Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need: Psychology Myth Busting #1

The first in a series of four posts busting some psychology myths.

If I see another slide of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in a Creative Director’s pitch deck I might explode. It’s become a bit of a cliche in the agency world.

Malsow’s model purports to show the motivations of us humans. The most basic at the bottom of the pyramid. Once these needs are met we are motivated by the next need up in the pyramid all the way to the top.

Maslow Hierarchy of Needs

It’s ubiquity isn’t the problem, the problem is there is little theoretical basis (empirical evidence) for for the model.

Maslow put it together just because it sort of felt right. It does, and this is the big criticism, if you are a man in the western world.

From Bridwell and Wahba’s 1976 review paper:

A large number of cross-sectional studies showed no clear evidence for Maslow’s deprivation / domination proposition except with regard to self-actualization. Longitudinal studies testing Maslow’s gratification / activation proposition showed no support, and the limited support received from cross-sectional studies is questionable due to numerous measurement problems.

That study, conducted in the western world, found no evidence for the sub parts of the model but did for self actualisation. We have to turn to work by Hofstede to help us understand why that part of the model is not universal.

Self-actualisation, the idea of people becoming the best they can be is a very individualistic idea. Asian cultures are about the community and family that is collectivist in focus. Placing this very individual goal at the top highlights Maslow’s background, a man living in the individualistic USA.

There is also little evidence that the model is the same for men and women.

Death to crappy science.

The conclusion, always question psychology theory when it’s applied to design or design people.

  1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – Favourite of the ad agency
  2. Miller’s number, 7 ± 2 – Haunted by a number
  3. Left Brain / Right Brain – What? You can’t be creative and code?
  4. Myers Briggs – No better than a Buzzfeed quiz

If you want to learn how to evaluate psychology theory and apply it to design and user experience, you should come to one of my workshops. Learn more and sign up to the email list.


Also published on Medium.

One Response to “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need: Psychology Myth Busting #1”

  1. Matt

    Great article. I think the main problem with Maslow’s Pyramid is its shape and “snapshot of a linear progression” nature to it.

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