Maslow Revisited. Part One: Hierarchy of Needs.

“How many steps are in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?”

Short answer: NONE

Today, almost 50 years after Maslow’s death, everyone seems to be interested in his theory. Almost all of us remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: an image of a multicolored pyramid will instantly pop up in our brain but without much further details. So here are the details for you.

Long answer: It is not a pyramid. There are no steps: It is an infinite continuity.

It will come as a surprise to many that Maslow never used the pyramid to illustrate his theory. And this misconception is only the tip – of the pyramid, I mean, of the iceberg. There are many fallacies and confusions around his theory. The number of “steps” is just one of them.

To understand the actual continual nature of Maslow’s model and assuming that you are familiar with the popular concept of “Maslow’s pyramid,” let’s look at it this way. If you zoom in on its first level – physiological needs – you may decide to add granularity there.

There Are No Steps. And No Pyramid.

Consider this. A human being can survive without water for about 2-3 days, without food – for 2-3 weeks, but without air, you won’t last longer than a few minutes. However, neither Maslow nor his successors would get into these details because total physical deficiency is not a realistic situation for our society. When we “climb up” the hierarchy, the lower levels become fuzzier, and we tend to paint them in very broad strokes. At the same time, the approaching levels become more granular when we get closer to them.

It is possible that, had he not left us almost exactly 50 years ago, Maslow would have added more details to his hierarchy. Indeed, in addition to the original levels suggested in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation,” he mentioned cognitive and aesthetic needs (Motivation and personality, 1954) and finally, self-transcendence (1970). However, self-transcendence is an experience, a state, but hardly a step or a stage, and as such, it was also suggested by Viktor Frankl in the late 1960s.

Thinking ahead, I would suggest that the process of collapsing the lower, achieved needs and splitting the higher, growing needs into more levels will continue forever. If you prefer to stick with the pyramid model, imagine this process as perpetual zooming in into the higher-level needs, creating more and more “steps” as we progress.

“How to Reach Self-Actualization?”

Maslow refused to answer the “how-to” question. If you meet people who have declared themselves “self-actualized,” you may be certain that they do not understand what they are talking about, and it is worth mentioning that the top of the hierarchy, self-transcendence, is never achieved. Still, several decades later, the question remains surprisingly popular – check it on Google. It is only rivaled, perhaps, by “How to lose weight” questions.

“That tends to be a lifelong effort. It should not be confused with the Thursday evening turn-on that many youngsters think of as the path to transcendence.”

According to Maslow, “That tends to be a lifelong effort. It should not be confused with the Thursday evening turn-on that many youngsters think of as the path to transcendence.”

Sorry if now, without the steps, you will find it more difficult to climb up the pyramid. Keep climbing, regardless of whether you see it as a pyramid or as a goat path to excellence! And if you’ve read the article this far, you should be able to get there in this lifetime.

One of our contemporary psychologists, Shalom Schwartz, has come up with his Basic Human Values theory in the 1980s. It may sound different, but Maslow used “values” and “needs” interchangeably, and Schwartz references Maslow in his writings. Together, these two models were used as the foundation for the Q7 Culture Compass by Collectiver. If you want to learn more about the motivational role of needs and values, subscribe to our newsletter and visit this blog again.

More about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs is Not a Pyramid. So What?

Maslow Revisited, Part II: Circumplex of Values

Maslow Revisited, Part III: Aligned Basic Values