What Guidance for Approaching Learning Is There From Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

FLASH – We’ve all got needs!

And in business the needs of all of the employees don’t always align up easily with what management might choose to offer.

I sometimes worry that the “level” that the individual contributors are each on, and the “level” that management personnel are each on – are not taken into account when deciding what to offer in terms of compensation and benefits and career development and learning & development and culture…and the consequences for poor and average and superior performance in the short terms as well as the long term.

And for the Learner – or learner/Performer? How can we begin to think about the learner/Performer’s level of the hierarchy and their NEEDS and how we can best respond to their needs?

For one thing – everyone is not at the same level of needs. But you feasibly can’t probably offer something different and “most appropriate” for every need level.

What levels need more FORMAL approaches to learning? And for which levels would INFORMAL learning be more appropo?

And for which topics/performances would it differ from the norm for which of each target audiences?

In other words – is the topic or performance objective itself on a different level for some learners/Performers from where we might normally place them – or where they might place themselves?

I think so.

And it is why INFORMAL LEARNING is not the right choice for most target audiences.

Most learners/Performers are not on the upper end of the Hierarchy of Needs that makes them an ideal candidate for Informal learning – something that I have been labeling as U-OJT (Unstructured OJT) since the mid 1980s as part of my CAD – Curriculum Architecture Design concepts and methods.

Sometimes U-OJT is the most appropriate way to learn – informally – because the ROI is negative for addressing the awareness, knowledge or skill.

It, a topic or task-set “could be” addressed FORMALLY – but “shouldn’t be.”

Not unless your Enterprise is itself self-actualizing and rolling in the dollars! With no end in sight.

Quote from Richard E. Clark EdD, from an earlier Blog Posting of mine:

It is true that people often construct their knowledge by drawing on their prior knowledge and by trial and error learning. However, that fact does not imply that the most effective and efficient way to train is to let people discover and construct what they need in “communities of practice.”

In fact, the evidence from the past 50 years of research on this issue is unequivocal – unguided or minimally guided discovery and constructivist learning programs simply do not work for more than a very small percentage of people.

– from: ASTD 2005 Research-to-Practice Conference Proceedings “How to Turn Research into Successful Practice: A Technology of Performance Design for Organizations, Teams and Individuals”

Richard E. Clark – Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California – clark@usc.edu


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Note: Most representations of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are from the 1954 version with 5 levels – and not his updated version of 7 levels from 1970.

Note 2: Maslows Theory of Hierarchy of Needs has never been validated with empirical evidence – but is widely accepted – so/but/and … BEWARE.

Here is a collection of portrayals of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs…and some web content on the two added levels from Maslow’s 1970 update.

From Wikipedia 10-11-2007: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Maslow

Maslow’s primary contribution to psychology is his Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow contended that humans have a number of needs that are instinctoid, that is, innate. These needs are classified as “conative needs,” “cognitive needs,” and “aesthetic needs.” “Neurotic needs” are included in Maslow’s theory but do not exist within the hierarchy.

Maslow postulated that needs are arranged in a hierarchy in terms of their potency. Although all needs are instinctive, some are more powerful than others. The lower the need is in the pyramid, the more powerful it is. The higher the need is in the pyramid, the weaker and more distinctly human it is. The lower, or basic, needs on the pyramid are similar to those possessed by non-human animals, but only humans possess the higher needs.

The first four layers of the pyramid are what Maslow called “deficiency needs” or “D-needs:” the individual does not feel anything if they are met, but feels anxious if they are not met….. Needs beyond the D-needs are “growth needs,” “being values,” or “B-needs.” When fulfilled, they do not go away; rather, they motivate further.

The base of the pyramid is formed by the physiological needs, including the biological requirements for food, water, air, and sleep.

Once the physiological needs are met, an individual can concentrate on the second level, the need for safety and security. Included here are the needs for structure, order, security, and predictability.

