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Discovering Holistic-Dynamic Needs beneath a Rigid Pyramid

Everything you think you know about Maslow's pyramid is wrong


This paper was published in the August/September 2008 issue of "Association of Humanist Psychology Perspective" and is posted here with the permission of the publisher and author. For usage rights, please contact the author through the "contact us" link.


Abraham Maslow's proposed theories of self-actualization and human needs served as cornerstones of humanistic psychology and revolutionized psychology in the second half of the 20th century (Cox, 1987; ITP, 2007). College texts for courses in marketing, management, and psychology represent interpretations of Maslow's ideas to the point of cliché. Executives in the boardroom use a pyramid representation of Maslow's needs theory to show how they will target customers and motivate employees. Motivational speakers and religious gurus use the pyramid to guide people toward their potential. Regardless of his role as visionary, Maslow seems to have become a regular target of both criticism and disregard in academic and scientific circles. This rejection invites inquiry into why controversy surrounds one man's vision for a psychology to help people grow toward and transcend "full humanness" (Maslow, 1968, p. vi). This paper reviews Maslow's needs theory against modern perceptions and criticisms, discovers a seeming disconnect between Maslow and his interpreters, and then proposes a new perspective on Maslow that might align textbooks with Maslow's intent so researchers can attempt to measure a holistic dynamic process rather than a rigid and fallacious metaphor.

Accidental Revolution

Abraham Maslow's role as revolutionary was accidental (Cox, 1987)—and the dismissal of his ideas may have been premature (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Wilber, 2000). Maslow initially attempted to synthesize Freudian and behaviorist models of human development. Instead, his theories of human motivation and self-actualization presented "a positive model of human experience" (Cox, 1987) that created a revolutionary "third force psychology" (1968, p. iii) that overthrew the mechanist perspective that had dominated psychology in the first half of the 20th century.

Maslow rejected the "first force" Skinnerian view of humans as passive pawns of their environment to stress the "profoundly holistic nature" of the human being (1987, p. xvii). Maslow's "holistic-dynamic" perspective saw the human as a purposeful organism that dynamically controls and reacts to situations to progress toward potential. Maslow also proposed to build on the "Second Force" Freudian perspective, which "supplied to us the sick half of psychology" (1968, p. 5) and that "captured humanity's dark side, that part of our animal heritage" (Rogers, 1995, p. xii). The Third Force would provide a "health psychology" that explored the "higher levels of human nature" (Maslow, 1987, p. xviii) to develop methods for helping people make their lives better, control themselves, and freely develop towards their potential (1968, p. 5).

Maslow’s (1943) early statement of motivation theory proposed a "hierarchy of relative prepotency" through which people advance as they satisfy "deficiency" needs. Deficiency needs are lower order needs that are driven by the absence of something. An individual who lacks food will be consumed by the need for nourishment. As Maslow described, "Man lives by bread alone--when there is no bread. But what happens to man's desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled" (p. 375)? Maslow answered that once an individual has satisfied physiological needs, he or she becomes consumed by satisfying safety needs. Once an individual is secure, he or she becomes driven to satisfy belongings or love needs. The individual who lacks self-esteem becomes consumed by proving his or her worth. Once the individual satisfies the lower order needs, he or she is no longer driven by deficiency but by a desire to grow toward potential, to satisfy self-actualization needs.

Misinterpretations from beneath a Pyramid

The cliché pyramid that came to represent Maslow's relative prepotency of needs became a frequent target of criticism. Texts typically represent Maslow's needs theory as a pyramid to show how a person must meet a lesser need before stepping to a higher need. A freshman student might find that the concepts in Maslow's hierarchy of needs make intuitive sense. However, this same student might also recognize that the rigid pyramid automatically removes the theory from consideration because needs satisfaction is not a rigid step-like progression toward perfection, but that needs dynamically fluctuate as the person and the environment change. Students can find ample support for this observation throughout their academic careers.

In psych class, the student may see Wade and Tavris (2008) describe the pyramid saying, "Maslow argued that your needs must be met at each level before you can even think of the matters posed by the level above it" (p. 475). Wade and Tavris add that the research does not support the rigid hierarchy because needs are simultaneous, not progressive. In organizational psychology class, the student might read Jex's (2002) assessment of the pyramid as "intuitively appealing" and as "an insightful statement about human nature"; however, he adds a caveat that the pyramid is only of historical value due to a lack of research supporting its rigidity (p. 212). In organizational behavior class, the student might find Schermerhorn, Hunt, and Osborn (2002) representing the theory as stacked building blocks, while confirming that research fails to support a rigid hierarchy; arguing that needs more likely operate in a flexible hierarchy. Mc Shane and Von Glinow (2005) add that, while Maslow's hierarchy is "the best known organizational behavior theory," the pyramid is "too rigid" to explain accurately the dynamic and unstable nature of human needs (p. 141). In management class, Bateman and Snell (2004) declare the pyramid "simplistic and not altogether accurate", echoing that people do not progress up a rigid hierarchy (p. 406). In consumer behavior class, the student might read a warning from Hawkins, Best, and Coney (2004) that Maslow is not correct because people have multiple simultaneous needs. In advertising, Belch and Belch (2004) repeat the now familiar note that "it is unlikely people move through the hierarchy in a stair step manner" (p. 109) as the pyramid suggests. Finally, in developmental psychology class, the student might read Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) argue that Maslow's theories fell short of their "enormous promise" because they focused on developing the individual not the collective, lacked empirical support, and led to conspicuous "self-help movements" that do not meet scholarly standards. Seligman and Scikszentmihali then provide the student with hints about why academics reject Maslow, suggesting that Maslow may have been ahead of his time, arguing that Maslow's original vision had flaws, and observing "overly enthusiastic followers" who turned Maslow's' vision into shelves of self-help books on "crystal healing, aromatherapy, and reaching the inner child" (p. 7).

