Maslow’s Imaginary Pyramid: Who really invented the pyramid?

The biggest losers, we suggest, have been management students

This was the takeaway of three researchers who dug into the history of the invention of Maslow’s pyramid. We’ll get to that story but first let’s take a look at what has become one of the most sacred ideas in the management world, Maslow’s pyramid:

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology

The conventional way of thinking about the pyramid is a series of steps that you progress through with the goal of eventually spending more time focusing on self-actualizing. It is often used when thinking about what motivates people at work and thinking about how to improve culture to drive more productive employees.

The problem? The pyramid is an interpretation of Maslow’s research from the 1940s which he spent the next thirty years second-guessing and adding more nuance. By the end of his life, his investigations were well beyond any sort of neat and tidy pyramid that I had trouble trying to even describe and understand what Maslow thought about human motivation at all.

Let’s dive in.

A hierarchy, but not a pyramid

Maslow’s early research, presented in A Theory of Human Motivation (1943) presents something that feels familiar to someone who has seen the pyramid:

  • The ‘physiological’ needs: The bodily drives for homeostasis included warmth, coolness, and hunger
  • Safety Needs: Protection from danger and harm such as crime, violence, wars, etc… Some experience this as a lack of money as well.
  • Love Needs: People have the desire to belong and be part of something
  • Esteem Needs: The desire to be respected by others and by yourself
  • Self-Actualization Needs: People that have satisfied their other needs and can spend time fulfilling their “potential”

In writing about self-actualization, this is where he says that being self-actualization is about meeting the other basic needs first but then goes on to share that he doesn’t really know much about how this is done:

The clear emergence of these needs rests upon prior satisfaction of the physiological, safety, love and esteem needs. We shall call people who are satisfied in these needs, basically satisfied people, and it is from these that we may expect the fullest (and healthiest) creativeness. Since, in our society, basically satisfied people are the exception, we do not know much about self-actualization, either experimentally or clinically. It remains a challenging problem for research.

This is the question that would shape his future research.

Maslow’s research quickly evolved beyond the basic “hierarchy of needs”

He moved even further away from a clear upward trajectory and embraced more nuance around human needs. He thought that for most people, the natural state was that many people were satisfied and dissatisfied at the same time:

In actual fact, most members of our society, who are normal, are partially satisfied in all their basic needs and partially unsatisfied in all their basic needs at the same time. 

Kyle Kowalski has a great deep dive on all of this and details what an updated pyramid of Maslow’s pyramid should actually look like:

Sloww Transcendence Maslow Hierarchy of Needs

In Motivation and Personality, he outlines his research on the people who are actually thriving in life. He called “Peakers”

Peakers seem also to live in the realm of Being, of poetry; esthetics; symbols; transcendence; “religion” of the mystical, personal noninstitutional sort and of end-experiences.

He differentiated these peakers from non-peaking self-actualizers, which seemed to be what we might call a highly effective “normie” today. He described these people as tending “to be practical, effective people, mesomorphs living in the world and doing very well in it.”

Here is his prediction in 1954:

My prediction is that this will turn out to be one of the crucial characterological “class differences,” crucial especially for social life because it looks as though the “merely healthy” non-peaking self- actualizers seem likely to be the social world improvers, the politicians, the workers in society, the reformers, the crusaders, whereas the transcending peakers are more apt to write the poetry, the music, the philosophies, and the religions.

Perhaps this is why so many people who seem to be so successful still feel like something is missing?

D-Psychology & B-Psychology

In the late 1950’s he started to see that certain kinds of people (the peakers) were living in a different reality from everyone else. He became obsessed with people who were able to spend a lot of time achieving what he came to call “full-humanness” or more simply, people that were in states of being unmotivated by their deficiencies.

He started to see the field of psychology as two domains – b-psychology and d-psychology. One with a focus on being and a focus on deficiency. He felt that psychology, especially as it increased its use of data, was too focused on what people lacked and wished the field would embrace more of the mystical and unknown side of life.

I think Maslow would be pleased to see how broadly those terms like “being” have been embraced and more awareness of eastern practices that emphasize states of being but likely a bit disappointed by the field of psychology and its continued obsessions with experimental data.

By the time Maslow wrote Towards a Psychology of Being in 1968, Maslow had all but abandoned the rigid hierarchy of his basic needs from 20+ years earlier and started to add dashes to almost everything using the b- and d- to signify that he was talking about two different perspectives of psychology – being and deficiency.

This is also when his ideas become a bit hard to follow. We’ll get to that but first…

Wait, So Where Did The Pyramid Come From and What Did Maslow Think?

Todd Bridgman, Stephen Cummings, and John Ballard wrote a fascinating paper trying to find out where the pyramid came from.

What they found was that the pyramid emerged in a number of steps of other people’s interpretations of the pyramid. The first was Douglas McGregor of Theory X and Y fame who found Maslow’s ideas useful for his writings on human relations.

