Maslow’s Island

I’m starting to publicise my personal campaign to kill that Bloody Pyramid.

You know the one, it’s ubiquitous in management text books and nestled into just about every slide deck of every pedlar of coffee-shop psychobabble. I’m loathed to even show it on my own blog, but I suppose I have to, albeit with a mandatory health warning!

Maslow did not anywhere, not once ever, refer to, or explain, draw, suggest or otherwise infer in any way whatsoever, that human motivation comes in separate bits, proportioned on a triangle or tiered like an elitist Bloody Pyramid.

This is my own minimalist version of that Bloody Pyramid, noting the words in brackets!

A late addition to my musings comes with thanks to Todd Bridgman who pointed me in the direction of his wonderfully reinforcing research on Who Built Maslow’s Bloody Pyramid (I added a word). I’m not guilty of confirmation bias honest, I worked the same thing out through a completely oblique route. I study Representation and having read every bit of Maslow I could find, the visual representation in a pyramid seemed to convey the literal antithesis of Maslow’s sentiments on motivation. He did however, use the word hierarchy a few times and just in case you’ve not read the original article, take a deep breath, Maslow was a psychologist not a storyteller!

The hierarchy is an acknowledgement that some motivations have a deep and enduring effect, while others are more fleeting or delicate. In other words the basic requirements for life take precedence, they are instinctive and vital. Food, water and shelter are needed first, otherwise you’re going to be dead. Safety and security is then pretty important to those who haven’t got any and only then we can pay some attention to not being alone. Once we’re not alone, it’s fabulous to suddenly feel wanted, or even needed and to have something useful to do. Do well and you can stand back occasionally and appreciate your place in the world. In short if you’re thirsty or frightened, it’s bloody hard to concentrate on anything else, but it does not mean that those motivations are somehow beyond you.

Maslow certainly didn’t suggest that particular types of people lack aspiration or that you can’t achieve the fifth without first completely conquering the other four. I know a couple of Street Philosophers, who don’t have much of their own to speak of, but who really appreciate the world and are thankful and content with their place in it. In my place in the world at the moment, Actualisation is simply one step beyond the absence of bullying. That’s another story I’m busy writing up, but it nicely raises the question of what is Actualisation anyway?

Just to set a little context for the lovely Maslow; he was operating prior to the juxtapositional burst of Psychology, Philosophy, Sociology, Anthropology, Economics, Ecology and even Neuroscience that produced the cognitive revolution and led to much of what we now know as Cognitive Science, or Cognitive Complexity. So Maslow, does bang on about a list of traits and behaviours that he observed in people he considered to be self-actualised. At this point, I’d better own up to being a Leaderism Atheist. I don’t believe in the pseudo-religious bullshit, proselytising a certain list of context free beliefs and behaviours as the universal answer to everything. I’ve an inkling that the Bloody Pyramid may be partially responsible for the rise of this nonsense, so let me make it perfectly clear: anyone who truly believes that other people need to be led by them, is delusional not actualised.

However, Maslow was ahead of his time in acknowledging that the motivations were not separate entities but interdependent relationships that could only truly be understood in the context of the whole person. You might even say holistically, although that word is never used.

What we now know is that the connection between these sorts of motivations or behaviours and exhibiting personal agency, is non linear. Two people expressing very similar traits, can be as equally well balanced as the next one is deeply deluded. We are all prone to explain the behaviour of other people by committing a Fundamental Attribution Error. Explaining other people’s behaviour in terms of their inboard traits and underestimating the effect of context. We all do it, because to try and understand the context of every behaviour you encounter, your day would be over before you reached the end of your street. Interestingly, it’s vice versa when reflecting on your own behaviour, especially when the whole universe seems out to get you!

The explanation I like best is that the vital motivations are mostly internal, visceral and selfish, like Richard Dawkins’ Genes. Whereas, when those biological prerequisites don’t occupy your entire day, you can spend some time and energy looking upwards and outwards to share in and with the world you inhabit. However, Actualisation is not necessarily grand or triumphant or attention seeking; it can be personal and small and intimate but reaffirms for me, my own place in the great scheme of things. I see it in moments of humility and admiration, as I witness someone else completely immersed in doing their best (irrespective of the outcome), but most often and obviously for me, it’s raging about something crap, surrounded by laughter. It’s a very personal thing.

In my academic wanderings around how people represent things and ideas, I often stare out the window and sing to myself, while brain gets on with the thinking on her own. I’d like to say that this lazy lack of concentration is a technique, as it undoubtedly throws up some obscure connections between things. For example, Talcott Parsons declared that any living system must first survive, adapt to its environment, integrate, attain its goals and maintain its latent pattern. A few years earlier a bloke called Sid sat under a tree, realised that there are progressive aggregates to life that manifest as form, discrimination, sensation, formulations and consciousness. These two and a load of others including Maslow, are all using different words for the same thing; I thought to myself.


