The Maslow Challenge

There are a lot of smart people in the world.

James McQuivey is one of them. He’s top notch and a principal and VP at Forrester Research. Actually, he is the foremost analyst tracking and defining the power and impact of digital disruption on traditional businesses. His book, DIGITAL DISRUPTION, is a must read for anyone trying to do business in this world today, and I encourage everyone I meet to read it if the topic comes up. I just recommended it to a major publisher. When he saw the title, he said with a smile on his face, “I’m living it.”

But because McQuivey is a smart guy, it doesn’t mean everything he writes is true. Aristotle was a smart guy, and wrote a lot of true and good things; but he was wrong in some stuff, too. In this age of content, we should always review what we hear, read, see, and the base it on our own reality and knowledge base.

In fact, part of the beauty of McQuivey’s digital disruption theory is that ANYONE can weigh in on any thing at any time thanks to digital technology. As he took exception to Abraham Maslow’s theory in his book, I’d like to take exception to his exception. In dismissing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in  Chapter 5 of his book (he actually says he intends to “eviscerate Maslow’s hierarchy” because “some of the things he concluded are true, most are not”), McQuivey commits a serious error: he gets so wrapped up in his own theory, he misses what Maslow was really saying. That’s always a danger when you have a thesis: you start bending things to fit the thesis instead of revising it when you come across something that challenges it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying everything Maslow said is true. However, McQuivey’s interpretation of what he said and what it means is incorrect – to the point that McQuivey tries to impose his own hierarchy called the Four Fundamental Human Needs. With respect, his “needs” aren’t really needs, as I will prove. Moreover, he completely misses the point of Maslow, as I hope to demonstrate.

Besides, McQuivey arguments against Maslow are good things to people like me (who, by the way, he is aiming at as he “eviscerates” the hierarchy). Having like McQuivey said grown up with Maslow, no one likes to have their beliefs challenged. That is, unless you are a truth seeker. Truth seekers don’t mind a good argument because the good argument will do one of two things: it will tear down the belief you have if it is stronger than the belief itself and replace it with the truth or new belief; or, the argument will re-affirm your belief and make your original notion stronger.

McQuivey’s arguments made my belief in Maslow stronger. This essay (blog) is about how he did that and why you should examine the facts for yourself (Maslow is even MORE relevant in the digital disruption we are living through). Besides, do you know what “eviscerate” means? I believe that people select words for reasons, and McQuivey wrote that word (which means disembowel) for a reason: he really wants to destroy Maslow. In doing so – like the movie Braveheart when they were eviscerating Mel Gibson – he actually helps make the eviscerated person more of a legend than he already was.

Counter Point

McQuivey’s first mistake is describing the Hierarchy of Needs as a ladder. Here is some background on Maslow and his Hierarchy:  The Hierarchy you will see when you scroll down the page off the link doesn’t look like a ladder to me. It’s a pyramid. Keep in mind that we still marvel how those things were built (pyramids that is), but a pyramid is not a ladder, and certainly doesn’t connote or denote steps.

McQuivey states: “Adapting Maslow, psychiatrists and self-help gurus talk about how we are likely to ‘revert’ to lower levels of need when we are frustrated with our inability to fulfill higher-order needs,” and that Maslow mistakenly said “self-actualization is a need.” The first statement is incorrect because you don’t do anything when it comes to needs: either you satisfy them or you don’t. In fact, “needs” are actually fluid, not ladder-like. You can feel the need to be social and still be hungry. You can feel threatened and get social (as McQuivey himself argues in his book). Maslow’s needs are built like a pyramid because it was a way to convey something about human beings and their needs. If anything, perhaps it should be flipped – that is, in today’s digital world, self-actualization is actually the larger base! But that’s another story.

We totally understand what I think Maslow was talking about: “security” is a need because people, unless they feel secure, can’t really do much. But, security itself doesn’t mean much if you are starving. You will risk a lot more to get food if you are hungry than if you are not hungry. In our Survival Guide on the Internet, we wrote: “If you are busy hunting for food like your ancestors, you really can’t worry too much about your safety (you will have to take risks to gather food). There’s not much need for safety if you can’t breathe either! So, once your physiological needs are met, you then think about safety.”

So you see, unlike a ladder, which has distinct steps, what Maslow’s Hierarchy implies is that people move around this pyramid based on what they are feeling at the time (perhaps it’s not “needs” but “feelings’ he’s talking about).  McQuivey then takes Maslow to task, saying things like: “our needs are nowhere near as orderly as Maslow suggested” or “people don’t behave in rational and ordered ways,” concluding finally that “Forget Maslow’s pyramid, since it doesn’t help us to understand how digital consumers behave or how to harness their power.”

But as you will see in a minute, Maslow never really said that people were logical, or his needs are “logical.” And his pyramid, while structurally beautiful, is really a slippery slope where people slide up and down constantly.

The Problem with Adjectives

Prior to his take down of Maslow was McQuivey’s conclusion earlier in the chapter that “Human beings are the same as they have always been. They have not changed – they want the same things they have always wanted.” He notes also that “what has changed is consumers’ ability to get what they want” and that “this has led them to expect that their needs can and should be met – more often and more completely than ever before in human history.”

