Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is one of the world’s best-known management and psychology models. And the internet does not need another detailed article about it.
But, the hierarchy of needs is a Big Idea. In fact, it’s a Big Idea structured around another Big Idea, with a third Big Idea built in, all of which sit on top of an important point.
The truth is that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs well and truly earns its fame among management models. This is despite a welter of critiques and failings, and a series of later and more rigorously researched theories and models.
So, this article is going to take a rather different view of the hierarchy of needs. But one that will be instructive, nonetheless. Here, I want to break apart the Big Ideas buried in Maslow’smost enduring work.
But you are going to tell us about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs…
What are the Big Ideas Behind the Hierarchy of Needs?
Let’s go back to how I started this article:
In fact, it’s a Big Idea  structured around another Big Idea , with a third Big Idea  built in, all of which sit on top of an important point .
So, we have four things to talk about. Let’s tackle them one at a time!
Big Idea 1: Needs Model of Motivation
As far as I know (and I’ve looked hard), Maslow was the first modern thinker to articulate a needs-based theory of motivation. What I mean by this is a model that says we our motivation comes from a drive to fulfill one or more ‘needs’.
And Maslow was fairly comprehensive in setting out a whole load of needs that humans feel the drive to meet. More recent research may challenge some of these, but one merit of Maslow’s needs is that most of us – from whatever culture- will look at any of them and say ‘yeah, I want that’.
Subsequent Needs-based Models of Motivation
We’ve covered many of the subsequent needs models of motivation here at the Pocketblog:
- Frederick Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory
- David McClelland’s Three Needs
- Ryan and Deci’s Self Determination Theory
Big Idea 2: Hierarchy Model
Maslow gets a lot of stick from some quarters for building a hierarchy of needs. Later research (and common experience) shows we can ignore his ‘lower-level’ needs even when we have not met them. The struggling artist in a cold garret is a favourite metaphor of mine that illustrates this.
But Maslow did not claim that his hierarchy was either universal or a rigid sequence. He’s paid a price for his fame. Most of us have learned about his model from a few paragraphs in a textbook or fifteen minutes in a management training session. How many outside a narrow specialism in the academic world have read Maslow’s own writing? Not I!
But the sequence does make logical sense when we think back to our own experience and, in particular, the way we attend to different concerns as we grow up from:
- early childhood (need for food, shelter, and protection) to
- adolescence (need for social acceptance), to
- early adulthood (needs for group and self-esteem), to
- later maturity (needs for fulfillment and leaving a legacy)
Iconic, Memorable, Simple
The best models transcend ‘right or wrong’. They fit reality well in a distinct range of circumstances, which is wide enough to make them of use. But they also have another quality: they are easy to understand, remember, and explain to others. That’s what makes Maslow’s hierarchy so good. Although he never used the pyramid metaphor in his work – nor the alternative ladder metaphor we sometimes see – they have stuck. We see Maslow Pyramids all over the web.
We even see them in humorous memes…
Big Idea 3: Self Actualisation
It’s the top of the pyramid that really interested Maslow. A lot of people think that Positive Psychology is the brainchild of late 20th Century thinkers like Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. They have certainly led the movement. But actually (haha), it was Maslow who coined the term ‘positive psychology.
Maslow was a psychologist, working in the mid part of the 20th Century. But, unlike his peers, he had little interest in mental illness. He was far more interested in well people, and how to make us even ‘more well’! He was a leading thinker in humanistic psychology and philosophy, with a deep-seated optimism about human nature and our society. This, despite some harsh challenges in his early life.
What Maslow did, at the top of his pyramid, is give us a handy label for what we all strive for, given the chance. What ‘self-actualisation’ means for you is different from what it means for me, or for your friends, or for the people you see on television. But whatever it is you want or I want, we both want something more.
Important Point 4: Ideas vs Evidence
This brings me to the biggest problem with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs…
As a hard-nosed scientist, I find it hard to overlook the simple fact that Maslow offered no empirical evidence to back his theory. Instead, he relied on anecdotes, interviews, and subjective interpretations. But remember his motivation: to create a foundation for studying what really interested him – Self Actualisation.
Maslow wanted to build a Big Idea; a theory that could encompass a wide range of human experiences. He relied on other researchers picking it up and gathering evidence to test it. And that did happen. However, when researchers did do the work, they failed to find compelling evidence that motivation fits with Maslow’s five needs.
And that’s why we have new theories.
But this does not undermine the value of theory creation and the propagation of big ideas. Rather, it endorses the value of stimulating further research, and of offering ideas that inspire us.
It may be out of date. It may have always lacked empirical support. And it may even be wrong in detail. But Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was a good model and it is certainly a Big Idea.
What is Your experience of the Hierarchy of Needs?
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