Is Maslow relevant today??

Article by Dr. Pratik P. SURANA Ph.D.

ACTP and EQi 2.0 certified practitioner
Chief Mentor and Founder,


Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.

― Aristotle, Politics

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is one of the most popular models in leadership writing. Developed in 1948, the hierarchy of needs is pervasive across many disciplines, including business, management, marketing, parenting technology, education and psychology.

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.

A fascinating article by Pamela Rutledge in Psychology Today entitled “Social Networks: What Maslow Misses” (November 2011) points out that Maslow’s model misses the role of social connection.

Maslow’s model, as its name suggests, organizes groups of human needs into levels in a hierarchical structure, forming a pyramid. It’s similar in some senses to video games in that you have to fulfil the requirements of one set of needs before you can get to the next level up.

Maslow’s model is hierarchical. The human brain at the base is driven by a basic instinct to survive with food drink and shelter. The second level is made up of the safety needs. The third level in Maslow’s model comprises the social needs like family, affection, relationships, work groups, and community. The fourth level comprises the ego-centric needs of achievement, responsibility, and reputation. And finally, at the top is self-actualization, personal growth and fulfilment

The function of these needs is not that of maintaining a homoeostasis equilibrium. Once you feel it, you will feel it always. These needs concern the continuous desire to fulfil human potentials, to “be all that you can be.” They are a matter of becoming the most complete, the fullest, “you” – hence the term, self-actualisation. For the manifestation of the need of self-actualisation the lower needs have to be satisfied, at least to some extent.
Maslow suggested that about 2 % of the human society can be called self-actualisers.

He researched the biography of different people (historical ones – like Abraham Lincoln and Benedict Spinoza and his contemporaries like Aldous Huxley and Schweitzer) whom he meant to be self-actualisers, to see what characteristics they developed.

He found that these people had the following characteristics:

These people were reality-centered, which means they could differentiate what is fake and dishonest from what is real and genuine.

They were problem-centered, meaning they treated life痴 difficulties as problems demanding solutions, not as personal troubles to be railed at or surrendered to. And they had a different perception of means and ends. They felt that the ends don稚 necessarily justify the means, that the means could be ends themselves, and that the means — the journey — was often more important than the ends.

The self-actualizers also had a different way of relating to others. First, they enjoyed solitude, and were comfortable being alone. They enjoyed deeper personal relations with a few close friends and family members, rather than more shallow relationships with many people.

They enjoyed autonomy, a relative independence from physical and social needs. And they resisted enculturation, that is, they were not susceptible to social pressure to be 努ell adjusted・ or to 吐it in・ — they were, in fact, nonconformists in the best sense.

They had an unhostile sense of humour — preferring to joke at their own expense, or at the human condition, and never directing their humour at others. They had a quality he called acceptance of self and others, by which he meant that these people would be more likely to take you as you are.

Maslow calls the being needs also driving needs.
Further, they had a sense of humility and respect towards others — something Maslow also called democratic values — meaning that they were open to ethnic and individual variety, even treasuring it. They had a quality Maslow called human kinship or Gemeinschaftsgef・l — social interest, compassion, humanity. And this was accompanied by strong ethics, which were spiritual but seldom conventionally religious in nature.

And these people had a certain freshness of appreciation, an ability to see things, even ordinary things, with wonder. Along with this comes their ability to be creative, inventive, and original. And, finally, these people tended to have more peak experiences than the average person. A peak experience Maslow calls, which takes you out of yourself, that makes you feel very tiny, or very large, to some extent one with life or nature or God. It gives you a feeling of being a part of the infinite and the eternal. These experiences tend to leave their mark on a person, change them for the better, and many people actively seek them out. They are also called mystical experiences, and are an important part of many religious and philosophical traditions.

In my opinion, the work of Maslow is also very valuable, because by considering and studying human needs , and the so-called higher needs in particular, he – unlike Freud – tried to say something about the healthy state of the human existence.

