Misconceptions About Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Pyramid
Maslow’s pyramid of needs analyzes human needs and arranges them in a hierarchy. By Shutter_M/Shutterstock

24 July 2019 – Abraham Harold Maslow (1908-1970) was a 20th century psychologist famous for describing human motivation as an hierarchy of needs in a 1943 paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation” published in Psychological Review. He was a central figure in the founding of Humanistic Psychology, which concentrates on studying mentally healthy humans.

You have to remember that Maslow did his most important work in the middle of the 20th century. At that time there was great popular interest in the works of Sigmund Freud, who worked with the mentally ill, and B.F. Skinner who mainly studied lower animals. Indeed, the entire arts-and-letters school of Surrealism explicitly drew inspiration from Andre Breton’s interpretation of Freud’s work. Despite (or perhaps because of) this interest in Freud and Skinner’s work, there had been little, if any, study of mentally healthy people.

Humanistic Psychologists felt these earlier studies were of limited value to understanding the healthy human mind. Maslow chose to study the workings of healthy human minds from all social strata, but he was especially interested in studying high achievers. For this reason those of us interested in organizational behavior find his humanists of particular interest. We kinda hope our organizations are populated with, and run by, mentally healthy humans, rather than Freud’s neurotics or Skinner’s lab rats!

Maslow’s emphasis on studying high achievers likely gave rise to the first misconception I want to talk about today: the idea that his work gives cover to elitist views. This elitist theory assumes that everyone strives to reach the self-actualization level at the top of the so-called “Pyramid of Needs” used to illustrate Maslow’s hierarchy, but that only an elite fraction of individuals reach it. Lesser individuals are doomed to wallowing in more squalid existences at lower levels.

The second misconception I want to treat today is a similar notion that people start out at the lower levels and climb slowly up to the top as their incomes rise. This theory substitutes a ladder for the pyramid image to visualize Maslow’s hierarchy. People are imagined to climb slowly up this ladder as both their income and social status increase. This, again, gives cover for elitist views as well as laissez-faire economics.

Maslow’s Conception

What Maslow’s Hierarchy really describes is a priority system that determines what people are motivated to do next. It has little to do with their talents, income or social status. To illustrate what I mean, I like to use the following thought experiment. This thought experiment involves Albert Einstein and it’s particularly appropriate because the Grizzled Genius loved thought experiments.

Albert Einstein’s greatest joy was becoming immersed in translating his imaginings about the physical universe into mathematical equations. This is an example of what Maslow called “peak experiences.” Maslow believed these were periods when self-actualized people (those engaged in satisfying their self-actualization need) are happiest and most productive.

Once in a while, however, Einstein would become hungry. Hunger is, however, one of those pesky physiological needs down at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy. There’s nothing aspirational about hunger. It’s what Fredrick Herzberg called a “hygiene factor” or “demotivator.” Such needs are the opposite of aspirational.

If you’ve got an unsatisfied demotivator need, you become unhappy until you can satisfy it. If, for example, you’re hungry, or have a toothache, or need to pee, it becomes hard to concentrate on anything else. Your only thought is (depending on the nature of the unmet physiological need) to go to the bathroom, or the dentist, or, as in Einstein’s case, go find lunch.

The moral of this story is that people don’t sit somewhere for extended periods of time on a shelf labeled with one of Maslow’s categories. Rich people don’t float in a blissful self-actualizing state. Poor people don’t wallow in a miasma of permanently unmet physiological needs. People constantly move up and down the pyramid depending on what the most pressing unmet need of the moment is.

The hierarchy is therefore actually an inverted priority list. Physiological needs are more important than safety needs. When something frightens you – a safety need – the first thing that happens is you feel an urge to pee to take care of a physiological need to prepare your body for running like a scared rabbit. When you see a fast-moving Chevy bearing down on you, you immediately forget pride in that (esteem level) achievement award you just got.

