Maslow’s Pyramid Is a Marketing Lie

1960s-era consultants mistranslated a valuable lesson for growth

Scott Barry Kaufman
Forge
Published in
6 min readMay 13, 2020

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Illustration: Laurie Rollitt

Chances are you’re familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a pyramid with self-actualization depicted at the top. You likely learned about it in your Introduction to Psychology course in college or saw it diagrammed on Facebook. As it’s typically presented, the hierarchy indicates that humans are motivated by increasingly “higher” levels of needs. The basic needs — physical health, safety, belonging, and esteem — must be satisfied to a certain degree before we can fully self-actualize, becoming all that we are capable of becoming.

The familiar pyramid shape suggests that once we complete each step, we’re done dealing with that need forever. As if life were a video game, and once we complete each level, we unlock the next, with no looking back. It’s an appealing concept. It’s also a gross misrepresentation of the humanistic vision that propelled Maslow’s work.

In fact, Maslow never actually created a pyramid to represent the “hierarchy of needs.”

Some modern-day writers have interpreted Maslow’s notion of self-actualization as individualistic and selfish. That was by design — but not Maslow’s. Todd Bridgman, a management professor at Victoria University of Wellington, recently concluded that Maslow’s pyramid originated not from the groundbreaking psychologist, but a management consultant in the 1960s. This pyramid iteration became popular in the emerging field of organizational behavior. Bridgman and his colleagues note that the pyramid resonated with the “prevailing [postwar] ideologies of individualism, nationalism, and capitalism in America and justified a growing managerialism in bureaucratic (i.e., layered triangular) formats.”

Unfortunately, the reproduction of the pyramid in management textbooks had the consequence of reducing Maslow’s rich and nuanced intellectual contributions to a parody. The pyramid actually betrays the true spirit of Maslow’s notion of self-actualization as realizing one’s creative potential for humanitarian ends. As Bridgman and his colleagues noted, “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…

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Scott Barry Kaufman
Forge
Writer for

Humanistic psychologist exploring the depths of human potential | New book: Transcend (April 7, 2020) | Host @psychpodcast | Columnist @sciam | #neurodiversity