I’m becoming increasingly obsessed with humanist psychology — the notion of being very cautious when reducing human beings to their basic chemistry. All too often we look at one particular thing — and jump to a seemingly simple conclusion. The problem here, of course, is that we are making judgments based on what we know — as opposed to what we don’t know. If we have a hammer, then we are automatically looking for nails.
Which brings us to Maslow and his hammer. This concept, also known as the law of the instrument, is an over-reliance on a familiar tool; as Abraham Maslow said in 1966, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
Maslow, the psychologist most famous for his hierarchy of needs, asked scientists to consider things like empathy, compassion, awe, and beauty as human feelings that could be studied, as opposed to simply reducing these human traits into measurable things like neurons and reflexes, which are easier to understand because they are put into familiar categories.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is upon seeing the first automatic carwash, Maslow admired how cool and complex it seemed, but unfortunately, he said “everything else that (goes) into its clutches (is) treated as if it were an automobile to be washed.”
Maslow reminds us that if we create a process to help with an issue, it will consistently help dictate our findings. Only when we shed ourselves of these preconceived notions can we then invent new ways to answer old questions.