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Analytical Essay on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: The Essence of Universality

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Maslow’s theory on the hierarchy of needs, developed in the United States, embodies a capitalistic perspective regarding the motivations that humans possess in attaining their needs. It comprises of a five-tier model of needs which must be satisfied in order, leading them to reach self-actualisation. This essay will critically examine the empirical validity of this model’s universality, arguing that it must be modified in order to reflect the collectivist nature of Eastern cultures. Individualistic societies strive for high quality of life as a result of individual success whereas collectivist societies define a high quality of life alongside the interest of a group and their success which creates differing perceptions on their motivations of needs (Hofstede, 1984). This will be explored through Michalak’s Motivational Feedback Opinionnaire (1973) and its application to Korea and global marketing, Zakaria and Abdul Malek’s (2014) paper on its applicability to the Islamic faith, and Edwin C. Nevis’ (1983) study on China.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs acts as a blueprint guiding businesses to their starting point in developing global marketing strategies to motivate consumers to buy and satisfy their needs. It is widely used with regard to advertising campaigns while promoting a “perceived need gap”, evoking purchases (Korschun, Bhattacharya, & Swain, 2014). However, collectivist cultures disagree with the hierarchical order of this model, hence raising questions regarding its empirical validity and universality. The model holds individualistic values being criticised as ethnocentric and self-aggrandizing, holding self-actualization at the top of the hierarchy. This one-dimensional perspective of human behaviour can be damaging for the development of business ethics and practice when taking into account differing societies in global marketing (Boulanouar & Boulanouar, 2013). Whereas collective cultures focus on belonging and tradition, where the interests of a group rather than the individual is actualised (de Mooij, 1998).

Korea has a homogenous population that is rich in tradition and is eminently collective (Raymond and Rylance, 1995). Michalak’s Motivational Feedback Opinionnaire (1973) examined “blue-collar” workers from different foreign businesses in Korea and found that belonging needs were the strongest and self-actualization needs were considered least important. Fisher’s Least Significant Difference Method demonstrated this major difference illustrating that collective societies needs perceptions differed to those defined by Maslow. This depicts the lack of universality of the model on international marketing due to Maslow’s ethno-centrality as he only used American subjects in research (Gambrel, 2003), not accounting the differing collectivist cultures beliefs and needs. This placed strong implications in global marketing for advertising, product positioning, and personal selling in these cultures as their advertisements use groups rather than individuals, and products positioned as “popular” are more accepted. Therefore, Maslow’s model must be modified to reflect the collectivist nature of Eastern cultures, hence leaving people critical of the applicability of his model in differing societies (Adler, 1991; Rice, 1993), suggesting the lack of universality of his model.

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Moreover, the religious context in which Maslow’s theory was developed had an immense impact on its applicability to collectivist societies. As an Atheist, Maslow was unconsciously influenced by individualistic motivations such as self-esteem and materialism which is displayed in his journals as he believes “materialism is a marvellous philosophy” (Maslow, 1982). He imposes his disbelief in anything of a supernatural nature hence reducing the importance of faith as a need (Ragab, 1997). This further alludes to the fact that his model isn’t applicable universally. Religions and beliefs that share collective values such as Islam, portray Maslow’s theory as inaccurate as they place religion and their belief in actualising their link to their creator as motivation prior to any other need. Zakaria and Abdul Malek (2014) confirmed this in an attempt to incorporate this hierarchy into theory of the Islamic law and had gathered that the concept of religion and self-actualization were similar however religion is ranked last on Maslow’s hierarchy and most significant for Islamic believers. Alias and Samsudin (2005) also claims this study as unsuitable as firm believers had naturally placed religion above life on the Islamic hierarchy of needs. As a collective society, Muslims place great importance on belonging and tradition which declares that it is normal to never reach satisfaction in regards to possessions as it is not part of human nature, hence further disagreeing with Maslow’s theory. Thus, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is incompatible with the Islamic faith as it leaves out a crucial spiritual aspect, proving its lack of universality.

