“Maslow’s pyramid” is based on an elitist misreading of the psychologist’s work

Is motivation in the eye of the beholder?
Is motivation in the eye of the beholder?
Image: Reuters/Edgard Garrido
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Depending on your life experiences, you may think one of two ways about Maslow’s pyramid of needs.

You might believe what I did before reporting this story: That the rainbow-colored pyramid, perhaps first seared into memory in grade school, organizes truths about what motivates people. First, we satisfy our “lower level” needs, like basic nourishment and safety, the base layers of the pyramid. Only then can we be concerned with “higher level” needs, like love and belonging, and esteem, the stepping stones to self-actualization, the reaching of one’s full potential and the pinnacle of the pyramid.

If you’re a psychologist or organizational behavior scientist, however, you may reject the pyramid of needs as unscientific and outdated. But you’ve probably come to accept how ubiquitous it is as a piece of pop psychology.

Either way, you almost certainly believe that the pyramid was invented by Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist who died in 1970. But that part doesn’t appear to be true.

Though Maslow gave us the hierarchy of needs theory, he did not envision his framework in pyramid form at all, according to a new study published in the Academy of Management Learning & Education journal. In it, three management professors—Todd Bridgman and Stephen Cummings, both of the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and John Ballard of Mount St. Joseph University in Ohio—trace the origins of what may be the world’s most famous infographic. They propose that the symbol was actually created by a management consultant who had been inspired by a management theorist’s misinterpretation of Maslow’s earliest ideas.

The effects of the colorful final product, they argue, have not been benign. What we know as Maslow’s pyramid has tainted our view of work and our expectation that people are concerned with “higher” or “lower” level needs depending on their income or professional status. It gives the impression that some employees need to have their hearts and souls attended to, their creativity tapped and fostered, while others are merely concerned with covering the rent every month and putting food on the table.

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Indeed, the pyramid’s innate message “has really held us back,” says Susan Fowler, senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies, a management training firm. Fowler was not involved in the study, but has critiqued Maslow’s enduring hold on managers in other articles and books.

Bridgman and his co-authors would add that the oversimplification of Maslow’s more nuanced ideas has allowed us to ignore some of the psychologist’s more egalitarian principles. Now they want to correct the record.

A psychological framework for a new era of optimism

Abraham Maslow was born in 1908 to working class parents in Brooklyn. His father, Samuel, had left Kiev at age 14, penniless and able to speak only Russian and Yiddish. He was fleeing Czarist violence, but also, according to the sole biography of his famous son, evading a domineering father, when he set sail to the US alone, with instructions pinned to his clothing about how family in the new country should care for him.

Abraham, the eldest of seven children, grew up in a Jewish section of Brooklyn attending majority-Jewish schools. He apparently was so affected by the anti-Semitic bullies in the streets of his neighborhood that understanding their hatred was part of what drove him to the field of psychology. He developed a scholarliness that gave him mental relief from turmoil at home, and from a mother described in journals as abusive and vindictive.

The young Maslow’s brilliance ushered him into a more rarefied world. He attended City College of New York, completed his Master’s and PhD in psychology at the University of Wisconsin, and continued his postgraduate work at Columbia University. He developed his hierarchy-of-needs theory, introduced in 1943 in a paper called “A Theory of Human Motivation,” while he was a professor at Brooklyn College, though his ideas gained much wider recognition in the 1950s. By that time, he was at Brandeis University, where he was on the faculty until a year before his death in 1970.

Maslow’s epiphany—the insight that people’s actions and choices were driven by a series of needs that went beyond animalistic survival, that in fact spoke to our greatest potential as emotional and intelligent beings—had occurred to him in 1941, the year the US would get involved in World War II. “Sitting in his car, watching a parade of veterans pass by, he reflected on the world going to war once again. At that moment, he resolved to devote his life to developing a ‘psychology for the peace table,’” Bridgman and his co-authors write, quoting Maslow’s biographer, Edward Hoffman.

