Consumer Psych Myths: Maslow & the missing pyramid

If you've ever studied marketing, chances are you've heard of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. This model has made its way into virtually every marketing textbook and is now a core part of business A-levels, degrees, and MBAs. But did you know that Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, as we know it today, is not what he proposed? Turns out it was never a pyramid, and self-actualisation isn’t the top. So where did it come from, and why does it matter? Read on to discover the history of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and its implications for our understanding of human motivation.

Who is this Maslow bloke then?

If you’ve ever studied marketing, you’re almost certainly going to have come across Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It has made its way in to virtually every marketing textbook and is now a core part of business A-levels, undergraduate degrees and even MBAs. For those of you who are a little hazy on the details, Maslow proposed a model that attempted to explain all human motivation. He believed that we all have a desire to be the best we can, what he referred to as self-actualisation (although he later changed this to self-transcendence). However, before we can reach this stage, we need to progress through four other stages. These stages are.  

  1. Physiological Needs: Our most basic physiological needs. Shelter, sex, food, water, rest
  2. Safety Needs: Health, Security and financial security.
  3. Love & Belonging Needs: intimate relationships & friends
  4. Esteem Needs: prestige and feeling of accomplishment
  5. Self-Actualisation: achieving one’s full potential, including creativity 

maslows hierarchy of need

But despite being taught in virtually every business and psychology degree, amongst psychologists, Maslow Hierarchy of Needs is widely discredited¹. It is viewed as unscientific, drawing from a biased and unreliable sample frame and his data analysis is suspect to say the least. But there is one other issue that is rarely discussed. Despite what is shown in virtually every textbook, Maslow never actually presented his model as a pyramid². Not in his original paper or any of his subsequent books. You may think, does this matter?  But it actually has some fairly significant implications. Not just that most textbooks are wrong, but it changes how we interpret Maslow’s work.   

Maslow never thought about human motivation as a pyramid where you need to complete each level to progress to the next (and which once completed you do not go back). He fully recognised that people can only partially satisfy a lower need (or not at all) before being motivated by a higher need. Even more surprising is the idea that for Maslow the order in which are needs arise is not fixed. So why is our idea about Maslow wrong? Well, when virtually everybody (and I’m including academics and textbooks here) discuss Maslow, they’re not really describing his version of the model, but Douglas McGregor’s interpretation of Maslow. If the name Douglas McGregor sounds vaguely familiar, he’s the guy who proposed the “Theory X and Theory Y” approach to management. Although Maslow published his work across lots of different books, the final version of his model looked like this. 

Maslow Hierarchy of Needs or McGregor’s Hierarchy of Needs?

McGregor was a friend and colleague of Maslow and he quickly recognised that Maslow’s work would be useful in his work with businesses. It was while he was discussing Maslow’s work with a group of business leaders, that he realised that Maslow may have been onto something. The group of managers instantly understood and could relate to the model. But like many business consultants, McGregor didn’t fully explain all the complexities of Maslow’s work. Instead, he simplified it and deliberately left out many of the nuances and caveats that were included in the original research. And surprisingly, it’s this version that has made its way into the academic textbooks.

So where did the pyramid come from?

Despite McGregor popularising the work, there was still no pyramid! In order to try and find the first use of a pyramid a team of academics, Todd Bridgman, Stephen Cummings and John Ballard did some digging. The first illustrated example of Maslow’s work they could find was in a popular management textbook, Human Relations in Business by Keith Davies from 1957. This didn’t exactly show a pyramid but a series of steps leading to the top (clearly ranked in order). But it’s still not the pyramid we know and love! That pyramid is the work of another consultant, Charles McDermid when he used it in an article in Business Horizons in 1960³.

So what? Does this matter?

As I said, realising that Maslow never thought of his model as a pyramid should change how we think and interpret his model. But for me, the biggest take away is that it wasn’t until Maslow’s model was turned into a pyramid that it became popularMaslow wasn’t the first academic to describe motivation, and his approach certainly isn’t the most accurate, but it’s probably the most well-known. The pyramid is great branding, and as research into behaviour change shows: if you want to get people to change their behaviour, make it easy. The pyramid certainly made it easy to learn and understand. It’s just a shame it simplified the model to a point that it didn’t actually relate to the original research. If you want to find out more about the evolution of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, check out Bridgman, Cummings & Ballard’s fantastic paper “Who built Maslow’s pyramid? A history of the creation of management studies most famous symbol and its implications for management education. 

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1. Wahba MA, Bridwell LG. (1976) Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on the need hierarchy theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 15(2):212-240. doi:10.1016/0030-5073(76)90038-6

2. Bridgman, T., Cummings, S., & Ballard, J. (2019). Who built Maslow’s pyramid? A history of the creation of management studies’ most famous symbol and its implications for management education. Academy of management learning & education, 18(1), 81-98.

3. McDermid, C. D. 1960. How money motivates men. Business Horizons, 3(4): 93–100.

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