This was the jump from the psychology world in Waltham, MA to the business world down the road in Cambridge, MA. However, the first use of anything resembling a pyramid was in Keith Davis’ writing on human management. Here is the first time the hierarchy was visualized:

From there it showed up three years later in an article titled How Money Motivates Men by a “consulting psychologist” named Charles McDermid writing in Business Horizons:

What was the takeaway of the article? That you could use this pyramid and the theories of Maslow to meet employee’s needs through means other than money:

For management the important conclusion to be drawn from the whole theory is that no one incentive is the only answer to motivating men on the job. Money is powerful, but its power is limited. Aiding group activities, creating opportunities, recognizing worth, encouraging growth, and fostering individual expression can also promote employee effort, in some cases more effectively than money.

All of you underpaid startup employees have this guy to thank!

Maslow’s Big Question & Meandering Ideas

Abraham Maslow's Life and Legacy

It’s worth pausing here before going deeper into Maslow’s ideas to reflect on Maslow the person.

In his later writing, I have the dual sense of thinking he is a genius and a bit off his rocker. He shifts between the deep truth of a poet and a more tenuous grip on reality reminiscent of a new age seeker who just watched The Secret.

This starts to make sense if you read his writing on how he was thinking about the stakes of the day. This is from 1968, two years before his death:

We are now in the middle of such a change in the conception of man’s capacities, potentialities and goals. A new vision is emerging of the possibilities of man and of his destiny, and its implications are many, not only for our conceptions of education, but also for science, politics, literature, economics, religion, and even our conceptions of the non-human world.

There’s no question that Maslow found something to work on that mattered to him but it seems he may have been frustrated by the rest of his profession not approaching it with the same sense of urgency and you can see in his writings later in life that he had a flurry of ideas that never quite connected.

Yet as his orientation shifted toward thinking about being and transcendence, why was he so willing to go along with an older 1943 version of his thinking?

It seems that his own love and belonging needs were lacking.

As Bridgeman writes:

By the time the (hierarchy of needs) was beginning to be celebrated by McGregor, Davis, McDermid and others aspects of Maslow’s professional life were unraveling. He felt underappreciated in psychology, whose journals 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. Maslow found personal and professional redemption in his acceptance in the management community and financial gain through speaking engagements and consulting. He welcomed the new field showing an interest in his ideas and offering the potential for personal benefit.

The rest of the exploration is quite harsh on the pyramid and attempts to understand how a theory that Maslow didn’t fully accept came to be adopted almost completely in the business world. They argue it is one of the most viral memes in the business world:

But Maslow’s (hierachy of needs) may be the only management theory that has “gone viral” and become a meme, and it is doubtful that this would have happened if it did not comepackaged in a pyramid with five clear categorical levels.

The lesson for the business world? Make it pretty, worry about facts later.

Later Research: D-Needs and The B-Realm

Despite the emergent popularity of the pyramid in management thinking, Maslow’s remained dedicated to the evolution of his thinking.

His later research still referenced needs but in a much more complex way than his simple hierarchy published in 1943. He defined them as d-needs or deficiency-needs. These are the things we are motivated to solve so we do not feel lacking – lack of safety, lack of love, lack of food, and so on. These are the closest things to his early hierarchy.

The other side of that was b-needs which are about our desire to grow, to become, or to embody certain human values. He called these b-values or being values:

B-Values: wholeness, perfection, completion, justice, aliveness, richness, simplicity, beauty, goodness, uniqueness, effortlessness playfulness, truth, self-sufficiency

This list likely gives us a glimpse of why he was so frustrated with his field of psychology. All of these concepts are so deeply human that it requires a much different orientation towards life to appreciate and accept them and what I mean is a mostly non-academic, non-scientific orientation towards life.

It seems he had more in common in his day with his contemporaries Ram Dass and Alan Watts and his description of what he called the b-realm might have had more uptake in the emerging “turn-on, tune-in, drop-out” late 60s crowd:

“Deals with ends; with end-states, end-experiences (intrinsic satisfactions and en­joyments); with persons insofar as they are ends-in-themselves (sacred, unique, non-comparable, equally valuable with every other person rather than as instruments or means to ends)”

It’s sad then, that Maslow passed in 1970. You can imagine the excitement he may have found trying to make sense of the human potential movement and having a bit more time to come up with something as coherent as the pyramid.

Despite his writings being a bit all over the place, I got the sense in revisiting his major works this week that Maslow really just wanted people to see how beautiful life was, despite his own struggles with that own journey.

So I might propose a simple framework for his later ideas. Not as catchy as the pyramid, but simply two bubbles of two different worlds:

Maslow doesn’t give a lot of prescriptions for how to move from the d-realm to the b-realm but talked a lot about having an attitude that the b-realm was possible.

That’s what I try to show above. That despite most of us spending almost all our time trying to satisfy our d-needs – acquiring more things, attention, approval, or money – we are missing the fact that there is a b-realm close by that offers a different and more interesting lens on life.

A world where we can just “B”

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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