Monday, March 09, 2020

Maslow (1908 - 1970) – That misleading pyramid (5 or 7?)… hierarchy of needs…

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, a pyramid that Maslow never created in the first place.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 will feel their absence and yearn for them. When each is satisfied, you reach a state of homeostasis where the yearning stops. It is 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.


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.

No evidence
Although hugely influential, his work was never tested experimentally 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 included 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.
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.
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.
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. Its 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.
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 wellbeing 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 MissesPsychology 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.

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