Maslow Got It Wrong
Author’s Note: Readers of this post have pointed out that it contains some inaccuracies, including that Maslow did not himself depict his Hierarchy of Needs as a pyramid (but that this was later done by writers of management textbooks). I’m working on some revisions or a follow-up post to acknowledge and speak to some of these inaccuracies. In the meantime, please know there is more to this discussion that this post currently captures. Thank you to those readers who have offered constructive feedback. You have helped me understand more of the nuances of this story.
Some months ago, I was catching up with my dear friend and board member, Roberto Rivera. As an entrepreneur and community organizer with a doctorate and Lin-Manuel-Miranda-level freestyle abilities, he is a teacher to me in many ways. I was sharing with him that for a long time, I’ve struggled with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
As often happens, Roberto was deeply studied on the subject and revealed to me something I had no idea about: Maslow borrowed and misrepresented Siksika (Blackfoot) teachings without providing due credit for their influence on his developmental model. Roberto sent me a few articles to read, in which I learned that Maslow spent six weeks in the summer of 1938 living with the Siksika Blackfoot near Alberta, Canada. According to Gitksan First Nation member and University of Alberta Professor Cindy Blackstock, Maslow had been “stuck on his developmental theory” before visiting. But he found shape for his ideas in the Blackfoot teachings. Indeed, the Wikipedia article on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shares:
Maslow’s idea emerged and was informed by his work with the Blackfeet Nation through conversations with elders and inspiration from the shape and meaning of the Blackfoot tipi. Maslow’s idea has been criticized for misrepresenting the Blackfoot worldview, which instead places self-actualization as a basis for community-actualization and community-actualization as a basis for cultural perpetuity, the latter of which exists at the top of the tipi in Blackfoot philosophy.
The Blackfoot Tipi
The Blackfoot model describes the inverse of Maslow’s Hierarchy:
- Self-actualization. Where Maslow’s hierarchy ends with self-actualization, the Blackfoot model begins here. In their view, we are each born into the world as a spark of divinity, with a great purpose embedded in us. That means that we arrive on earth self-actualized.
- Belonging. After we’re born, imbued with a divine purpose, the tribe is there to love and care for us.
- Basic Needs & Safety. While in Maslow’s model, we find love and belonging only after attending to our basic needs and safety, the Blackfoot model describes that our tribe or community is the means through which we are fed, housed, clothed, and protected. The tribe knows how to survive on the land and uses that knowledge and skill to care for us.
- Community Actualization. In tending to our basic needs and safety, the tribe equips us to manifest our sacred purpose, designing a model of education that supports us in expressing our gifts. Community actualization describes the Blackfoot goal that each member of the tribe manifest their purpose and have their basic needs met.
- Cultural Perpetuity. Each member of the tribe will one day be gone. So passing on their knowledge of how to achieve community actualization and harmony with the land and other peoples gives rise to an endurance of the Blackfoot way of life, or cultural perpetuity.
Maslow’s Failure to Elevate the Blackfoot Model
To be fair to Maslow, his theory is not based only on the teachings of the Blackfeet. As Dr. Scott Barry Kauffman indicates in his book Transcend, it also draws from Kurt Goldstein’s self-actualization research done; William Sumner’s work on human motivation; the psychological theories of Alfred Adler, Harry Harlow, Karen Horney; and Maslow’s own empirical research. Yet why did he flip the Blackfoot model and not cite it as a key influence in the hierarchy of needs?
One answer might be that Maslow was keenly aware of the differences between the community-oriented Blackfoot and First Nation cultures and the individual-oriented European-American cultures. Maslow’s biographer Edward Hoffman writes:
To most Blackfoot members, wealth was not important in terms of accumulating property and possessions: giving it away was what brought one the true status of prestige and security in the tribe. At the same time, Maslow was shocked by the meanness and racism of the European-Americans who lived nearby. As he wrote, “The more I got to know the whites in the village, who were the worst bunch of creeps and bastards I’d ever run across in my life, the more it got paradoxical.”
The generosity Maslow witnessed among the Blackfeet is quite common among Native cultures and rarer in European-American cultures. The job of Potawatomi leaders, as described in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, was to be a safety net. The Chief would give of their own stores and possessions to help the tribe member return to health or sufficiency. This meant that there was very little inequality in Native cultures. Yet, in our civilization, we allow 1 in 4 households to experience food insecurity, and the richest 0.1% of Americans earn 196x as much as the bottom 90%.
And unlike First Nation peoples and Native Americans, those of us who have more than enough do not generally see it as our role to close the gaps of inequality. As Ken Stern writes in The Atlantic:
In 2011, the wealthiest Americans — those with earnings in the top 20 percent — contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid — those in the bottom 20 percent — donated 3.2 percent of their income. […] Some experts have speculated that the wealthy may be less generous [than other classes] — that the personal drive to accumulate wealth may be inconsistent with the idea of communal support.