We’re so accustomed to the betterment of the self as a goal, and to thinking of therapy as a way to improve one’s emotional wellbeing, and not just a way to treat a psychological condition, that it’s hard to imagine how original and fresh Maslow’s insights were in their day.

Although he was not the very first psychologist to focus on the healthy needs of the human mind and spirit, he did help establish humanistic psychology, which has been called the predecessor to positive psychology. “Before that, psychology focused on what’s wrong with the person,” Margie Lachman, a professor of psychology at Brandeis, told the Ted Radio Hour, a public radio show, in 2015.

Back when the field was dominated by Freudian psychoanalysis and reductive behaviorism, Maslow gave the world a theory that would elevate what was positive and unique in human nature. He sought to “bring back wonder and awe and transcendence and religion” into the study of people, says psychologist Jessica Grogran, in a video about her book, Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self  (Harper Perennial, 2012). “He was childlike in his optimism,” Grogan says. “He had these ideas that by changing psychology, he could change the world.”

Although Maslow’s concept of a hierarchy of needs successfully sparked a movement, it was quickly criticized by scholars for its subjectiveness and lack of empirical rigor. (While Maslow was obsessed with launching and developing his hypotheses, he seemed to have had less time for the scientific process, Bridgman says.) Nevertheless, the pyramid, as it would manifest, became a staple of introductory psychology classes, and Maslow’s theory is today recognized for opening up new avenues of psychological inquiry.

Maslow probably would be known today for more than the pyramid if not for some offensive views he took on in the late 1960s, just before his death. He began to argue that the ability to self-actualize was an inherited biological trait, and therefore unavailable to some individuals and groups. That argument caused eminent psychologist Carl Rogers, also considered a founder of humanistic psychology, and others, to distance themselves from Maslow.

In management studies, however, the pyramid’s ascent was indomitable. The hierarchy of needs became possibly the most famous image in management studies ever, write Bridgman and his co-authors, noting that years later, it’s still the framework that “students remember most vividly.”

A scholarly connection at MIT Sloan?

As the researchers note, most reproductions of the brightly colored pyramid cite as its source either Maslow’s famous 1943 article or one of three early editions of his book Motivation and Personality, first published in 1954. Should anyone bother to look at the source material, however, they’ll discover the pyramid does not appear in any of it.

Other researchers have noted this curiosity. Until now, however, no one has tried to establish where the pyramid came from or who was responsible for it, or so Bridgman believes. He and his co-authors pored over Maslow’s rich journals and published work for any trace of pyramids, or even triangles, in illustrations or in prose. They also spoke to Maslow’s onetime peer, the emeritus professor of management at MIT, Edgar Schein, who told the researchers that he assumed Maslow came up with the pyramid, but could not recall that specific event.

“Having conducted an extensive search, including in the Maslow archives at the Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron in Ohio, we found no trace of Maslow framing his ideas in pyramid form,” Bridgman and his co-authors conclude.

To determine how the pyramid emerged, the scholars went looking for the earliest references to Maslow in management journals and leadership books. They found their first clue in a 1944 paper by Douglas McGregor, the management theorist who, in the 1950s, would excitedly import Maslow’s ideas into the burgeoning field of human relations, mixing psychology with business and leadership thinking.

McGregor, an MIT Sloan School of Management professor who died in 1964, is known for creating the Theory X and Theory Y management framework, which separated management styles into two essential camps, one occupied by those who believed employees needed to be manipulated with carrot-and-stick measures (Theory X), and one by leaders who saw employees as intrinsically motivated (Theory Y). The latter idea, deeply inspired by Maslow, was revolutionary and timely, coinciding nicely with the rise of what came to be known as the “knowledge sector,” and its class of workers whose daily tasks were cerebral and ephemeral.

Years after referencing Maslow in a paper in 1944, McGregor, in a 1956 letter to the psychologist, recounted a meeting with executives who were drawn to his account of Maslow’s theory. The hierarchy of needs “fired their imagination,” he wrote.