Developmental Level of Analysis

Maslow’s hierarchical theory of needs assumed that an individual’s priorities shifted from lower to higher in the hierarchy as a person matured. In this section, we examine the notion of developmental priority in light of life-history theory. Several important points arise from this consideration: (a) there is broad biological support for the idea that motivational priorities change with development; (b) in species like humans, early developing life-history goals continue to operate alongside those that develop later in life; (c) life-history priorities involve necessary trade-offs in the allocation of effort to survival, growth, and reproduction; and (d) reproduction is the ultimate goal of such trade-offs, but successful reproduction involves multiple goals. These considerations suggest the addition of three sets of later-developing goals to the traditional hierarchy: mate acquisition, mate retention, and parental care. Life-history theory also suggests that there are likely to be important individual differences in motivational priorities—some linked to gender and others linked to within-sex variations in strategies emerging from interactions with the developmental environment.

Life-History Theory

Biological theorists have developed a powerful set of ideas called life-history theory that have profound implications for the developmental sequencing of human motivation. The field of life-history evolution explores how each animal’s life cycle—from conception to death—is shaped by natural selection to facilitate reproductive success . A life history is a genetically organized developmental plan—a set of general strategies and specific tactics by which an organism allocates energy to survival, growth, and reproduction.

Life-history researchers ask questions such as “Why do some organisms have longer or shorter periods of bodily development preceding reproduction?”, “Once mature, does an organism devote all its resources to one short reproductive burst, or does it spread its reproductive efforts over several episodes spanning months or years?”, and “Does the organism allocate resources to caring for its offspring after they are born, and if so, how much care should be invested before leaving the offspring to fend for themselves?” Life-history models assume that resources are always limited and that development involves trade-offs in when and how to allocate those scarce resources. What constitutes a favourable or unfavourable trade-off depends on a dynamic interaction of environmental pressures (current threats and opportunities), inherited predispositions (useful traits and constraint traits the animal inherited), and the animal’s current stage of development.

Life histories are commonly divided into two broad categories: somatic effort and reproductive effort (Alexander, 1987). Somatic effort is the energy expended to build the body. It is analogous to making investments to build a larger bank account. Reproductive effort is analogous to spending that bank account in ways that will replicate the individual’s genes. Reproductive effort can be further divided into mating, parental care, and investment in other relatives (Alexander, 1987). Investment in other relatives is considered reproductive effort because grandchildren, siblings, nieces, nephews, or cousins share common genes.

The Life-History Developmental Hierarchy

The key life-history tasks can be arranged into a simple developmental hierarchy. Somatic efforts form the necessary developmental base required before mating efforts can unfold, and parenting efforts build on the base of earlier somatic and mating efforts. In any species reproducing more than once, these goal systems do not replace one another. For example, adult mammals divide current resources between somatic effort (eating, drinking, and protecting themselves), attracting and keeping mates, and caring for offspring. Given that resources are inherently finite, time and energy invested in one activity must be taken from others. For example, more mating effort means fewer resources available for parenting.

Animals show an amazing array of life-history patterns. One species of tenrec (a small mammal found in Madagascar) reaches sexual maturity 40 days after birth. Elephants, on the other hand, take 100 times that long to reach sexual maturity. Why don’t all animals start reproducing as soon as possible and have as many offspring as possible? The answer is that the goal is the successful production of viable offspring, which may not follow from the production of as many offspring as possible as quickly as possible. The optimal investment of reproductive effort depends on the features of a particular species and the particular ecological constraints faced by that species. For large mammals like elephants, females are not physically able to produce and nurture offspring until they are several years old. And for elephants, as for any species providing parental care, having too many offspring too soon decreases the chances that any will survive (Lack, Gibb, & Owen, 1957).

