Why Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is wrong

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is wrong. It’s wrong in more ways than one, but people keep promoting it as if it is an accurate or helpful model for understanding the human experience and human behaviour. It is not.

If you belong to the people who often refer to it, know that you are contributing to suffering and misery. By the end of this article I hope you will understand why, and that you will never refer to it as truthful again.

What’s going on here?

I recently lost a person in my social circle due to suicide again. And yes, I write again because I’ve been touched by it several times in the last two years alone. Most times it has been in my extended social circle, where a friend of mine or someone I knew less well was the person immediately affected by the loss and grief.

This time, it was more personal. A friend I knew and worked with about 20 years ago, and whose paths crossed mine regularly through the years even though we weren’t in touch often as close friends.

To the outside world, he looked like he had everything figured out. He “had it all” – a loving partner, a beautiful summer house and so on. But obviously that wasn’t the case.

The experience is surreal. To imagine him being in such an emotional state that this was the best option he could see.

I wish it was less common. But it is not.

This tragic event reminded me again of my pet peeve of Maslow’s hierarchy. So if this article seem a bit on the rant-y side, that’s simply because I care deeply about this stuff.

What is the hierarchy of needs?

If you haven’t heard of it, Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who proposed a theory in 1943 about what motivates people. He identified some core needs we have as humans, and put them in a hierarchical order. The basic idea is that we need to fulfil each need in turn, and only when the lower need is met will we turn toward a higher order need.

The needs are, from the lower to the higher:

  • Physiological needs. Food and water, shelter, sleep, sex
  • Safety needs. Security, safety, stability. Health and emotional and financial security.
  • Belongingness & love needs. Intimate relationships, family, friends
  • Esteem needs. Prestige, feelings of accomplishment, mastery, competence
  • Self-actualisation. Achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities

The problems of how it was constructed

In order to formulate this idea, Maslow looked at biographies and writings of 18 people he considered to be self-actualized (a term I also have issues with but will refrain from commenting here). From these sources, he developed a list of qualities that seemed characteristic of this specific group of people, as opposed to the average human. The list of individuals he chose to study included among others Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, William James, Aldous Huxley, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

This in itself creates many flaws in the theory. First, Maslow chose people who he personally thought to be self-actualized as viewed from the outside. These are historical figures, and we only have what they produced and what biographers say about them to learn from. We have no idea how they actually felt or what motivated them through life. We can’t ask them any follow-up questions. That means that all we have are contemporary projections of what we think of them today. It’s not useful at all when trying to describe what’s going on inside – which arguably a theory about motivation does.

Second, the people he chose are very similar to each other. We cannot assume that what ever connections and similarities Maslow found automatically can be generalised over the whole global population as a common human experience.

Third, the whole method of using bibliographical analysis to construct a theory is highly subjective and lack scientific validity. In short: you can’t say that the model is backed by any kind of science because it relies too much on one person’s opinion and interpretations.

And yet, the model as such continues to have a strong appeal because it’s simple and easy to understand.

The life path of the western 20th century

If you see this pyramid for the first time, and live in a western industrialised country, you might get lured into accepting it without questioning. It seems so logical. You will recognise the steps as the expected path and progression of a standard western life during the 20th century:

  • Physiological and safety needs: You go to school and learn some skills so that you can get a job. This enables you to meet the basic needs. Food on the table, roof over your head and a stable and predictable income. Check.
  • Belongingness and love: You make friends, both at work and outside. You meet someone that you fall in love with. You marry and start a family of your own. Check.
  • Esteem: You progress in your career and achieve status and recognition for your efforts. Check.
  • Self-actualisation: With security, a family and career taken care of, you have achieved everything needed in life. You are now free to start pursuing self-fulfilment, seek personal growth and realise your full potential as a human.

Enter mid-life crisis.

Reading this list, I’m sure you see just as well as I do that this is not the way the life path looks for everyone. Neither in reality nor as some kind of ideal to strive towards. To begin with, the steps are not a pre-requisite of each other.

