Why the popular view of Maslow’s hierarchy is dangerous

Have you seen this picture before?

If you have taken Psychology 101, or studied sociology, human development, or management, you have surely come across it. It is the popular representation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a theory describing basic human needs/motivation.

In my opinion, the theory itself makes some sense. But, I have a huge problem with the popular representation of it as a pyramid. It is incorrect, and fosters dangerous thinking related to self-actualization and personal development.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy states that human needs can be divided into five distinct levels: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

The first four needs are considered deficiency needs (d-needs). An easy way of thinking about these is that if you don’t have one of the needs, you may feel uneasy. These d-needs have ordering effect such that your physiological needs must be sufficiently met before your safety needs, and so on.

The fifth need is self-actualization, and is called a growth need (or b-need for being need). It is different than the d-needs as it represents human growth and potential.

The damn pyramid.

Maslow never drew these five needs into a pyramid.

Somewhere along the way, someone decided that it would be a good idea. It it has stuck! Just do a Google Image search for “Maslow’s hierarchy” and check out all the pyramids.

There are two problems here.

First, it combines the d-needs and b-need as if they are all similar. As you can tell in the simple description above, they aren’t. While the d-needs could be viewed as a layers in a pyramid, the b-need is different and should be represented in a different way.

Second, it places the b-need on top of the d-need. Not only does this imply that it is like the d-needs, it implies that it sits on top of all the needs; as if you needed to satisfy all of the needs before thinking about self-actualization.

You see the problem here?

The danger is that the pyramid seems so intuitive.

Of course, we need food and air before safety. And of course we need that before love. And, so we walk up the pyramid and just accept that it is true. You really only hit the problem at the top, but still, even at the top it is somewhat intuitive. Confidence comes before complete self-actualization, right?

Yet, the pyramid is wrong. And unfortunately, the part that it gets wrong is a critical part of our personal growth.

Self-actualization is not at the top of the pyramid. It isn’t enabled by satisfying the other needs. Quite the contrary: it is what enables you to satisfy many of the needs!

  • Do you need confidence to self-actualize? Or does self-actualization enable confidence?
  • Do you need sexual intimacy to self-actualize? Or does self-actualization enable you to find the proper partner, nurture a relationship, and experience sexual intimacy?
  • Do you need safety in employment to self-actualize? Or does self-actualization enable you to become a person of value that is worth employing?

Obviously, this doesn’t work across all of the needs. For example, you simply need food and air. But in general, self-actualization is the enabler that allows you to strengthen yourself within levels, and move up to the next level of Maslow’s d-needs.

We shouldn’t view self-actualization as the thing at the top. When it is at the top, it becomes something that we put off. It becomes that goal that we might get around to once we satisfy all of our other needs.

And guess what? We’ll never satisfy all of our other needs. Humans have this weird way of always coming up with more needs… especially, the ones who haven’t self-actualized.

We need to view self-actualization as number one. We begin with it, educate ourselves, learn who we are, discover who we can be, and figure out how to improve our lives.  In my opinion, this fundamental shift is the only way we can hope to move the entire world up Maslow’s hierarchy.

So let us begin by fixing that diagram. After that, we should switch our priorities within our communities and education systems. And just maybe, one day the world will become a better place 🙂

P.S. This is post number #28 in a 100 day blogging challenge. See you tomorrow!

Follow me on Twitter @alexshye.

Check out my current project Soulmix, your daily mix of food for the soul.

2 thoughts on “Why the popular view of Maslow’s hierarchy is dangerous

  1. Quel outil j’utilise sur le web pour répondre à quel besoin ? | Web 2.0... je suis là... ou pas ?

  2. I’ve always had a problem with Maslow’s Hierarchy because of this. The whole idea that one MUST have all these other things in perfect alignment in order to obtain self-actualization or have that magical “Peak Experience” has always bothered me. Essentially, it tells people that are at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder that they can never attain self-actualization or have a “peak experience.” (You never mentioned “peak experiences, btw. Have they stopped teaching that part? I learned about this almost 30 years ago, so anything is possible.)

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