Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is so 1943

*checks today’s date* 28th October 2015.

72 years ago, Abraham Maslow wrote a paper on human motivation and used a hierarchical model to help share his insights at the time. It has since become the go to model for understanding human motivation. Along with Herzberg’s motivational factors theory, it’s become one of the most essential of management theories.

According to the theory, once we satisfy certain needs, we can move our way up the model to higher levels of achievement and satisfaction, ultimately leading to what he called self-actualisation. In defense, he did help us to understand a potential model of human motivation at a time when we were new to the concept and didn’t really have a way of understanding how humans work. But, you know, that was 70 years ago.

Are you seriously telling me that in the last 70 years we haven’t understood human motivation any further than Maslow?

Over the last 20 years, Maslow has persisted as being a management model and model to understand human motivation, more simply for no other reason than people haven’t been bothered to understand more recent and more relevant findings on the topic.

For example, in his book, Drive, Daniel Pink helped us to understand that people need three things to be successful at work – autonomy, mastery and purpose. These three factors don’t seem to fit in with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And actually, trying to make one relevant to the other is the wrong way to think about these things.

For example, neuroscience helps us to understand how the brain responds to certain stimuli and how we respond to interactions with others. The neurochemicals produced will either support the development of further relationships, or reinforce connections in the brain to act in certain ways. This is a massively untapped area of knowledge, and what we know is that there are better ways to interact with others which are amenable to cultivating better relationships based on how the brain responds.

For example, behavioural economics helps us to know that people are not rational beings and are often influenced to act in certain ways. For example, in assessment centres, if managers are given the candidate information on a hard board, they are more likely to judge the candidates positively than if given on a soft board – it’s not right, and it doesn’t have any basis for judgement, but it’s an influence. Or that you’re more likely to have higher number of people becoming donors when they are automatically opted in – opting out is a purposeful act and requires specific action to do it so most people don’t bother.

For example, in improving your wellbeing, we know that it’s important to reflect on the good things that are happening in your life on a regular basis. By doing this regularly and consistently you build a better appreciation of what’s doing right in your life and identify actions you can continue to do which are supportive of your wellbeing.

Often, as with most things in life, it’s what we do with the insights we have, as opposed to making things fit into our view of the world, and if it doesn’t fit then it can’t be right.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs served a purpose back in the 1940s. It pains me that in the year 2015 we’re still talking about this model like it’s relevant. It’s like talking about cassette tapes and their effective use in distributing musical content to the masses. In a day and age when digital means and technology have made that form of music production redundant, why would we ever go back to it? Similarly, in a day and age when we undertsand far more about human motivation than we ever have done, why would we refer back to a model which was developed 70 years ago? We talk plenty about the need to update our ways of working, and creating modern organisations. Part of that also means updating what we know, and how we apply that new knowledge to the new worlds we’re seeking to create.

Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

5 thoughts on “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is so 1943”

  1. Mmmm, I agree with you that Maslow is old stuff, and maybe it shouldn’t be followed so religiously or necessarily held in the same high esteem that it did previously, however I believe there is still validity in what he said.
    I am happy to take a more modern approach and welcome a new model on motivation, but still use his insight to develop my thinking around the ideal learning environment, using it as the basis for my framework on addressing need, and identifying where organisations might benefit from enhancing their space for the benefit of the learning, the learner and the wider learning culture.
    So shouldn’t we be looking for ways to enhance his model, adapt it to the modern world and what we know now, rather than just debunking him and risking ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’?!

    1. Hi Collette, and thanks for taking the time to comment. You’ll find with my blogging that I often take a stance on things in order to provoke thinking or to prompt dialogue to happen. In practice, much of what I do is less about absolutes and more about development and evolution of thinking.

      So I agree that we should look for ways to enhance models, and adapt them to the modern world where it makes sense to do that. There is a level of insight that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs does provide, and this is useful. There are also a lot of other useful modern theories which offer different insight and different ways of understanding human motivation.

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