Humans are closer to elephants than to tenrecs in our developmental life histories. Humans do not sexually mature for over a decade, during which individuals not only develop physically but also learn social skills that enable them to form networks of friends and establish social positions within those networks. After a variable period of mating effort, humans typically dedicate a great deal of energy to parenting, caring for slow-maturing large-brained offspring that in ancestral times did not thrive well without resources from both mothers and fathers (Geary, 1998). While human offspring mature, they, like elephants, often continue to receive care and resources from grandparents and other relatives (Laham et al., 2005; Sear, Steele, McGregor, & Mace, 2002). These life-history considerations are depicted by the addition of three separate motivational systems to Maslow’s hierarchy: mate acquisition, mate retention, and parenting . Survival and social goals, on this view, provide the foundation for acquiring mates. Acquiring mates provides a foundation for forming a long-term bond, which in turn under girds the goal of producing and successfully raising offspring.

Life History and Individual Differences

Biologists have noted three key sources of motivationally relevant individual differences across a wide range of animal species. First, across many species, it is common for males and females to differ in how they allocate resources to somatic development and reproductive effort. Second, not all members of one sex adopt the same strategy; there are often systematic individual differences within a sex linked to different mating strategies. Third, those differences in mating strategies are often systematically linked to ecological factors, and many of the same ecological factors (e.g., sex ratio, mortality levels, distribution of resources) are important across species.

Between-sex variations

Many sex differences are linked to the general biological principle of differential parental investment. Both within and between species, animals that invest more in their offspring tend to be more selective about choosing mates. Within mammals, there is a natural division in parental investment because females gestate the young within their bodies (for almost 2 years in the case of elephants, for the better part of a year in the case of humans), and then nurse them afterwards (often for several years). Thus, females have a higher minimal obligatory parental investment than do males. Males could, in theory, contribute little more than sperm to the offspring, which is the typical pattern for more than 90% of mammalian species. This difference in parental investment is linked in turn to differences in sexual selection, with female mammals tending to be more selective in choosing mates, generally picking males who have established their superiority by dominating other males or who exhibit traits suggesting relatively greater health and development.

Male investment varies across species. To the extent that male investment in offspring increases, the degree of sexual dimorphism is reduced (as in many bird species, in which both parents devote effort to nest-building and offspring care). In rare cases, a male actually invests more resources in the offspring than does the female, as in the case of bird species such as phalaropes—a type of sandpiper in which the female leaves the male to tend the eggs while she searches for another mating opportunity. Sex differences in morphology and behaviour tend to reverse for such species, as would be expected, given the tenets of parental investment theory.

It is common to state that Maslow, among Eric Fromm, Viktor Frankl, Erik Erickson – belongs to the “third force” of psychology. The third force of psychology is the so-called humanistic psychology.

But he also proposed to develop the “fourth force” of psychology, which should mainly concentrate on the transcendental experiences.

In the following you will find a short quotation from the second chapter (Dichotomized Science and Dichotomized Religion) of Maslow’s book: “Religions,Values and Peak-experiences”:

“My thesis is, in general, that new developments in psychology are forcing a profound change in our philosophy of science, a change so extensive that we may be able to accept the basic religious questions as a proper part of the jurisdiction of science, once science is broadened and redefined.
It is because both science and religion have been too narrowly conceived, and have been too exclusively dichotomized and separated from each other, that they have been seen to be two mutually exclusive worlds. To put it briefly, this separation permitted nineteenth-century science to become too exclusively mechanistic, too positivist, too reductionistic, too desperately attempting to be value-free. It mistakenly conceived of itself as having nothing to say about ends or ultimate values or spiritual values. This is the same as saying that these ends are entirely outside the range of natural human knowledge, that they can never be known in a conformable, validated way, in a way that could satisfy intelligent men, as facts satisfy them.

Such an attitude dooms science to be nothing more than technology, amoral and non-ethical  . Such a science can be no more than a collection of instrumentalities, methods, techniques, nothing but a tool to be used by any man, good or evil, and for any ends, good or evil . This dichotomising of knowledge and values has also anthologized the organized religions by cutting them off from facts, from knowledge, from science, even to the point of often making them the enemies of scientific knowledge. In effect, it tempts them to say that they have nothing more to learn.

