Is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Out of Date?

Megan McArdle of The Atlantic posted Finding What You Are Looking For, a column about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. She writes,

One of the things I find most wearying about writing about economics is the extent to which people attempt to hijack economics to "scientifically prove" that their value judgments about things like the proper size and role of government are 100% factually correct--as if there were some way to empirically validate the correct marginal tax rate for people making over $100,000 a year.  
But even when you're careful, it's distressingly easy to find what you expect. The result is a history of science developing models that used "scientific evidence" to bolster the social hierarchy of the day.  We think that phrenology and 19th century racialism are obviously preposterous--but they clearly weren't, because some very smart people believed them, and were not conscious that they were simply confirming their own prejudices.

McArdle points to a post by Keith Humphries criticizing Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a way to validate the social hierarchy of his day.   The Wikipedia entry on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs describes is research.

Maslow studied what he called exemplary people such as Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass rather than mentally ill or neurotic people, writing that "the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy." Maslow also studied the healthiest 1% of the college student population.

Is it too far a stretch to imagine that Maslow counted himself within this social cohort, or at least desired to be seen as one with them?  All this reminds me of reading a leading contemporary theologian's reconstruction of the life of Jesus. After reading it, I realized that what the author had done is projected his own personality and value system onto Jesus, so that they were virtually twins separated in time.

I am a product of a 20th social science / liberal arts education. I'm also fully aware that there is a world of difference between the laws of physics and the laws of economics or sociology. It was from this perspective that I posted to my Twitter feed that end up on my Facebook page the comment in reference to McArdle's post, "Partly why I'm a Maslow skeptic." and two friends who asked for my reasons.

Part of my response was,

It is the formulaic nature of it. I don't think it is a linear progression of steps. I don't think it is hierarchical. And even if it was, I don't believe the hierarchy is accurate. I don't think self-actualization is the peak of the pyramid. I see it as a mid-point, and that the social dimension should be higher. In essence, Maslow sets up a social philosophy that the individual is more important than society. It breeds a narcissistic view of life which is inherently unsustainable and socially divisive.

I agree with Humphries when he states,

Psychologists and social scientists generally still venture repeatedly today into the territory of human values and attempt to claim the ability to make objective judgments about which are the most healthy or scientifically validated. They don’t ever seem to learn that they are often just trying to rationalize cultural fashions: In the 1940s the “mentally healthy” person was one who respected tradition, but he morphed into the to-be-pitied “organization man” in the 1950s. Psychologists valorized divorce as the “mentally healthy choice” for those who were not “growing” in the 1970s, whereas today they tend to say that it’s better to stick it out and stop complaining so much. Maybe humility should go at the top of the pyramid of psychological development for psychologists. In a democracy, social scientists and health experts should not cast themselves as able to render objective judgments on how everyone else should live.

I have many friends and colleagues in the psychoanalytic profession who are far more humble and circumspect about what they tell their clients. They are responsible social scientists who are not trying to validate some social bias. They are genuinely caring individuals who, often out of their own healing experience, bring hope and healing to people who are in pain.

One of my real issues is the use of science - yes, I'm a believer in science - for ends that it is not designed to provide. It has become a tool for promoting all kinds of political and social ends that are not really based in science but in a pop philosophy of morality that needs scientific objectivity to prove its validity. 

Does this mean that every scientific statement is subjective or merely relative? No. It means that science cannot objectively prove that Bill Gates is a superior individual to a child with Aspergers. Those measures, like Maslow's, are values based, and as a result are essentially moral codes for determining who is in and who is out in a society.  Because they are values based, they are rooted in cultures that embed those values in norms and rituals.  If you step back an listen you will hear those norms spoken by people. Just turn on the TV news, and what you find are intelligent people doing the same thing that Maslow did, and which McArdle laments.

We need to be humble about our ability to be truly objective. We need to let science be a process of skepticism and discovering, not promotion and social validation. And we need to realize that the challenges of the future were not in view when Maslow created his system.


Brain science and leadership

Read Strategy & Business article - The Neuroscience of Leadership.

Two quick reactions with more a more thoughtful response to come later.

1. I agree that Behaviorism and Humanism has failed.  They failed not because they were not based on brain science, but because its philsophy of human nature was not realistic.  It was an abstract notion applied to human beings.  It goes to show you that you can prove anything with a grant.