McGregor’s seminal book, The Human Side of Enterprise, was published in 1960 and had what the Bridgman study describes as “a transformational effect on the nascent field of organizational behavior.” The book doesn’t cite Maslow directly. But the psychologist’s views, and quite nearly his words (almost verbatim), are there, and Maslow’s Motivation and Personality is listed as a reference.

Whether intentionally or not, McGregor’s translation of Maslow’s ideas altered history’s understanding of the hierarchy of needs. For instance, in 1960, he wrote: “The man whose lower-level needs are satisfied is not motivated to satisfy those needs. For practical purposes, they exist no longer.” Maslow had never made that argument, the authors of the new study emphasize; he felt that people could have several needs unfulfilled at once and be motivated by all of them.

To be fair, what may have contributed to the inaccuracies were the dramatic examples Maslow used to animate his theory. For instance, he wrote that a man who struggles to feed himself “may fairly be said to live by bread alone.” Maslow, however, “was quick to point out that such situations are rare,” the authors explain. Instead, he felt that most people “are partially satisfied in all their basic needs and partially unsatisfied in all their basic needs at the same time.”

The distinction is crucial. Still, even McGregor cannot be blamed for concocting the pyramid, only for seeding Maslow’s ideas—or rather, his version of Maslow’s ideas—in corporate spaces. (Maslow, at this point, had yet to write a single word about the needs and whims of workers.)

The mysterious making of a pyramid

The first hint of a hierarchy of needs that’s even pyramid-like appears in 1957, when Maslow’s theory is illustrated for the book Human Relations in Business by Keith Davis, a prominent scholar of the era, who, says Bridgman, would have been moving in the same circles as McGregor.

Here, though, the metaphor of choice is a set of stairs, with each step representing a different need and occupied by a generic businessman, in a suit and tie, meeting it. On the “basic physiological needs” level, for example, he is seen dining, perhaps sitting down to a power lunch. At the top, our triumphant corporate soldier is seen planting an American flag, evoking the iconic image of American infantrymen raising the stars and stripes during World War II’s battle of Iwo Jima, the authors of the new study note.

An equilateral triangle finally arrives in 1960, first surfacing in a business journal article called “How Money Motivates Men,” by Charles McDermid, a psychologist at a Wisconsin consulting firm. McDermid calls the top-level need “self realization,” as Davis had, instead of “self-actualization” as Maslow had written, the study points out. Because of this, the researchers suspect that McDermid had simply reimagined Davis’ staircase as a triangular form.

Quoting from McDermid’s essay, the authors find a sort of smoking gun that pulls the flawed version of Maslow’s theory and the pyramid’s implications all together: “Since ‘maximum motivation at lowest cost is the desired end result,’ McDermid advised managers to use Maslow’s theory of motivation, which ‘can be arranged’ as a pyramid, to evaluate the needs of their employees and adjust compensation packages accordingly.”

This is the pyramid that inspired a thousand others, the researchers believe.

The persistent pyramid and how it shaped our view of work

As Bridgman and his fellow researchers note, the hierarchy concept “captured the prevailing [post-war] ideologies of individualism, nationalism and capitalism in America and justified a growing managerialism in bureaucratic (i.e., layered triangular) formats.”

The pyramid happens to mirror the structure of an organization, narrowing at the top. The unspoken implication is that the people on top have more sophisticated needs than those way down at the base. The accepted wisdom becomes that it’s only when an employee moves beyond the rank and file, to a level of higher pay, that “they will be concerned about their self esteem or opportunities, that work will be meaningful to them,” says Bridgman, “and I think that does a real disservice.”

Fowler finds that many executives use the pyramid as “an excuse to not have to deal with people’s psychological issues,” and to set their more complex needs aside. Says Fowler, “It’s kind of like, ‘Well, we can’t afford to give this to everybody at the bottom of the pyramid, so we’ll just assume they’re not going to be motivated by higher-order reasons.'”