Approaching from different directions and having opposing but equally right perspectives of the same thing, is a sure sign that complexity is present. The amateur phenomenological epistemologist in me (say that three times), consolidates these oblique ideas using the only common root for them all, namely intelligence. So I group the observations into Physical, Social, Emotional, Mental and Moral (words in brackets). Hence this blue thing which now extends to several pages.

Over the years, in my campaign to kill that Bloody Pyramid, I’ve done a few presentations and workshops on the subject and usually wedge in a fair dose of Psychological Flow as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, alongside a wonderful dollop of Carl Rogers and the practice of Unconditional Positive Regard: that is, without exception, seeing and reaffirming to people that it’s perfectly fine to feel and to be, like you are. A great place to start anything.

I try to introduce people to other Representations of Maslow, starting with analogies, telling some stories and occasionally slipping into metaphors, to encourage them to think through the sentiments for themselves and assimilate the lovely ideas in to their own schema, their own stories and their own ways of being in the world. All very hippy I know, but I spent far too much time as the only toddler in early 70s meditation classes! I’m scarred.

I suggest that Maslow’s ideas fit together more like stacking cups. With the Physiological solid little cup in the middle and Actualisation the big one around the outside that typically breaks first (in the hands of my children). Can you see the switch in sentiment? Even better is Maslow’s Russian Dolls with a magnificent Actualised initial appearance with all the deeper levels of slightly mutated little dolls within.

My favourite analogy is Maslow’s Laundry Pile, as it’s not so neat and tidy as a perfect circle of cups or encapsulated dolls. Each analogy is designed to break down the rigidity of that Bloody Pyramid and as you can probably start to make out from the shape of the Laundry Pile, it leads me nicely into the story of Maslow’s Island. I use that and other metaphors to try and build new ideas with people each time, so it’s a dialogue not a monologue. In one workshop, someone shouted “onions” and over the proceeding hour we completely rewrote Maslow through the wisdom of Shrek (and mostly Donkey): “ogres are like onions”! I won’t do that storytelling exercise any justice here in print, but I’ll gladly come and perform it for anyone in exchange for some good company and coffee (or preferably a beer).

And talking of beer, there were a few scoops sloshing about when I recently threw this little metaphor out into the twittersphere. Partially in control of a fat finger and sporting a pair of beer goggles, I thumbed this childlike image onto an iPad while sat at the bar. Please excuse the quality of the art, which hopefully doesn’t undermine the quality of the sentiment.

Maslow’s original work predates ecological metaphors by a few years and he died tragically in 1970 aged just 62. He was one of the most influential psychologists of the past century and interestingly, he rejected a nomination to become the president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology because he felt that the organization should develop an intellectual movement without a leader. A kindred spirit. I’d like to think that he’d approve of my campaign and have a good chuckle about this representation of his ideas on human motivation….

9 thoughts on “Maslow’s Island

Add yours

  1. Putting Maslow into a pyramid has done tremendous damage to the profession of nursing especially in the US. From the first course, nurses are told to start from the bottom of the pyramid and work their way up. Of course, we never get to the “top”. Weirdly, Maslow is the most recognized theorist in nursing and we get him all wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maslow certainly had a few weird views, looking back, but I always try to contextualise them into the societal mores of the day. I don’t think Maslow was wrong, but his ideas were hijacked by the capitalist movement at the time, taking its first real steps into Globalisation, replacing the void left by Imperialism. They needed to justify themselves that some people were better than others. Maslow was a great proponent of seeing the whole person in the context of their lives and not as a bag of problems to solve.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Very insightful posts with reinforces my own notions and personal schemas!

        Reading through your posts brings me through a intellectual birth of new sense and cognitive theories of my own.

        If ever you read this of your own accord, I’d love to hear your thoughts on a personally developed schema onto ethics and Right vs wrong influenced and inspired by your additions onto my own knowledge and easily understandable examples and rhetoric.

        It doesn’t go into the definitions of each respective subsection beyond their names, and I’d love to learn about your understanding on how you personally perceive them.

        [Catagories and their respective subsections are not to be assumed as completely independent on the others]

        [Generalized Catagories]





        • Desire
        ○ Ambitions
        ○ Self Interest
        ○ Self Benefit

        • Needs
        ○ Survival
        ○ Environmental
        ○ Security
        ○ Self Importance

        • Fears
        • Sense of Belonging
        ○ Bias
        ○ Attraction
        ○ Confirmation
        ○ Acceptance

        • Altruistic
        • Humanistic
        • Patriotic
        • Specific
        • Communistic


      2. That’s an interesting tree. I sometimes describe this sort of thing as the Umbrella Game: which umbrella is the big umbrella under which all other umbrella fit. Obviously it’s an infinite regression, as the further down you go, the more likely you are too come back to your first big umbrella under all the others. My big umbrellas are the intelligence (the way we understand the world) Physical, Social, Emotional, Mental & Moral. The blue thing, in the middle of the post is now several pages and I can’t help myself but redistribute your list under the levels.


Leave a Reply to complexwales Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: