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Motivation Theory of Henry Murray and Abraham Maslow

Henry Murray

Henry Murray’s need based motivation theory is open to numerous criticisms. The most widely cited criticism is by Witt and Wright (1992) who said that though this theory is very useful in understanding the different needs of the consumer, but this theory is incapable of illustrating how those needs will actually influence the consumer to behave and in what way, if at all he is affected (Witt and Wright, p. 44). The criticism seems very strong mainly because, consumer behavior is an area that requires understanding not only the needs of the individuals but also how they will react or act to fulfill those needs and how marketers can stimulate those needs to turn them into a buying decision.

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Critics pose a very basic question against need theorists, i.e. what are needs, and how they may be defined. Most need theories, along with that of Murray, postulate that the stated needs as basic to human beings. But no one offer an explanation as to why they are considered basic. To add further, what about the needs which are not enlisted in Murray’s list of basic needs? How these needs can be categorized? For example the need for sleep, is it not a primary need? How do we treat needs for attachment and novelty? Are they not secondary needs? To clarify at this juncture, the argument being put forward by critics is not the presence or absence of certain needs, but on the lack or explanation of a criterion which could provide a rule as to which needs are to be included and which can be left behind. (Vittori and Cervone p. 348).

Another criticism that is posed by Vittori and Cervone with Murray’s theory is that it hypothesizes a common and universally accepted system of needs, motives and tendencies but the theory does not explain as to how these elements are linked to a particular act or providing a methodological tool to show how these links can be verified without ambiguity. This is problem which Vittori and Cervone believe is due to excessive categorization of needs (p. 348).

Motivation theorists believe that needs alone cannot affect or influence the behavior of individuals, but they operate through motives. Motives mean the thoughts and feelings that influences and directs an individual to act in a certain manner to satisfy his or her needs. The underlying motives induces the individual to bring out the underlying needs and transform them in to a subjective, felt experience that will influence him or her to behave in a certain manner. For instance, humans have a biological need to eat food, which implies that we have an underlying need for food on a subjective level. Now this would create a hunger motive in individuals which ultimately will direct him or her to eat something.

Some theorists also believe that these motives are not only influenced by internal, but through external forces also. But Murray did not consider this fact. All he said is that the degree or level of each need in individuals may differ from individual to individual. This can be explained through a simple example. Tom may have a high degree of need for achievement, power, affiliation, and dominance whereas Lily may have a high degree of need for achievement but a low degree of need of affiliation, power and dominance. The group of motivation theorists who believe in the influence of external factors that the difference is due to external factors, which may be attributable to circumstances, society, culture, etc. but these theories need to be empirically validated which are absolutely important fro consumer behavior study. Because the search to motives in personality is also a difficult task as motives are not apparently detectable in individuals.

Child (1973) criticized Murray’s theory to be vague. This is so because the rules postulated by Murray are unclear and may differ between individuals. Many theorists like Michael Wertheimer (1978), also believe that the theory is widely based on “common sense” rather than strong theoretical arguments (Wertheimer, p. 744).

Wertheimer believes that Murray’s theory depends on phenomenon rather than being derived from strong logic. This implies that there is a lot more attached to the study of human behavior than just a study of conscious process may allow us to observe. Child also criticized the theory for being sentimental. By being sentimental Child believes that human behavior is not only dependent on positive thinking and the infinite capability of human willpower to achieve something good.

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Abraham Maslow

Maslow’s theory has been criticized of being generalist in nature to have covered all the ingrained needs of human beings. Not only critics, even Maslow posed a doubt against the hierarchy of needs and if in actuality these needs adhere to the principles of the hierarchy formulated by Maslow. Further, these hierarchies cannot be tested empirically. So there is no way to measure the degree or level of on need has to be achieved before it translates to a higher level of need. Moreover, due to its generic nature, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs does not include heroic and altruistic behavior as other theories can do, nor incorporates other important needs such as dominance, abasement, play, and aggression (Witt & Wright 1992).

The purchase behavior of consumers can be evaluated through the needs and motivations that created the decision using Maslow’s theory. On examining the consumer’s purchase decisions and Maslow’s needs stages we get a clear connection. For instance the consumer’s physiological need for hunger will be satisfied by the purchase of McDonald burger or Tropicana Orange Juice. Her purchase of a medicine or a dog food will satisfy the consumer’s need for safety and security. Her purchase of medicines satisfies the stability component of safety need, and the dog food, which is actually to sustain a dog, satisfies her protection component. The societal needs that Maslow discusses are satisfied by her purchase of shampoos, soap, etc. The need to get social dignity is achieved when the shampoo or soap she uses makes her hair look good. Her purchase of fashion magazines or herbal skin products falls in the self-esteem need of Maslow’s hierarchy. Almay face and skin products also fall into Maslow’s fourth need hierarchy of ego needs. However, any of the personal hygiene products she listed could fall under this need due to the need for self-esteem and self-respect. If the consumer decision making process follow this rational process, as Maslow’s theory postulates then to understand consumer behavior becomes very easy. But does consumer decision making process take such a straight forward path? Are all consumers well informed and take decision rationally? Critics of Maslow’s theory do not agree. Consumer decision making process is complex and is affected by different internal as well as environmental factors. Further they are also influenced by the brand they want to purchase. So if at all the purchase of that particular category of product may be attributable to satisfy a certain hierarchical need, but not which particular brand or company to purchase. For instance in the case of eating at McDonalds for a just above poverty line person and someone who is affluent. So for the first person, it satisfies not only his need for hunger, but more of self-esteem or ego need. Whereas fro an affluent person, it just satisfies his or her need for hunger i.e. physiological need. So the theory does not categorize between these variants of individual differences of same need. Therefore, we may say that one can expect different people in different situations to be motivated in different ways and toward different goals depending on what needs have been met. That is, while the specific factors of Maslow’s idea are not valid in all situations, the idea that motivation can work in a hierarchical fashion is a valid concept. Moreover, a hungry mother may deprive herself of food to feed her children. This negates Maslow’s theory. Others criticize Maslow’s theory of being too abstract for use in a marketing or consumer research that require a description of the human motives more closely oriented to consumer behavior (Foxall, Goldsmith & Brown, p. 137).

But even though Maslow’s theory is widely criticized, primarily due to its clinical nature, it is considered a useful tool for understanding consumer motivations, developing marketing strategy, appropriate advertising appeals and as the basis for market segmentation and product positioning because consumer goods often serve to satisfy each of the need levels. Marketers have to realize the motivation theories cannot give a thumb-rule for understanding consumer behavior as human behavior is widely varied. As Witt and Wright has rightly stated that, “the study of needs can at best only provide a partial explanation of motivated behavior” (1992, p.44).


Foxall, G.R, Goldsmith, R.E, and Brown, S. Consumer Psychology for Marketing, Thomson Learning EMEA, 1998.

Witt, C. & Wright, P. Tourist Motivation: Life after Maslow. In P. Johnson and B. Thomas (eds.), Choice and Demand in Tourism, (pp. 33-55). London: Mansell, 1992.

Schrocer, R. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a Framework for Identifying Emotional Triggers. Marketing Review. 46(5), 1991, pp.26-28.

Child, I.L. Humanistic Psychology and the Research Tradition New York: Wiley, 1973.

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Weitheimer, M. “Humanistic Psychology and the Human tough-minded Psychology.” American Psychologist, 33, 1978: 739-745.

Vittorio, C.G. and Cervone, D. Personality: Determinants, Dynamics, and Potentials. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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