After getting used to seeing Maslow's seemingly ubiquitous presence and dismissal in psychology, marketing, management, and organizational behavior books, the student might be surprised to see Maslow missing in human development textbooks (Goldhaber, 2000; Lerner, 2002; Watson, 2002); but may conclude that the almost universal rejection of the rigid pyramid justifies the criticism and shunning of Maslow. That is, unless the student decides to stop relying on secondary sources and actually read Maslow.

A Dynamic-Holistic Theory

Comparing Maslow's writings with the interpretations of textbook writers seems to expose some confusing misinterpretations, the most glaring being that the pyramid serving as both symbol and target of Maslow's theory does not seem to be Maslow's creation. Scouring Maslow, there appears to be no reference to or drawing of a pyramid to represent his needs theory. Koltko-Revera (2007) confirms that the pyramid "was not something of Maslow’s own devising… What Maslow proposed was a hierarchy—a conceptual entity—that others have represented through concrete metaphors of various types" (para. 2). In other words, criticisms of the rigid hierarchy seem to be justifiable criticisms of other writers' faulty attempts to frame Maslow in a triangular box, but do not seem to be valid representations of Maslow's theory.

Maslow (1987) even seems critical of attempts to represent motivations as "atomistic lists of drives" (p. 7). Rather than a rigid hierarchy, Maslow describes a "dynamic psychology" that recognizes "motivation is constant, never ending, fluctuating, and complex" (1987, p. 7), also saying that "people can live at various levels in the motivation hierarchy" (1971, p. 236). Maslow (1987) also warned against representing needs satisfaction through rigid steps, saying people can be simultaneously satisfied in all needs categories. A "more realistic description of the hierarchy would be in terms of decreasing percentages of satisfaction as we go up the hierarchy of prepotency" (p. 26).

Calling his needs theory a "holistic-dynamic" (p. 15) theory of human motivation, Maslow (1987) asserted that human drives dynamically adjust and interact in a hierarchy of prepotency as individuals grow towards self actualization or "full humanness". Maslow illustrates this dynamic hierarchy of prepotency by explaining how one person might be 85% satisfied in physiological needs, 70% satisfied in safety needs, 50% satisfied in love needs, 40% in esteem needs, and 10% in self-actualization needs. Important to emphasize here is that the numbers Maslow used for this illustration were "arbitrary" (p. 28); Maslow is not saying that people are only 10% self actualized, he seems to be illustrating that people have multiple and simultaneous degrees of needs satisfaction. In rejecting rigid lists, Maslow (1987) said that motivational drives are not arranged as "isolated, discrete members"; such rigid lists "imply mutual exclusiveness" where none exists. "It is almost impossible to separate quite clearly and sharply any one drive from any other" because drives are automatically dynamic in nature (p. 8). Given Maslow's example, a more accurate metaphor for Maslow's dynamic-holistic hierarchy of needs might be a dynamically fluctuating bar chart, like the graphic equalizer on a stereo system. Koltko-Rivera (2007) suggests a dynamic wave as a metaphor for Maslow's needs theory, but cautions, "any representation will distort some part of the concept because all metaphors ultimately fail in their representation of the underlying concept; the map is never the territory" (para. 2).

So, why did a rigid pyramid come to represent a holistic-dynamic process? The pyramid appears to be someone's attempt to represent Maslow's use of the word "hierarchy" in a concrete fashion, or perhaps an attempt to represent the relative strength of the lower-order needs, reducing in strength as the individual progresses toward self-actualization. Another possibility is that the triangle is an attempt to represent statistically the population of a third-world country, with most of the population struggling to satisfy basic needs and few able to achieve growth needs. Regardless of the source, authors who use the pyramid to represent Maslow seem to be relying on secondary sources for their understanding of Maslow's theory. Other authors appear to rely only on Maslow's earlier statements of his theory, while ignoring that he continued to develop his theory for three decades until his death in 1970--resulting in contemporary descriptions that are incomplete, inaccurate, and inadequate.

Toward a Fourth Force

Maslow saw Third Force Psychology as transitional; envisioning a Fourth Force, which he called "Transpersonal Psychology" (Maslow, 1968, pp. iii-iv). Transpersonal psychology would integrate states of consciousness tapped by religion into a psychology that integrates the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of the person to transcend the self.