2. That the mental side of leadership and organizational behavior is important.  Here's a quote:

How, then, can leaders effectively change their own or other people’s behavior?

Start by leaving problem behaviors in the past; focus on identifying and creating new behaviors.

I clearly see this in my work.  Over time as I continued to conduct planning projects, I realized that I spent too much time trying to resolve old issues.  As a result, we'd just retilled old ground and didn't nourish the soil with new organic matter.  So, I now start with where they are today, and move to where they want to be tomorrow.  And the key to that is being absolutely clear about this. 

The deeper side of this is that focusing on the actions that I need to do now develops character.  It is experiential learning that creates strength.  Breakthroughs in perception come when you directly tie perception to action right now.  If you hold some vague idea about what you are about, then you probably have a difficult time understanding precisely what decision you must make or action to take that moves you forward.

I want to reflect on this some more, and will be back to say more.

Next day ... after rereading this article and reflecting on it overnight here are my take aways.

1.  The most important thing to understand about human personality is the role of freedom and choice. Most leadership and management philosophy over the past century has been focused on what I call the "herding cats" theory.  In essence, people can't be lead so they have to be forced to do what you want them to do.  Hence, autocratic leadership styles become the dominant paradigm of, in particular, corporate leadership philosophy.

If instead of leading by coercion and force, by the failed modernist philosophies of behaviorism and humanism - Yes, failed - you have to lead to inspire or nurture personal initiative.  Personal initiative is the free choice of the individual applied in a specific context for a particular purpose.  At the heart of leadership is this action of initiative.  It takes place in three areas, the arena of ideas through the development of vision statements, marketing approaches, clarification of standards and values.  purpose statements and a clear sense of identity.  The challenge for leaders is working in the arena of ideas and the arena of relationships whereby people desire to take initiative to adopt shared conceptions of the work they are called to do, and to do in communal, shared sense.  The third arena is that of organizational structure that provides the foundation and support for ideas and relationships.

What I see in this article is the affirmation that leaders need to relate to people in such a way that they exercise their own free choice to join in a collaborative effort to acheive a shared vision for impact.  If we view all participants as volunteers, then we begin to understand the nature of human freedom in the context of leadership and organizational development.

2.  Moving knowledge from the working memory to the basal ganglia is the process of learning and mastery of knowledge and skills. This is a core priniciple in the thought of Aristotle.  Excellence in life is a matter of habit, of mastery of a field of knowledge or work, and it appears that brain science affirms this essential truth of ancient wisdom.  If you want to understand more of this from Aristotle's perspecive, pick up a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics.

I now understand why I get intense headaches.  It is because pattern of living is built around inquisitiveness, curiosity, of exploration and learning.  What this suggests is that I need to get more exercise and rest that provide time for making connection between the prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia.  Wow, how cool is that!!!

3.  The section about error messages is fascinating. It reminds me of what Dave Grossman's writes in his On Killing about how military and law enforcement officers in a fire fight can learn to manage their physical reactions.  What I learned from Dave is that by managing our heart rate through controlled breathing, that we keep blood flow to the brain from being constricted.  If fear constricts blood flow, then I suspect that our emotional reactions to "error messages" also constrict that blood flow making it more difficult to think clearly.

4.  "When people solve a problem themselves, the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters like adrenaline.  This phenomenon provides a scientific basis for some of the practice of leadership coaching. Rather than lecturing and providing solutions, effecive coaches ask pertinent questions and support their clients in working out solutions on their own." This is why this blog is called Leading Questions.  It may be all well and good for me to have an opinion and get the ego rush of sharing it.  But it is far more important to ask a question or tell a story that produces an insight that the other person arrives at on their own.  This is a profound insight on behalf to these scientists.  It is validated everyday in my work.  It is why I ask three times the number of questions than I do make declarative statements.  Leading people to make their own conclusions, their own choices, identify their own solutions is what leaders should be doing. And the best will be able to do in such a way that a more unified, more deeply committed group results.

5. Focus on solutions, not problems.  Help people own their choices.  Be clear, focused, action oriented, and the brain will respond appropriately.

6.  Let me also recommend you spend some time reading Ellen Weber's blog Brain-based Business.  She is working with this science daily to help businesses succeed.  I find many very interesting and incredible things to learn there.

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