Additionally, the universality and applicability of Maslow’s ethnocentric hierarchy is further tested throughout Chinese cultures. The culture and values of China fit within the framework of a collectivist society, placing significance on belonging needs such as family, loyalty, equity, and communal property (Nevis 1983). Maslow had a large focus on Western hegemony and stressed individual achievement placing emphasis on self-actualization and self-esteem, disregarding collective societies such as China. Past studies depict that a key Chinese cultural characteristic is family-oriented collectivism (Li et al, (2000). There is no empirical study covering different sections of even American society when formulating the model, hence proving the model to be unreliable and inaccurate. Trompenaars (1993) and Hofstede (1993) both agree that the American way of management and their perceptions of needs does not apply to all cultures.

Edwin C. Nevis (1983) found that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was unsuitable for the collective Chinese context thus developing Nevis’ hierarchy of needs. This was developed based on collectivist characteristics placing belonging before other needs, self-actualization in the sense of service for society rather than individual, and removing self-esteem needs. This had brought to light that need hierarchies of differing cultures are classifiable based on individual and collective dimensions as well as an ego and social dimension (Loh et al, 2000). Another study by Gambrel and Cianci (2003) pointed out further limitations of Maslow’s model as it was used in international management. It was found contrasting with the special needs of collectivist cultures such as China. Therefore, this proves that the context that the theory was developed in had an immense impact on its applicability universally as it is an inaccurate model for collectivist societies including China.

In essence, the context in which Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was developed had a large influence on the level of its universality. Placing a large focus on the American individualistic perceptions of needs, Maslow’s hierarchy is deemed inapplicable to collectivist cultures where the interests of a group are more significant. If needs existed independent of cultural contexts, this theory would be applicable across cultures. Although this model is pervasive and widely-used in individualistic contexts, it remains inaccurate for collective societies having different perceptions of needs. There is a lack of empirical evidence that Maslow’s theory is universal, leaving others to be critical of the applicability to collective cultures (Adler, 1991; de Mooij, 1998). Therefore, Maslow’s hierarchy does not reflect universal motivations that all humans possess as these findings must be modified in order to be applicable to differing societies, such as collective Eastern cultures.

Reference List

  1. de Mooij, M. (1998), Global Marketing and Advertsiing: Understanding Cultural Paradoxes, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. doi:
  2. Gambrel, P.A., & Cianci, R. (2003). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Does it apply in a collectivist culture. Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship, 8(2), 143-161.
  3. Hofstede, G. (1984). The culture relativity of the quality of life concept. Academy of Management Review, 9 (3), 389-398.
  4. Hofstede, G. (1993). Cultural constraints in management theories. Academy of Management Executive, 7 (1), 81-94
  5. [bookmark: OLE_LINK1][bookmark: OLE_LINK2]Levitt, T. (1983), “The Globalization of Markets,” Harvard Business Review, Vol. 61 (May/June), pp. 92-102.
  6. Li, J., Lam, K., & Fu, P. P. (2000). Family-oriented collectivism and its effects on firm performance: A comparison between overseas Chinese and foreign firms in China. The International Journal of Organisational Analysis, 8 (4), 364-379. doi: 10.1108/eb028923
  7. Maslow, A. (1982) The journals of Abraham Maslow. USA: Lewis Publishers.
  8. Nevis, E. C. (1983a). Using an American perspective in understanding another culture: Toward a hierarchy of needs for the People’s Republic of China. The Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, 19 (3), 249-264. doi: 10.1177/002188638301900304
  9. Ragab, I. (1997). Creative engagement of modern social science scholarship: A significant component of Islamisation of knowledge effort. Intellectual Discourse, 5(1), 35-49.
  10. Raymond, M. A., and W. Rylance (1995), “Evaluation and Management of professional Services in Korea,” Advances in International Marketing, Vol. 7, pp. 111-125.
  11. Yang, K. S. (2003). Beyond Maslow’s culture-bound linear theory: A preliminary statement of the double-Y model of basic human needs. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 49, 175-255.

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