Another ill-effect she links to Maslow’s hierarchy is the belief that: “If I made more money, I would be happier. Or, if I had those security needs taking care of, I would be happier, or more motivated to do my job,” says Fowler.  “People get trapped in that,” she argues, “and yet if money was the solution, we wouldn’t see any rich people who suffer. They wouldn’t have divorces or become drug addicts or commit crimes.”

Most damning, perhaps, is the pyramid’s insinuation that there is a finite amount of space at “the top,” and we are all competing against each other to get there. “Really,” says Fowler, “people are ‘self-actualizing’ all over the place.”

Maslow’s earliest writing in fact made it clear that the needs he identified may not be universal, that culture and context mattered, and that the hierarchy may not reflect the same priorities for everyone. So while his needs list may be rightfully slammed, he also wasn’t as naive as critics of the pyramid might like to believe, according to Bridgman. “Maslow was trying to say that people will have these needs arranged differently. Managers really need to understand each and every employee and what motivates them, rather than assume that I can just plop the pyramid over everyone in the organization.”

Maslow was apparently unimpressed by management scholars who saw “his theory of human nature as a means to financial end—short-term profit—rather the end which he saw, a more enlightened citizenry and society,” the authors note, citing Maslow’s 1965 book Eupsychian Management. And yet, he did not distance himself from the pyramid’s popularity.

“Maslow lived to see the pyramid and didn’t really challenge it because of other difficulties he was having in his life, the rejection that he had from psychology,” says Bridgman. “The management people rolled out the red carpet before him, and paid him well, so it suited him well enough, I guess, but it was a long way from what he was writing about.”

Through the 1960s, and more recently, Maslow’s theories were tested in field and lab studies. Under scrutiny, the five needs Maslow had identified and ranked simply didn’t hold up, particularly in other cultures. (Past critics of Maslow’s writing have called his views eurocentric and insensitive to barriers like systemic racism and sexism, which can theoretically prevent some employees from ever “moving up” the hierarchy.)

Maslow’s ideas about self-actualized people were also subjective. Though he described the features of a self-actualized person (they’re humble, grateful, concerned with the good of mankind, self-directed rather than mindlessly conformist, etc.) these were essentially subjective measures. Feeding the “subjectivity” critique, he even named a few individuals, including public figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein, whom he considered to be self-actualized.

The pyramid’s visual punch

By the 1970s, scholars were beginning to give up on Maslow’s imprecise musings, the paper reports, but management textbooks had already come along to rescue the pyramid from possible obscurity. A surge in demand for college-level business schools created a market for textbooks that were both instructional and intellectual, befitting a serious education. Maslow’s pyramid checked off the right boxes.

Fast forward to the late aughts, and management students are usually taught to consider the pyramid a relic of old school thinking. Typically, Bridgman explains, professors introduce the pyramid as the foundational theory of what drives employees, then run through all of the model’s defects.

A common target of attack is the assertion, still often wrongly attributed to Maslow, that people can only rise to the next level of needs after base needs have been satisfied. Indeed, many of us know people whose drive to produce creative work overrides a need for the security of a fat paycheck. As Pedro Monteiro, post-doc researcher at Emlyon business school in Paris, observes on the podcast Talking About Organizations, we’ve also seen that even the most well-fed, secure, and socially connected workers—the coddled employees of Silicon Valley’s wealthy tech giants, for example— don’t necessarily keep “progressing” to reach a superior level of potential.  “If that were so,” says Monteiro, “wouldn’t everyone there be a virtuous sage?”

Still, the pyramid seems to have become a kind of tattoo, a creed applied to management when it was young and still figuring itself out. “I’m going to Serbia, Romania, Russia, Paris, London, Cyprus, Korea, just in the next couple of months,” says Fowler, “and I don’t care where I am speaking, Maslow always comes up.” She has run into Maslow fans who are simply loathe to let go of the pyramid’s logic.

