Who Created Maslow’s Iconic Pyramid?

by Scott Barry Kaufman, April 29, 2019 in Blog
No, not this one.

Abraham Maslow’s iconic pyramid of needs is one of the most famous images in the history of management studies. At the base of the pyramid are physiological needs, and at the top is self-actualization, the full realization of one’s unique potential. Along the way are the needs for safety, belonging, love, and esteem.

However, many people may not realize that during the last few years of his life Maslow believed self-transcendence, not self-actualization, was the pinnacle of human needs. What’s more, it’s difficult to find any evidence that he ever actually represented his theory as a pyramid. On the contrary, it’s clear from his writings that he did not view his hierarchy of needs like a video game– as though you reach one level and then unlock the next level, never again returning to the “lower” levels. He made it quite clear that we are always going back and forth in the hierarchy, and we can target multiple needs at the same time.

If Maslow never built his iconic pyramid, who did? In a recent paper, Todd Bridgman, Stephen Cummings, and John Ballard trace the true origins of the pyramid in management textbooks, and lay out the implications for the amplification of Maslow’s theory, and for management studies in general. In the following Q & A, I chat with the authors of that paper about their detective work.

Why did you set out to answer the question: Who built “Maslow’s Pyramid”?

My colleague Stephen Cummings and I have long been interested in how foundational ideas of our field, management studies, are represented in textbooks. Textbooks often present ideas very differently than in the original writings. We’re interested in understanding how and why this happens. We’ve taught Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for many years and were aware the pyramid did not appear in his most well-known works, so were interested in delving deeper. We contacted John Ballard, who knew Maslow’s work better than we did and who shared our concern about Maslow’s theory being misrepresented. Thankfully, he agreed to join us on the project.

Do you think the popularity of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is due in part to the iconic appeal of the pyramid that became associated with it?

Yes, absolutely. Maslow wasn’t the first psychologist to develop a theory of human needs. Walter Langer presented a theory with physical, social and egoistic needs that appeared alongside Maslow’s in an early management textbook. And Maslow’s theory generally hasn’t performed well in empirical studies (although I’m aware of your recent research which challenges this). In fact, this lack of empirical support is one of the main criticisms of the theory made by textbook authors. So why do they continue to include it? The pyramid. We know from having taught management courses for 20 years that if there’s one thing that students remember from an introductory course in management, it’s the pyramid. It’s intuitively appealing, easy to remember and looks great in PowerPoint. Students love it and because of that, so do textbooks authors, teachers, and publishers.

So what’s your problem with the pyramid?

It’s described as ‘Maslow’s pyramid’ when he did not create it and it’s just not a good representation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It perpetuates unfair criticisms of the theory. For example, that people are only motivated to satisfy one need at a time, that a need must be 100% satisfied before a higher-level need kicks in, and that a satisfied need no longer affects behavior. Another is the view that everyone has the same needs arranged and activated in the same order. In his 1943 article in Psychological Review Maslow anticipates these criticisms and says they would give a false impression of his theory. Maslow believed that people have partially satisfied needs and partially unsatisfied needs at the same time, that a lower level need may be only partially met before a higher-level need emerges, and that the order in which needs emerge is not fixed.

How did this inaccurate interpretation of the hierarchy of needs become established in management textbooks?

It’s a complicated story and one we address fully in the paper. Douglas McGregor is a key figure, because he popularized Maslow within the business community. McGregor saw the potential for the hierarchy of needs to be applied by managers, but for ease of translation he deliberately ignored many of the nuances and qualifications that Maslow had articulated. To cut a long story short, McGregor’s simplified version is the theory that appears in management textbooks today, and most criticisms of Maslow’s theory are critiques of McGregor’s interpretation of Maslow.

Did McGregor create the pyramid? Or if not, who did?

No pyramid appears in McGregor’s writing. Keith Davis wrote a widely-used management textbook in 1957 that illustrated the theory in the form of a series of steps in a right-angled triangle leading to a peak. The top level shows a suited executive raising a flag, reminiscent of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. But this representation of the theory did not catch on.

We traced the pyramid that we associate with the hierarchy of needs today to Charles McDermid, a consulting psychologist. It appeared in his 1960 article in Business Horizons ‘How money motivates men’ in which he argued the pyramid can be applied to generate “maximum motivation at the lowest cost”. We think McDermid’s pyramid was inspired by Davis’ representation, but it was McDermid’s image that took off. If there is an earlier pyramid, we did not find it.

Is it right that you actually found no trace of Maslow framing his ideas in pyramid form? Where did you look, and how comprehensive was your search?

That’s correct. It was a comprehensive search. Maslow was a prolific writer. We examined all of his published books and articles that we could identify, as well as his personal diaries, which are published. John immersed himself in the Maslow archives at the Centre for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron in Ohio and examined many boxes of papers, letters, memos, and so forth. We found no trace of the pyramid in any of Maslow’s writings. Additionally, John went through pre1960 psychology textbooks for any discussions of Maslow. Most psych books in those times did not even mention Maslow.

Why didn’t Maslow argue against the Pyramid once he saw it? He could have criticized it, right? I heard from someone who knew Maslow that he actually thought the pyramid on the back of the $1 bill was a fair representation of his theory. Also, one of his students who took his course at Brooklyn College told me he would include a slide of the pyramid when he described his theory in class. So perhaps he was pleased with the iconic pyramid even if he didn’t invent the depiction himself?

