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

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.


9 Responses

  1. 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:

    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. 🙂

    • Hi there!

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

      Parenting versus self-actualisation, eh? Tricky.

      • 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!

        • 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.

  2. 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.

    • 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.

  3. 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.

    • 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.

  4. I’m doing a project in High school on Maslows Hirearchy of needs, and im trying to find a critics. I belive that you disagree with this, not really positive. I would really appreciate if you could e-mail me back and we could talk about more about this topic. Thank you very much.

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