But something is happening now to both science and religion, at least to their more intelligent and sophisticated representatives. These changes make possible a very different attitude by the less narrow scientist toward the religious questions, at least to the naturalistic, humanistic, religious questions. It might be said that this is simply one more instance of what has happened so often in the past, i.e., of snatching away another territory from the jurisdiction of organized religion.

Just as each science was once a part of the body of organized religion but then broke away to become independent, so also it can be said that the same thing may now be happening to the problems of values, ethics, spirituality, morals. They are being taken away from the exclusive jurisdiction of the institutionalized churches and are becoming the “property,” so to speak, of a new type of humanistic scientist who is vigorously denying the old claim of the established religions to be the sole arbiters of all questions of faith and morals.

This relation between religion and science could be stated in such a dichotomous, competitive way, but I think I can show that it need not be, and that the person who is deeply religious—in a particular sense that 1 shall discuss—must rather feel strengthened and encouraged by the prospect that his value questions may he more firmly answered than ever before. Sooner or later, we shall have to redefine both religion and science.   The word “sacred” is another instance of the pathologizing by isolation and by splitting-off. If the sacred becomes the exclusive jurisdiction of a priesthood, and if its supposed validity rests only upon supernatural foundations, then, in effect, it is taken out of the world of nature and of human nature. It is dichotomised
sharply from the profane or secular and begins to have nothing to do with them, or even becomes their contradictory. It becomes associated with particular rites and ceremonies, with a particular day of the week, with a particular building, with a particular language, even with a particular musical instrument or certain foods. It does not infuse all of life but becomes compartmentalized.   And this brings us to the other half of the dichotomy, dichotomised science. Whatever we may say about split-off religion is very similar or complementary to what we may say of split-off science. For instance, in the division of the ideal and the actual, dichotomised science claims that it deals only with the actual and the existent and that it has nothing to do with the ideal, that is to say, with the ends, the goals, the purposes of life, i.e., with end-values.”

In reviews of research based on Maslow’s theory, little evidence has been found for the ranking of needs that Maslow described, or even for the existence of a definite hierarchy at all.

“Here’s the problem with Maslow’s hierarchy,” explains Rutledge.   “None of these needs — starting with basic survival on up — are possible without social connection and collaboration…. Without collaboration, there is no survival. It was not possible to defeat a Woolley Mammoth, build a secure structure, or care for children while hunting without a team effort.   It’s more true now than then. Our reliance on each other grows as societies became more complex, interconnected, and specialized. Connection is a prerequisite for survival, physically and emotionally.”

“Needs are not hierarchical. Life is messier than that. Needs are, like most other things in nature, an interactive, dynamic system, but they are anchored in our ability to make social connections. Maslow’s model needs rewiring so it matches our brains. Belongingness is the driving force of human behaviour, not a third tier activity. The system of human needs from bottom to top, shelter, safety, sex, leadership, community, competence and trust, are dependent on our ability to connect with others. Belonging to a community provides the sense of security and agency that makes our brains happy and helps keep us safe.”

In some ways, life hasn’t changed our fundamental human natures. Whether it’s the ancient Savannah or today’s Face book and Twitter, social behaviours adapt to the environment to support that most basic of human needs. Social connection is ever-present.

What social media has done is make it infinitely easier for the social connection to take place. And today’s young people entering the workplace, who have grown up in this inter-connected world, expect the workplace to reflect that. .

Implications for management

In 20th Century management, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was helpful to a certain extent in pointing out to managers why traditional management–hierarchical bureaucracy with managers acting as controllers of individuals—was unlikely to meet the psychological needs of employees. But it offered an unrealistic route to meeting those needs: ascension up the hierarchy of needs towards self-actualization. The truth is that not everyone wants or needs or is able to be a self-actualizing artist or leader.



  1. Using Maslow s theory as a lens, the question, Will the team miss you when you re gone? becomes more relevant than just an ego-stoking dilemma.

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