Amidst such dynamics, a model that puts forth community as a pathway to meeting basic needs would not make sense. It would also not reconcile with Maslow’s own research examining the path of high achievers in European-American cultures, who pursued self-actualization in individualistic cultural contexts.
Additionally, Maslow may have risked dismissal by elevating the counter-cultural wisdom of Blackfoot. Dr. Richard Katz, author of Indigenous Healing Psychology: Honoring the Wisdom of First Peoples, Harvard professor, and personal friend of Maslow’s, shares a wonderful podcast conversation with Scott Barry Kaufman. He never spoke directly to Maslow about the influence of the Blackfoot model on the Hierarchy of Needs, but postulates that Maslow may have been concerned that citing Indigenous wisdom would diminish the validity of his theory. Most academic and scientific institutions of the United States did not (and unfortunately still do not) view Indigenous ways of knowing as worthy sources in scholarly publications.
Publicly challenging prevailing worldviews is risky business. But because our mainstream institutions often get it wrong, challenges to these worldviews are necessary. Galileo’s defense of the Copernican heliocentric solar system, for example, led to his being labeled a heretic by the Catholic Church and placed under permanent house arrest. While Galileo’s contemporaries did not listen to him, we eventually did, recognizing the true shape of the universe.
Whatever the reason for Maslow’s omission of Blackfoot influence, do we risk as significant a misunderstanding if we don’t now deeply consider their worldview? Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is woven into the fabric of our civilization and into how we repair its weaknesses. Nonprofits, for example, direct their resources to providing food, shelter, and housing. As they should. But how often do they direct their resources to providing belonging and community? Organizations like Community Solutions, who just received MacArthur Foundation’s $100 million grant, have shown that their efforts to place homeless people into housing endure over 85% of the time at least partially because those people build friendships and community with others in their building. Baltimore nonprofit Thread surrounds students at risk of failing out of high school with teams of volunteers who provide them unconditional friendship and support. The intervention leads to a 92% graduation rate among these students who come from communities where the average graduation rate is 6% (you can read more in a previous post).
Amidst staggering structural inequality and a pandemic that is exposing the cracks in our culture, we ignore the teachings of the Blackfoot at our own peril. While Maslow’s contemporaries may not have been willing to listen to them, perhaps we might be now.
Waking Up from Our Dream
In Decolonizing Wealth, Dana Arviso, executive director of the Potlatch Fund and member of the Navajo tribe, tells author Edgar Villanueva about a perspective from Native communities in the Cheyenne River territory when she asked them about poverty reduction strategies:
“They told me they don’t have a word for poverty,” she said. “The closest thing that they had as an explanation for poverty was ‘to be without family.’” Which is basically unheard of. “They were saying it was a foreign concept to them that someone could be just so isolated and so without any sort of a safety net or a family or a sense of kinship that they would be suffering from poverty” (p. 151).
It’s time for us to let go of narratives like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the American Dream, which leave out any mention of participating in community well-being and tell a story only of individual flourishing. This profound distortion of reality and leaves us living in illusion, needing to wake up. As Daniel Suelo says in The Man Who Quit Money, “there’s not a creature or even a particle in the universe that’s self-sufficient. We’re all dependent on everybody else” (p. 133).
Who sewed the clothes you’re wearing right now? How many materials from how many different parts of the world are inside the device you’re reading this post on? How many hands touched the food you ate for lunch on its way to your bowl? How many living beings participated in the creation of your home? Even if you purchased these goods with money you earned, you are not self-sufficient, but relying on a community to care for you. You are living, perhaps, more in alignment with the Blackfoot model than with Maslow’s.
Let this pandemic be our moment to interrupt our old story. There are already encouraging signs about how we’re beginning to embrace previously heretical ideas like reparations, universal basic income in the form of stimulus checks, and mutual aid. Our hope at GatherFor is to be part of this change. This is our moment to step out of our lonely struggle to fend for ourselves, which we protect due to our own internalized oppression and at the cost of our humanity. This is our moment not to create something new, but to return to an ancient way of being, known to the Blackfoot and Indigenous communities around the world. It’s a story that leaves no one without family, a story in which we begin by offering each other belonging, and end by teaching others how we lived: together.
Thank you to Colette Kessler and Vidya Ravilochan for reading drafts of this post and offering suggestions to improve it!
This post was edited on April 22, 2021 (though originally published on April 5, 2021) based on email feedback I received from Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, who thoughtfully pointed out that Maslow relied upon many sources to frame his theory. He also shared his podcast conversation with Dr. Richard Katz, a psychologist keen on honoring Indigenous wisdom and a personal friend of Maslow’s. I updated the post to reflect the nuance that Maslow likely did not intend to steal Blackfeet ideas, but that he may have feared widespread dismissal of his theory if he gave them sufficient credit. While this in itself may constitute appropriation, my goal in this post is to not villainize Maslow but to bring some light to the Blackfoot way of seeing the world. It has inspired my own work with GatherFor, and I hope that inspires the way we build our communities in the future and respond to the needs of those currently experiencing inequality.