My Debate with a Maslovian Scholar

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I came across a very interesting question about one of my favorite writers, Abraham Maslow, on the social media site the other day.  The question posted was:

“Is ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’ overused as an answer to questions?”

If you are unfamiliar with who Abraham Maslow is, you are not alone, as more folks than not seemingly are in the dark on him as well.



The Unknown Forefather of the Self Improvement Movement

To my knowledge, Abraham Maslow was the earliest thought leader on the subject of human motivation.  Few would argue that he was way before his time in many significant ways.  Maslow was one of the very first to stress the importance of studying psychological health and positive qualities in people, as opposed to solely examining the negative elements of human psychology.

His basic belief in the “goodness” of human nature fell in stark contrast to many of the conventional viewpoints from his contemporaries of the day, which held a much darker perspective on human behavior. Where Freud focused almost exclusively on the psychologically infirmed and mentally ill, Maslow’s theories were based upon psychological health and the self actualized personality.

Maslow’s theories became etched in my own consciosuness from the moment I first began reading him. In fact, I actually named one of my dogs “Maslow” as a tribute to the great American Psychologist. He remains amongst the top of my most esteemed list of influential American thinkers of all time.

Ultimately Maslow (the person, not my dog) became most well known for his theory of self actualization with his “Hierarchy of Needs” model, which basically outlined how an individual fills innate needs in priority, from the most basic like food and shelter, on up culminating in self actualization.

“You will either step forward into growth or you will step back into safety”

– Abraham Maslow

What is It’s just like Twitter, only smarter.  It’s just like Facebook, only deeper.

Now, if you wonder why I am wasting time surfing a site such as in the first place, you shouldn’t knock it until you try it.  I have interacted with some of the most astoundingly impressive and impressively intelligent on Quora.  The topics span pretty much anything you can dream of ranging from the absolutely absurd to astonishingly complex.

It’s been called Facebook for Nerds or Twitter for people with brains.  To me it’s more like the Q&A site for programmers, but covering any topic imagineable as opposed to just coding.  It is one of my favorite ways to wind down late at night or places to visit when taking a brief break from work.

I love the intellectual challenge, as well as the fact you can truly help folks who are at a loss for answers, sometimes to mission critical business and/or personal e, consider the following true tidbit as it relates to the subject of this post, Abraham Maslow.

More on Maslow …

As I alluded to above, Maslow’s work embedded itself in my mind from the very first page I absorbed over two decades ago and I have tried to read as much more of his writings ever since. notes that “Abraham Harold Maslow (April 1, 1908 – June 8, 1970) was an American psychologist who was best known for creating ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’, a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority, culminating in self-actualization.”

To me, Maslow is no less than a hero for making the distinction between psychological health and mental illness, between human wellness and human illness.  Let’s just say his focus on the positive side of human nature was not only much needed at the time, but also in stark contrast to that of his contemporaries.

Maslow’s overall body of work was arguably an early re-catalyst for the self improvement and positive psychology culture we inhabit today. Indeed the mamouth “self help” industry has it’s share of disingenuous infomercial conmen and get rich quick authors, but there is no arguing the positive influence resulting from a better understanding of psychological health as the basis of self help literature, and the undeniably advantageous impact it has had on the lives of millions of people across the globe.

Fido, Spot or …

If you doubt my fondness for Maslow as a great American Thinker, I reiterate the fact that one of my dogs is named “Maslow”. No, I am not joking. I named my dog Maslow. After spending just a short while with the new little guy upon first bringing him home from the breeder, it took my wife and I all of five minutes to observe he was one of the most “self-actualized” creatures we had ever been around.

I am of course using the term “self-actualization” in the loosest of ways, as a puppy by definition cannot truly be self-actualized.  That said, this dog’s innate playfulness, confidence, independence, ability to love and be loved, ability to positively interact with our other dogs, and his total lack of the usual personality insecurities I see in animals was astounding. It took this puppy all of ten minutes to earn the name Maslow as a symbol and testament to his overall psychological health.

It seems to me that what Maslow (the man, not the dog) may have lacked in terms of scientific proof for his work (cited often by his detractors) was always more than made up for by the sheer uniqueness of what he was saying for the time.  That is, he was way ahead of his peers in even tackling the concepts of positive psychology, motivation and human potential way back as early as the late 1940’s.

As mentioned earlier, it seems all his contemporaries, as well as those that came before him were fixated exclusively on mental illness, the psychologically infirmed and in general much darker aspects of human existence.

There was an inherent cynicism in pre Maslovian psychoanalytic circles that presupposed man at his core was depraved and evil (or at best wanted to have sex with his mother and kill his father).

Maslow was oft quoted, “When you are a carpenter, everything looks like a nail”.  In turn, when you only study psychological sickness , everything will only look ill.  That is, it will be cut from that same dark fabric and painted in that same dark hue.  Maslow’s focus on the rest of human nature, the part which was good and honest, came as a much needed breath of fresh air for those that still believed in the concepts of “living up to your ultimate potential” and “doing good just because”.

“I for one thank him for this and am grateful for his contributions, as he is one of the least recognized forefathers of the modern day positive psychology and human potential movements, which categorically comprise some of my own most dominant modes of thought/worlviews.  That is, they are among the most influential cloths I personally am cut from.”

In regard to the original question, is “Maslow’s Hierarchy Overused?”

I think the answer largely depends on context. By that I mean there is a large segment of our population that is totally unfamiliar with Maslow and his theories. I would say at least four out of five people that meet and learn the name of my dog have no clue who he is named for. Even when I elaborate and try to explain further, most remain clueless.  Similarly, most know very little about what makes up Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” model.

This probably does not say much for the company I keep, but in truth, most all are college educated, are of higher socio-economic status (if that means anything anymore) and maintain both successful careers and lives in general. This ignorance of Maslow’s impact on psychoanalytic theory is in stark contrast to the world of “academics” and/or those in the “psychology” profession where the “Hierarchy” may well not only be overused, but also misused as alluded to by our Maslovian scholar.

Final Thoughts on Maslow and the Hierarchy

To elaborate on earlier comments, I have long contended that Maslow is both one of the most brilliant American Thinkers of all time yet unfortunately also among the least know.  It is a crime in my opinion that more people have not been exposed to or thereby enhanced by his work.

It is in this vein that I differ slightly in my thoughts on the pyramid/triangle concept of his hierarchy as it relates to the original question of it being overused or not, and subsequent discussion on it being misused.

For whatever reason, the pyramid and the hierarchy are forever linked and have by all accounts become the concept for which Maslow is most famous for.  While academics are ready to choke on the overuse of it to explain most any field of thought, it’s hard to imagine how many fewer folks than even today’s lower than acceptable number would have never ventured upon Maslow.

To put it another way, the visual representation of a human behaviour model, if nothing else brought Maslow to the masses by way of simplifying what would otherwise be considered a fairly complex model of psychology.   Without such a well-known theory to his credit, I fear Maslow could, or would, be lost among the most influential psychological theorists in history.  In turn, and as was concluded above, this would limit greatly the amount of people exposed to his many timeless writings, which to me would be a bad thing.

“I can say with great conviction, and for a variety of reasons, that an increase in the number of individuals Maslow touches, the better off we we are across the board.  His basic belief in the “goodness” of human nature and his related theories in support of this tenant increases individual awareness and in my assessment make the world a better place.”

This is not me spewing some idealistic mubo jumbo in hopes of sounding smart either.  I 100% without any reservation and with every last fiber of being believe in not only Maslow’s benevolant message, but in the concept of this world being a better place if it were required learning on some level.

Maslow is good for humanity, period.  Even if said “famous pyramid” is slightly inaccurate and/or overused in unrelated fields of thought.

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