Those are interesting questions. Maslow lived for 10 years after McDermid presented the pyramid. We found no evidence of Maslow challenging the pyramid at any time. We don’t think that’s because he regarded pyramid as an accurate representation. A more plausible explanation, which comes from our analysis of his personal diaries, is that aspects of his professional life were unravelling. He felt underappreciated in psychology. The major research journals in psychology had been taken over by experimental studies, which depressed Maslow for their lack of creativity and insight. He also had more pragmatic concerns, suffering periods of ill health and financial difficulties. Key figures in the management community saw him as a guru and rolled out the red carpet. They gave him the recognition he felt he deserved. Furthermore, through speaking engagements and consulting, he could generate additional income. Seen in that light, it’s not surprising he went along with it.

Some people have argued that Maslow based his pyramid on the tipi of First Nations people the Blackfoot, following a summer he spent with the tribe in 1938. What do you think of this theory?

The claim that Maslow stole the idea for his pyramid from the Blackfoot has gained attention on social media, but if Maslow did not create the pyramid, he could not have taken it from the Blackfoot. There is no doubt that Maslow’s fieldwork with the Blackfoot were insightful for him. He discussed his observations with the Blackfoot briefly in his 1954 book. Maslow’s biographer, Ed Hoffman, devoted an entire chapter to Maslow’s fieldwork. While Maslow learned much about these proud people, there is nothing in these writings to suggest he borrowed or stole ideas for his hierarchy of needs.

Where do we go next? Are you calling for the pyramid to be dropped in new editions of management textbooks?

We are recommending, as some have before us, that a ladder is a better visual representation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The pyramid is shown with horizontal lines demarcating the different levels. This makes it difficult to imagine a person simultaneously being affected by different needs. When one is on a ladder, multiple rungs are occupied by the feet and hands. Other rungs may be leaned on as well. Also, a ladder does a better job of conveying Maslow’s idea that people can move up and down the hierarchy. Prominent management historian Daniel Wren described Maslow’s theory as a ladder of needs in early editions of his book The Evolution of Management Thought. That description eventually dropped out, but we believe removing the pyramid from management textbooks and replacing it with a ladder would be a step forward. Dan Wren has been in touch with us since the paper was published and agrees.

You wrote: “Inspiring the study of management and its relationship to creativity and the pursuit of the common good would be a much more empowering legacy to Maslow than a simplistic, 5-step, one-way pyramid.” I agree! It seems like Maslow’s original thinking about self-actualization is at odds with how business leaders treated the concept, right?

Definitely. Following the publication of Motivation and Personality in 1954, Maslow emerged as one of the few established psychologists to challenge the prevailing conformism of the 1950s. He spoke out on how large organizations and social conformity stifled individual self-expression. At times he was frustrated that the business community treated his theory of human nature as a means to a financial end–short-term profits–rather than the end which he saw, a more enlightened citizenry and society. It would be great if students were encouraged to read what Maslow in the original. Students would better understand that motivating employees to be more productive at work was not the end that Maslow desired for the hierarchy of needs. He was concerned with creativity, freedom of expression, personal growth and fulfillment – issues that remain as relevant today in thinking about work, organizations, and our lives as they were in Maslow’s time. We think there’s an opportunity to create a new Maslow for management studies by returning to Maslow’s original ideas.

Maslow never offered an elitist conceptualization of self-actualization, right? My reading is that he argued that everyone is capable of self-actualizing, but are blocked by deficiencies in our most basic needs.

Well that depends. Most of his life and in his writings Maslow was very clear that every newborn had the potential to eventually be self-actualized, given the right environment. But he felt very few people truly reached their potential, a belief that grew stronger over the years. In his final years he wondered if there might be a genetic component that favors self-actualization in some more than others. He mused about the possibility of a “biological elite’, people with a higher probability of becoming self-actualized. To our knowledge he never developed this idea. This was probably a reaction to meeting too few people whom he would consider self-actualized.

What is the right environment?

Maslow had preconditions for his need hierarchy to work. This is frequently overlooked. Freedom to speak, to express one’s self, to live in societies with fairness and justice, these are some of his preconditions. Censorship, dishonesty, inability to pursue truth and wisdom work against us. Even still, he acknowledged there are exceptions where people rise above their circumstances.

You argue that management textbooks could do a better job of representing the past, more generally. What are some other big textbook misrepresentations as you see it?

Were they alive today, our field’s founders such as Adam Smith, Max Weber, Kurt Lewin and even Douglas McGregor himself would have difficulty recognizing the ways in which their ideas are presented in textbooks. In A New History of Management by Stephen Cummings, John Hassard, Michael Rowlinson, and me we try to address some of those misinterpretations. But the problem goes beyond the misrepresentation of ideas. We are also interested in examining people and ideas usually excluded from management textbooks. We need to more closely examine the contributions of women, contributions from non-Western cultures, contributions from people of different ethnicities.

What are the broader implications of your research for management education?

We hope our research generates debate about what has come to be regarded as the foundations of management studies and how those foundations are taught to students. We advocate a critical-historical approach which involves seeing ‘history’ as a subjective narrative of past events that is shaped by the perspectives and values of those who write these narratives. Management studies has had long-standing ideological commitments to free-market capitalism and managerial hierarchies. It’s a legitimate perspective but one that has been overly dominant. Recognizing this opens the possibility of creating new histories of management from different perspectives – of different places, times, people and ideas. This would both provide students with a richer understanding of our field but could also help them generate genuinely novel ways of thinking about managing and organizing.


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