Maslow Got It Wrong

By Teju Ravilochan

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.

Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash. The tipi symbolizes the Blackfoot view Maslow borrowed from: each pole requires every other to stand.
The traditional interpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is that humans need to fulfill their needs at one level before we can advance to higher levels.

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

This is a slide from a presentation by Cindy Blackstock, a member of the Gitksan First Nation and University of Alberta Professor, shared in Karen Lincoln Michel’s blog. She describes Maslow’s theory as “a rip off of the Blackfoot nation.”
  1. Belonging. After we’re born, imbued with a divine purpose, the tribe is there to love and care for us.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

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%.

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.

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).

We help turn your neighborhood into your safety net.

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