Maslow’s pyramid and the great trade-off between simplicity, accuracy and popularity
I recently came across an interesting piece about Abraham Maslow’s seminal “Pyramid of human needs”. The key takeaway of the article is that Maslow himself never intended his theory to be seen as a rigid scale, even less so a pyramid-shaped one. It took a professor of management to simplify and reframe his work under the form of a diagram. This allowed it to travel, first penetrating business circles, then general culture, then pop culture, eventually becoming the basis for some hilarious memes.
The question that strikes me here is twofold:
First, would this theory have gone that far without the pyramid vehicle (hint: probably not)?
Second, and most importantly: would you rather have your idea largely adopted, along with the risk of being diluted or distorted? Or would you prevent it from being shared too widely to avoid any misinterpretation?
The pyramid was a convenient way to spread Maslow’s theory — and spread it did. However, more than half a century after its introduction, it strayed a lot from its author’s original framework, with contradictory effects.
On the one hand, the framework has been hackneyed, misread, if not voluntarily twisted to various uses, especially by marketing professionals and business consultants. One could argue the concept has no substance anymore.
On the other hand, at least part of Maslow’s vision is now widely known and helps millions in understanding other cultures, devising strategies or deciphering their own feelings. It gave people a good-enough tool to navigate the world and build new theories in completely different fields.
Because it ended up being vague and easy to grasp, more people related to it and used it. In other words, the more the Maslow Pyramid was used, the less heuristic (as in “scientifically useful”) it was. But, at the same time, the more heuristic it became.
A paradox and a decade-long debate
Behind this paradox lies the classical debate about scientific popularization. Do we consider that complex ideas and research can be translated into simpler, more palatable ones to be shared? If so, who should do it, scientists themselves or writers? How far into simplifying ideas can we go? And how can we know popularization is eventually successful — is it when a concept is invoked frequently within TV debates or dinner parties? Or when it is vaguely familiar to millions?
Another example is the famed Schrödinger’s cat paradox, a thought experiment named after the Nobel Prize recipient Erwin Schrödinger’s work in quantum mechanics. The neither-dead-nor-alive cat story is both stimulating and easy to tell (plus — CATS!!), which propelled it into popular culture through books or TV series. However, it remains a tiny part of Shrödinger’s research and an even smaller part of quantum mechanics. So can we consider its popularity as a real success? Did it help people to expand their thinking?
A delicate balance to be found in communications
This fundamental question of balance between simplicity, accuracy and popularity can be extended beyond science, notably to politics and communications. How far can one go into simplifying a notion, an idea or a particular value to make sure it spreads without being “lost in translation”?
In the marketing space, research tends to confirm simplicity’s power to make your brand remembered. Actually, advertising success is positively linked to the high distinctiveness of a brand. Distinctiveness can be about a tagline (eg Audi’s “Vorsprung durch technik”), color (Tiffany & Co’s signature blue), jingle (Intel’s chime) and so on. All these assets must be put front and center in communications and supported in media on a long term basis so that consumers associate, understand and remember them almost subconsciously. Therefore, and again, the more simple and easy to appropriate the assets, the more powerful and universally recognized they end up: think of McDonald’s Golden Arches or Netflix’s “tu-dum”.
Nevertheless, this also means that the more universal they get, the less companies can control how they are perceived and used. Logos or slogans are twisted everyday, sometimes in unexpected, critical or even offensive ways. For instance, Nike’s Swoosh is so easy to draw it can be used to signal coolness on a kid’s drawing but also late-stage capitalism on a street artist’s work. And when Gucci’s interlaced Gs are illegally used on cheap t-shirts, they still make undirectly for brand presence (Gucci even famously played with bootleg by making fake-fake clothing such as sweatshirts barred with the name “Guccy”).
Similarly to Maslow’s pyramid, the stronger a brand asset becomes, the less it belongs to the brand itself. But entering popular culture is also the best way to cement the brand’s presence in consumers’ minds and gain cultural legitimacy. Not all brands can take such risks for sure; but for those who dare, the trade-off can be highly beneficial. As a brand, building extremely simple assets, hammer them and finally accept to relinquish some control over is the best way to spread and be remembered.