2 min read

Challenging Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

AI generated picture of Vincent Van Gogh painting in an attic.

It’s an oversimplification, but Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs says that you can predict how people will behave by looking at their underlying needs. Maslow believed a starving person would find food first, putting aside every other consideration, including social niceties.

Maslow’s theory has its uses. Yet most modern management experts and psychologists regard it with suspicion. One criticism is that the hierarchy of needs doesn’t take into account acts of selflessness, bravery, charity and heroism.

You might ask yourself why some German citizens hid Jews from the Nazis. Or why starving soldiers in Japanese prisoner of war camps would give up their own food to help the weak and dying. But then most economists and biologists would also find what look like irrational acts hard to explain.

Painters starving in attics

Likewise, many of the best and most creative painters and poets – who Maslow would describe as self-actualising – were in fact starving in attics when they did their best work.

Where does Vincent van Gogh sit on the hierarchy of needs?

And we can all think of examples of filmmakers, musicians and other artists whose creativity dried up when they hit the big time. Years ago I worked as a music journalist. I found that many rock bands would deliver a brilliant first album, score a huge contract, then wallow self-indulgently in the studio for album number two. Many never got the opportunity to make a third record.

Jim Clemmer and Art MacNeil make an important criticism of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory in their book “Leadership skills for Every Manager” (ISBN 0861889630). The book is out of print. But you may find a copy of it in a university library.

Spiritual dimension

Clemmer and McNeil suggest Manslow misses the point because he left people’s spiritual dimension out of the picture. They say that humans look for meaning in their lives. That meaning transcends any animalistic drives. In their words, “even starving people are not immune to the lure of higher values.”

Think of van Gogh.

A more scientific criticism was published in the 1977 edition of the learned journal, “The Annual Review of Psychology”. Here, A.K. Korman, J.H. Greenhaus and I.J. Badin say there’s no empirical (that is, researched) evidence to support Maslow’s ideas.

In fact, they argue, the empirical evidence points in the opposite direction. Other critics point out that Manslow came up with his theories after observing only a handful of people and it lacks scientific rigor.

We’ll leave these debates for the academics.

The important thing about Maslow’s idea is that it is a good, maybe crude, starting point for understanding what drives other people. From our point of view, managing and motivating others, the Hierarchy of Needs is a useful template that sometimes, not always, helps to explain how and why people behave.