Saturday, October 30, 2010

Revisiting Maslow's Pyramid

Aldous Huxley's point was that while Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it can not serve truth very well. Life's issues are often so complex that they need nuanced, detailed understanding. Executive Summaries are often too reductive, too naive, and our reliance on those often lead to lack of false understanding.

Maslow's model, I shall argue, is one of those neat, well argued models which may lead to wrong conclusions. For the uninitiated, Maslow's model is insightful, breaking down human needs in five neat blocks - Physiological Needs, Safety Needs, Social Needs, Esteem Needs and Need for Self-Actualization - stacked up in a pyramid shape. Everything about it is useful and understandable: The categories seem clear and distinct, there is a philosophical implication of a man's journey to be a better individual and stages are quite clear. It is one simple model which tells a lot.

The model was deservedly successful, becoming gospel truth among managers of men and marketers. The policy makers at national and regional levels, across the world, considered Maslow's pyramid and knew where to throw the tax dollars. And, even futurists looked at Western societies climbing the pyramid and knew what will appeal to the population tomorrow - aesthetics of design and philanthropy, for example.

However, the model may not be entirely as comfortable for those stuck in 'Maslow's Basement'. Should one must postpone the quest of self-actualization if materially one is stuck at the bottom level? Is there no dignity in poverty? Is it correct to assume that if one does not have anything to eat, one can't care for others or does not think what others will think of him?

Maslow's model is quite neat, but neatness is its problem. I agree the Pyramid shape looks neat, but this has a quantitative implication of some sort: Does this mean that less people actually reach the level of self-actualization, or that our needs (types of) at that level are more limited than at the physiological level? The hierarchy is troubling, because that must mean an one way journey - up - but what if my self-actualization is embedded in my social needs?

This is possibly the biggest criticism of Maslow's model, that it is too ethnocentric, made for the Americans. In some more collectivist cultures (as Hofstede would call them) being accepted socially would be a somewhat higher aim than being successful. Besides, the continuous wonderment of my British friends regarding the system of 'arranged marriage' shows how a model like Maslow's can seriously impede understanding of human development rather than facilitate it. I know of many couples living a perfectly happy life after the arranged marriage, and they are quite intelligent, educated people. It is just that their esteem and social needs were regarded somewhat highly than their needs for self-actualization, and hence, they found love and happiness through adjustment with their parents' wishes rather than being obsessed with their own choices.

However, we are still deeply seduced by the charm and ease of Maslow's model and it continues to dominate our thinking. The world remains a more chaotic place, and kids today seem to be skipping the 'safety need' phase altogether: Many, we call them 'nerds', are starting from self-actualization and in the process, changing the world.

In short, Maslow did indeed present an useful theory which has served its purpose. But, theories are always embedded in its time: So was Maslow, embedded in the age of social engineering and idealism, when the American dream was still fresh and undaunted. Sixty odd years on, in the middle of another great economic crisis, we are at an inflection point of human history, where all assumptions must be rethought again. Maslow remains important, but no longer the gospel truth that we must embed in all our thinking.


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