Maslow felt he had contaminated the definition of self-actualization by including elements that belonged in a higher level of human consciousness. To be self-actualized, an individual seeks fulfillment by developing personal potential. While his definition of self-actualization included the human capacity to go beyond self, he recognized that this transcendence was something different from self-actualization. Maslow proposed a "self-transcendence" level to explain how an individual seeks to 1) transcend self to further a cause, like service to others, devotion to an ideal, or unity with divine, and 2) commune beyond the boundaries of self through peak experiences such as mystical, spiritual, and natural experiences (Koltko-Rivera, 2006).

Koltko-Rivera (2006) declares most textbook representations of Maslow are "seriously inadequate" (p. 306), adding that "It is time to change the textbook accounts of Maslow's hierarchy of needs" (p. 313) by including in contemporary accounts Maslow's later work on his holistic-dynamic hierarchy of needs, as shown in Table 1 (p. 303):

In addition to presenting Maslow's full theory by adding Self-Transcendence, the following suggestions might provide a more correct understanding of Maslow's vision: (a) Identify Maslow's needs theory as Maslow's Dynamic-Holistic Hierarchy of Needs Theory, not by simply "hierarchy" or "Maslow's Pyramid"; (b) Discontinue using a pyramid as a metaphor for Maslow's Dynamic-Holistic Hierarchy of Needs Theory and adapt the dynamic bar chart suggested by Maslow (1987) or the dynamic wave suggested by Koltko-Rivera (2007), and; (c) Start considering Maslow's statements on drives and needs being dynamic, holistic, and flexible, rather than the tendency to rely on misinterpretations that condemn the rigidity of a pyramid that Maslow did not seem to use.

Challenges for the Rediscovered Theory

While these suggestions might help correct the "seriously inadequate" (Koltko-Rivera, 2006, p. 306) textbook descriptions of Maslow's theory, they could pose a new problem for Maslow's ideas in the academic and business worlds. Maslow's acknowledgment of the spiritual side of human nature seems to have taken his theory far outside of measurable science and toward unquantifiable mysticism. Adding a spiritual dimension to a theory that academia has already concluded is difficult to validate might cause even more academics to simply ignore Maslow. If self-actualization is challenging to define and measure, how do researchers measure self-transcendence?

Donaldson (1996) suggests that the lack of empirical support for dynamic processes may be due to simplistic analytical models, not the processes that the models attempt to measure. In addressing critics who argued that contingency theories could not be validated with research, Donaldson integrated divergent contingency theories to develop a model for analyzing dynamic processes in organizational environments. Using his model, Donaldson was able to validate key elements of contingency theory that appeared universal among 87 organizations in five countries. This is not to say that Donaldson's model can be used to verify Maslow's dynamic holistic theory, but to suggest that the lack of empirical support may say more about the measurement than it does about the process being measured.


Regardless of challenges in traditional academics, Maslow's ideas seem to be reemerging as his Fourth Force psychology gains momentum. Philosopher Ken Wilber (2000) lists Maslow as a key visionary force guiding Integral Psychology, and declares that Maslow continues to be a heavy influence behind both Third Force and Fourth Force psychologies, as follows:

Maslow's work fell into temporary disrepute… when an extreme postmodernism, dominating both academia and the counterculture, which made all forms of holarchy subservient to what certainly seemed to be a form of flatland dogmatism. But as the world awakens from that reductionism, Maslow's pioneering works are there to greet all who would genuinely embrace a more integral and holarchical view (p. 84).

Offering a philosophy that attempts to integrate religion, mysticism, science, and psychology to present an integral model of human development and consciousness, Wilber is speaking outside of mainstream academia using a script usually followed by religious visionaries, but his approach is gaining degrees of mainstream acceptance. For example, Fielding Graduate Institute now offers graduate degrees in Integral Psychology, using Wilber's philosophy as its foundation. The Transpersonal Psychology Institute, partially founded by Maslow, also attempts to address questions of academic credibility by putting a scientific and academic wrapping on spirituality and wisdom (ITP, 2007).


In conclusion, a pioneer of humanistic psychology in the 20th century, Maslow remains influential and controversial. Humanistic and integral philosophers praise Maslow for being the father of third force and fourth force psychology. Maslow's dynamic-holistic needs theory provides an intuitive framework for understanding the dynamic and flexible nature of human motivation and needs, helps marketers match product strategies to customer needs, helps organizations meet employee needs with individualized benefits programs, and serves as the foundation for more extensive motivation theories. Contributions aside, contextualists and academics tend to deride or ignore Maslow for his unyielding optimism in the human being; however, seem to base most of their criticisms by branding Maslow's theories too rigid to reflect reality, resulting in criticism and censure of Maslow's ideas in both science and academia.

Discarding seemingly fallacious interpretations like the ubiquitous pyramid and restoring Maslow's fully evolved theory may provide a more accurate perspective of Maslow's vision—and a more accurate picture of human development and consciousness. This reemergence is taking place outside of academia and science as Maslow's ideas continue to serve as the foundation of both Third Force and Fourth Force psychology. However, this reemergence adds a mystical dimension to the accepted version of Maslow's theory that may prove challenging for academic and business applications.

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