Is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs still relevant in the 21st century?

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Written by Jo Cook on 16 August 2017

Reading time: 4m 30s.

A lot of people have seen Maslow’s hierarchy of needs before, especially as it pertains to any kind of people development, as it’s a psychological theory for motivation. The concept was shared in a 1943 paper by Abraham Maslow and more fully in a 1954 book, Motivation and Personality.

Maslow studied what he called ‘exemplary people’ such as Albert Einstein or Eleanor Roosevelt rather than people who were adversely affected by their psychology.

Most people know the hierarchy of needs depicted as a pyramid, with basic needs at the bottom (physiological, safety, belonging/love) moving through to those we need for growth (esteem and the pinnacle of self-actualisation). You can read about the hierarchy of needs in more detail courtesy of Psychology Today.

According to Greg Stocker, a Lean Advisor, Maslow never actually presented the hierarchy in terms of a pyramid – that was developed much later as a simple way to show the theory.

How Maslow saw things

Maslow focused on people that had achieved much in their lives and in his 1943 paper stated: “It is quite true that man lives by bread alone — when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled?” By focusing on people that had their basic needs met Maslow thought that people sought out ever greater achievements.

By all means use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in your work, but make sure you do so with a pinch of scientific salt and some balance.

Maslow went on to state: “At once other (and “higher”) needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism [person]. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new (and still “higher”) needs emerge and so on. This is what we mean by saying that the basic human needs are organized into a hierarchy of relative prepotency.”

The positive elements

This is a huge positive approach to people and psychology. In a BBC World Service news item it highlighted that “this opened the door for later movements such as humanistic psychology and positive psychology”.

Motivation company P&MM, when writing about applying Maslow’s thinking to HR responsibilities, stated: “Maslow also introduced the idea that our needs constantly change: as one need is met then so we desire the level above it.

The pay rise we received last year ago won’t motivate us for the next five years, the recognition award we were presented with two years ago won’t satisfy our current needs for appreciation, and the training course we did three years ago won’t satisfy our need to be learning new skills and knowledge now.”

The research reality

What Maslow put together was an in-depth observation of people that he selected to be high achievers. A research paper reviewing the theory stated: “Longitudinal studies testing Maslow's gratification/activation proposition showed no support, and the limited support received from cross-sectional studies is questionable due to numerous measurement problems.”

The BBC World Service article highlighted the following: “Margie Lachman, a psychologist who works in the same office as Maslow at his old university, Brandeis in Massachusetts, admits that her predecessor offered no empirical evidence for his theory. ‘He wanted to have the grand theory, the grand ideas - and he wanted someone else to put it to the hardcore scientific test,’ she says. ‘It never quite materialised’.”

Simply Psychology highlighted other shortcomings, such as the “biased sample of self-actualised individuals, prominently limited to highly educated white males (such as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, William James, Aldous Huxley, Gandhi, Beethoven).”

They go on to say that “although Maslow did study self-actualised females, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa, they comprised a small proportion of his sample. This makes it difficult to generalise his theory to females and individuals from lower social classes or different ethnicity.”

The TJ perspective

Editor Jon Kennard and myself discuss this topic in the July TJ podcast in the L&D On Trial section. Jon’s perspective is that “a whole history's worth of painters and composers will tell you that this hierarchy is rubbish.

The top tier, self-actualisation, is loosely described as 'achieving one's potential including creative activities'. I'm sure Vermeer, Rembrandt, Toulouse Lautrec, Van Gogh, Elgar, Mozart and Debussy, all destitute at some point in their lives, have something to say about that!”

Jon goes on to say: “In fact history is littered with examples of this, to the point that the poor artist is one of the most common stereotypes: fully actualised but without enough food, shelter, intimate relationships or many of the supposed staples of the lower tiers of the Maslow hierarchy.”

From my point of view, the lack of empirical research is the issue. I think Maslow did a great thing in observing some people he felt had done a great job in their area and drawing some talking points from it. The lack of scientific research after that and the predominant focus on Western white males is not only a product of the 1940s and 1950s, but also not able to stand up to modern, global scrutiny or use.

By all means use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in your work, but make sure you do so with a pinch of scientific salt and some balance.


Listen to more

You can listen to Jo and TJ editor Jon Kennard discuss this on the July TJ podcast.

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