People fall in love and marry before getting that stable job. People establish a career first and have a family later in life. Some people choose to not have children or even a spouse. Others step off the career ladder, away from recognition and social status, and opt for living a humble life in the countryside. And more and more people are drawn to the entrepreneurial side, away from the perceived stability of having a job and towards the risks of self employment.

If you have the hierarchy of needs as some kind of guideline and expectancy, it’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking that those are the sequence of steps needed to “get to the top” of self-actualization (aka achieve full potential as a human being). And if you don’t follow this prescribed path you’re somehow Doing It Wrong.

But you’re not the one who is wrong, it’s the prescribed hierarchy that is.

I just have to look at my own motivations to know that. I personally cannot imagine holding off of any of the things that are supposed to belong to the top “self-actualisation” level until I have all the other needs met. That would take years and years, even decades. Why are those off limits? They seem to me to be the most fun and most worthwhile pursuits. Why wait?

What does it say about people who live in unfortunate circumstances?

If you superimpose this hierarchical pyramid on people in developing countries, in places of political unrest or in poverty, it suggests that all their activities in life would be about scrambling to get the basic needs met.

That they would somehow be less complete humans since they would be blocked from the higher levels of the hierarchy because the lower needs has yet to be satisfied.

This is beyond absurd.

I don’t know how many times I have read about westerners who travel around the world and come back with stories of how the people seem to be more happy and more fulfilled, even though they lack the comfort and security we have grown accustomed to. They are fully capable of cultivating the “higher levels” such as community, love, or creative and artistic expression, even though there might be gaping holes regarding meeting other needs.

I don’t want to romanticise poverty in any way. And yes, everyone’s life would be better if their basic needs are met. But perhaps it is exactly because the basic needs are hard to meet that the people have to focus on what really gives meaning in life. There are no hedonistic distractions around that can entice you to forget.

The idea that you are not motivated by anything else until the lower needs are satisfied is just bonkers. As if a poor person couldn’t be motivated to seek love and belongingness as long as they struggle financially.

The most basic need of all

It’s not only the concept of a need hierarchy that is wrong. The definition of the needs themselves are wrong too. Or rather: incomplete.

The first and most basic need we have is a reason to live. It may sound trite, but it’s true.

Someone who does not have a reason to live sometimes choose to end their life. It’s a sad and tragic fact that we cannot ignore.

Conversely, there are countless of stories of individuals in extreme circumstances – stranded on a remote island, imprisoned by repressive regimes, trapped in harsh weather conditions – who survive seemingly based on willpower alone.

In survival situations, having a reason and strong will to live is the literal difference between life and death.

Maslow seemed to assume that everyone had this part figured out. In the past, the main religion of the western world was Christianity so the answer to question of “Why are we here?” was already given. I suspect most of the individuals he chose to study fall in this camp.

In the modern secular society, it’s up to each individual to find their answers. If you don’t happen to be born into a specific creed or faith, you’re sort of left to figure this out on your own. Heck, even if you are, there’s no guarantee that you resonate with the answers you’ve been given, so you still need to evaluate and ponder the existential questions for yourself.

Maslow doesn’t seem to have read Kirkegaard much.

Whether you find your reason of living in a specific faith, for your family, for an external cause, or simply knowing that your reason to live is because you want to continue to live, this is the most important thing to have. Everything else depends on it.

Missing core human experiences

Another thing missing from the initial hierarchy is the concept of experiencing art and artistic expression. It’s treated as a kind of optional extra, the cream on the top, only accessible to the self-actualizers who already mastered and fulfilled all other needs.

I once ranted about Maslow to a colleague of mine, a refugee theatre director and choreographer from Iraq. He agreed with me completely.

He told me about a tiny theatre group he had had in Baghdad. They met once per week in a deserted basement, completely empty with bare grey concrete floor. It was dangerous to even travel there due to the war. Yet they still met. They recited plays together when there were no performances to be had. This gave them purpose and meaning when chaos reigned around them.

I have heard similar sentiments from the mother of one of my classmates who comes from Russia. “We had nothing” she said. “But if someone came to our little town to perform a piano concert, we would all be there in the audience. We were financially poor but spiritually and artistically rich. Somehow it seems to be the opposite here.”

Artistic experiences and artistic expression connects us to something beyond ourselves. When we have this, we can endure hardships and struggles – such as when the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy is missing.

Maslow himself agrees it’s wrong

Like most academics, Maslow continued to develop his thinking and work on this theory. The initial model received some (rightful) critique, and he has updated and revised the model over the years.

By the 1970s, the model included additional needs like

  • Cognitive needs – knowledge and understanding, curiosity, exploration, need for meaning and predictability.
  • Aesthetic needs – appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.
  • Transcendence needs – A person is motivated by values which transcend beyond the personal self (e.g., mystical experiences and certain experiences with nature, aesthetic experiences, sexual experiences, service to others, the pursuit of science, religious faith, etc.). Things like altruism.

The idea of the hierarchy has also been loosened somewhat, so that the needs are seen more as partially overlapping each other in a gradient instead of stepping stones. That some individuals might have the lower needs in a different order, and that behaviours can be tied to multiple needs simultaneously.

But while he has included some needs that I personally identified as missing in the original model, the basic tenet is still that the lower needs have to be met before higher needs. So the updated model is still missing the mark.

Interestingly enough, the visual representation of a pyramid of needs is not created by Abraham Maslow himself. Nobody seems to know its origin. But everyone shares it anyway.

No matter the inaccuracies, people continue to use and refer to the image and the initial concept. Like a zombie, it just keeps rearing it’s ugly head and refuses to die.

Alternatives to think about

I’m of course not alone in thinking this model is wrong. There are plenty of critics to the theory, and alternative perspectives offered.

Matthew Lieberman argues in his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect that our need for social connection is even more fundamental than our need for food and shelter.

Pamela Rutledge points out that no needs can be met without social connection, since we as children are dependent on our social environment to survive into adulthood. Our social connections are exactly what enables us to get our other needs met in the first place.

One place where the model is still circulating is in management circles, as a means to understand the motivation of employees. If you want to use something with a stronger base in science, use the framework of autonomy, relatedness and competence instead, as explained by Susan Fowler in Harvard Business Review.

Help me kill this zombie

You might think that the inaccuracies of the model are excusable. That it’s not such a big deal to refer to it as long as it makes people understand and contemplate that we have different motivations and different needs to fulfil.

But the problem is that the image sticks around, and it easily slips in as a kind of map we think we can follow. “Take these steps, in this order, and become the full potential of you.”

Somehow there’s a promise of happiness and fulfilment in the idea of becoming self-actualised. But giving someone a map that is inaccurate can be dangerous when it’s time to go and explore the terrain.

Yes, we have the needs that are laid out in the famous pyramid. But we also have needs that are not included, or are downplayed. Our needs are more like pieces of a puzzle than a hierarchy. We can add them one at a time, and the order is individual.

I don’t think that spreading the idea of Maslow’s hierarchy would actively push someone over the edge if they are depressed to the border of suicidal already. But I think it is indirectly harmful by planting an image in people’s collective subconscious that so severely misses and misrepresents core parts of the human experience.

Nobody can tell you your purpose in life and give you your reason to live. That’s for you to find for yourself. But to claim you don’t even need to go looking for it is ignorance at best and deceit at worst.

There are few things as awful as working really hard to get to a certain place, only to find that when you get there you feel just as empty as when you started. If we start to chase something, follow a path, or reach for a goal, at least we should do so with realistic expectations.

Please help me kill this zombie. Don’t refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as accurate ever again.

“Friendship is a thing most necessary to life, since without friends no one would choose to live, though possessed of all other advantages.”

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