Abraham Maslow never used a pyramid
Abraham Maslow never used a pyramid to illustrate the interplay of human needs. Nor has he ever suggested that those needs become prominent only in this specific strict sequence, with none of them becoming dominant until lower levels of needs have been achieved.
Like generations of humanists before him, Maslow attempted to construct a psychological value system that would be derived from man’s nature; the pyramid made of distinct stacked layers was not a good representation of his thinking. In fact, Maslow expressly advised about “the false impression that a need must be satisfied 100 percent before the next need emerges.”
In later years, Maslow came up with yet another level of human needs. Possibly, it was not the final, or the highest one, either, and the number of levels may become infinite as we ascend them (read more in Part 1).
A more appropriate – although not familiar to the general public – representation of Maslow’s model was suggested in a 1962 social psychology textbook. The pyramid image was already gaining popularity by that time, but the textbook presented the needs (or “wants” as the authors preferred calling them) and their interplay as a sequence of overlaying curves, each curve representing the importance of a given need to the person at a given stage of development.
Both representations are still missing one detail that is usually overlooked by all Maslow’s popularizers. If, as a result of deprivation, an individual has to descend from the achieved level of basic needs, he will not get to the same “step” as before. The lower-level need(s) may become dominant again, but the structure of personal needs (or the values set) will change, and the person will not abandon the desire to move back to the previously achieved higher level of psychological development, and beyond. This fact alone makes either model insufficient to explain human motivation and its evolution.
The Circumplex Model
In the late 1980s, Shalom Schwartz, a social psychologist and researcher, has come up with the Basic Human Values theory. “Human Values” may sound like another perspective, but in fact it is not. Maslow used “values” and “needs” interchangeably, and Schwartz references Maslow’s work in his research. (Going into more details about values vs. needs is beyond the scope of this article.)
According to Schwartz, all human values can be rolled up into ten motivationally distinct, or basic, values that individuals in all cultures recognize. The ten basic values are interrelated in such a way that they form a circular structure (a.k.a. circumplex). Later on (after 2000), Schwarz added some more top-level values to his model, almost doubling their number. Like Maslow before him, Schwartz would distinguish more “shades of grey” having zoomed in on the original values. Although additional granularity was expected to improve the overall picture, the original “rolled-up” needs (Maslow) and distinct basic values (Schwartz) are more practical and applicable.
Different as the two theories may sound, they share quite a few commonalities. Both theories are providing an answer to the question “What makes people do the things they do?” and they both provide the same answer: their values and needs – which are essentially the same thing.
Another prominent parallel: Schwartz’s notion of self-transcendence was very close to Maslow’s. However, Self-Transcendence is the topmost, practically unachievable level, a state of being in Maslow’s model, while Schwartz uses self-transcendence as a higher-level dimension into which several values roll up.
Here is how the two models look in their original representation. Although the pyramid has never been used by Maslow, it helps visualize his Hierarchy of Needs theory (and that’s why the pyramid is so widely popular):
Putting the Two Models Together
Researching Maslow and Schwartz for over a decade brought me to the conclusion that the two theories are closely related. So close indeed that the two models merge seamlessly. Consider this. Maslow’s first four needs, basic (Physical and Safety) and psychological (Belongingness and Esteem) are very close to Schwartz’s values of Universalism, Benevolence, Tradition, Conformity, Security, and Power.
You may argue semantics here, but the meaning behind the terminology introduced by the two great scholars is very close. Universalism includes appreciation of all people and nature. Benevolence, i.e. preservation of welfare of people around you, may sound like a purely social value, but it reflects the need for safety (within the tribe). Tradition and Conformity are rooted in the need for safety as well.
Those Safety-related needs are followed by Security and Power values, followed by Achievement. The more we move clockwise on Schwartz’s model or upwards on Maslow’s hierarchy, the more needs become better perceived as values. In his hierarchy, Maslow referred to the D-needs at the bottom and B-values at the top. Achievement is very close to Esteem needs in Maslow’s model. From there, through Hedonism, we get to Stimulation and Self-direction – truly “higher” values corresponding to Maslow’s Self-Actualization – and bringing us to the Self-Transcendence level according to Schwartz (and looping back in Universalism on the next level; more about it in Part 3).
Readers already familiar with Schwartz’s theory may express a concern that the logical sequence of values and needs are not exactly the same in the two models. And that’s quite possible! But once again, this is semantics, and Schwartz mentioned to me that he was no longer sure where exactly Hedonism should fit in his model.
Like Maslow, who would not see his hierarchy of needs as a stacked multicolored pyramid, Schwartz has never presented his model as a steady sequence of values arranged, for a change, in a multicolored pie chart. Instead, he determined that individuals and groups have reasonably stable sets of values; priorities assigned to those values differ but all values are present at all times. That, again, is quite in line with Maslow’s explanation that “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.”
This progress through needs and values can be traced for individuals, nations, and arguably, for the entire humankind. Various background variables affect value priorities, like personal and global events (e.g.: climate change), but in general, values remain rather stable on the individual as well as on the societal level.
Right now, we may be witnessing an unprecedented shift in human values caused by the COVID-19 crisis. However, the pandemic may have just disclosed the true values of many individuals and our society in general.
Whether you want to understand the COVID-19 ripple effect on humankind, or you are keen on figuring out the culture of your organizations in order to understand whether it will attract or turn away new team members – the Circumplex of Human Values model will offer you some great insights.
More about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: