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Maslow’s… pyramid, ladder or tipi? A muddled model takes me deeper

When I was first exposed to Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” I was immediately drawn to it as a compelling model for understanding the universality of human nature, and often use it in workshops around Inclusive Leadership. For all its simplicity it was deceptively powerful; after all, no one else had come up with this simple idea up till Maslow’s 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation” (or so I thought) and it helped to explain so much of how needs interfere and magnify each other.

The model helped me keep perspective. For instance, it helped me understand why wealthy, privileged people sometimes give up that privilege and work or live with poor and oppressed communities. Admirable as it is, there is a self-interested component here (and legitimately so) in that self-actualization or self- transcendence is a powerful motive. What’s even more impressive, are those individuals who have always lived in poverty or oppression and seek self-transcendence despite many of their more basic needs for security and sustenance being constantly frustrated. The model gave me insight, but it also clued me in to a human complexity that seemed to contradict the model’s simple levels…

Implicitly I knew the model is not a strict hierarchy with discreet levels – all good models imply the weakness of their own reductive view. But I was gratified to discover that even Maslow never thought of his model in the pyramid shape. You can read more about that here in Andy Chan’s excellent blog.

Maslow thought of the hierarchy more like a ladder – still hierarchical but with rungs that are gripped at different levels by the same individual climbing it so that my feet might be looking for purchase on the security rung while my hands are groping for self-esteem. Again, a deceptively simple metaphor that keeps me pondering.

Let’s take it further: instead of a pyramid or a ladder what if the model is a tipi? Professor Cindy Blackstock, of MGill University and other indigenous scholars contend that Maslow borrowed heavily from the First Nation Blackfoot people of Alberta after he spent time with them in 1938. In the thinking of Blackfoot culture, self-actualization is not at the top of the hierarchy but at the bottom! To transcend yourself is the only genuine way to have all your needs met, because you cannot live on your own – to belong is fundamental and to belong one must be more than just an individual. You can read more about that here.

So, did Maslow steal the idea? Or did he not give sufficient credit to those who inspired his idea? Or did subsequent scholarship ignore Blackfoot culture as irrelevant to the theory? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I think it’s worth pondering. And I think it’s safe to say that the contribution of indigenous knowledge to our modern understanding of human nature is grossly misrepresented, misunderstood or just plain ignored.

At the very least, it is clear and becoming clearer just how much of our history has been edited to exclude the voices of BIPOC people and it’s undoubtedly a factor in the theories of personality we come to take for granted over decades of scholarship.

As Steve Taylor points out, English kids don’t get taught the history of brutal oppression in Ireland. Similarly, Canadian kids weren’t taught the history of kidnapping and cultural genocide of the residential school system until very recently and the US still doesn’t teach the reversals of civil rights after reconstruction and into Jim Crow. And what about our democratic values? Western notions of democracy are more dependent on the democratic philosophy of the Iroquois Confederacy than on the warped Greek version. (cf. “Original Influences” by Steve Taylor in Psychology Today 2019 - on Maslow’s influences and editing history)

Like Maslow’s model, history is a model too and we should treat it with the same healthy skepticism we apply to anything that tries to simplify reality. A history or a model is a point of view and useful only in context: the things we leave out of our stories and explanations are even more illuminating than the things we include.

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