Maslow Didn’t Create the Pyramid

The popular hierarchy of needs is incorrect and inaccurate

Andy Chan
Andy Chan
Jan 21 · 4 min read
Photo by Su San Lee on Unsplash

In 1943, the paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” was published in Psychological Review. A ripple of effects came after that lasted throughout time and its impact can be seen across multiple industries. Abraham Maslow, the author of the paper, proposed a theory named the “Hierarchy of Needs”, cementing his name in the world of human psychology.

Maslow’s theory was not entirely unique; there were other human development models that were designed to explain a human’s innate desire. Instead, he classified humans in a way that reflected the universal needs of society at its base, then proceeding to more acquired emotions.

In 1954, the theory was further expounded in his book Motivation and Personality.

Today, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often represented with a pyramid, insinuating that humans are meant to achieve the highest level. It is a popular model to explain human behavior and psychology, hence being present in many marketing and management studies across the globe. Millions of students have came across it, and millions more have brought into the workforce.

However, the pyramid was not created by Maslow, nor is it accurate and complete.

Todd Bridgman and Stephen Cummings, both management professors at the Victoria University of Wellington, were aware of one thing: the popularized pyramid did not appear in Maslow’s most well-known works. They sought out retired professor John Ballard, who previously taught at Mount St. Joseph University. Collectively, they believed that Maslow’s theory is being misrepresented, even though management studies are still citing the pyramid for the past two decades.

They criticized the pyramid: it was an incorrect representation of human needs. One does not need to be 100% satisfied at a lower-level before we proceed to the next. Yet, the pyramid perpetuates this idea, which is connected to the pioneer behind Theory X and Theory Y: Douglas McGregor.

A management professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Douglas McGregor was a key figure in the business and management world. When Maslow published his hierarchy of needs, McGregor saw the opportunity to apply it in the management world.

Although McGregor did not create any pyramid, he failed to consider many nuances and qualifications that Maslow described in his 1943 paper. This persisted when Keith Davis, who authored a management book in 1957, illustrated the theory as a right-angled triangle leading to a peak.

However, Davis’s visual representation did not catch on.

In 1960, Charles McDermid, a consulting psychologist at Humber, published an essay that saw the pyramid we know today took off. In his article, “How money motivates men”, he argued that the pyramid can be used to generate maximum motivation at the lowest cost.

Since then, the pyramid’s popularity skyrocketed.

Investigative work revealed that there were no pyramids existing in any of Maslow’s works, which includes his memos, letters, papers, personal diaries and pre-1960 textbooks discussing Maslow.

Yet, the pyramid is always associated with Maslow, dubbed the “Maslow’s Pyramid”.

The Maslow’s Pyramid is a cause for concern for the three authors: humans don’t function that way. Instead of a pyramid, the authors recommended a ladder. On a ladder, our hands and legs are on different rungs, which can describe us being simultaneously being affected by different needs.

Further research also found that the popular hierarchy of needs model we see is inaccurate.

Photo by Jason Wong on Unsplash

To truly understand Maslow’s theory, we need to understand that, with time, theories also need to adapt. What many studies and books left out is the connection between self-actualization and self-transcendence: a concept that focuses on ourselves being more than ourselves.

In fact, Maslow was actually working on expounding self-transcendence as a follow-up to his hierarchy of needs, before his death in 1970.

Essentially, you cannot view self-actualization just by looking at its parts.

There are multiple parts that contribute to your self-actualization (you can even find out your score) depending on your goal. For instance, if you were to focus on transcending your ego, then self-actualization would be working towards that.

The misrepresentation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a problem that persists in society. Textbooks and studies often include theories written by authors that ignored the nuances and qualifications of prior studies, which means imparting incomplete knowledge to aspiring and existing professionals. While Maslow’s theory still holds firm today, it is a reminder to prudent and curious about any theory we are taught about, rather than preach about a pyramid that spoke nothing about human nature.

Andy Chan

Written by

Andy Chan

Founder of Human+Business & the H+B Digest | Leadership Consultant | Content Marketer & Writer | Ex-Startup Co-Founder

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