The third level is the need for love and belonging. Included here are the needs for friends and companions, a supportive family, identification with a group, and an intimate relationship.

The fourth level is the esteem needs. This group of needs requires both recognition from other people that results in feelings of prestige, acceptance, and status, and self-esteem that results in feelings of adequacy, competence, and confidence. Lack of satisfaction of the esteem needs results in discouragement and feelings of inferiority.

Finally, self-actualization sits at the apex of the original pyramid.

In 1970 Maslow published a revision to his original 1954 pyramid, adding the cognitive needs (first the need to acquire knowledge, then the need to understand that knowledge) above the need for self-actualization…

…and the aesthetic needs (the needs to create and/or experience beauty, balance, structure, etc.) at the top of the pyramid.

However, not all versions of Maslow’s pyramid include the top two levels.

From: http://www.xenodochy.org/ex/lists/maslow.html 10-11-2007

The main reason we know little about the cognitive impulses, their dynamics, or their pathology, is that they are not important in the clinic, and certainly not in the clinic dominated by the medical-therapeutic tradition, i.e., getting rid of disease. The florid, exciting, and mysterious symptoms found in the classical neuroses are lacking here. Cognitive psychopathology is pale, subtle, and easily overlooked, or defined as normal. It does not cry for help. As a consequence we find nothing on the subject in the writings of the great inventors of psychotherapy and psychodynamics, Freud, Adler, Jung, etc.

Schilder is the only major psychoanalyst I know in whose writings curiosity and understanding are seen dynamically. Among the academic psychologists Murphy, Wertheimer, and Asch have treated the problem. So far, we have mentioned the cognitive needs only in passing. Acquiring knowledge and systematizing the universe have been considered as, in part, techniques for the achievement of basic safety in the world, or for the intelligent man, expressions of self-actualization. Also freedom of inquiry and expression have been discussed as preconditions of satisfaction of the basic needs. Useful though these formulations may be, they do not constitute definitive answers to the questions as to the motivational role of curiosity, learning, philosophizing, experimenting, etc. They are at best no more than partial answers.
Above and beyond these negative determinants for acquiring knowledge (anxiety, fear), there are some reasonable grounds for postulating positive per se impulses to satisfy curiosity, to know, to explain, and to understand.

1. Something like human curiosity can easily be observed in the higher animals. The monkey will pick things apart, will poke his finger into holes, will explore in all sorts of situations where it is improbable that hunger, fear, sex, comfort status, etc., are involved. Harlow’s experiments have amply demonstrated this in an acceptably experimental way.

2. The history of mankind supplies us with a satisfactory number of instances in which man looked for facts and created explanations in the face of the greatest danger, even to life itself. There have been innumerable humbler Galileos.

3. Studies of psychologically healthy people indicate that they are, as a defining characteristic, attracted to the mysterious, to the unknown, to the chaotic, unorganized, and unexplained. This seems to be a Per se attractiveness; these areas are in themselves and of their own right interesting. The contrasting reaction to the well known is one of boredom.

4. It may be found valid to extrapolate from the psychopathological. The compulsive-obsessive neurotic (and neurotic in general), Goldstein’s brain-injured soldiers, Maier’s fixated rats, all show (at the clinical level of observation) a compulsive and anxious clinging to the familiar and a dread of the unfamiliar, the anarchic, the unexpected, the un-domesticated. On the other hand, there are some phenomena that may turn out to nullify this possibility. Among these are forced unconventionality, a chronic rebellion against any authority whatsoever, Bohemianism, the desire to shock and to startle, all of which may be found in certain neurotic individuals, as well as in those in the process of deacculturation.

5. Probably there are true psychopathological effects when the cognitive needs are frustrated. The following clinical impression are also pertinent.

6. I have seen a few cases in which it seemed clear to me that the pathology (boredom, loss of zest in life, self-dislike, general depression of the bodily functions, steady deterioration of the intellectual life, of tastes, etc.) were produced in intelligent people leading stupid lives in stupid jobs. I have at least one case in which the appropriate cognitive therapy (resuming parttime studies, getting a position that was more intellectually demanding, insight) removed the symptoms.

