Like many people I thought it was a well-established piece of psychology. Robyn Dawes doesn’t agree. In “House of Cards” he writes the following:
“[...] professional psychologists make claims to be experts not only in problems of mental illness but in knowing what constitutes the good life in general (“We are teachers …”). Again, they have established this authority in part by reaching “expert” conclusions that are compatible with what people generally believe anyway. For example, Abraham Maslow’s “needs hierarchy” and Erik Erikson’s hierarchy of childhood stages have become so accepted in our culture that people often refer to them as if they were established facts. Yet the evidence supporting their existence is scant. A true hierarchical structure implies fundamental asymmetries; it is impossible to reach a higher stage without reaching lower stages – often at an earlier point in time. The slender research evidence for the existence of these hierarchies could often by restated with the generalization that “good things in life occur in loose clumps, as do bad things.” That generalization should not be surprising given the existence of positive feedback between what people do, how they feel about themselves, and the future opportunities available to them.”
The next two paragraphs don’t really touch on Maslow, but they’re interesting enough that I’ll copy them. The following is all quotes from Dawes that I don’t feel like putting in quotation marks.
Some hierarchies do exist. The negative behaviors of aggressive young boys, for example, fall in a neat hierarchical pattern; they do not engage in or attempt physical abuse of their parents and siblings unless they also have “fights” with them using verbal abuse and humiliation. Without the latter behavior, they do not engage in the former. [This is not an ironic claim absent evidence, the citation is to a paper by Patterson & Dawes, 1975] My point is, however, that we too readily postulate hierarchies of behavior and feelings (or spiritual “levels”) in the absence of much evidence. When professionals espouse such hierarchies they are quickly believed and their ideas are acceptable. Hierarchies exist in almost all societies and organizations, and many major Western philosophers have proposed that the soul is – or ought to be – hierarchically ordered as well. Plato explicitly proposed that the hierarchies of the well-ordered soul and the well-ordered society should be identical; the lowest level of the soul consisted of the animal functions (the producers in a society), the medium level of the spirited functions (the warriors in a society), and the highest level of the rational functions (the philosopher king rulers of a society). Problems for either an individual or a society arose when the hierarchy was disturbed by the “lower” functions disrupting the higher ones. People and societies got “carried away” by greed (animal desires, the lowest of all) or ambition (slightly higher) to behave irrationally. Aristotle was a little less keen about spirited functions, so when he ordered the soul hierarchically, the progression was from passive (“vegetative”) animal functions to active ones to – once again – reason. The Catholic Church retained the hierarchical structure of the soul, so that the highest level consisted of the “pure” love of Christ and God, and the lowest level consisted of impure lust for the sensual and material things of the earth – to the point that a celibacy (or “virginity”) and asceticism were common among devout Christians at a very early date. Freudian psychology contains two hierarchies: the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious; and the id, ego , and superego. Moreover, these Freudian hierarchies interact; the defense mechanisms consist of the unconscious part of the ego, even though they were preconscious at the time they were established. Such “spatial paralogic” is appealing to many people for reasons that are not entirely clear (as the reason for the ubiquity of three levels is unclear); what is clear is that people very often code the world in such terms, as Clinton DeSoto and his colleagues have demonstrated. The mental health professionals who discuss life in general often affirm the existence of such hierarchies, usually in terms of quality of “mental health.”
Not only are hierarchies of life accepted for their compatibility with the way people normally think, they have the further motivational appeal that they deny the sometimes painful necessity of making tradeoffs in life, of forgoing some valued outcomes or behaviors in favor of others, because achieving a higher state in a hierarchy implies having achieved everything that is valuable in lower ones; hence, people do not have to forgo anything in achieving a higher state. Hierarchies deny, moreover that societies are not just “higher” or “lower (“primitive”) in relation to one another; some provide political and economic rights to their members (like personal freedom, autonomy, and opportunity for self-expression and accomplishment), while others provide social benefits (like guarantees of employment and minimal physical well-being and safety, a sense of oneness with other living things or even the universe in general). The hierarchical view of societies, in contrast, implies that there are some processes – like spiritual growth, mental health, social progress – that advance in a cumulation of desirable outcomes. In individuals, the hierarchical view implies that a mentally healthy person necessarily one who is loving, treats others well, is socially an activist while internally at ease, accomplishes much in life, is creative, and so on – so that to achieve any of these desired states, all one must do is become mentally healthy. The world would be a very benign place if this myth were true. Unfortunately, the world is what it is – however appealing the myths may be. By perpetuating such a myth in the area of mental health, professionals enhance their acceptance as authority figures.