Elitist Fallacy

A combination of confusion about how Maslow’s heirarchy works and his preference for studying high achievers has led many people to imagine his work gives cover for elitist views. If you’re predisposed to imagine that rich people, smart people, or those of high social status are somehow innately “better” than denizens of what 19th century novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton called “the great unwashed,” then you’re an elitist. An elitist can derive great comfort by misinterpreting Maslow’s work. You can imagine there being a cadre of elite people destined to spend their lives in some ethereal existence where all lower needs are completely satisfied and life’s only pursuit is self actualization.

The poster child for elitism is 16th century theologian John Calvin. In Calvin’s version of Protestant theology everyone was tainted with original sin and doomed to an eternity in Hell. That was a pretty common view at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin added an elitist element by hypothesizing that there was a limited number of individuals (the elect) whom God had chosen for salvation.

It’s called predestination and those folks got tickets into the elite ranks through no merit of their own. There was nothing anybody could do to beg, borrow, or steal their way in. God decided, while making the Universe in the first place, who was in and who was out based on nothing but His whimsey. (Sexist pronoun used specifically to make a point about Calvinism.)

Of course, the requirements of natural selection logically lead to everyone having a desire to be part of an elite. We all want to be different, like the Dada-esque avant garde group King Missile. That’s how DNA measures its success. Only elite DNA gets to have long-term survival.

So, elitism has a lot of natural appeal. This natural appeal accounts for all kinds of rampant racism and xenophobia. Misunderstanding Maslow’s heirarchy provides a pseudoscientific rationale for elitism. To the elitist, the fact that this view is completely mistaken makes no nevermind.

I hope that by now I have disposed of the elitist fallacy.

Economic Ladder Fallacy

Hoping that I’ve disposed of the idea that Maslow’s work gives cover to elitism, I’ll turn to the fallacy of imagining his hierarchy as an economic ladder. This puppy is a natural outgrowth of the Pyramid of Needs image. The top (self actualization) level of the pyramid is imagined as “higher” than the bottom (physiological) level.

This image actually works from the viewpoint that “lower” needs take precedence over “higher” needs in the same way that a building’s supporting foundation takes precedence over the walls and roof. Without a foundation, there’s nothing to support walls or a roof in the same way that without fulfilling physiological needs, there’s no motivation for, say, self actualization.

Think of it this way: dead people, whose physiological needs are all unmet, hardly ever want to run for President.

So, how do you reach something high? You use a ladder!

That’s the thinking that transforms the Pyramid of Needs into some kind of ladder.

If you’re a strict materialist (and way too many Americans are strict materialists) the “high” you care about reaching is wealth. Folks who haven’t understood last month’s posting entitled “The Fluidity of Money” often confuse income with wealth, so there’s some appeal to thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a metaphor for income levels. That completes the economic-ladder fallacy.

With this fallacy, folks imagine that everyone starts out at the bottom of the ladder and, with time, hard work and luck, climbs their way to the top. There are obvious problems matching income levels with needs levels, but if you’re sufficiently intellectually lazy, you can unfocus your mind’s eye enough to render these problems invisible.

I especially get a kick out of efforts to use the idea of Engel curves (from economics) to make this ladder fallacy work. Engel curves map the desireability (measured as the demand side of the economics law of supply and demand) of a given good or product against a given consumer’s income level. If the good in question is, for example, a used Mazda Miata, the desirability may be high when the consumer has a low-to-moderate income, but low if that particular consumer has enough income to pay for a new Ferrari SF90 Stradale. If you want to, it is obvious you can somehow conflate Engel curves with the ladder idea of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs.

The problem with this thinking is, first, that the Ladder doesn’t make a lot of sense as a visualization for Maslow’s Heirarchy, since the latter is formost a priority-setting scheme; second, that Maslow’s Hierarchy has little connection to income; and, third, that Engel curves present an incomplete view of what makes a product desirable.

The elitist fallacy and the economic-ladder fallacy are not the only fallacies people, with their infinite capacity to generate cockamamie theories, can concoct in connection to Maslow’s work. They are just two that have come up recently in articles I’ve had occasion to read. I think analyzing them can also help clarify how the Hierarchy of Needs applies to understanding human behavior.

Besides, I’ve had a bit of fun knocking them around, and I hope you have, too.

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