Law of the instrument

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The concept known as the law of the instrument, Maslow's hammer (or gavel), or a golden hammer[a] 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."[1]


The first recorded statement of the concept was Abraham Kaplan's, in 1964: "I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding."[2]

Maslow's hammer, popularly phrased as "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" and variants thereof, is from Abraham Maslow's The Psychology of Science, published in 1966.[1]

It has also been called the law of the hammer,[3] attributed both to Maslow[4] and to Kaplan.[5] [6] The hammer and nail metaphor may not be original to Kaplan or Maslow. The English expression "a Birmingham screwdriver" meaning a hammer, references the habit of using the one tool for all purposes, and predates both Kaplan and Maslow by at least a century.[7] The concept has also been attributed to Mark Twain, though there is no documentation of this origin in Twain's published writings.[8]

Under the name of "Baruch's Observation," it is also attributed[9] to the stock market speculator and author Bernard M. Baruch.

One application of Law of the Instrument is the usage of antipsychotic drugs. During Maslow's era, only stelazine and thorazine were available, so every mental illness was treated as if it were a psychosis, as in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.[citation needed]

Related concepts[edit]

Other forms of narrow-minded instrumentalism[10] include: déformation professionnelle, a French term for "looking at things from the point of view of one's profession", and regulatory capture, the tendency for regulators to look at things from the point of view of the profession they are regulating.

The concept is used frequently in medical circles, usually as a criticism. It refers to the use of techniques that the doctor is familiar with as opposed to the use of the proper techniques that are either more difficult, less profitable, or less familiar to the doctor. This extends to other professions e.g. if you take your poorly running car to the mechanic who specializes in transmissions, you are more likely to have a new transmission put in than to have the actual problem fixed. It extends to the handling of unfamiliar problems using old techniques of questionable effectiveness as opposed to formulating new and better techniques. It has the connotation of narrow-mindedness.

The notion of a golden hammer, "a familiar technology or concept applied obsessively to many software problems", has been introduced into the information technology literature in 1998 as an anti-pattern: a programming practice to be avoided.[11]

Popular culture[edit]

Throughout the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding the character "Gus" Portokalos uses the glass cleaning product Windex as his golden hammer.

In the Disney film Wreck-It Ralph, the character Fix-it Felix possesses a magical golden hammer that fixes everything it hits (including his injuries), in opposition to the title character who has the capacity to destroy anything he hits. The hammer fails Felix late in the film when he finds himself in jail – an attempt to knock loose dungeon bars out of place instead reinforces them.

In the video game Overwatch, a hammer wielding character named Reinhardt has voice line playing on the original phrase, "When all you have is a hammer, everyone else is a nail".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ By analogy with silver bullet.


  1. ^ a b Abraham H. Maslow (1966). The Psychology of Science. p. 15. 
  2. ^ Abraham Kaplan (1964). The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co. p. 28. 
  3. ^ Richard W. Brislin (1980). "Cross-Cultural Research Methods: Strategies, Problems, Applications". In Irwin Altman; Amos Rapoport; Joachim F. Wohlwill. Environment and Culture. Springer. p. 73. ISBN 978-0-306-40367-5. 
  4. ^ Bruce Klatt (1999). The ultimate training workshop handbook. McGraw-Hill Professional. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-07-038201-5. 
  5. ^ Timothy J. Cartwright (1990). The management of human settlements in developing countries: case studies in the application of microcomputers. Taylor & Francis. p. 230. ISBN 978-0-415-03124-0. 
  6. ^ Winther, Rasmus Grønfeldt (2014). James and Dewey on Abstraction. The Pluralist 9 (2), p. 20
  7. ^ Green, Jonathon (1998). Dictionary of Slang. Cassell. 
  8. ^ Thomas J. McQuade (2006). "Science and Markets as Adaptive Classifying Systems". In Elisabeth Krecké; Carine Krecké; Roger Koppl. Cognition and Economics. Emerald Group Publishing. p. 77. ISBN 978-0-7623-1378-5. 
  9. ^ Fortunes files - freebsd
  10. ^ "Managing the complexity of human/machine interactions in computerized learning environments: guiding students' command process through instrumental orchestrations". International Journal of Computers for Mathematical Learning. 9: 281–307. 2004. 
  11. ^ William J. Brown; Raphael C. Malveau; Hays W. "Skip" McCormick; Thomas J. Mowbray (1998). AntiPatterns: Refactoring Software, Architectures, and Projects in Crisis. Wiley. p. 111. ISBN 978-0-471-19713-3.