Today’s episode is another in our occasional mythbuster series! We’re going to explore Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, something that we’ve seen pop up in many different places. But as enablers of change, we shouldn’t just accept something because it’s been said so many times that most people believe it. We’re going to delve deeper and explore the facts. So, let’s explore this idea of the hierarchy of needs.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was laid out by Abraham Maslow in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality. In the book he was attempting to outline our understanding of what motivates people to learn. Maslow took this back to a hierarchy of basic human needs and desires. He came up with five layers, starting with psychological needs (things such as food, water, shelter), moving onto safety (health, employment), then love and belonging (especially a sense of connection), self-esteem and finally self-actualisation. You may have seen this laid out in the classic pyramid diagram highlighting that the first four are deficient needs, that is, if we do not have them, then we will be trying to fulfill these needs and will not be able to move on until they are satisfied.
Many people point out this seems to make intuitive sense! So most people accept the theory and move on. But not so fast! Maslow’s thinking was very influential at the time but Maslow himself didn’t provide any empirical evidence for his hierarchy. And he never really promoted the theory as fact; he wanted to stimulate research in the area of human motivation. When, in the 1970s, some experiments were designed to start testing it, researchers found there was no actual evidence for any of Maslow’s hierarchy!
Wahba and Bridgewell in 1976, when reviewing studies based on Maslow’s theory said: “The literature review shows that Maslow’s Need Hierarchy Theory has received little clear or consistent support from the available research findings. Some of Maslow’s propositions are totally rejected, while others receive mixed and questionable support at best.” This was particularly true of the theory being presented as a strict hierarchy. Higher needs can be fulfilled before the lower needs are satisfied. In fact, needs are often pursued in parallel. As one commentator said, it really ignores the messy nature of motivation!
The science of motivation tells us instead that there are three things to focus on: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Autonomy is people’s perceptions of whether they feel they have choices; relatedness is caring about, and being cared for by others, and competence is about feeling effective. The research says these needs are not in a hierarchy or sequential. They are foundational. There is a whole lot more we could cover when it comes to motivation, but that will be a subject for another post.
So to conclude, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is not actually a hierarchy, it was not tested and it is wrong! So please stop referring to it as if it’s fact.
You’ve read our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below this blog post and tell us if there’s something you have always wondered about and would like us to investigate further. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversation – join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us!
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Barling, J. (1977). A critical review of the application of Maslow’s motivation theory in industry. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, a282. Available online.
Emerson, H. (2018). Psychologist Debunks Common Misconceptions of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Available online.
Fowler, S. (2014). What Maslow’s hierarchy won’t tell you about motivation. Harvard Business Review. Available online.
Gagné, M., Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2014). The Importance of Universal Psychological Needs for Understanding Motivation in the Workplace. In The Oxford Handbook of Work Engagement, Motivation, and Self-Determination Theory. : Oxford University Press. Available online.
Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. Harper & Row.
Wahba, M. A., & Bridwell, L. G. (1976). Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on the need hierarchy theory. Organizational Behavior & Human Performance, 15(2), 212–240. Available online.