To unpack the pyramid’s staying power and global domination, Bridgman and his colleagues dedicate some of their time to the not insignificant force of the shape itself.  The hierarchy of needs “may be the only management theory that has ‘gone viral’ and become a meme, and it is doubtful that this would have happened if it did not come with packaged in a pyramid with five clear categorical levels,” they write. It’s an ancient symbol of strength, they point out, and of human striving to reach the deities stationed above us.

Nicholas Pajerski, a designer and architect at WeWork in San Francisco, finds this line of reasoning convincing.  When you think about European cathedrals, he says, or “what we call the pyramids in Egypt or a Ziggurat forms in Mesoamerica, there’s definitely a trace in architectural history, which in some ways can be reduced to going upward and inward.”

Today, he adds, not only is there a fetishization of height in the way we build, but also in the way we “program” our buildings, making penthouses the most spacious and splendid of living quarters or hotel rooms, or giving the boss the corner office on the 38th floor. “I do think there is this implicit sort of socioeconomic, philosophical pursuit of getting as high as you can,” Pajerski concludes.

There’s even a property in South Africa, the Maslow Hotel, that’s designed in layers that are progressively smaller from bottom to top, and that together suggest a pyramid. On its website, we learn that the Maslow Hotel “aspires to create an environment that optimally satisfies the fundamental needs of the individual so that the mind is free to achieve its highest potential, self-actualisation.”

Where do we go next?

In their attempt to disentangle Maslow from the idea of a pyramid, the researchers behind the new study’s scholarly sleuthing face an important limitation: they’re setting out to prove a negative. Not every historian will be convinced by the conclusion that Maslow himself didn’t organize the hierarchy of needs in that way. If evidence is one day found that links Maslow to the pyramid, then what?

But to Bridgman and his team, the murkiness of the pyramid’s origins raises bigger questions about accepted wisdom in management theory, and its history of borrowing ideas from psychology or economics that are “filtered through our field’s long-standing commitments to free-market capitalism, managerialism, organizational hierarchies, and the primacy of the individual.” (In another paper, Bridgman and Cummings, along with Colm McLaughlin of the University College Dublin, questioned the official history of the Harvard Business School case study.)

Maslow’s pyramid is still very much in the mix in public talks about corporate success, company culture, and employee engagement. Start paying attention, and you’ll be amazed by its prevalence.

Meanwhile, the study of motivation has become a massive field, drawing a wide variety of academics in management studies and psychology. We’re constantly exposed to new ideas by contemporary thinkers. Some build on the traditions of behaviorism, but many contain the essence of Maslow’s initial vision. For instance, Fowler considers self-determination theory—which argues that all employees require autonomy, relatedness, and competence—an improvement on Maslow, one that she says is scientifically tested. “For me, it’s where Maslow would have gone over the past 60 years,” she says.  

Despite long-held misconceptions about Maslow’s pyramid, there’s also a growing awareness of the value of seeing the full human potential in every employee. Companies like Zappos, Disney, or Four Seasons Hotels are praised for encouraging employees to express their own creativity, and for giving employees in every position the freedom to make decisions and solve problems without consulting a manager or mindlessly sending issues up the chain.

Just last month, at the Bloomberg Equality Summit in New York, Arianna Huffington proposed that we’re moving into an era when more companies will have to think holistically about caring for their employees, all of them, and all of their needs, at once. Her vision sounded nothing at all like a pyramid-shaped hierarchy.

Textbook authors take note

Within a week or so of their study appearing online, where it’s available for free until April 28, Bridgman and his co-authors began hearing from management experts and textbook authors who said they planned to update their work. But they also heard from an author who had already encountered pushback from reviewers (who are likely to be faculty members) when she attempted to remove the pyramid from her text.

“Radical changes can alienate teachers, who most likely don’t want to make major changes to their courses,” Bridgman told us via email. “They know what students like and remember (the pyramid) and are reluctant to shift, even in light of evidence that the pyramid isn’t Maslow’s.”