nature because they know the name of a hormone. I don't need a simplistic coloured pyramid, nor peer approval from someone obsessed by a noun, to win peer approval.
Maslow had a nobler humanity in mind than the one our cult of the self produces in barbaric multitudes. Were he alive today, he would likely prefer to have his name erased from the rolls of the most influential thinkers of the second half of the American Century: the influence he has had is by no means the influence he wanted. psychology.ws
It was an interesting historical phenomena. As the education system moved from old school chalk and talk to 60/70's peace, love and mung beans, Maslow gave a voice and structure to the desires of the new guard in the style of the old guard and by doing so gained popularity. In my (early 80s) teacher training I intuitively ditched the hierarchy of the model but took from Maslow the idea of learner centricity.
I agree that we can safely move on from Maslow, and the proliferation of bad usage of his model. I haven't seen a new model and maybe we don't need one if we can retain the learner centricity, but will that be possible without a pretty PowerPoint slide?
I hear you Neil. I think we have better, more accurate models of human nature. Cognitive psychology shows that it is all much more complicated than a pyramid. I'm happy that we're getting there. Ditching the slide is the first step.
Thanks Donald. Indeed, it does not hold, and should not appear in any training, also not in Africa (where we have got Ubuntu!): Mawere, M., Mubaya, T. R., van Reisen, M., & van Stam, G. (2016). Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation and its Deep Roots in Individualism: Interrogating Maslow’s Applicability in Africa. In M. Mawere & A. Nhemachena (Eds.), Theory, Knowledge, Development and Politics: What Role for the Academy in the Sustainability of Africa? Bamenda: Langaa RPCIG.
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