Educational Theory

Maslow’s Hierarchies On Trial: Useful Framework, Outdated Hogwash, or Something In-Between?

Photo by ptyczech from VectorStock

If you’ve taken an introductory psychology, sociology, education, or likely many other liberal arts courses, it’s likely you’ve heard Abraham Maslow’s name with an accompanying graphic of his pyramid (updated from its inception in 1948).

The premise of the pyramid is relatively simple: in order to learn and reach higher levels of complex thought (ie: creativity, abstract thought, and the ever-nebulous concept of self-actualization), more basic needs (such as hunger, sleep, human connection, and safety) need to be met. As the theory’s title suggests, these needs are hierarchical. That is, those at the bottom of the pyramid (namely psychological and safety needs) must be satisfied fully in order for a person to feel love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization.

I first learned the theory in Psychology 101 in 2005. In my experience, as a white, middle class woman having lived in the Midwest of United States for my life’s entirety, the theory checked out for me. Can I be wholly creative and woke when hungry? Inconceivable. Am I more prone to consider my morality when I know I’ve got supportive friends and family with whom to discuss my personal philosophies and values? Totes.

Indeed, at age 18, this all made perfect sense and checked out with my world view at the time. I continued on my merry way through a bachelor’s degree, and a Master’s of Education, smiling and nodding through every mention of Maslow and his pyramid. I would diligently jot a note down here or there about self-actualization, never thinking too critically one way or the other about it.

Recently, however, I came across a series of resources shared by teacher researcher, master educator, and PhD candidate Christina Costa, one of which challenged Maslow’s theory.

Wait, thought Sara-of-now-mid-30s , it might not be real!? How embarrassing, my lack of critical reflection! Ok, blah-blah, let’s move on from my complacency. After the seed was planted that Maslow’s theory may not be true, I went on a quest of my own. My chief wonders were as follows:

  • Why might Maslow’s theory be flawed?
  • Who might Maslow’s theory be serving and more importantly, NOT serving?
  • What are alternative theories put forth (or do we need any?)?

And my quest began. Some articles wasted no time with niceties and went straight to the heart with criticism, most notably a 2012 article published in Forbes online (which, to be fair, was half earnest criticism and half book promotion; take the harshness with a grain of salt):

Simple, orderly, intuitively sensible, cognitively appealing and  offering order out of chaos, the hierarchy of needs has only one problem: it is plain, flat, dead wrong.

Steve denning (“What maslow missed“) on Forbes

Denning, drawing on the criticisms put forth by psychologist Pamela Rudlege, argues that Maslow’s principle error is the hierarchy, particularly as it undermines the essentiality of human connection in favour of basic needs (hunger, sleep, warmth, etc.). Consistently, modern research in the field of psychology has yielded no significant evidence that supports Maslow’s theory, particularly its hierarchical nature. While the individual elements of a healthy, functioning human indeed include all of the put forth by Maslow, however, the order of importance proves to be much more complex and interconnected than a mere hierarchy.

Maslow’s rewired theory from Forbes

A range of critical analyses have emerged over the years around the world, particularly as Maslow’s theory relates to educational settings. Chief among these is the ethnocentrism implicit in Maslow’s theory. Maslow’s theory is inherently suited towards individualistic societies, namely North America, with its heavy-handed emphasis on self-actualization as a pinnacle of personal growth. Collectivist cultures, in contrast, have alternative goals more closely aligned with community needs, rather than individual fulfilment, and values not mirrored in Maslow’s proposed hierarchy.

Ok, so, this hierarchy from 1948 is wrong. This matters to teachers because…?

A few reasons.

First, blindly accepting Maslow’s needs confirms and perpetuates an unnecessary and exclusive Western paradigm that just isn’t representative of a classroom’s learners. To continue to assume an exclusively Western, individualistic perspective as the model for all of human development is irresponsible and in some cases, harmful. By assuming this model we cheat our classrooms of the rich, diverse, and wildly unique backgrounds from which our students come.

Might we use Maslow’s theory as a general, non-absolute benchmark of human development guidelines? Sure. Just do so wisely and critically. It is helpful to consider students’ safety, connectedness, hunger, morality, and esteem. However, to decide for our students which is most important which is the most important in their own lives, is irresponsible.

Above all, a critical analysis of Maslow’s theory underlines the absolute importance of being critical learners as educators. We are responsible for our own professional development, and part of this includes investigating and questioning theories, particularly to whom these theories might apply and/or exclude.


What do you think?

  • Is Maslow’s theory still relevant?
  • What are criticisms of Maslow’s theory you’ve heard?
  • What of this theory is still relevant?