The Meme of Maslow’s Mojo

I mentioned noting that Maslow seemed to becoming rehabilitated by the Positive Psychology school. And following some recent links starting here with Matt May, I also found this 2007 Chip Conley publication in the “airport bookstall” business management space. There are three sides to the Maslow story.

(1) There is a neat and tidy attraction for the amateur psychologist (and manager) interested in “motivation”, in the simple hierarchy of needs. And I’ll continue to defend its usefulness as such. Pragmatism is not a dirty word.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

But hey, like any easy to assimilate meme, of course the attractive simplicity hides important detail.

(2) Clearly Maslow’s Hierarchy is a huge generalization. Differences between individuals are lost. Differences between different “classes” of individual are lost. And it’s all too easy to read it as prescriptive in terms of rigid hierarchical logic, whereas it’s actually a useful framework for guidance. And, he of course never actually presented it as a simple hierarchy – if ever there was “just a theory”, this is it. Clearly it was written from a “professional class” perspective – in the same way as history is written by the “winners”. Clearly, not every individual needs to satisfy all of one level before responding to needs in a higher level. Clearly, different individuals may demand quite different material resources to satisfy any given need, and much of that individual value model is cultural, even mythological. There is also the clear “hygiene” effect – that lower levels once comfortably satisficed, cease to play any part in ongoing motivation – they simply become risks to be avoided (in fact for me, this has been the primary point of the hierarchy). But the general ordering of priorities holds pretty true. Other professional psychologists have attempted to analyse the needs into many distinct drivers of human individuals. Reiss’ 16 basic desires have been much cited as a more accurate model of motivators – though I have to say they suffer the same risk of prescriptive generalization and anyway, it’s easy to re-group them in ways that reduce to Maslow (if reductionism is your game). Professional psychologists, like fundamental physicists hopefully, will argue over the details for more centuries yet. Hence the need for pragmatism – how does it work for you ?

(3) But the real need for rehabilitation comes from another direction. The slippery slope(s). One is the “professional class” perspective, and another is the “holistic” angle of an umbrella across both material / objective drivers and the more subjective / spiritual aspects of well-being. And in fact historically these two slippery slopes have run into each other in fascist extremes of elitism. The cultural and holistic angle draws on eastern mystical viewpoints to balance the objective scientism – Maslow included, and many a reputable philosopher before him, such as William James. Peak experiences and the subjective experiential aspects of self-actualization – being all you can be. The professional class elitism is also inescapable – some classes of people know better – Maslow himself wrote on this, extreme views that became public only posthumously. Such extreme views that some have associated him with eugenics and the like, though he never signed-up to any specific initiatives so far as I can tell. Try getting into a well-informed rational debate about that. Two exchanges and Hitler and Stalin are the topic on the table. Game over.

[Aside – if not obvious – I myself espouse elitism – reacting against the popular democracy cry surrounding so many complex moral issues. Crowds are not (necessarily) the wisest arbiters. I myself also espouse mystical mythologies beyond objective scientism. Science is not (necessarily) the best answer to every question.]

So. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is OK.
Use with caution, within the limits of any simple generalization.
And if you value elitist or mystical models of wisdom, beware the (obvious) slippery slopes. Individuals are special (not generalizations). Being wise, you probably already knew that ? Personally, I believe people who hold purely rational-objective (scientistic) value-models are actually the ones who need to do the most bewaring. Either way – beware.

[PS – Chris Locke (aka Kat Herding, aka Mystic Bourgeosie) I have a lot of time for in his exposing the “Numinous Lunacy & Sanctimonius Narcisism” of what he calls “New Age ++”. For me “he doth protest too much” but he is a good counter-balance to those who fall hook-line-&-sinker for the mystical holistic alternatives to common sense. After all it was he that co-wrote way back in the ClueTrain Manifesto:

No.29 – Elvis said it best:
“We Can’t Go On Together,
With Suspicious Minds”

Trust is the top level of the W3C architecture. Nuff said.]

[Post Note : In checking up the state of play with Maslow starting with the links mentioned, I Googled around naturally, coming across many sources I’ve used before both enthusiastic and sceptical. The little essay by Lynne Shandley of Virtual Accident , Australia, was as succinct and unbiased summary as I’ve seen, with the three key links within it to take your interest further. These guys are practitioners in safety training.]

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