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Maslow's Hierarchy: Fact and Fiction

Guess what? Abraham Maslow didn’t create a pyramid to symbolize the hierarchy of needs because he didn’t believe the needs were linear steps. If you’re interested in a more detailed description, stay tuned for my book that will be published by EduMatchⓇ later this year.

The phrase “Maslow Before Bloom” has become very popular in light of an increased focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) and trauma-informed pedagogy. Educators believe that focusing on, and following Maslow’s hierarchy will support children’s need to feel safe and will set them up for success in their learning. However, while educators might know about Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they might not be aware that Maslow did not visualize his theory of motivation as a pyramid. According to Scott Barry Kaufman, in his book, Transcend (2020), the pyramid and hierarchy of needs were created by a management consultant in the 1960s and became popular in organizational behavior courses at business schools.

Kaufman spent years researching Maslow’s work, including unpublished letters and papers. Maslow understood there was no linear path to achieving self-actualization. His notes show his belief that people flow in and out of the different levels depending on their life circumstances and experiences. Maslow was the founder of the humanistic psychology movement that focuses on the whole person and includes self-efficacy, maximizing our potential that leads us to wellbeing. Unfortunately, what we learned in our Introduction to Psychology course about Maslow’s theory was not exactly what he wrote about or believed. Due to his death at age 62, Maslow never completed his research, so Kaufman searched through his published and unpublished writings to make sense of Maslow’s theory. Below is a table that compares general misconceptions about Maslow’s theory and what Kaufman (2020) found out.

"Maslow's hierarchy of needs" by Wesley Fryer is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Maslow did not believe human needs are hierarchical or isolated from each other. According to Maslow, “The human needs are arranged in an integrated hierarchy rather than dichotomously, that is, they rest one upon another. . . . This means that the process of regression to lower needs remains always as a possibility…” (Kaufman, p. xxviii) For example, children whose parents were affected by the adverse economic situation during the pandemic in 2020 were fed, clothed, and had a roof over their heads until their family was unable to purchase food for the month after their father lost his job. According to the World Food Program (WFP), (t)he coronavirus pandemic will see more than a quarter of a billion people suffering acute hunger by the end of (2020)”. Perhaps they had food security prior to the pandemic so their basic physiological needs were satisfied, but now they are worried about where their next meal will come from or going without food for several days. In this case, their basic needs become the focus even though they were already feeling secure and had self-esteem before the crisis.

A closer look at the first three tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy shows they are all part of feeling safe and self-confident which is essential to belonging and the basis for wellbeing. He also believed people are motivated to reach self-actualization. This has always been understood to be an individual endeavor; however, Maslow’s writings towards the end of his life mention transcendence. Transcendence relates to what is known as being in the zone or a state of flow that leads to peak experiences like an altered state of total absorption in what you’re doing or creating with effortless concentration.

Transcendent experiences are the focus of such a wide variety of world cultures — notably Eastern cultures and shamanistic traditions — that it would be an omission to ignore such a pursuit from any model of human development, like the hierarchy of needs. In his later thinking, Maslow realized how to reconcile the Western, individual-centric idea of self-actualization and the Eastern traditions of altered states or meditation. (Big Think, 2019)

According to Kaufman,

(t)ranscendence… rests on a secure foundation of both security and growth, is a perspective in which we can view our whole being from a higher vantage point with acceptance, wisdom, and a sense of connectedness with the rest of humanity. (p. xxxiv)

Not everyone reaches transcendence. There is an elusive nature about being in flow, unaware of anything happening around you. Kaufman (2020) explains, “Self-actualizing people are, without one single exception, involved in a cause outside their own skin, in something outside of themselves. They are devoted, working at something, something which is very precious to them—some calling or vocation in the old sense.” In the last years of his life, Maslow described transcendence as the peak experience of being “fully human.” We can only reach it if we find our purpose and passion; that is, our personal self-actualization and the ability to see how our endeavors connect to and support our community and the common good.

Dr. Ilene Winokur has lived in Kuwait since 1984 and is a professional development specialist supporting teachers globally including refugee teachers. Prior to retiring in 2019, she was a teacher and administrator for 25 years. Her blog and podcast focus on the importance of feeling a sense of belonging. You can connect with Ilene on Twitter @IleneWinokur and find links on her website:

In my book, I will share vignettes from my life that demonstrate three types of belonging: self-, personal and professional. Our ultimate life goal is to leave a legacy that sets an example for others to follow. My book will be published later in 2021. A short excerpt is included in the EduMatch Snapshot in Education 2020 (Chapter 10).


Anthem, P. (2020, April 16). Risk of hunger pandemic as coronavirus set to almost double acute hunger by end of 2020. World Food Program.

Davis, M. (2019, September 9). What does self-actualization mean in different cultures? Big Think.

Kaufman, S. B. (2020). Transcend. Penguin Random House, LLC.

Kaufman, S. B. (2019, April 23). Who created Maslow’s iconic pyramid? Scientific American.

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