Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: a quick critique and rant

September 21, 2010

Or, Marketing’s Need to Hear Simple Stories.

If there’s one theory of motivation that everyone has heard of, it’s good old Maslow and his pyramidal Hierarchy of Needs.  It’s the basis of many other theories, including the simpler concept that motivations can be divided into the essentials (hygiene factors) and motivators to action (motivators).

I came across Maslow yesterday while reading a report on public consultation approaches, by someone who is using a Maslow-based system to segment the general UK population according to their values.   These  segments, it is argued, make it easier to predict how people will react in certain kinds of debate.   The approach is apparently popular amongst advertisers.  It’s a proprietary system, so I can’t comment on the detail, and there is no information provided about the reliability and validity of the test questionnaire.    I don’t particularly want to chase after the organisations concerned, because it is quite likely that studies like this one have been  created, sold and reported entirely in good faith.  And that is bloody depressing.

What really concerns me is that marketers and buyers are so damned credulous.   Two minutes of literature searching would yield the uncomfortable fact that while Maslow is hugely popular amongst the self-actualising types, there’s really no evidence for his hierarchy.  Yes, it’s a useful sketch of motivation, and a very pretty pyramid, but there is no evidence that you can account for real people’s behaviour by invoking any part of it apart from the part about people requiring food and water.

It’s an incredibly powerful, deeply meaningless story. We love it. We quote it vaguely.  Then you go and read the Wikipedia entry (which is pretty fair) and think wait, what?

And if you’re a bit cross with me, just think: how would you go about testing it?  What aspects of behaviour do you think create problems for this theory? Do you think that this theory has any political overtones, and does that matter?

Maslow’s theory meets our thirst for very simple ideas.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Elena September 21, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Hey A, I don’t know if you saw this, but there’s just been an update to the hierarchy which I just think is incredibly annoying: http://scholasticadministrator.typepad.com/thisweekineducation/2010/06/update-the-new-maslows-pyramid.html

The ultimate is parenting?! Not self-expression?!! Gah! I mean, I suppose parenting has been very good for me, but I would think taking care of one’s own dependents would be further down the scale than having all that taken care of and being free to do art or something.

If you’re going to live by a myth, I say pick one that’s inspiring in some way. :-)

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Alison September 21, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Hi there!

I suspect we make our Hierarchies of Need in our own image.

Parenting versus self-actualisation, eh? Tricky.

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Tom Ewing September 21, 2010 at 6:00 pm

The Maslow wikipedia entry mentions this “updated” one, it seems to be a MARRIAGE FROM HELL of pop psychology ideas viz “needs” and evolutionary psych.

Wrote a blog post on the appeal of simple ideas here, in partial response to this! http://blackbeardblog.tumblr.com/post/1162227494/k-i-s-s-off

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koganbot September 22, 2010 at 1:16 am

In regard this and to Tom’s post: Simplicity is a feature of many good scientific theories (think Darwin, think the periodic table), and in its early years relative simplicity was one of the few things going for the Copernican Theory. Of course, simplicity is not the only feature of good science.

Problem is that simple theories don’t work in the nonsciences. At the risk of being psychologically simplistic, I’ll say that one motive (by no means the only one) for the appeal of a simple psychological theory is that it seems to put one on the fast track to being a scientist. I have admiration for Freud and those sorts for trying (and all theories have elements that are difficult to test), since they had no reason at the time to think they couldn’t succeed. But we now have good reason to be skeptical.

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Alison Clayton-Smith September 22, 2010 at 9:04 am

Ah, I’m taken back to our Birkbeckian days when I suddenly discovered that much of what I had been taught was in fact not properly substantiated. I still cringe every time I see Maslow, Mehrabian and others presented as fact by trainers. The challenge in understanding human behaviour is that we’re complex entities and unlike something mechanical, it isn’t a case of do this and that will happen. Unfortunately we don’t like messy answers and grasp for something simple and certain.

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Alison September 22, 2010 at 9:18 am

This was an entire system purporting to be based on Maslow’s thinking, being sold to people.

I don’t know about you, but I still find it massively tricky to challenge people on these things. I feel like a giant, smug party-pooper. I know they’re just trying to say ‘presentation counts’ (in the case of the 7 per centers), but don’t people stop to think it sounds decidedly odd?

In the case of Maslow, I think it is partly because academic literature is locked-off to the public – we may be physically unable to access it, or find it a difficult read. The result is a bunch of people citing Who Moved My Cheese as a primary text.

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Ian Straus September 22, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Good grief, is that Maslow stuff still circulating?

Oh, I remember it from graduate business school almost 30 years ago. And as soon as I read it I knew it was utter bull.

You see, I came from previous employment in which realiity is regularly and reliably demonstrated to be the opposite of Maslow’s picture. Namely, the U.S. Army.
According to Maslow’s model, no one should ever advance against an armed enemy. Think about it.

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Alison September 23, 2010 at 11:19 am

Yeah, it has some incredibly extended half-life. People don’t seem to want to let go of it, yet the minute you actually look at it, you can see it fall apart.

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heywho October 7, 2010 at 10:29 pm

I only know this because I knew a psychatrist eho used to go to workshops at Esalan held by Maslow —

His Theory was gutted — today, all you can see is “law of the jungle, apex predators” — the original had an inverted pyramid above it, that started w/ “flow states” and moved into what you might call cosmic consciousness, satori, enlightenment

It also wrapped around the entire pyramid. so the ability of the individual to acess those realms of being was not circumstantially driven. That has all been removed. Can’t find it on the web. It’s not taught in Psych 101. It doesn’t serve the goals of Global Corporate Fascisim.

But it is an effective we to create demographic groups, and aim propaganda at them to turn them from humans into “consumers”…

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Sladepb October 8, 2010 at 12:04 am

Sorry – I partially agree with your assertions – but there is a much greater depth to what Maslow as expressing. The problem is that noone takes the time to actually read the rest of the underlying information. “Ooh look – there’s a pretty picture that might speak to me marketing strategy” – not sure what it all means but hey it will make us sound educated and professional.

If we are to to understand the image then we need to read the surrounding body of work. And then follow the reference sources. Such a journey will lead the individual to read Jung and Frankl (he notes the triumph of the human spirit even through the miseries of his own experience of Dachau) and Freud, then through a journey of human thinking which will incorporate the thoughts of the Buddha and Christ and many other thinkers. One would journey through the legend of the grail and many other great legends which conveyed human aspiration.

The work of Maslow tried to capture the essence of the human aspiration for something higher. The pyramid was a small part of that work. Marketers and motivators who use the pyramid to support things like dividing humans up into value driven sets are using the tool in a way for which it was never intended to be used.

But then that would assume that marketers and motivators actually have the motivation to read more than what is on wikipedia.

As for the assertion regarding the military, it is true that you would never advance against an enemy. But then Maslow, Jung and many others suggest that perhaps it is a higher aspiration to avoid conflict with your enemies.

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bhavya June 17, 2013 at 4:15 am

I have similar view about the incorrectness of maslow & erg hierarchy of needs.

See Nain, Bhavya, Nain’s Hierarchy of Needs: An Alternative to Maslow’s & ERG’s Hierarchy of Needs (June 14, 2013). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2279375

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