Skip to main content

Look who is buried under Maslow's pyramid!


There has been, as far as I can tell, no canonical study of how and why certain ideas – psychoanalysis, Abraham Maslow’s theory of needs, gestalt therapy – infiltrated into the precincts of that most American of sciences, organization science, and all its business school progeny, a long event that is co-eterminus with the eruption of the business school on the university campus.  The ultimate American utopia is the corporation – those of us on the reservation outside of it just think of ourselves as the dreamers of the better future. But inside those corporate walls, that future is manufactured wholesale. And what is a future without a psychology? And what good is psychology if you can’t manipulate it to market goods and services?

In 20th century America, war, organization and information systems formed the sinister matrix to which our best guides are still the great dark codexes: J.R., Gravity’s Rainbow, Flow my tears the policeman said. Randall Jarrett’s tailgunner glosses not simply the belly of the state at war, but the great human product of the 20th century, organizational man.

Maslow’s career, to be read properly, must be read by the flickering light common to incendiary bombings and the vast, flawless labyrinth of neon lights that track the corridors of skyscrapers and of insane asylums.

Early in his career, Maslow’s major research concern was what he called dominance. In a paper from 1937, The Comparative Approach to Human Behavior, he wrote:

“The writer some years ago was confronted with the problem of the relationships between dominance behavior, sex behavior, and social behavior. The attempt to study this problem in humans directly turned out to be a failure. The multiplicity of theories, the variability of concepts and of terminology, the sheer complexity of the problem itself, the impossibility of separating the superficial from the fundamental, all combined to make the project a baffling and even possibly an insoluble one.”

This is a rather odd methodological statement. Why should we posit special relationships between the behaviors he lists – or even take those behaviors (such as dominance behaviors) as given? Especially as, on his own account, there is a ‘variability’ of terminology and theory.

Dominance, here, is certainly the dominant pre-occupation. The paper suggests that the problem is one that we all know from the sciences – the problem of being ‘objective’. Maslow’s suggestion that we can get there by an indirect route – namely, comparison with the less ‘baffling’ behavior of primates – and so disentangle the bloody bonds of human behavior was, of course, in the post-war period amply taken up. Yet the method seems to make headway sideways, for what could make the behavior of primates less baffling when the original baffle is in the cultural construction of the terms of the problem?

“It is just this situation, e.g. complex of similarities and differences, that makes it possible for the psychologist to set up experiments in which the main variable factor is the relative presence or absence of cultural influence. If these cultural influences can be controlled out by experimentation which involves groups of humans and infra-humans, there is then promised an improved possibility of achieving greater understanding of what our primate inheritance may be.”

What could ‘control out’ cultural influences mean, applied to the highly culturally specific notion of experimentation? Maslow here is participating in the social sciences paradigm that seeks the ultimate Other – the Other who functions, paradoxically, as the silent parameter, void of all ‘cultural’ properties – for instance, the property of having a first-person status – and at the same time as the template for the social sciences subject.


The zeroing out of cultural influences to get to the nub of the subject – this was Abraham Maslow’s project in the pre-war years, but he had to deal with people, who seemed puzzlingly culturally bound. His biographer, …, in po-faced prose, puts the problem in terms of those humans who are, well, women.

“As Maslow’s research progressed through late 1935 and early 1936, he noticed a frustrating pattern. While women high or moderate in dominance-feeling were usually cooperative in submitting to the embarrassing interviews 0 some een volunteering after hearing about Maslow – almost none who seemed low in dominance-feeling volunteered or completed the interview. Low-dominance women frequently refused to continue wit the interview despite hours of patient reassurance. Maslow sometimes pleaded with them to cooperate “for the good of science”, usually to no avail.”


I challenge anybody to read those sentences and not laugh.  I am reminded of the paintings Alice Neel was doing while Maslow pleaded with “low-dominance” women to complete his questionaires. In particular, the painting of Joe Gould, who is shown with sitting naked, his penis exposed, while two other endowed figures, their penises drooping majestically, stand on either side of him.

Maslow turned, then, to  animal studies to overcome his own frustration. But he returned to the human, thinking that he could bar entrance to disturbing cultural influences by actually welcoming them, aiming for the dead center of normality in which the cultural and the natural would achieve an equilibrium.

Under Maslow’s pyramid one can find a sacrificial victim – just as major structures were often built, according to legend, over the body of someone sacrificed to the gods. The gods, here, of dominance. Thus, his research was directed towards understand ‘normal’ female sexuality. To get behind this problem, Maslow, curiously (the curiousness is the absolute blindness to his own cultural subjectivity) culled out Lesbians, Catholics, blacks and all women who came from families whose fortunes were not in the upper 5 percent of the American income percentile from his research set. He interviewed the resulting selection of women, all students at Columbia University, and concluded that the dead center for which he had embarked had finally been hit. And thus he was able to pursue a problem he articulated in a journal jotting from 1960:

“the 2-fold motivation of women (1) to dominate the man, but (20 then to have contempt for him, go frigid, manifpulative, castrating, and (3) secretly to keep on yearning for a man stronger than herself to compel her respect, & to be unhappy, & unfulfilled & to feel unfeminine so long as she doesn’t have such a man.”

From experimenting on animals to the ghastly postwar obsession with the frigid bitch – this is, of course, the dark side of what appeared, in the sixties, to be a humanizing program. The social structure should satisfy the needs of the people – isn’t that really what marketing is all about? Contemplating Maslow, we understand why the center did not hold in the sixties – cause it was such a damnable place. Look around at the cultural war against women, among others, and you can see that we have not gotten past the Maslows of this world.


Pity, that.