7. The needs to know and to understand are seen in late infancy and childhood, perhaps even more strongly than in adulthood. Furthermore this seems to be a spontaneous product of maturation rather than of learning, however defined. Children do not have to be taught to be curious. But they may be taught, as by institutionalization, not to be curious, e.g., Goldfarb.

8. Finally, the gratification of the cognitive impulses is subjectively satisfying and yields end-experience. Though this aspect of insight and understanding has been neglected in favor of achieved results, learning, etc., it nevertheless remains true that insight is usually a bright, happy, emotional spot in any person’s life, perhaps even a high spot in the life span.

The overcoming of obstacles, the occurrence of pathology upon thwarting, the widespread occurrence (cross-species, cross-cultural), the never-dying (though weak) insistent pressure, the need of gratification of this need as a prerequisite for the fullest development of human potentialities, the spontaneous appearance in the early history of the individual, all these point to a basic cognitive need.

This postulation, however, is not enough. Even after we know, we are impelled to know more and more minutely and microscopically on the one hand, and on the other, more and more extensively in the direction of a world philosophy, theology, etc. The facts that we acquire, if they are isolated or atomistic, inevitably get theorized about, and either analyzed or organized or both. This process has been phrased by some as the search for meaning. We shall then postulate a desire to understand, to systematize, to organize, to analyze, to look for relations and meanings, to construct a system of values.

Once these desires are accepted for discussion, we see that they too form themselves into a small hierarchy in which the desire to know is prepotent over the desire to understand. All the characteristics of a hierarchy of prepotency that we have described above seem to hold for this one as well.

We must guard ourselves against the too easy tendency to separate these desires from the basic needs we have discussed above, i.e., to make a sharp dichotomy between cognitive and conative needs. The desire to know and to understand are themselves conative, i.e., having a striving character, and are as much personality needs as the basic needs we have already discussed.
Furthermore, as we have seen the two hierarchies are interrelated rather than sharply separated; and as we shall see below, they are synergic rather than antagonistic. For further development of this section, see.

We know even less about these than about the others, and yet the testimony of history, of the humanities, and of aestheticians forbids us to bypass this uncomfortable (to the scientist) area. I have attempted to study this phenomenon on a clinical-personological basis with selected individuals, and have at least convinced myself that in some individuals there is a truly basic aesthetic need. They get sick (in special ways) from ugliness, and are cured by beautiful surroundings; they crave actively, and their cravings can be satisfied only by beauty. It is seen almost universally in healthy children. Some evidence of such an impulse is found in every culture and in every age as far back as the cavemen.

Much overlapping with conative and cognitive needs makes it impossible to separate them sharply. The needs for order, for symmetry, for closure, for completion of the act, for system, and for structure may be indiscriminately assigned to either cognitive, conative, or aesthetic, or even to neurotic needs. For myself I have thought of this area of study as a meeting ground for Gestalters and dynamic psychologists. What, for instance, does it mean when a man feels a strong conscious impulse to straighten the crookedly hung picture on the wall?


In my view the true “Master Performers” in any Target Audience population are often at a level of self-actualizing on-the-job. Maybe not in their personal lives, but they are on-the-job.

And how the Master Performer community needs to continue to “learn and develop” is very different from the typical Target Audience representatives from that same Target Audience. They themselves, as Master Performers, can most often be ideal candidates for an Informal Learning approach. Others – not so.

But – as always, it depends.

It also has an impact when working with them on Design Teams – such as in my PACT Processes for T&D/ Learning/ Knowledge Management – when discussing “how” to cause learning to occur.

They have to think about how it would be best for the others that they represent on a Design Team – and not about what would be best for they themselves. They are typically very different.

What are your thoughts? Please comment….

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4 comments on “What Guidance for Approaching Learning Is There From Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

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