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2012 Needs Hierarchy Update: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs DISCREDITED

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2012 needs hierarchy

Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Upshot of this article: Humans have needs, but Maslow’s idea that there are five categories of needs, and that they exist in a hierarchy, with “higher” needs emerging as “lower” needs are satisfied is incorrect. His ideas were largely discredited by the scientific community in the 1970’s and 1980’s, so marketers and others need to find a more accurate model for human motivation. For details, read on:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is touted over and over again in both marketing and pop psychology. It sounds logical but doesn’t work; it was discredited a long time ago. Yes, I will provide citations as I go.

To start with, let’s look at Maslow’s research. His theory was first proposed in his paper A Theory of Human Motivation published in the Psychological Review in 1943. In brief, his theory states that “There are at least five sets of goals, which we may call basic needs. These are physiological, safety, love, ‘esteem, and self-actualization…These basic goals are related to each other, being arranged in a hierarchy.”  At the bottom are physiological needs, which are “prepotent,” meaning that they must be satisfied first. The lowest unsatisfied need “will monopolize consciousness…But when a need is fairly well satisfied, the next prepotent (‘higher’) need emerges, in turn to dominate the conscious life.” In short, when people get food and other bodily necessities, they are then concerned about safety.  After safety comes the need for belongingness or love, then esteem or achievement, and finally, at the top of the triangle, comes the need for self-actualization, which he defined as “the individual is doing what he is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.”

Maslow, being a scientist, was not content to theorize without conducting research to prove or disprove his theory, so he did: Over the next ten years, he exclusively studied “exemplary people”  such as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass, writing that “the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy” (quoted. from his 1954 book Motivation and Personality. p. 236). He studied the “healthiest” 1 percent of students at Brooklyn College and Brandeis University while on the faculties of those institutions. He did not study “average” people. Modern scientists would say this makes his scientific conclusions impossible to generalize to the vast majority of humankind.

But let’s put the lack of empirical evidence aside for a second, and pay more attention to what critics of his theory discovered after conducting their own research:

  1. Psychoanalyst and anthropologist Michael Maccoby argued in his book Why Work? that “what we choose to do depends more on our ethics than on satisfying needs” (p. 32).   If our actions are not in fact driven by a progressive unfolding of inborn needs, then the accuracy of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is called into question.
  2. While it may sound logical to categorize and rank needs, “there is no clear evidence that human needs are classified in five distinct categories, or that these categories are structured in a special hierarchy,” according to researchers Wahba and Bridwell in their extensive review of the literature entitled Maslow Reconsidered: A Review of Research on the Need Hierarchy Theory.
  3. It has never been shown that one need triggers the next in the way Maslow described.  Attempts to demonstrate it have generally failed.
  4. Chilean economist and philosopher Manfred Max-Neef has also argued fundamental human needs are non-hierarchical, as they are all part of the universal condition of being human.
  5. Influential Dutch social psychologist and anthropologist Geert Hofstede has criticized Maslow’s Hierarchy as ethnocentric, as it neglects to illustrate and expand upon the difference between the social and intellectual needs of those raised in individualistic societies and those raised in collectivist societies. Maslow created his hierarchy of needs from an individualistic perspective, being that he was from the United States, a highly individualistic nation. In collectivist societies, the needs of acceptance and community outweigh the needs for freedom and individuality.

Courses in marketing teach Maslow’s hierarchy as one of the first theories as a basis for understanding consumers’ motives for action. While evaluating the different needs, values, drives and priorities of people is crucial to solving marketing problems and motivating various types of people, don’t build your house on Maslow’s land. A 2012 needs hierarchy is not a hierarchy at all. Try Max-Neef’s Fundamental Human Needs, which are 9 needs broken up into four categories for each need, as follows:

Need Being
Interacting (settings)
subsistence physical and mental health food, shelter, work feed, clothe, rest, work living environment, social setting
protection care, adaptability, autonomy social security, health systems, work co-operate, plan, take care of, help social environment, dwelling
affection respect, sense of humour, generosity, sensuality friendships, family, relationships with nature share, take care of, make love, express emotions privacy, intimate spaces of togetherness
understanding critical capacity, curiosity, intuition literature, teachers, policies, educational analyse, study, meditate, investigate, schools, families, universities, communities,
participation receptiveness, dedication, sense of humour responsibilities, duties, work, rights cooperate, dissent, express opinions associations, parties, churches, neighbourhoods
leisure imagination, tranquillity, spontaneity games, parties, peace of mind day-dream, remember, relax, have fun landscapes, intimate spaces, places to be alone
creation imagination, boldness, inventiveness, curiosity abilities, skills, work, techniques invent, build, design, work, compose, interpret spaces for expression, workshops, audiences
identity sense of belonging, self-esteem, consistency language, religions, work, customs, values, norms get to know oneself, grow, commit oneself places one belongs to, everyday settings
freedom autonomy, passion, self-esteem, open-mindedness equal rights dissent, choose, run risks, develop awareness anywhere

It’s 2012. Needs hierarchy is 1970.


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  • Maslow has been discredited for decades yet, his ideas are still taught in universities which is a shame.

    War discredits any current theory regarding human motivation that originated from the Western View of psychology. While the Western View demands physical and measurable evidence, we are in fact motivated by such forces as; the desire for acceptance, fame, the need to have an impact on those around us, patriotism, the preservation of truth, and many other motivating factors that are abstract and non-physical.

    Therefore, Maslow along with the rest, must fail to reveal our true hidden motivations in life.

    However, the European perspective of psychology and motivation can answer most of our burning questions regarding motivation that is ignored here in the U.S.

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