If All You Have is a Hammer… — Maslow’s Hammer (Confirmation Bias redux)

I sup­pose it is tempt­ing, if the only tool you have is a ham­mer, to treat every­thing as if it were a nail. - Abraham Maslow 1

In his obser­va­tions of human psy­chol­o­gy Abraham Maslow, of the famous/infamous Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, not­ed the strange bias for peo­ple to use famil­iar meth­ods to com­plete tasks, even if they are not ide­al­ly suit­ed for it. Abraham Kaplan more can­did­ly expressed it as: ‘Give a small boy a ham­mer, and he will find that every­thing he encoun­ters needs pound­ing.’ 2 Although my favourite visu­al expres­sion comes  from the old­er col­lo­qui­al usage of the ‘Birmingham ham­mer.’ Nevertheless, whichev­er expres­sion is cho­sen, the intent is clear: peo­ple tend to use the same tools to accom­plish the job, even if they may be the wrong ones.

hammer-oThis trend is one that can be seen repeat­ed­ly through­out our soci­ety, from peo­ple and com­pa­nies stub­born­ly stick­ing with out­mod­ed meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, through to DIYers using large blunt objects to per­suade stuck objects to move. Maslow’s ham­mer appears to be all around us, and doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly seem to be going away. But, while the phys­i­cal, tech­ni­cal and social imple­men­ta­tions of Maslow’s ham­mer are all around us, I want to think about how it gets used from the per­spec­tive of our world views.

First though a brief primer on world views. Simply put a world view is in many ways the lens through which you look at and inter­pret the world. Mine is thor­ough­ly shaped by my upbring­ing in Australia, my parental influ­ences, my edu­ca­tion in the sci­ences (Math, Psych, Chem, Biol etc), my faith, and also the minu­ti­ae of the influ­ences from the city I live in, the pol­i­tics of the era, and many more. So when we inter­pret infor­ma­tion, we are inevitably inter­pret­ing it through the lens of our world view.

peanuts_happiness-2So what does this have to do with Maslow’s ham­mer? Well a bunch of our world view for intel­lec­tu­al pur­suits comes from our train­ing and edu­ca­tion. Hence in this post I am call­ing it Maslow’s ham­mer, although there are some indi­ca­tions that it could be called oth­er things. Maslow’s ham­mer res­onates with me, like­ly through my Psych train­ing influ­enced world view. This is where Maslow’s ham­mer high­lights some of the strange deci­sion mak­ing that we do in assess­ing argu­ments and evi­dence. It is prob­a­bly best dis­played by the slav­ish appli­ca­tion of sci­en­tif­ic method by some groups to almost every oth­er dis­ci­pline. As per­haps can be seen in some of Richard Dawkins’ twit­ter feed: https://twitter.com/richarddawkins/status/334656775196393473 Dawkins reg­u­lar­ly attempts to apply his ham­mer (sci­en­tif­ic reduc­tion­ism) to the world around him, and upon find­ing a bolt (phi­los­o­phy) attempts to ham­mer it into the hole with the same feroc­i­ty as the nails he finds.

Of course Dawkins’ rig­or­ous appli­ca­tion of his world­view in the vein of Maslow’s ham­mer is on the extreme end of world­view appli­ca­tion. However, I would pro­pose that we all engage in this type of bias in var­i­ous degrees. We each bring our expe­ri­ence and train­ing to bear on the sub­ject at hand, which is per­fect­ly rea­son­able. But where the bias kicks into over­drive is where we apply our world­view to the exclu­sion of all oth­er approaches.

But if you were to high­light that this bias isn’t real­ly a bias in its own right, you would be cor­rect. In fact it is a dif­fer­ent extrap­o­la­tion of a cog­ni­tive bias we have already cov­ered: the con­fir­ma­tion bias. However, in the orig­i­nal post in this series I looked at the con­fir­ma­tion bias as a mech­a­nism of biased inter­pre­ta­tion of exter­nal input, in this case the bias is applied out­ward. Maslow’s ham­mer applies con­fir­ma­tion bias upon our inter­nal toolk­it appli­ca­tion and finds that we tend to apply the tools in our arse­nal that we are most famil­iar with. Correspondingly ignor­ing tools that we may be less famil­iar with, but have bet­ter util­i­ty to that situation.

0b6018c5beca2e3b2deccb224bfff135So how do we engage with and steer clear of Maslow’s ham­mer? I believe that one of the main meth­ods is to be poly­va­lent schol­ars and thinkers. While in the renais­sance peri­od there were some schol­ars such as Leonardo DaVinci who were legit­i­mate­ly con­sid­ered poly­maths (Greek: learned in much), or sub­ject mat­ter experts (SMEs) in mul­ti­ple dis­ci­plines, I don’t think that this is the case in the mod­ern era. While there are some in our world who can be con­sid­ered poly­maths, to become an SME in mul­ti­ple fields is a dif­fi­cult task giv­en the high degree of spe­cial­i­sa­tion required. However, poly­va­lence (Gk/Lt: mul­ti­ple strengths) 3 I think is pos­si­ble, and being well-versed, but per­haps not SME lev­el, in a vari­ety of top­ics, aids in set­ting down Maslow’s ham­mer. Rather the broad train­ing helps with being able to diver­si­fy the toolset used, and helps schol­ars and thinkers alike to bring a wider vari­ety of tools to the task. This helps with not using the wrong tool for the job. Academically speak­ing this is inter­dis­ci­pli­nary work, but real­is­ti­cal­ly it is all about not using a ham­mer where a screw­driv­er is ideal.

How do you find Maslow’s ham­mer work­ing in your think­ing? Tell me below.

About Chris


  1. Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being. 1962.
  2. Abraham Kaplan (1964). The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science. San Francisco: Chandler., 28.
  3. Seriously, who com­bines Greek and Latin word roots