The concept of Maslow’s pyramid is something that almost every person has come across at some point, but few of them know what this pyramid actually represents and what its structure is. Psychologist Aliya Sabirzhanova explains to Forbes Life why there were no triangles in Abraham Maslow’s original theory and discusses the criticisms surrounding the pyramid.
In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow published an article titled “A Theory of Human Motivation,” in which he proposed that a hierarchy of needs is the foundation of human behavior. The theory became popular and is now known to almost everyone as Maslow’s pyramid. However, Maslow himself never presented his hierarchy of needs as a pyramid. This idea emerged later when his theoretical model was adapted for commercial purposes.
For example, in Keith Davis’s book “Human Relations in Business,” the hierarchy was presented as a ladder that employees climb from the position of a regular worker to managerial positions. Davis significantly altered the classic Maslow model by linking self-actualization needs only to work activities, which, according to him, enable self-realization. Most importantly, he assumed that as a person advances in their career, the needs for recognition, respect, and self-actualization become prevalent. However, if a person works at the same place for an extended period, only basic physiological needs prevail. This differed significantly from Abraham Maslow’s theory.
The idea of Maslow’s pyramid and its theory was formulated into a pyramid by psychologist Charles McDermid in 1960. He attempted to find an answer to the question of how to achieve maximum employee motivation with minimal costs. He assumed that some employees put creativity into their work and try to realize themselves, while others focus on basic needs, such as earning a living. Therefore, they need to be motivated differently. His assumption allowed companies to create an employee motivation system while significantly saving costs.
Davis and McDermid’s interpretations distorted the classic theory of the hierarchy of needs, which became perceived as a pyramid of needs. This undoubtedly made it very popular but deprived it of the impulse for further scientific development.
In his works “Motivation and Personality” and “Theory of Human Motivation,” Maslow formulated the basic principles of his theory: needs, specifically states of partial or complete dissatisfaction, represent the driving force of motivation. Needs can never be completely satisfied because a person is always in a state of motivation. Additionally, these needs are arranged in a fixed hierarchy, and satisfaction of needs at each new level is possible only after the satisfaction of the previous level, albeit not to the fullest extent.
Originally, Maslow defined five needs, including physiological needs, the need for safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization. A few years later, Maslow added the need for belonging, knowledge, and aesthetics to his theory. Today, Maslow’s classic pyramid looks as follows:
1.Physiological needs – A healthy organism first seeks self-preservation and the satisfaction of needs that ensure survival, specifically food, water, sleep, and sex. According to Maslow, if these needs are not met, a person’s motivation is focused solely on how to achieve them. Everything else takes a back seat. Additionally, regularly satisfying physiological needs contributes to a person’s ability to focus on improving their life.
2.The need for safety – An orderly life, stable living, peaceful work, the absence of anxiety and problems – all of these pertain to the need for safety. According to Maslow, if a person is always living in anticipation of danger, even if their physiological needs are completely satisfied, they are only concerned with the necessity of eliminating the feeling of anxiety.
3.The need for belonging – According to Maslow’s theory, this need is stimulated by feelings of loneliness and a desire to share one’s hopes, experiences, and successes with close people. It is important here that a person is understood, heard, and accepted as a partner, friend, or colleague.
4.The need for esteem and recognition – High praise and recognition are a natural need for every person. In his theory, Maslow divided esteem needs from other needs into two groups. The first group concerns personal merits, successes, and achievements, where recognition brings a sense of independence, confidence, and freedom. The second group concerns the need for recognition of prestige and reputation, expressed in the respect of others. Maslow emphasized that it is important to rely primarily on personal recognition based on objective merits rather than societal recognition (which can be flattering).
5.The need for knowledge – Maslow argued that people are naturally drawn to mysteries, inexplicable phenomena, and the undiscovered. What is known and does not raise questions is not interesting, only causing boredom. People have a desire to gain new knowledge, skills, and abilities, and to search for answers to philosophical questions about the meaning of life.
6.Aesthetic needs. The ability to perceive beauty and seek harmony through contact with music, theater, art, nature’s beauty. According to Maslow, the satisfaction of aesthetic needs can evoke intense emotional experiences in humans.
7.Need for self-determination. Self-determination becomes an effort to realize potential possibilities that serve as the strongest motivation for personal growth. According to Maslow, this is not a selfish need, but a humanistic desire to bring benefits to society and create a necessary “product” – a song, a painting, a poem, a car, a program. Along with this, self-determination becomes a commitment to oneself to become who a person is capable of being.
Much later, in his works “Toward a Psychology of Being” (1962) and “The Farther Reaches of Human Nature” (1971), Maslow divided needs into lower (physiological and safety needs) and higher (all others). Lower needs are almost the same for all people, while higher needs can be realized quite individually and it is these needs that significantly contribute to shaping the value orientations of personality.
Maslow considered self-actualization to be the highest need, which unfortunately does not have a sufficiently precise definition. According to Maslow’s estimates, the need for self-actualization is achieved in approximately 1-2% of all people. It is precisely these changes, in which the author of the theory himself departed from a clear hierarchy, that have become one of the reasons for the criticism that modern scientists direct toward Maslow’s pyramid.
The main criticism of the theory is its rigid hierarchy. Many current studies conclude that needs influence our motivation but are not organized in a hierarchical structure – for example, the need for aesthetic enjoyment can override the need for safety.
Another reason for the criticism of Maslow’s pyramid is the relevance of the needs listed in classical theories. In 2010, a group of evolutionary psychology researchers proposed modifying the top of the pyramid and considering the highest needs as the search for a partner, maintaining a partner, and raising children. Another important reason for criticism is that the classic theory does not take into account cultural differences, which can significantly influence the importance and significance of needs.
Despite the criticism, Maslow’s theory is still used, and evidence is sought in it, as well as its refutation. The reason is its clear and understandable hierarchical model of needs, which easily captures the main motivations and desires of people. An important aspect is also the completely innovative approach for its time. It was Abraham Maslow who helped shape the humanistic direction in psychology, as his theory focused on everything positive and unique in human nature.
The Maslow pyramid is used in marketing and advertising – determining the needs of the target audience and developing support programs for staff based on it. However, it is rather a reference to Maslow’s theory than its direct application.