Sound points. But what is a consumer? And how does putting an adjective – “digital” – in front of that word alter the word? Adjectives modify nouns; they change the noun (i.e., boy, good boy). They enhance the noun, but they do not destroy the noun and replace it. Replacing nouns is the role of pronouns (I, we, he, she, it). Because if human beings are the same as they always have been – and I believe that to be a truth – then is McQuivey telling us that their ability to get what they want has changed so dramatically because of the digital disruption that today’s consumers are different than yesterdays?

Part of the problem with this chapter – and remember, McQuivey is on to something in examining digital disruption – is the confusion of a “want” and a “need.”

A Need or a Want. The Difference.

The High Point Market is the largest furnishings industry trade show in the world, bringing more than 75,000 people to High Point every six months. Serious retail home furnishings buyers can be found there twice a year because if you can’t find it in High Point…it probably doesn’t exist. I remember my first MARKET, where I met Don Tickle, an extraordinary businessman. He had been going to MARKET for over 35 years. When we walked into the Suites at Market Square, a three-story tradeshow wing added to the Market Square Complex in 2000 and the primary temporary exhibit building at High Point Market for new products and new sources, I was overwhelmed. There was stuff everywhere – fabric, furniture, leather goods, hardware, lighting. Unbelievable. As we walked, Don looked at me from the corner of his eye and said in that great North Carolina accent he has, “Jim, you see anything here you need?” I instantly knew what MARKET was all about: it had nothing to do with need, but everything to do with want.

The clarification of a “need” and a “want” is essential to understanding not only Maslow, but the digital disruption going on around us that McQuivey explains so well. Because needs and wants are NOT the same. You need food to eat. You want a hot dog. You need security. You want sensors around your home. And what digital consumers do is focus on the “want” – not the need. To truly understand both Maslow AND digital disruption, simply define these words for yourself once and for all. Because Maslow is all about needs – not wants. Digital disruption is about wants. It’s really that simple.

Distinguishing between a “need” and a “want” is really the problem with McQuivey’s incorrect view of Maslow.  McQuivey confuses the definitions of a need and a want in his explanation. When you clearly define the words, his arguments on rejecting Maslow fall flat. Maslow was clearly defining needs – even though McQuivey says that self-actualization isn’t a need. Is it?


Self-Actualization is about realizing your full potential as a human being. McQuivey’s argument is that Maslow only studied smart guys, who had this need because they were smart. That’s just wrong. Everyone has this need.

Richard W. Samson, Director of EraNova Institute, is another smart guy. He is the author of several books and human development systems and an expert on mental skills, human effectiveness, and user interfaces. He wrote an article, Highly Human Jobs” in the May-June issue of THE FUTURIST, which you should read and said:

“Thanks to electronic advances, many of our  mental processes – from memory to decision making – are being rapidly transferred into computers, microchips, networks, and mechanical devices of all types…electronic intelligence is now performing much of the mental work formerly done by secretaries and middle managers, accountants…”

And the list goes on. His point of the essay is that the “tasks that electronic systems can’t perform are the jobs of tomorrow” and he brilliantly spells out what people have to do in order to “be employed.”

But, the underlying meaning of his essay is that as we automate as a society…as we hold in our hand the ability to “find anything out” almost instantly, once we have satisfied Maslow’s basic needs like security and food, we are free to self-actualize to our hearts content. That is the real disruption going on: we believe that the virtual world is the real world.

It’s not. It’s information. Every image you see in television is comprised of bits of 0s and 1s. As I type these words, the computer is “translating” my letters into digital information and then back to letters – all in an instant. Even words themselves are abstracts of reality. I can “see” a chair, but the word “chair” is a representation of reality — not the reality.

Maslow was not only right, he was more right than he thought when he said that self-actualization was at the top of the hierarchy. And today, because we live in a digital world, that actualization is taking place virtually (in the past, our ancestors walked around a garden instead of today where we walk virtually in a garden). Doubt it? Take a few minutes and watch this video. It explains what the internet is “doing to our brain,” and it sums up in less than four minutes this real-unreal dilemma we are facing today.

What Maslow did not anticipate is that someday, people would be able to skip over some of the layers of needs and go right to self-actualization after their morning oatmeal!

Self-actualization is an unquenchable thirst for something. People call that “something” by different words, like truth, love, knowledge. Heck, entire stories have been written about characters trying to self-actualize (Faust, Hamlet, The Odyssey). But, it is what we all strive for once our other needs are satisfied. The real question in this world of digital disruption is the same question that Plato and other philosophers deal with when they ask what is reality (his allegory of the cave).

This is not the place for that discussion, but it is the place to realize what digital disruption does is often confuse our sense of reality and make us really question our perceptions. Advertising people understand that “perception is reality.” Philosophers, while they understand it, also know that reality will trump perception every time.

The beauty of Maslow AND McQuivey is that they can both be right. But like perception or reality, my money is on reality, and Maslow has that hands down.

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