Good Bye, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs!
Aktualisiert: 28. Nov 2020
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In 2003 Daniel Brühl became a star in the German movie world. In the tragicomedy Good Bye, Lenin! he plays the son of a woman in the German Democratic Republic, who fell into a coma just before the November revolution in 1989. This is why she misses the fall of the Berlin wall. To avoid shocking his mother, Brühl tries to conceal this circumstance.
Just like the Berlin wall, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, often depicted as a pyramid, crumbled. Despite its failure to hold up, for many the pyramid still seems to be reality and its failure doesn’t seem to diminish their faith in it. That is partly due to its simplicity and to being continuously quoted. Neither lack of soundness harms the theory nor has that even Abraham Maslow himself marked his theory as invalid. Why is this theory hokum and which theories can be used instead to discuss motivation, needs and behavior?
A Ramshackle Pyramid
Abraham Maslow, psychologist by profession, published the first version of his theory in an article called A Theory of Human Motivation in 1943. Due to the apparent simplicity of the theory, it quickly became popular in other fields such as business psychology. People tried to use it to provide answers to questions such as “How do I sell my product best?” or “How can I motivate my employees?”. This original, most popular version, which is still haunting textbooks on motivation and business, tries to depict the needs of humans. The needs are in order. The next layer only becomes relevant once the lower one is fulfilled. At the very bottom of the pyramid are physiological needs (eating, sleeping, breathing, procreation), followed by security needs (financial, bodily and mental security), social needs (family, community, communication), individual needs (liberty, independence, success, trust) and at the top the need for a life with vision and self-realization.
Maslow’s pyramid is a scientific theory. As all scientific theories it has to be substantiated with evidence and scientifically scrutinized.
It has not been possible to produce empiric data to support this theory. The theoretic fundament is poor at best. The theory is based on a purely positive view of humans. Because of that, the theory lacks any power to explain common desires like power, subjugation and behavior like aggression. This kind of psychology is just the opposite of classic psychoanalysis and more of a representation of the zeitgeist than approximating reality.
Matching the zeitgeist, lots of western culture is directly assumed to be defining for all human beings. Individualism as we know it in Europe and North America is secondary to community in many Asian and African cultures. This would at least exchange the two layers individual and social needs, but also self-realization as it is understood in this pyramid would slide down.
Even if the scope of the theory would be limited to a specific culture, the permanent order of a pyramid cannot hold up. The classic example would be hunger strikes - a permutation of the top and bottom layers. Values are assumed to be given instead of considering them individually.
Maslow’s intention was to publish the hierarchy of needs as a recommendation on how to motivate people. As a starting point he thought he might be able to attribute behavior to needs. This messing up of three topics - motivation, need and behavior - is yet another reason why this theory became insupportable. In the following context, we can see that its application even becomes contradictory. Enterprises often try to motivate their employees by aligning their visions to the one of the enterprise. An enterprise can’t determine on which layer an employee is located though. At the same time, research has shown that employees are more motivated if they can progress towards their own vision during work. According to the theory, this could only happen if all lower layers were completely fulfilled.
It is possible to further dismantle this theory, but the remaining reading time should not be spent on a zombie-fact, but with sound theories that can be properly applied.
Behavior and Dilts Pyramid
For those who like their topics structured, let’s look at the Dilts pyramid as an alternative. Published by Robert Dilts, a pioneer in neuro-linguistic-programming, also known as NLP, the Dilts pyramid offers a behavioral model.
Unlike Maslow, Dilts describes layers of change. Higher layers impact more strongly than lower ones. The pyramid is permeable. An employee will learn to give constructive feedback (behavior) more easily, if individual growth is a value to her. Inversely, an employee might form the value of individual growth over time, when she experiences that she or her colleagues become more independent and competent due to constructive feedback.
The six steps are:
environment (where do I act?)
behavior (what do I do?)
capability (what do I need to be able to do to behave like this?)
values/beliefs (what value is fulfilled in this behavior?)
identity (who am I, when I act this way?) and at the top
vision (which higher purpose does my behavior serve?).
Application example: A problematic situation can be solved more sustainably in coaching if it is done at a higher layer. If the pyramid is applied to interpersonal conflicts, it is possible to reflect on which level the conflict prevails at. Is the behavior offensive in itself or is my counterpart in the conflict offending a value of mine? When adopting a new behavior towards my boss, it will be easier if I know which value I am living with the new actions or what (vision) I am doing it for. Or even more concretely:
Whenever Frank’s boss says: “We need more resources on this project”, Frank gets angry. Through self reflection or a coaching session he realizes that he values seeing humans intrinsically. That his boss speaks of humans as resources, the same way she talks about money or time, offends his values. By realizing that the source of his anger is happening on the value layer, it enables him to act in a new way; he can now address the conflict differently.
Two Contradictory Basic Needs
When studying humans’ basic needs, we identify two needs. The attachment theory of psychoanalyst John Bowlby identifies primarily the need for relationships. The theory describes relationships and their changes during the life of a human. The existence of a juxtaposition creates identity or in the well-fitting words of Jeannette Fischer:
To form a self (an I), we need a you, we need a community. Controversy, conflict, desire.
We need a discrepancy to the other self. The self is not fixed size, which once born and
formed, needs to be preserved, but rather the self is in constant motion and reshapes
This is one of the reasons that many people experience fear during the isolation of the Covid crisis. Who am I, when there is no juxtaposed other? What would the political parties SVP or AfD be without foreigners? An Antifa without fascists? In the otherness of others one can see oneself.
The need for community, attachment, resonance, relationships stands in opposition to another basic need. The need for self-expression. The part in oneself which is unique. Becoming what is inherent. The wish to be free to be the one who you are. The seed of an apple will never become a strawberry, no matter which soil the seed is put in or on what continent it is planted. And so is each human an individual and his/her uniqueness will never be lost, no matter which therapy.
The tuple attachment/self-realization can be found in various theories. Often slightly modified, with a minor difference in emphasis and other terms. You might recognize one of the following tuples - security/freedom, stability/change, group/individual. Even if the all-encompassing basic need theory does not exist, the amount of variations of the same theme, which have created actual valid results, can be taken as evidence of its high degree of substance.
These two needs are mutually contradictory and the attempt at solving this contradiction is the basis for our actions, according to the social-psychologist Erich Fromm. An attempt is functional when the individual is preserved and enters the relationship in full integrity. Hartmut Rosa, sociologist from Jena, would call this resonance. An attempt is considered non-functional when at least one of the two needs is violated. An example of a non-functional relationship is one of dominance or violence, because then both individuals' integrity gets lost and their freedom too.
The theories of Dilts, Bowlby and Fromm are also subject to scrutiny, just as all good research is. Unlike the review of Maslow's proposed theory, which completely dismantles the theory, the reviews of the other proposed theories are not even close to as fundamental. One critical review of the Dilts pyramid showcases how scrutiny must be far more sophisticated than the one on Maslow. The theories proposed in this blog have been researched and scientifically substantiated with evidence. Abraham Maslow has indeed made valuable contributions, which we should adopt instead of continuing to quote his weakest piece of work.
For those who want to quote vision as an important element to motivation one can resort to Dilts. To derive the often unconscious motivation from the attempt to solve the contradiction of basic needs, is not quite as usable for daily work in enterprises. It bears fruit in therapy though. Curious about motivation? Also read thoughts on the often misunderstood concept of intrinsic motivation.
Cover Photo by and with kind of permission of Darren Crawford